For many video games, it’s possible (albeit to varying degrees of difficulty) for a critic to separate whatever legacy a game has accrued from discussion of their personal experience with that game or their analysis of the nuances and implications of what it expresses. ICO, I feel, is the rare exception to that rule. It’s impossible to ignore this game’s legacy. As one of the first commercial video games that writers hailed as art, any commentary made of the game is going to intersect with this narrative, consciously or not. So rather than ignore this, it would be best to put off any analysis of ICO for now and explore the idea of “video games as art.” This way, we’ll better understand both the idea itself and its relationship with ICO.
Let’s begin by separating “video games as art” from art games. While this may sound like an unnecessary distinction, it’s far more meaningful than it initially looks. Trying to pin a definitive start date on art games is difficult, since for as long as video games have existed (its own contentious topic), artists from outside the world of video games have been interacting with them in one way or another. But as the words “from outside the world of video games” should indicate, art games’ origins don’t matter as much as the culture they emerged from and how that informs what they are. Rather than originating in game enthusiast culture, art games come from the art world. They’re art installations first, and any connection they may have to video games isn’t a necessary connection. They borrow whatever they need or see as valuable from video games that they might better communicate the artist’s intentions. The result is a diverse range of thought from piece to piece.
Panoramical is a good example of an art game. It exists at the periphery of video games, using aesthetics from outside them to interrogate their most cherished values. More specifically, it scrutinizes our relationship with virtual worlds and the control we exert over them. Through a vaguely defined symbols that are constantly in flux and a system of dials to ensure that flux, Panoramical moves away from the hyper-objectivity that characterizes video games and toward hyper-subjectivity instead. It demands and celebrates the player’s ability to interpret this world and refuses any stable categorization one might offer. Gone are the notions of confirming ourselves by asserting our power over virtual domains. What we have here is a continual act of creation in which both player and world flourish as they’re constantly reborn.
ICO, by contrast, accepts too much from video games to neatly fit the art game moniker. It exists in the “video games as art” category. Where art games are hard to pin down, “video games as art” have a more identifiable lineage. They began in the late 90s and through the 2000s as video games were distancing themselves from the perception they were just child’s play, and responding to controversies like Jack Thompson and the 1993 Congressional hearing on video game violence.
“Video games as art”, then, are firmly entrenched in game enthusiast culture (although they claim the opposite), and they have one specific goal in mind: to assert the mindset behind the production and consumption of major commercial video games as the pinnacle of artistic expression. The problem with this is that it misunderstands a lot about what makes art work. The label is applied to games regardless of their intent or construction, and the logic used in applying the label is guilty of the same. (The context-less invocation of Citizen Kane as a gold standard is the most notorious example.) Yet “video games as art” doesn’t recognize any of these problems as problems. It doesn’t seek to understand video games through any lens other than what it proposes at the outset. In its eyes, art is a sign of legitimacy and cultural acceptance; hence why the games so often cited as art are fluent in the language of game enthusiasts: BioShock, Braid, Dark Souls, etc.
From the beginning, ICO was primed to fall into the same category these other games occupy. Although Fumito Ueda began his career in the art world, his time there was short lived as he quickly took to video game development a few years after graduating college. Following his work with Kenji Eno on D and Enemy Zero, Ueda left to work on his own project: ICO. Perhaps the most discussed influence on his project is the work of Giorgio de Chirico, especially his painting The Nostalgia of the Infinite. However, looking at the influences Ueda himself cites tells a different story: Galaxy Express 999, Enemy Zero, Prince of Persia, Out of this World, Flashback, Sega Genesis games, Virtua Fighter, Lemmings. The game itself shows connections with these games and adds more names to the list, like The Legend of Zelda and Resident Evil. In short, ICO has always been deeply entrenched in the world of commercial video games.
Furthermore, the things Ueda’s game does on its own prove very convenient for the video game culture that would latch onto it. The story begins with a small band of knights carrying a young boy into the woods against his will. Although we’re initially left with a paucity of information to work with, we eventually learn enough to understand the scene. Any boy who is born with horns on his head (like our eponymous protagonist) is considered an omen of impending destruction. To prevent that calamity from passing, the village has decided to imprison him in a nearby castle (possibly built for this purpose) and sacrifice him when the time comes. Following his escape from his cell, Ico comes across and teams up with a fellow prisoner named Yorda to explore the castle and find their way back home.
This is a narrative of pure fantasy, defined not by how it reflects any specific situation in reality but by how it distances itself from reality in general. Like Panoramical, the game works with broad symbols that can be interpreted in any number of ways. Character is implied, and moods are too great in scope to say anything particular. One interpretation might look at this and say that ICO is not as pointed or political as a lot of art tends to be; that regardless of its effect on the game, this style justifies the constructed image of art that “video games as art” wishes to impose on the world at large.
However, I’m reluctant to dismiss out of hand ICO as a creative endeavor. Because “video games as art” is applied ex post facto, it’s far more useful in analyzing how players form their opinions of a game than it is in analyzing the game itself. More the point, ICO is like Panoramical in that its symbolic/minimalist approach to game design is a conscious choice, one that gives it value outside the context that has been imposed upon it. The difference between them is that while Panoramical centers the power of interpretation, ICO focuses on absence and gives it a presence all its own. It’s a semantically charged concept; one that gestures toward histories beyond what any of the story’s participants are capable of accessing (the player included).
This isn’t to say those gestures are themselves empty. We know the motifs ICO works with – mostly dualities like light/dark, large/small, man/woman, known/unknown, etc. – and there’s no doubt what the psychological impact of each is whenever the game uses them. From Ico’s desperate fights against the shadows to worlds whose grand size strips the two characters of their agency, one senses futility, powerlessness, and insignificance teeming throughout the game’s design. All that’s missing is the greater context that would give these concepts and their impact meaning. Or maybe every possible interpretation that might lend context asserts its validity without contradicting others. It’s hard to tell. With our gaze fixed at two extremes (the personal and the universal), our attention inevitably wanders to the space between and finds nothing there to comfort us. The absence we find is one that is immediately felt. It is a source of both austere beauty or dread, although we can never be sure which one.
All any one person can hope to offer is a sketch of what ICO might mean. My own sketch will begin with the few premises that we do know: I access the world through Ico; he has a prior relationship with this world that I do not; and his environment is, to a very real extent, intended as a jail. His imprisonment here is by no means accidental. This is a place where society sends those it doesn’t want to deal with; an institution that exists for the good of the community, but by no means the individual who’s forced to suffer through a fate like this. The sheer unknowability of what lies beyond what little Ico has seen guarantees that his escape from his cell can only provide him the slimmest of hopes and the slightest of changes to his fate.
So grandness of scale, once a relatively neutral aspect of Ico’s world, takes on a more hostile meaning. I may find beauty in these ruins, but that’s because as a player, I observe the action from a distance and because of it, enjoy a certain degree of freedom in navigating this world. Neither of these apply to Ico. For him, these surroundings are characterized by torture, apathy, and death. Far from being a space in which Ico can realize himself, this castle is a space which prevents him from doing just that. Areas become so massive and empty as to confirm his loneliness and his insignificance in the greater scheme of things. Camera angles are pulled out so far that the world becomes the focus and Ico little more than a speck. He’s reduced to either a tool by which the world might fulfill its purpose (by condemning him to death) or an interruption of the world; a blemish on its otherwise perfectly sculpted visage.
In addition, because the world itself is so neutrally coded, accepting any interpretations one might attribute to it, it’s incapable of refusing what Ico reads into it. If anything, it can only confirm that view with things like size, emptiness, and dark muddy areas that swallow him up and refuse to let go. The only comfort Ico can find is in noticing that his surroundings are just as broken down and forgotten as he is.
(It’s worth mentioning that this reading is hurt by design elements like block pushing puzzles, gates rising when Ico picks up a non-booby-trapped sword, and other things that signal ICO as a video game. They contradict Ico’s feelings of indifference and alienation because:
- They are specifically made with some purpose in mind
- That purpose involves the player interacting with this world (rather than ICO being trapped within it
- No other explanation can ever suffice.)
That is, until he encounters a fellow prisoner: a young girl named Yorda. The two can’t understand each other’s languages, and where Ico belongs to the realm of reality, Yorda, as a being of pure light, belongs entirely to myth. Despite these differences, the two cooperate to find an escape from their prison. The most obvious conclusion one might take from this is that it’s supposed to represent the beauty of interpersonal relations across the vast gulf of unknowability. However, the premises one would need to arrive at that conclusion simply aren’t there. It all comes down to Ueda’s principle of design by subtraction, which allows him to hone in on Ico’s relationship with the world, but at the cost of cutting away person the story can interrelate. We know too little about the characters and we don’t see them learn that much about each other outside this shared experience. Furthermore, Yorda rarely if ever acts against Ico, reducing her role from that of a full-fledged person to an object, or an extension of Ico’s being.
But maybe we can accept these premises and aim them toward something else. Assuming that Yorda isn’t a person per se but an idea that’s important to Ico, then the futile comforts previously left to him become much less futile and much more substantial. Again, we begin with the two things we know about Yorda, both of which contrast against Ico. First, where Ico was only imprisoned here recently, she has been here for significantly longer than him and has thus become a native inhabitant of this world. At the same time, however, she isn’t bound to that world. Her impressionistic design clashes against it, her bright whites forming an immediate contrast against the muddy browns and blacks that surround her. One might say that these two premises are contradictory; that by her very nature, Yorda cannot exist within the world that she does.
Looking at things on a more abstract level, we’re inevitably led to believe that Yorda represents the hope on Ico’s part of finding his way back home. The aforementioned contradiction alludes to some kind of escape (that Yorda might return to where she really belongs), and the other aspects of her character do the same. Her form lights the dark and illuminates a path through it, and the knowledge she has gained by inhabiting this world for so long (knowledge which Ico might accrue through the same method) keeps that path lit when her light fails to do so. No wonder, then, that Ico so fiercely protects Yorda, even when she expresses little to no fear toward that which threatens her.
This isn’t to say that futility has been completely erased from Ico’s world. The combat encounters are the surest proof of that: they’re both delightfully cruel in their arrangements and tinged with clumsy desperation. Whenever Ico makes even the slightest bit of progress toward freedom, the shadows threaten to erase it by dragging the defenseless Yorda back into the darkness from which she was born. So Ico swings in vain against the shadows that effortlessly dodge his blows, all to protect what little light he has.
Yet we should remember that (assuming you’ve beaten the game) he’s ultimately successful in defending Yorda. And even in situations where success is clearly not an option (one late-game fight in particular comes to mind), the action is tinged not with despair, but with a Sisyphean sense of joy and purpose. So while futility is still present in scenes like this, its role has been subordinated to something else. It’s no longer an all-oppressive force the protagonists must accept as fact, but something they can overcome. The prison no longer has to deny them life, for now they can use it to mature into adulthood; Ico by overturning the patriarchal order that imprisoned him here, and Yorda by accepting and becoming something other than the controlling mother that’s done the same. None of this means the world ever stops being a prison, but it does point to possibilities the prison is no longer capable of closing off. The ending outlines one such possibility: the symbol of their oppression and their suffering finally collapses into the ocean, never to be rebuilt. With the collapse of the old world, Ico and Yorda are free to start their lives anew.
These ideas that ICO discusses – heroism, the bonds that connect us – are by no means unfamiliar to commercial video games. In fact, it’s obvious that the game derives those themes and the motifs with which it explores them from Campbell’s monomyth, a format video games have worked with for years. Maybe this is all for the best, and ICO’s value lies not in its divergence from commercial games, but from the resemblances it shares with them. Its specialty lies not in exploring new territory through the outside world of art, but in requalifying ideas that games have taken for granted for years. True, this leaves us with a more limited image of ICO than the one we’d had before, but it’s a much more concise and honest image, too.