Ico: Alone again… naturally

I completed Ico over Xmas*, on the new (albeit second-hand) PS2 I got as a present. It may seem odd to be getting another last-gen console at this stage, but I’ve got a backlog of incomplete, barely played or, in some cases, unopened PS2 titles, and there’s a few old favourites that I know I’m going to want to play again. Such is the back catalogue of the PS2 that, at the moment I can’t imagine not having one, especially considering Sony’s short sighted decision to not make the PS3 backwards compatible. The new (second-hand) PS2 will live in Exeter, sitting next to the Wii at the missus’ house, substantially widening my gaming options while away from London.

Anyway… Ico. I’ve mentioned this before, I’ve been playing it for a few years but frequently got distracted, mainly because I’m, er, very easily distracted.

It’s a great game, and a good excuse for me to talk about a pet gaming topic of mine: the increasingly underrated joys of the single-player experience. Now, I enjoy a deathmatch around the telly as much as anyone, playing co-op versus a ton of bots in Perfect Dark is one of my favourite gaming experiences of all time, and once I’ve moved to Devon full-time I can easily imagine that a Live account will prove one of my major links to friends back in London (as well as Harrogate – hello Squeak!). Of late, two-player split-screen co-op on Left 4 Dead has brought me much joy. I like multiplayer, a lot.

However, while I can see the many, many benefits to online and offline multiplayer, and the added value that co-op and online open worlds and so forth can bring to a title, there’s still something special about a really good singleplayer experience, and Ico is a prime example of such.

For a start, there’s a unique atmosphere that would be shattered by the presence of other players. Ico is the loneliest fucking game ever made, to an extent where players have been known to just give up on it altogether due to the relentless sense of isolation.** Your character, a little boy abandoned by his village in a mysterious castle, is a tiny spec in his environment for much of the game. The castle is an empty ruin, the relentless wind howling through it’s deserted hallways.

When you find an ethereal girl in a cage and rescue her, the language barrier between the two of you only increases the loneliness – this is the opposite of co-op, your character bellowing and gesturing to an uncomprehending and incomprehensible sidekick, a wisp of a figure who has to be defended against the castle’s only (occasional) inhabitants, shapeless smoke creatures who appear from inkblots in the ground, and disappear in a puff of smoke when defeated. Escort missions are often frustrating, but in this case that’s part of the point – it’s a game with a ‘hold hands’ button, but as well as being sweet and protective it’s also kind of bullying, the boy dragging the girl behind him with insensitive, hectoring urgency.

It’s not just the fragile atmosphere (although that is beautifully executed, squeezing every ounce of graphical ooomph from the PS2, each design a sparsely, perfectly judged example of timeless fantasy) that makes Ico a great singleplayer game, it’s that this is a game where the player is pitted against the game itself, in the form of it’s setting, almost directly. I’m struggling to be clear, so I’ll expand a little – the opening sequence of the game sees your character helpless, brought into the castle and abandoned. That cinematic is a visual tour of the castle, which is the main enemy, the main problem, the body of the game itself – there will be no escape to another location, no flashbacks, no flying off to some tangent. This is a game about you unlocking this giant puzzle of a building, which has numerous puzzles within itself, to find your way back to the exit and escape.

The environment, as designed by the development company, is your main enemy, the task that you need to take on. Ico is, to be ragingly pretentious, game design through architecture, where you succeed through the exploration and exploitation of the space around your character. You jump, and run, and climb, and pull levers and blow stuff and knock things down, all the time working your way around the castle, searching for that way out. While it’s also a completely consistent environment, it’s not without interest within itself – many of the spaces within the walls of the castle are breathtaking, from the waterfalls to the giant reflectors to the tranquil gardens.

Ico isn’t flawless. There were bits that were so obtuse I was left scurrying for an FAQ online, and due to it’s unique save system (which I’ll leave as a surprise for anyone who wants to track the game down, which I strongly recommend) means that you have no option to save for a large stretch of the game’s final act, which is annoying. But, goddamit, I’d rather be sent scurrying for the advice of previous players than sit through another game which handholds me through every single step with floaty arrows and other such mood-breaking devices. As a puzzle based game where you have to get through one puzzle to open up the next area, Ico is actually pretty linear – the genius of the game is that it doesn’t feel like it, it feels like you’re exploring this strange place with your own wits, not just ticking your way through a list of pre-set tasks.

Ico is a great game, one that didn’t sell particularly well on either first release or the budget re-release which came with it’s sequel, Shadow of the Collosus. As such, it has been subject to the phenomenon that affects all badly selling, critically acclaimed games, and can be quite expensive to find. I can understand why – if you had a copy, why would you give it up?

Go play this game, at home, preferably on your own, ideally in a fairly quite environment, maybe even at night. If you can’t find a copy to buy, then lobby Sony to slap it on PSN as a download.*** It’s an experience that every gamer should try, even if it proves just too lonely to persist with.

Mark

* Yes, this post has been in draft stage for a looong time.
** Because of this it’s probably either the worst (or the best, depending on your temparament) post-break-up game ever.
*** Actually, I suspect they’re planning to do that when the next Team Ico game comes out for PS3 anyway.

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February 1, 2009. Tags: , . Uncategorized.

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