Posted by: Ben | December 4, 2009

Silver Age: Ico

(Videogame. PlayStation 2. Sony, 2001. No. 3 in AML’s Chronologically Ordered Games Of The Decade.)

Now the adolescent format-snobbery is out of my system, it must be time for the only console exclusive on this list.

Ico and Yorda are menaced by a scribble, representing child abuse.

In the game’s world as in real life, the birth of a boy with horns is viewed as a bad omen.  Having spent his entire childhood surrounded by fear and suspicion, Ico is hardly surprised to find himself on his 12th birthday being taken by soldiers to a ruined and abandoned castle in the middle of nowhere, where he is taken to a hidden chamber and sealed into the last empty tomb.  Luckily for him, there’s an earthquake of unspecified origin, which frees him just before he asphyxiates.  Otherwise there wouldn’t be a game.

Without a clear escape route, he begins to explore the castle.  In an adjoining room he discovers, held suspended in a cage high above the ground, a girl of his own age or a little older.  Her skin appears to glow with a pale light.  She is evidently afraid, but does not speak his language.  Spotting a way to release her, Ico climbs to the top of the tower and pulls the lever that lowers the cage to the ground, but as soon as the girl touches the ground, a vague black swirl begins to appear in the corner of the room as though drawn on with a crayon.  Shadowy, ill-defined creatures emerge.  They surround the girl, pulling her away from safety and towards the portal from which they emerged.  She calls out in fear.

Ico picks up a discarded wooden beam.  He swings it inexpertly in the direction of the creatures, not knowing what effect it will have.  They’re not used to resistance.  They start to back away.  And soon their fragile, ghostly forms begin to fade.

Sigmund Freud rubs his beard pensively and passes the controller to Joseph Campbell, who moves the sticks around at random, presses all the wrong buttons and ends up accidentally quitting to the main menu.

More than anything, Ico is a triumph of visual design.  Everything on the screen has been carefully selected to harmonise with the story.  The bleached-out locations and hazy characters are a bit of a culture shock at first, especially on your old 625-line TV.  But the human leads move like real teenagers, Ico running enthusiastically into new locations, leading the cautious and gangling Yorda forwards.  The creatures are believable too, and the castle in which the action takes place is a work of art in its own right, with abandoned machinery, precipitous drops and mysterious waterways.

The game itself – a series of environmental puzzles alternating with fight sequences – is expertly constructed, but what takes Ico to the next level is the way the emotional response is engendered by the characters and story, and consistently reinforced by the environmental design. This isn’t cheap manipulation – it works because it’s build into the very structure of the game.

Also, it reminds me of Ant Attack,  another game in the much-neglected rescue-your-loved-one-from-a-sun-bleached-ruin-filled-with-monsters genre from 1983, and I’m a sucker for nostalgia, which is sort of why I’m writing a list of the best computer games of the decade in the first place.

He and She are menaced by giant ants, representing the pressures of the working environment.

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