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Ico: Part 2

I recently wrote about my self-conscious impressions of Ico, an novel puzzle adventure game for the Playstation 2. It was an uneasy beginning. The controls felt clumsy and delayed. The camera never seemed to be in the right place. The first scripted monster KO’d me twice. I haven’t chucked a controller since I was eleven, and at this point twenty minutes in, I felt terribly disappointed in what was professed to me by respected sources to be a game I would love.

Well, I psyched myself up and picked up the controller again last night. Whatever hang-ups I had before, to my surprise and lasting delight, I got over it.

I found the controls would be annoyingly clumsy at first, but I soon found in Ico’s world that combat is really trivial. The objective of battle, in fact, has a function entirely separate from the standard preservation of life:

Jorda is an otherworldly girl Ico encounters as he wanders the castle grounds, whom he takes in his charge and is determined to protect. They mutually depend on their combined talents to overcome obstacles. Demons periodically attempt to steal her away. They are not interested in the horned boy, and though they knock him around a bit, he is in no danger of actually being killed. But he must drive them away from Jorda, or he will be irretrievably separated from her.

I figure out eventually that, unlike Out of This World, dying is relatively hard to do. This simple fact kicked down my anxiety factor to almost zero, and I was able to relax and appreciate how gorgeously designed the game is.

Good design leaves little to take away. The castle environment is sparse and spacious, appropriately gloomy and foreboding. There is little by way of organic matter here, but what is presented benefits from the contrast with absolute vibrance. There is little that moves, and fewer things that are actually alive. It’s a sterile, alien world in which I never saw nor expected rats, spiders, zombies, or any of the standard dungeon fare. After two hours of navigating stone and iron, I ventured out into a grassy clearing and actually wondered at a lovingly animated pigeon – such was the profound loneliness and trepidation the castle inspired in me, that I felt in that moment genuinely comforted.

Everything matters. Nothing is wasted. The puzzle design makes use of all three dimensions of the immense playspace. Although solving the puzzles involves it’s fair share of crate-pushing and switch-pulling, there a coherent sense to the layout the rarely feels contrived.

Selective use of sound and music comes across wonderfully. The music that comes with the shadow demons is the auditory form of the hair standing on my neck. It has a natural place in the total castle embience, and it ebbs and flows seamlessly with the wind and the echoes.

I come around to the characters, who’s movements are genuine and personal. Ico scampers flat-footed and occasionally falls on his butt. When the boy tugs Jorda by the wrist at full tilt, she slips and falters as she struggles to keep up. To my surprise, I began to deliberately avoid running with her, to treat Jorda with tenderness and consideration. Such a marvelous effect.

We are moving through one castle that is so well designed that you can emerge from one balcony and look out upon where you had been hours before, seeing the path you had taken and the paths you had made for Jorda who’s physical weakness necessitates forging a separate route. And as I go on, I get the sense that the castle as a whole is one giant Chinese puzzle box. Each move in it’s proper sequence, I solve the puzzle from the inside.

And when you open the box, you are rewarded with one of the great moments in gaming. The 50 ft gates that have been visible throughout the game swing wide and a stone bridge rolls out to span a chasm longer than a football field. You barely see across the sea fog the familiar Idol Gates, a barrier which only Jorda can overcome. You grab her by the hand and eagerly charge ahead, but the the girl is feeling extremely weak. So you must walk her slowly over the bridge.

I cannot adequately describe the intensity of this moment. There is no triumphant soundtrack, just the wind and the footfall of two exhausted children. You have to play it through, and as seldom as the characters speak you come to feel real affection for them.

This game isn’t so much an entertaining diversion but a true work of art. It’s unusual, and it’s games like Ico and Katamari Damacy that ignore the trends and the fashions. They disregard all the contrivances intended to sell copies and just playfully, sometimes artfully explore what gaming experiences are possible.

Ico asks very little of the player. It doesn’t demand catlike reflexes or great puzzle-solving ability. It doesn’t even ask for much of your time. All you have to do is pick up the controller, and it rewards you most generously. At the average game run of six hours, it is literally like a strange and beautiful dream.

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