Ico: Beautiful frustration - Destructoid

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I'm Nathan Hardisty, an author, ex-editorial writer for Platformnation.com, ex-games writer at Screenjabber. I now write for a variety of sites on the internet while still updating both my DTOID blog and my regular blog, which can be found below.

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Yay no spoilers for once!

Ico is… well… let’s start off by saying Team Ico are probably one of my favourite developers of all time. They delivered Shadow of the Colossus, probably one of the most haunting and enriching experiences of my life, and it might surprise you to know that I’ve never played Ico. The HD collection thing came out recently and I’ve slowly tip-toed my way through both titles and… I am far from disappointed. The greatest game of all time gets that bit greater and Ico turns out to be not as bad as I thought it would be. A lot of developers yell ‘Ico‘ in their influences over Shadow of the Colossus and I still can’t understand why.

The bond between Yorda and the boy mirrors that of Agro, in fact, a key physical note still prevails: touch, and I feel so much more familiar with Agro. Shadow of the Colossus was a vast, empty world and it was difficult to traverse without your horse, naturally goading on some massive friendship (bros for life). Ico seems obtusely forceful in its bonding issues, though thankfully not too obtuse, it’s layered on, hat’d be a better way to put it. It doesn’t lose effect at all and there’s a bigger sense of interaction between you and Yorda, though I will always feel for Agro more than any human being in a video-game.

I find the game is beautiful from top to bottom. Visuals, outstanding, mechanics, we’ll come to that, but the narrative… a bit too abstract for my tastes. There’s certainly a massive world that fills in its crevices thanks to all the little visual hints, tricks and symbolism. I feel you could probably write a thesis on this civilization and its culture, whatever it is, Team Ico’s worlds tend to be expansive while being all about the minutia of the worlds. This is of course not to suggest they’re pedantic, not one bit, but they are more concerned with perhaps a more… human flair to video-games.

Mechanics wise… it’s beautifully frustrating. The holding hands with Yorda and the pairing all works very well to convey all the thematic tissue but I feel the game falls short in that it’s extremely frustrating and tedious at times. This was very early days PS2 and the AI would have shocked people back then. This was barely after the likes of Crash Bandicoot and perhaps even Half-Life players would have been astounded by this level of AI. Except nowadays it can be seriously destructive to call on Yorda and for her to just stand their useless meaning you have to reset the entire puzzle just to get her in the right spot.

Another frustration is the level design. I’ve noticed I’ve become more and more reliant on linear structures and while Ico is certainly (for the most part) a linear game; it’s still one that is confusing and labyrinthine at times. I get confused easily so Ico kind of becomes heavily frustrating, that and the puzzle elements aren’t always clear like what can and can’t be broken. There’s something to be said about puzzle games which make what you need to do, get to the exit using x and z, yet blow your mind (Portal 2). Yes, I just compared a ten year old game to one of this year.

Though does Ico have any excuses? I don’t hate the game at all, I don’t think it’s an enriching and genre-defying masterpiece like Shadow of the Colossus but I do love the bonding touches and themes it raises. It’s a very visual game, I feel, one that wraps itself heavily in its beauty whereas Shadow of the Colossus felt like a twist on the ‘loneliness’ of the game. There was always a goal in Shadow, but you didn’t exactly know where you were headed, whereas in Ico there’s a constant reminder: escape or Yorda/you will be gobbled up for fun.

Shadow of the Colossus is a world that feels so empty and eerie, it’s an old dead world, yet Ico feels somewhat more alive and I can help but feel a strange sense of appeal more towards Colossus. Perhaps it’s the natural bond of Agro/Wander supported by the unnatural game design touch of a giant world… or maybe it’s because Ico is a heavily scripted and (in some respects) quite restrictive experience. Interactivity does come to play, thematically, but feels somewhat bordered in as the art department is let loose. With Shadow however, I felt the interaction was the absolute core of the themes and ideas expressed about the David and Goliath intertextual goodness.

Ico is not a terrible game but I still can’t understand why it gets so heavily praised by game developers and all manner of ilk. It’s certainly a fantastic and very different experience to the likes of Modern Warfare and Battlefield and all that on-rails bullshit that we tend to get. But, unfortunately, I don’t feel it’s Team Ico’s finest hour. This feels like stepping stones for a company that then went on to change the world and many lives who played their game. The Last Guardian releases soon in 2012 (apparently) and I for one am looking forward to where they make me cry next.

I am indeed throwing Shadow of the Colossus into game critique corner next week. I am terrified as to what that exactly means.

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