PUBLISHER: Sony Computer Entertainment
DEVELOPER: Team Ico, Japan Studio
RELEASE DATE: 09/24/01 (US), 12/06/01 (JP), 03/22/02 (EU)
In Ico, there’s a moment where Ico and Yorda run hand in hand along a castle wall. Birds cry out in the distance. Waves crash into the wall from the expanse of water surrounding the castle’s foundation. There is no music. Only the sounds of nature and Ico and Yorda’s feet running along the decaying brick. The camera angle automatically positions itself to follow the pair, but pans back so we can take in the wall and its surrounding environments. Beyond the castle, a forest. Below the castle, water. Back into the castle, darkness. Even in this simple stretch of running from one side of a wall to another, mystery and wonder permeate.
Ico contains a decaying castle, Ico, a young boy born with horns, Yorda, a young girl who seems more ethereal than human, and dark spirits known as Shadows. Ostensibly, the goal of the game seems to be for Ico and Yorda to escape the castle alive. But why are both children in the castle to begin with? Why do the Shadows not want Yorda to leave? Ico provides few explicit answers, but that’s part of its charm. Burdensome exposition is nowhere to be found. You’re only given what you need to move forward.
Ico is about survival against all odds. For most of the game, Ico fends off the Shadows from Yorda with a piece of wood. The wood gets the job done… eventually. Only later in the game do you get a sword (and if you search really hard, a mace) and feel like a true protector.
When the Shadows aren’t overwhelming you, you’re figuring out how to move forward with Yorda. Yorda’s functionality is limited. She can walk up and down ladders, but she can’t climb chains or pipes. She’ll only jump over chasms if Ico holds out his hand towards her. Often, Ico will have to leave her alone for awhile, resulting in climbing up and down castle walls, pushing blocks, and turning cranks in order to open up hidden pathways. While this might seem like a burden (and it can be), Yorda is incredibly affecting. She looks like she’s been through a great deal of trauma, and like Ico, you really want to help her get free of this castle.
The castle is an absolute delight to explore. One room is shrouded in gothic ambiance, while the next leads to a peaceful garden filled with grass and trees. Waterfalls, windmills, and rail tracks sit alongside tombs, winding stairways and chandeliers. Even with this variety in its construction, no part of the castle feels contrived or misguided. If anything, you wonder why the castle was built this way and for whom? Was this castle part of a thriving kingdom? If so, what happened? The less Ico reveals, the more enchanted you become.
Ico and Yorda’s plight to escape from the castle that seems to be their fate is a relatable one. How many times have we felt trapped, cornered and abused with nowhere to go? Our jobs burden us down with trivial meaningless tasks. Our family, our supposed caregivers, abandon us or treat us harshly. Life feels lonely, oppressive, and miserable. And yet, we must endure. Ico speaks to the perseverance that this life beckons us to have. Hope is a reality, but if you want to see beyond your own large and looming castle wall, you have to keep going. And if you have the strength to bring someone along – to help them break free of their own binding cage – then you have the responsibility to do so. Those who endure to the end shall be saved.