The PlayStation 2 opened the doors for new possibilities and experimentation thanks to the more powerful hardware at the time, allowing developers to create many fantastic games. In 2001, the system gave us amazing, best-selling games, including Jak and Daxter: The Precursor Legacy, Final Fantasy X, Grand Theft Auto III, and Twisted Metal: Black. In that same year, we also got a game that left a huge impact that would influence gaming, film, storytelling, and even the art world. When writing a story, many people believe they have to explain everything and be elaborate with world-building, characters, and storytelling. But what about the other way around? Is simply being vague powerful? Can simply leaving everything up to the viewer’s imagination be effective? Can gameplay methods and enemy behavior tell a story? Director and lead developer Fumito Ueda and his team were able to break traditional storytelling and gameplay design norms with a game that was a game-changer (pun intended). It showed video games as a powerful form of art: A simple boy meets girl fantasy game called Ico.
The story of Ico opens with three men riding on horseback, carrying a horned boy named Ico to a giant, abandoned castle. Ico is brought there to be sacrificed because children born with horns are believed to be cursed. He is sealed inside a sarcophagus and left to die. After eventually freeing himself, Ico explores the various empty rooms until he encounters a hanging cage imprisoning an ethereal girl named Yorda. Ico frees Yorda, and they join forces to escape the castle. They are relentlessly pursued by the Queen who rules the castle and the shadow monsters trying to capture Yorda.
Fumito Ueda coined the method “design by subtraction,” reducing elements down to the basics and removing components that do not elevate the story/game’s main themes and focus. This is done by either having few characters, minimal or no use of music and cutscenes, character dialogue, etc. Ueda wanted the main focus to be on the relationship between Ico and Yorda. When the game begins, the player is immediately aware of the story and the goal; to keep Yorda safe and find a way out of the castle. Limited cutscenes in the game give just enough information to know what to do next. Players realize the importance of protecting Yorda. She can open magical doors, and her capture results in a game over. She is also the only human companion players have to bond over inside the isolated castle, easing the loneliness. The characters in Ico all speak in fictional languages, making the world feel fantastical. Another interesting aspect is that the shadow creatures do not try to kill Ico when they are encountered. They just capture Yorda. Their behavior is odd compared to other video game monster encounters. Ico is able to show how gameplay elements and enemy behavior can also tell a story. A great example of this is near the end of the game when players discover the disturbing truth about the shadow monsters.
Fumito Ueda also broke the trends in world-building and level design. The castle itself is influential in storytelling and design. The various empty corridors and technology that litter the castle add intrigue and curiosity about its vague history. Who lived in the castle previously? What were the various technologies for? Music in the game is replaced by ambient sounds such as howling winds, crackling torches, and birds singing outside. The only time music is played is when the shadow creatures appear and during the final battle. The limited sound contributes to the viewer’s loneliness, fear, and anticipation. The use of bloom lighting contrasts the cold, dark castle interiors. Bright glowing light adds warmth, softness, and mysticism, drawing the player towards it hoping to find a way out. Platforms and puzzles are positioned discretely throughout the castle, blending seamlessly with the architecture. The player can look over the castle’s architecture to see future locations and previously visited areas. The castle feels vast yet small, like a maze with multiple floors and rooms to explore.
Ico is now remembered as a cult classic, often called “the greatest game you have ever played.” Its simplistic level design, character companionship, atmosphere, and other elements are often cited as the inspiration for elements in other games. Ico had a big influence on many acclaimed games, including Uncharted, Halo, Prince of Persia, The Last Of Us, Journey, Little Nightmares 2, Fez, and Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons to name a few. Ico is often cited as an example of video game development as a powerful form of art. There is debate even today whether video games can be considered art. Director and filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro once said in an interview, “There are only two games I consider masterpieces: Ico and Shadow of the Colossus.”
Word of mouth helped Ico gain recognition and a cult following, allowing it to inspire many game designers, writers, and filmmakers. When Ueda announced his next game, Shadow of the Colossus, fans were excited to play his next masterpiece and curious to see how this new story tied back to the horned boy. Even though Ico did not sell well despite its praise, it left a lasting impression on those who gave this game a chance.