The Legacy of Ico
I have this irrational fear that some pieces of art will be lost forever, completely forgotten and left unappreciated. The idea that there will come a time when no one will ever be able to recall pivotal scenes in The Big Lebowski terrifies me, no matter how irrational I tell myself that thought is. Naturally, this extends to video games, but I’m not too concerned about the major releases, the ones that saw a huge level of success. Super Mario Bros. is never going anywhere, neither is The Legend of Zelda, Metroid, Halo, Mass Effect, Fallout – they will always be appreciated.
But I am afraid of losing Ico.
I know that’s just as irrational, that there’s too much of a cult following behind developer Team Ico for any of their projects to be lost forever. But I do worry that this amazing game will be overlooked by its spiritual successor, Shadow of the Colossus, and that the masterfully executed mechanics, such as the gameplay, story and pacing, will be forgotten. Ico had such a profound impact on me that the second the end credits began to roll I wrote a lengthy essay on how, despite breaking all the rules of traditional game design, Ico managed to become one of the greatest games I’ve ever played. Two and half years later, the game is never far from my thoughts, as is that irrational fear that it will be forgotten.
Of course, I needn’t worry, because the title has had an impact on plenty of developers as well, and two titles in particular seem to descend from the lineage of Ico – the beautiful and compelling Rain, and the tragic and complicated Papo & Yo. In keeping with the theme of wanting to support growth and development in the video game medium, I think it’s important to acknowledge how the lessons of Ico carried down to these titles, and to further highlight how important it is for video game developers to stay committed to both gameplay and story.
Running From Shadows
Revisiting my earlier essay on the mechanics of Ico, what stood out was how influential this title has become. Stripped down, minimalistic games are far more common today than they were when Ico was released alongside the launch of the Playstation 2. Console manufacturers, publishers and developers wanted to make the most graphically complex games possible, as a way to show-off the new hardware and, hopefully, increase sales. The furthest thing from most developers’ minds was to make something simple, a title that didn’t explode in color and stun with amazing 3-D worlds. But thanks to titles like Ico, we also have flOw, Minecraft, Thomas Was Alone – games that aren’t afraid to offer an experience that looks basic, because the rest of the game is anything but simple.
There are many aspects of Ico which deserve praise, but the three that make up the game’s identity are: the minimalist approach to communicating information to the player, the use of escort missions to build and strengthen character development, and the use of a protagonist who is weaker than the enemies around them.
Ico’s lack of traditional communication to the player may be its most defining feature. There is no HUD, no map or compass, the characters do not speak to each other often. This serves two purposes – any communication the game provides becomes that much more important and valuable, and it also benefits the atmosphere:
“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.”
Ico also changed the way developers approach escort missions. These were used in the past to provide an additional challenge to players – not only do they have to protect themselves, they now have to protect this other character, who often lacked the ability to properly defend themselves. This would, in theory, lead to new strategies, a renewed focus on resource management and a more intense experience. But gamers, by and large, detest this form of the escort mission, because too much importance is placed on the escorted character, who the player has very little control over. Poor AI can often lead to the escorted character running blindly into danger, which in turn means players will fail the mission. The poor AI is something they are unable to influence or change, yet they are beholden to it. Ico helped redefine escort missions by limiting the actions of the escorted character (removing much of the frustration inherent in escort missions), and instead used this mechanic as a way to build a connection between the two main characters. By using it as both a gameplay and story mechanic, Ico was able to convey a sense of dependence between the protagonists, while also intensifying the conflict.
Finally, Ico broke one of the oldest rules by putting the player character in control of a child, who spends most of the game fighting off enemies with a wooden stick. This was a mere two months before the world was introduced to Master Chief, the polar opposite (and far more traditional) protagonist. Master Chief was able to defend Earth from an alien invasion, all while fighting off a viral outbreak that threatened to destroy all known life in the galaxy. If video games are an escape, a chance to be something typically unobtainable in real life, being a rocket-launcher-wielding space marine is far more desirable than being a kid with a stick. Yet Ico’s choice of protagonist showed gamers that they didn’t need to gun down hordes of enemies with their turret-mounted four-wheeler to get things accomplished. There was a value to experiencing a world as a hopeless, powerless being, one who still fights for survival against insurmountable odds.
This is the core identity of Ico, one that can be seen in many games throughout the industry. It’s legacy is far-reaching, and it’s fascinating to see how other developers adapted and manipulated this format to tell their own unique, compelling stories.
Rain – All Roads Lead to the Circus
At first glance, Rain looks like it could be a direct sequel to Ico. Developed by the collaboration of SIE Japan Studio and Acquire, the title, as best as I can tell, is about a young boy who experiences a fever dream, which the player acts out. He wants to go to the circus, but instead is tucked away in his bed, overcome with illness. A sudden rainstorm wakes him up, and he finds that day has turned into night. He looks out his window and he sees a girl standing in the rain, staring back at him. Suddenly, a large creature, simply referred to as The Unknown, begins chasing after the girl. The boy jumps out his window and follows them through a door into a world of darkness. In this world, the boy and girl are invisible, and the only way they can see each other (or be seen by The Unknown and other enemies) is if they are standing directly in the rain. From there, the boy meets up with the girl, and the two try to navigate the city safely, while trying to find a way back home.
Initially, Rain seems to communicate more to the player than Ico does. There is no dialogue between the two main characters because, just as in Ico, the boy and girl cannot directly communicate (neither can hear the other speak). However, as the player navigates through the world, words appear across the screen, which provide some insight into what the boy is thinking. The text isn’t intrusive, and only provides a glimpse into what the protagonist is thinking or observing. Additionally, Rain utilizes other mechanics to communicate to the player, which are featured within the first minute of gameplay.
At the start of the video, the player is unsure of where to go. The protagonist is framed from a third-person perspective, with the camera zoomed out in a stationary position, not tracking the player’s movements. It isn’t until the player moves down an alley that the camera cuts to a much closer shot of the protagonist, and the camera tracks them as they move left to right. Text appears along the walls of the alley, telling the player that the girl they saw has completely disappeared. The implication is that the player must figure out not only where the girl went, but how she was able to disappear so easily. The player eventually comes to the end of the alley, at which point the camera pans up and to the left, indicating where the player must go next.
Despite the fact that Rain uses actual text to convey emotions and observations to the player, it’s not far off from the minimalist communication style in Ico. Rain does not feature a HUD, nor does it feature a map or compass. In the early stages of the game, Rain teaches players to use the environment as their guide, and instead of using an intrusive tutorial featuring pop-up windows with expository text, the game uses camera angles to communicate to the player. It’s crucial that none of the text actually tells the player what to do next – all of the clues are found in the environment and in how each scene is framed. Much like Ico, Rain actually communicates quite a bit to the observant player, but it does so in non-traditional means. This approach to communication helps establish the tone – this world may appear normal on the surface (much like how the text initially seems to convey information in a traditional sense), but it’s definitely not one the protagonist is familiar with (a parallel to the unconventional communication methods). Things are not what they seem, and if the boy and girl are going to survive this night, they need to understand the contextual clues the world provides them.
The interaction between the boy and girl, and their struggle to survive The Unknown, is what makes up the bulk of the gameplay in Rain, and how it mostly resembles Ico. Rain is, again, one long escort mission. The boy finds the girl, and the two must escape together – if either one is killed by The Unknown or the otherworldly beasts found throughout this twisted version of the city, the player is forced to restart at a previous checkpoint.
Where Rain improves over Ico is in how each of the primary characters are structured. Ico avoided the damsel in distress trope by giving Yorda, Ico’s companion, powers that Ico relied on to navigate the world. This was a nice twist on an old formula, however, it still placed Ico and Yorda on different levels. Yorda can manipulate the world around her with powerful magic, but she still needs Ico to literally drag her through the world. Fortunately, Rain doesn’t imbue either character with mystical powers, and more often than not the boy and girl are helping each other. The girl is capable of acting on her own, and saves the boy countless times over. Players return the favor, but what starts out as an escort mission morphs into a cooperative experience, with the player working alongside the AI. Even though the boy and girl cannot communicate with words, this twist on the escort mission makes the boy and girl feel closer to each other, building a bond and trust that is unbreakable by the time they finally confront The Unknown.
That final confrontation plays out like every other encounter with an enemy in the game – Rain is all about hiding from enemies, and running from them when spotted. Again, neither the boy or girl possess any mystical powers to defeat these enemies, which helps place an even greater emphasis on survival. If the player accidentally backs themselves into a corner, there is no gun or sword they can use to fend off the creatures of the night – their only hope is that their partner can push a block in the monster’s’ way, providing a temporary obstruction. The environment is all the boy and girl have to work with, and up until the very end the environment is only used to slow the progress of the enemies down. The Unknown is unrelenting, and the player is powerless to stop it. While strengthening the bond between the boy and girl, it also emphasizes exploration and situational awareness, since the player’s partner is not always there to save them. The lack of combat and the non-traditional protagonist helps emphasize the bond the characters have with each other, all without these characters speaking a single word to each other. Most video games struggle to craft such a strong bond between two characters, and they may have upwards of 20,000 lines of dialogue to work with. Yet Rain accomplishes this with no combat, an inventive twist on the dreaded escort mission and with non-traditional methods of communication, just as Ico did.
Papo & Yo – Learning to Let Go
In addition to the mechanics outlined above, Ico and Rain also share happy, peaceful resolutions to their stories. In both titles, the characters are able to survive and defeat their enemies, and they are reunited in a world much less dangerous. But developer Minority’s title Papo & Yo does not share a similar ending. Papo & Yo is a very sad, depressing title, but one with an important message.
The story of Papo & Yo is simple, which makes it all the more heartbreaking, because it’s a story that too many can relate to, in some form or another. The protagonist, a young boy named Quico, begins the game hiding in a closet, as his alcoholic father stomps around their small house, located in one of Brazil’s infamous favelas. Quico, clutching onto a toy robot named Lula, discovers a portal that leads him to a world that, once again, appears familiar at first glance, but is actually anything but. Quico can pull levers that peel back concrete to reveal a hidden staircase, and can traverse large expanses by moving small model houses around, which also manipulates the towering homes around him, the iconic imagery of the favelas bending to his will. He is guided by a young girl, who says that he is cursed, and that he must find Monster and cure him. Aided by Lula, who has come to life, Quico quickly finds Monster, a large creature who is mostly ambivalent to him, occasionally helping if it means getting to eat more fruit. But Monster will become angry and enraged if he eats a frog, destroying everything around him. Quico must bring Monster to a shaman, who the girl thinks can cure Monster of his anger, an anger that proves to be lethal at multiple points in the story.
Papo & Yo is never subtle with its metaphor – Monster is Quico’s father, the lumbering, kind beast when he’s sober, the angry, destructive giant when he’s drunk. The metaphor is strengthened by the occasional flashback, in which Quico relives a night when his father, driving them home, hits a person with his car. This leads his father to drink, and the need to escape from reality is born.
In this fantasy, Quico is able to communicate with the young girl who guides him through the world, meaning there is much more direct communication. But just like Ico, Papo & Yo lacks any HUD, compass or map, and instead forces the player to explore this fantastical world on their own. Unlike Rain, the camera is rarely used to direct the player, encouraging them to search every nook and cranny in order to unlock the next obstacle blocking their path. Since the game takes place in a world unburdened by the laws of physics, these obstacles and paths can be anything from opening a locked gate to assembling an elevated path out of water towers.
Fantasy games can sometimes struggle with how to best navigate players through their world, since the world does not have to make any logical sense (internal logic is still critical, but the laws that govern our world do not necessarily apply). Because of this, fantasy games often rely on text-heavy tutorials that drag the player through a sample of the world, so they know that it makes sense for their character to be able to jump 20 feet in the air onto a ledge above them. Papo & Yo features none of that, which is surprising because the game asks the player to do some weird, non-intuitive tasks. Yet it takes a mere three hours to complete, because it does such a good job at communicating through non-traditional means. Although Quico and the girl can talk, she doesn’t give the player any hints as to what they need to do to accomplish their task. “Bring Monster here,” the girl may say, and the player has to figure out, without the use of a HUD, compass or map, where Monster is, and how they can manipulate him to where the girl needs him to be in order to progress. By removing these traditional methods of communication, the player has to rely on the environment to show them where to go, a refined version of how Ico guides the player. That the game is so efficient in achieving this in a world that makes little sense is a testament to how strong the non-traditional methods of communication are.
If the methods of communication are a refinement over the formula Ico created, then the escort mission is where Papo & Yo builds upon its predecessor in a new and intriguing way. The escort mission in both Ico and Rain is one of cooperation, and that’s true most of the time in Papo & Yo. Quico cleverly guides Monster through the world, and Monster unlocks barriers only he can activate. It seems similar to Ico at first, until the player comes across an area littered with frogs. This is when Monster becomes angry, and when the escort mission is flipped on its head – the player must now avoid the character they are escorting, because that character is now an enemy. This varied approach does more than make puzzles more of a challenge (whenever Monster becomes angry, any manipulations to the world that Quico makes will revert, making for some interesting platforming sections) – it also strengthens the central conflict of Papo & Yo – Quico needs a father figure in his life, but his father can sometimes be his worst enemy. It’s tough to have to bring Monster into a room in order for him to activate a switch, knowing that there are frogs there that will turn him into an enraged maniac. But Quico and the player do what must be done – as painful as this escort mission can be at times, it’s the only thing standing between them and survival.
Surviving in Papo & Yo simply means avoiding Monster when he’s angry. There are no other enemies in the game, which is a blessing for Quico, because he possesses no offensive abilities, and no way of defending himself. Monster is far too big to fight back against, so when he becomes angry, the only thing left for the player to do is run. As the game progresses, Quico’s lack of power becomes more apparent, and having to drag Monster around everywhere becomes more of a burden, one Quico cannot possibly bear on his own. On their way to the shaman, Monster actually kills the girl guiding Quico, and in order to bring Monster to the top of the mountain where the shaman resides, Lula must stay behind to ensure the lift remains activated long enough for them to reach the top. By the end of the story, Quico is left alone with Monster, but with no way to act on his desire to cure Monster, the shaman concludes that the only thing he can do is to let go.
The fantastical world, the painful nature of the escort mission, and Quico’s lack of power all drive the narrative to this point. Papo & Yo is a game whose message is that sometimes, the only thing a person can do is let go. It’s a difficult message to accept, and yet it’s one that’s all-too real for far too many people. It’s an especially intriguing message to convey through a video game, a medium that often provides players the ability to act out a power fantasy in a fictional world, where they can, on some level, exert their will in a way that’s otherwise not possible.
In The End, It’s The Journey That Matters
Easing my irrational fear, it’s clear that Ico will not be forgotten anytime soon, and that there are many developers willing to experiment with the unique style it presented 15 years ago. Both Rain and Papo & Yo are stellar examples of non-traditional game design built upon the ideas that Ico first presented. Sure, the gameplay may not be groundbreaking, but video games are at a point where solid gameplay isn’t necessary for a title to be successful. Ico presented a formula, one that would allow games to explore ideas and conflicts without needing lengthy tutorials, thousands of lines of dialogue, and guns and gore. Without Ico, the beautiful, touching story of Rain wouldn’t be possible, and the pain and suffering Quico endures in Papo & Yo may very well have gone unnoticed.