Running From Shadows: Ico’s Unconventional Design

By Josh Snyder

There are some basic rules to game design that every developer follows. You want the gamer to first encounter the locked door – this will set them off on a quest to find the key to unlock the door. If you simply give them the key first, and then present them with the locked door, there’s not much in the way of a challenge, and gamers will feel disengaged. So developers follow these rules, gamers have an engaging experience, and at the end of the day we all go home happy.

Unless the game in question is Ico, at which point none of these basic design elements are used. Yet somehow, against the odds, Ico, an early PlayStation 2 (PS2) title, still stands today as one of the most successful exercises of non-traditional game design.

Understanding the Basics

Ico 1

Ico may seem like a simple game at first, but the more you delve into it, the more meaning and purpose you will find.

For the uninitiated, Ico is a third-person platformer/puzzle game developed by Team Ico. The main characters is Ico, a young boy with horns on his head. He is taken by a group of soldiers to a castle, and is locked in what essentially is his coffin. The soldiers leave, and after a brief struggle, Ico manages to rock the coffin off a ledge, cracking the stone shell. Ico then has a vision of a young woman locked in a cage atop a tall tower. When he comes to, he races to the top of the tower to discover there is a young woman, Yorda, locked in a cage. Once the player solves a couple basic puzzles and navigates some platform sections (the closest the game comes to a tutorial), Yorda is freed, at which point the game centers around the pair escaping this castle, while shadows try to steal back Yorda and imprison her.

On paper, Ico sounds like one of the most tedious, boring games in existence:

  • There is no heads-up display (HUD), no mini-map, no compass
  • There are no waypoints or clues telling you where to go next
  • There is no helper character, no guide to tell you what needs to be done
  • There is no dialogue, other than Ico calling out for Yorda
  • The entire game consists of one escort mission
  • There is no skill in combat – simply press the attack button when next to an enemy
  • You cannot die in combat, but will lose if the shadow creatures steal Yorda

Nearly all of the above break some fundamental rule of game design, yet Ico still holds up well to this day. The reason it is able to withstand the test of time, and the advancements seen in the seventh generation of video games, is due to some clever, unconventional use of common game design elements, and also a lot of confidence on the part of Team Ico.

Silence is Golden

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Despite their inability to communicate, Yorda and Ico develop a strong bond.

One of the most important decisions a developer has to make is how they will convey information to the player. How will the HUD look? What information will it include (or not include)? Many developers choose to bombard the player with information, for fear that the gamer cannot figure out how to navigate and manipulate the virtual world. For example, although it is well-refined, the HUD in Borderlands 2 conveys a lot of information, and it sometimes can be overwhelming. And then there’s games like Dead Island: Riptide, which also has an information-heavy HUD, presented to the player in such a chaotic manner that it takes a couple hours for it to make sense.

But Ico forgoes this approach all together. After the initial cutscene establishes the plot of the game, there is little information actively communicated to the player. No HUD, no compass, no waypoint. There isn’t even a health bar – it’s just Ico and the player controlling him. The layout of the room doesn’t immediately convey a sense of direction, and there is no color in the environment to help guide the player (a common technique, such as the way yellow is expertly used in The Last of Us to guide the protagonists). Instead it’s up to the imagination of the gamer, to force themselves to explore.

Once the player makes their way up the tower and frees Yorda, they realize that she will offer nothing in the way of communication. She is just as lost as you, making it impossible for her to help in any way. As the player progresses from room to room and the game’s central conflict unfolds, it becomes apparent that there will be no helper character, no guide to come to the rescue. Compare this to classic franchises like The Legend of Zelda. In the latest console entry, Skyward Sword, the player not only has one guide, Fi, who lives within their sword and can give information on any aspect of the game, but there are plenty of helper characters, just waiting to tell the player what’s so unique about the room they’re in or the cracked wall they’re staring at.

With such little communication from the developer, one would be forgiven if they assumed Team Ico didn’t want to talk to gamers. This could be a death sentence for a game, even a popular one. Many gamers find the learning curve of the popular game Minecraft to be too steep, specifically because the game gives you such little information on how to start. So why does this work for Ico? Team Ico may tell the player little, but the little they tell speaks volumes. The game starts off with little victories – when the player first finds the entrance to the tower where Yorda is located, they are rewarded with a companion. When they solve the first puzzle by using a bomb and a wooden plank, the reward is basic tools, and the laws that govern them. Before the player knows it, they are exploring large rooms with complex systems that need to be exploited in order to progress, all while Team Ico has told them next to nothing.

What the lack of communication ultimately accomplishes is a sense of loneliness, of vulnerability. The player is alone in this strange world, and their only companion is just as lost as they are. With no hand-holding, Team Ico has set a tone for the game, and also expertly crafted an atmosphere of uncertainty.

Light and Shadow

The atmosphere isn’t the only thing that helps establish a sense of unease. Ico is a game of muted colors. Part of this comes from the limited technology the game used – it was released shortly after the launch of the PS2, years before truly stunning visuals would become common on the console. But the lack of color doesn’t matter so much as the use of contrast. Light and dark play an important role in Ico – enemies are shadows, gates are unlocked by manipulating complex machines to focus light on a specific point. The game starts with Ico locked in a dark coffin, only to break out into the light.

With video games being such a visual medium, it’s a huge risk for a developer to purposefully mute their color. Granted, there are games that use a basic color palette wonderfully – Limbo immediately comes to mind, using its limited color palette to actually enhance the puzzles and gameplay. But for every Limbo there’s a Gears of War, a game with a powerful engine behind it, used almost exclusively to render grays and browns that blur together, preventing any scene in the game from standing out, since they all look alike. With visuals that don’t offer much in the way of impact, as well as no feedback from the game, it’s a wonder that anyone made it more than fifteen minutes into Ico.

Of course, the muted palette and the use of light and dark was a calculated choice. It’s no coincidence that immediately recognizable elements, such as bridges, windmills, courtyards, are basked in light. This makes the shadow enemies all the more strange – anything shrouded in darkness is abnormal, supernatural. Team Ico’s adoption of this design allows the gamer to instantly recognize what is normal and what is not. The best part is that the gamer may not even consciously realize that they are being manipulated in such a way. The world of Ico is alien, unknown and, in yet another twist, it is the darkness that guides us.

Take My Hand, and Follow Me

Ico 3

Ico may physically move Yorda throughout the world, but they need each other to achieve their objective.

As with any medium, character development is crucial to video game design. Granted, the protagonist can more often than not be a blank slate, allowing the player to project onto them, but at some point the game must make the player care about the world, and this is traditionally done by developing the non-player characters (NPCs) within the world. If we care enough about them, we’ll care enough to spend some serious time playing the game.

At the same time, one of the most dreaded ways of attempting to make the player care about a character, and to add filler to a game, is the escort mission. Gamers almost universally reject this mission structure, which typically has you protecting a defenseless, weak character as you navigate through the world. The first issue is that it is a cheap trick developers use to force the gamer into caring about a character. No need to build up a relationship – just make the NPC vital to completing the game, and then make the character weak and defenseless, forcing the player to protect them. It is basic human instinct to rebel against a more powerful entity that demands following a set of rules, and in this case gamers rebel against developer for being forced into these missions.

At this point, it should come as no surprise that Ico features no traditional character development, and is one, long escort mission. Those two design choices go completely against the grain, so much so that it’s a wonder that the idea of Ico was ever sold to a company in the first place. Of course, decisions that would otherwise destroy most games are yet more reasons to champion the subtle, yet complex design of Ico.

Both characters – Ico and Yorda, have no introductions, no background story. They simply exist in this strange world. Yet it doesn’t take long for the gamer to become attached to Yorda. True, she is central to the game, and so if she is stolen by the shadow creatures, the game ends. But there’s more to it than that – Yorda has no one in her life, evident by the fact that she was living, alone, in a cage. Ico shares a similar fate – he is placed, against his will, inside a coffin, left to die. Without saying a single word, Team Ico establishes a strong bond between the pair – they need each other, if only to survive.

To strengthen this bond, Team Ico chose to give Ico two ways of moving Yorda around the world – one is to call out to her by using a single word, which sounds more like an audio cue than anything resembling the spoken word. Before one could argue that this is dialogue between the two, note that Ico isn’t actually saying anything, since Yorda can only communicate in a fictional Runic language that Ico does not understand. The other method of movement is to take Yorda’s hand, and lead her around the world. This physical connection is the only one like it in the entire game, placing that much more of an emphasis on it. There is a dependence between these two on display, one that builds the relationship up without conveying a single word.

Adding another wrinkle to the game is the very nature of the escort mission. Ico wisely plays on the classic damsel in distress trope. Yes, the game is about the young male Ico rescuing the young female Yorda, but Ico is just as dependent on Yorda in his attempt to escape. Throughout the game exist stone barriers, and only Yorda, communicating to them in her Runic language, can destroy them, allowing the player to progress. And if any enemies are present when Yorda destroys these walls, they are instantly eliminated. Compare this to Ico’s limited combat abilities – for most of the game, all he has to defend himself against these monsters is a plank of wood. Eventually he acquires a sword, and later a mace, which deal more damage, but are still limited in their functionality. His power against the shadow creatures is weak, the opposite of the typical strong, muscular man who jumps head-first into danger, all for the fair maiden he rescues. In Ico, more often than not, the true power is wielded by Yorda.

So Weak and Powerless…

Ico 4

Despite its simplicity, combat still serves a vital role in Ico.

This impotent offense is compounded by the fact that the player character, Ico, is of so little concern to the enemy, that they often ignore him. This unveils a new dynamic – Ico, at its core, is about the struggle of power the world has over the two main characters, and their futile attempts to fight back.

Again, looking at the few details Team Ico wishes to communicate to the player, it’s obvious that Ico is not some superhero, nor is he destined to be a great warrior. He is a child, and a clumsy one at that. Combat is simple, echoing this characterization of a weak protagonist. Ico runs up to enemies who are perfectly content to ignore him, and hits them. They stumble back, and with one swipe will knock Ico to the ground, where he’ll lay motionless as Yorda is dragged closer and closer to a mysterious portal the enemies have emerged from. All Ico, and the player, can do is watch helplessly, and hope that he can get to her before she disappears forever.

Very few games would cast the player character in such a light, but Ico pulls it off to perfection. By wielding a plank of wood used only to beat enemies back, Team Ico is conveying just how hopeless and ill-prepared the player character really is. At this point, all of the elements Team Ico employed play off of each other, building up to an experience so unique that no other game has been able to replicate it since. The player is alone, brought to this strange castle, some parts normal, others supernatural, left to die for reasons they do not understand. They find Yorda, who seems to be in the same predicament, and the two must work together to find a way out from a place that clearly wants to keep them imprisoned. They come to depend on each other and form a bond, a trust. The methods of fighting back consist of swinging rudimentary weapons at invincible, never-ending enemies. And all of this is conveyed with no dialogue, no traditional mission structure, no feedback from the developer.

Piecing it All Together

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The enormity of the world, and the ways in which you manipulate it, help Ico convey a sense of loneliness and personal growth in the face of adversity.

Perhaps the most traditional aspect of Ico are the puzzles, the twisted system of levers and pulleys that must be turned in order to proceed out of the castle. At first brush with these obtuse contraptions, Ico feels like a classic point and click adventure – nothing immediately makes sense, forcing you to push that block to see what happens. While this is a traditional design element, what Team Ico does with it is anything but.

To better understand the function puzzles serve in Ico, we must look at the over-arching puzzle – a way to open the front gate of the castle to escape. When the player first learns that the gate cannot simply be opened by pushing a button, they set out to explore the world, eventually being led to what the game refers to as the East Arena. This is a series of rooms with a large circle engraved on each wall facing east. When first entering the room, the door locks from behind, forcing the player to solve this puzzle in order to leave. On a first play-through, most players will stumble around these rooms, wondering what the circles on the wall mean, and what in these rooms can help them escape this arena. Eventually they’ll make their way outside to a large antenna-like structure, which happens to be pointed east. Eventually, the player discovers a way to open the circle on the first wall, then the second wall, until they can see the antenna-like structure from the very first room of the arena. Without realizing it, they have aligned a reflector with a focal point at the entrance of the arena. The sunlight hits the antenna, then shoots out to the focal point, powering one half of the gate that will allow Ico and Yorda to escape.

The goal of this puzzle isn’t even apparent until it’s complete, but once it is, the next goal is obvious – find the West Arena. For the first time in the game, the player has direction, has a goal. And when they finally get to the West Arena, they know what to do. There are some differences in the layout, but a determined player figures them out, and in no time the second reflector is focusing light and providing energy to the west-half of the main gate.

Puzzles in games are mostly used as a barrier, and indeed they often serve that function in Ico. But the East and West Arena do more than act as barriers – they empower the player in a way that only role playing games (RPGs) can achieve. In any RPG, players start off weak, and work their way up to a higher level, so they can buy and use more powerful weapons. For players, there is no feeling quite like beating that boss that was easily and mercilessly killing them and their team for hours on end. The difference is that RPGs achieve this sense of growth and accomplishment over the course of hours of grinding, and with page after page of stat sheets. Ico accomplishes this without providing a single stat, and removing the element of grinding completely. The ease at which the player moves through the West Arena is a calculated choice – in a game that is all about power struggles, the puzzles are the most empowering aspect to the player, and when the player knows what to expect and how to overcome it, it provides a sense of growth, that just maybe this strange world is starting to make sense, and maybe Ico and Yorda can overcome their oppressive surroundings after all. The puzzles are more than barriers – they provide hope.

The End of the Road

Ico is a complex game, yet these complexities are subtle, hidden behind minimalist aesthetics and gameplay. Perhaps what allows Ico to break most known rules of game design is that they are breaking them for a reason – their choices serve a larger narrative, one that emotionally manipulates the player into exploring this world, to help this mysterious young woman. The result is a game over a decade old that is still just as powerful and puzzling as it was when it was first released. And in many ways, Ico can be seen as the grandest accomplishment of the sixth generation. While gamers the world over were absorbed in the first three-dimensional Grand Theft Auto games, and mowing down hordes of enemies in Halo, Ico was pushing the boundaries of what video games are capable of accomplishing. It is the human condition, condensed and distilled, a feat in itself. And that feat becomes even more awe-inspiring when realizing how unconventional the methods employed by Team Ico are. Ico works because the developers knew the rules, knew how to break them, knew how to use them for entirely different means.

Ico is a game that shouldn’t work. But we should all be so fortunate that it does.