The Art of Ico
Ico is often described as an artistic game. Sometimes this is in reference to its technical achievements, but more often it refers to the emotional attachment it creates in the player. Analysing things from an artistic perspective is hardly my forte, which is why I have never done it until now (five years after creating the website, three years after starting to analyze Ico's plot), despite writing so much about such an artistic game. However, one thing which has always interested me in particular about Ico is this bond it creates between the player and the characters, in particular between the player and Yorda. This is not only because it is, for those who experience it, something far beyond anything done in most (if not all) other games, but also because Ico actually uses the fact that it is a game to create this bond.
Most games combine two basic elements; pure gameplay descended from arcade games and early console games, and storytelling derived from literature and cinema. Typically these components interfere with each other, with breaks in the gameplay to tell the story (the cutscenes), and the story grinding to a halt while the player makes their way through the gameplay sections. The design method used by Team Ico aims to combine these two components of the game more seamlessly by removing elements which draw the line between them and by making each component more like the other. By doing this it largely avoids the limitations imposed on it by being a game.
Ico is not only designed to avoid the limitations of the medium and create a more seamless experience; it is also designed to actually use the fact that it is a game to its advantage, to do something which cannot be done in a non-interactive medium. While many games tell stories which connect you with characters, most do it in standard literary or cinematic ways. Ico uses the interactivity it has as a game to build the player's bond with Yorda, while avoiding using any other methods as much as possible.
This is why I find Ico to be a particularly interesting creation. It is not merely a profound experience which happens to be a game, it is an experience which could only be a game. While most games find themselves limited by the restrictions of the medium, Ico works around these limitations to an exceptional degree, and uses the fact that it is a game to achieve its aim. It is one of very few games out there which tell their story by working with the medium rather than against it.
The creation of the emotional bond and the way Ico works with the gaming medium are the two main points I intend to examine in this document. This bond is of course not built only using game mechanics, the visual presentation and construction of the story also play a large part, so I will discuss these other aspects of the game which are relevant to the main points as well.
Environment and Presentation
The world of Ico and the events of the story are presented to the player from Ico's perspective. It is Ico that the player controls throughout the game, and when Ico and Yorda are separated it is Ico that the player follows. However, the game does maintain a separation between the player and Ico. The game exclusively uses a third person perspective, one which is always from particular fixed points of view, unlike the dynamic over-the-shoulder cameras of many third person games. The idea that we are an outside observer merely watching the events is emphasised by the fact that the camera moves independently of Ico and always takes a somewhat cinematic view of what is going on.
Rather than trying to really put us the protagonist's shoes, as some types of games attempt to do, Ico recreates in its presentation the real relationship between the player and the protagonist; that we are simultaneously in control of and an outside observer of that character's actions. Obviously we are given control over Ico because it is a game, but as I alluded to in the introduction, in Ico this is not done just for the sake of presenting the story as a game; it is also used for a specific purpose and is an example of using the fact that it is a game to communicate the story. The purpose of having control over Ico is of course to facilitate all the interactive components of the game, to link the player to Ico so that certain aspects of his experience are reflected in the player.
As to the purpose of simultaneously presenting Ico from an observer’s perspective, let us return for a moment to types of games which do attempt to put us completely in the shoes of the character we are controlling. An issue such games must contend with is the difference in perspective between the player and the character they control regarding the events of the game. In this instance the biggest difference is that for Ico his attempts to escape are a desperate struggle to survive, while for the player it is a beautiful and fun puzzle game. By creating this obvious separation between the player and Ico's perspective even in the visual presentation, Ico sidesteps this problem despite giving us control over Ico. The control allows us to share in certain aspects of Ico's perspective, while the intentional distancing of player and character allows us to be free of other aspects of his perspective. We experience the parts of his experience which suit the overall aim, while having other parts replaced with more suitable ones.
Giving us control of a character whom we also see from an observer's perspective won't magically filter out the undesirable elements of their experience.
Rather it provides a natural dividing line which elements of the game can be placed on either side of depending on their presentation. If elements are presented such that the player's perspective aligns with Ico, the interactive element enhances the experience of that element via our control of Ico. If other elements run counter to Ico's view, the observer's perspective allows us to diverge from Ico's view.
The obvious example of the former is Yorda; both Ico and the player are obviously meant to care about Yorda. That Ico cares about her is merely because he is written that way. That the player comes to care for her is the subject of much discussion later on. Since Ico and the player feel the same way in this instance, Ico's actions in the game facilitate the expression of the players feelings in an interactive manner. Put simply, Ico wants to fight to protect Yorda so he does, and the player wants to protect Yorda, and since the player controls Ico, the player does too. Thus for this and all similar elements of the game, the player is Ico.
On the other hand, we have the example I already mentioned of Ico being in a fight to survive. Ico is not, for the most part, a dark game. It's a light hearted puzzle adventure. This is somewhat at odds with the experience Ico must go through during the course of the story. But the 'dividing line' I mentioned takes care of this naturally. Since Ico's adventure is not presented to the player as dark and scary, what we see is the light hearted adventure that is presented. If Ico feels differently about it, it doesn't matter, since we are merely observing him. Because we are not actively made to share Ico's feelings by the designers, as we are in the case of Yorda, we naturally fall back on the observer role taken on in many video games, and in all non-interactive media. All that is needed is for the overall aim to be compatible so that our control of Ico remains sensible; Ico wishes to escape, and naturally we wish to progress in the game, so there is no direct conflict between these two different impressions of the story.
This division of Ico's perspective into elements which are shared and elements which are merely observed is not the only way in which divergence between the player's and the protagonist’s perspectives is handled. Another issue which can cause divergence between the player and the character they control is the differences in knowledge between the player and the character. The character is a person in the fictional world, and has lived there for as long as the story says they have been alive. They will inevitably be aware of things relevant to that world which the player will not be aware of, and will have had experiences that the player has not. Conversely the player, as a potentially omniscient observer, may be aware of details that the character is unaware of.
This is not only a problem due to the divergence in perspective between player and character; another aspect of this problem is that it may force the story to do things for the benefit for one or the other but not both. For example, it may be necessary for something to be explained in detail during the story for the benefit of the player, despite the fact that such an explanation may be unnecessary for the character.
These issues are both resolved by having the story take place in something of a 'bubble'. Almost the entirety of the story, everything aside from the very beginning and the very end in fact, takes place within the Fortress. Being ancient, abandoned, and inhabited by magical beings, the Fortress is cut off from and unrelated to the outside world. Ico may have knowledge of the overall fictional world that the player does not, but by placing him in an unrelated and completely unfamiliar environment this knowledge is rendered irrelevant, so he effectively knows nothing. The player of course also knows nothing about it, so due to the presentation being from Ico's perspective the player learns about the world of the game as Ico does and knows only what Ico does. Due to this, Ico's and the player's knowledge of and perspective on the environment of the game are unified to a large degree, and the story never has to cater specifically to one or the other.
A further issue which can develop is that the player may understand more or less of what is going on than the character they control. The player may be confused by complex events that the character understands, or they may see a plot twist coming which the character is surprised by. This too will cause unwanted separation between the player and the character. However this is also avoided in Ico by setting the story in this 'bubble'. The player may simply take everything they see at face value, or they may be analysing everything in detail as they go, but this never comes into conflict with Ico's understanding of the world because the player is never told in detail how much Ico understands. He is simply trying to escape, and can safely be assumed to understand exactly as much as the player does, at least on their first play through.
On the topic of the Fortress, its design is useful for more than just alleviating the highlighted issues. The overall method behind Ico's design was to remove any elements which detracted from the realism of the situation ('subtracting design'). By restricting the game to an ancient, abandoned Fortress, the content of the world could be limited to only those things needed or wanted by the designers, they had no obligation to create a 'realistic' depiction of a more familiar or more detailed environment. Due to this, virtually everything in the Fortress can be interacted with and does not detract from the realism.
That the Fortress is old and run down allowed the designers an easy way to plausibly make areas difficult to traverse or even impossible to access. They merely had to make it appear that these areas were damaged or destroyed. Finally, any game world is finite and must have fixed outer boundaries; setting the game in a Fortress from which escape is the goal is yet another example of the limitations of the gaming medium being worked into the environment and story. Rather than having the boundary of the game world be a limitation, they instead make it the player's ultimate goal.
All of this is done in order to increase our immersion in the world of Ico, to 'reduce unreality', to hide the limitations of the medium being used to tell the story, so that our attention is focused solely on the story itself. While I wrote at length about the creation of a mechanism by which incongruent elements of differing views of the story could coexist, so much work is done to remove the inconsistencies between Ico and the player that it is rarely relied upon, making for a very immersive experience.
Thus far all I have examined is the environment of Ico and the method used to present it to the player. What needs to be looked at now is what is being presented, the story and more importantly the emotional bond. These are both centered on Yorda, so my discussion will revolve around her for a while. The same design methodology that was used on the Fortress was applied to Yorda, her character being designed to work with the fact that the game is a game and with what the game was trying to achieve.
Yorda does not speak the same language as Ico. This alone solves a number of potential problems. Since she and Ico cannot really understand each other they don't tend to say much, even in cutscenes. One of the things that draw the line between gameplay and cutscenes is that characters can only communicate meaningfully in the cutscenes, due to them being scripted. Since Ico and Yorda don't say much anyway, it doesn't seem strange that they don't say a word during most of their journey.
The background of the story and the Fortress are kept a mystery in Ico in order to keep the focus on the characters and their journey together. Since it is Yorda's home, one would expect that she knows a lot about it, and would be able to tell Ico if they had a common language. Having them speak different languages presents a plausible reason for Ico, and by extension the player, to be kept in the dark about what exactly is happening, and thus allows them to maintain the mystery.
The use of languages in the game also displays a furthering of the alignment between our and Ico's knowledge of the Fortress. Neither he nor Yorda speak English, neither can be understood directly by us, however Ico's language is subtitled in English while Yorda's is not. Rather than simply having Yorda speak in another language for the sake of making her mysterious, multiple fictional languages are invented and all are subtitled, but whether they are subtitled in English or in the original language is determined by what Ico understands, in order that we cannot understand any more or less than he can.
Yorda's inability to communicate with words helps other aspects of the game as well. Ico is not plot based, while it does have a plot the focus of the game is the interaction and bond between the characters, not the how or why everything in the story happens. Ico's reason for helping Yorda is not knowledge of overall events, not because he has made an informed decision that it is the correct course of action. His reason is a more fundamental sense of it simply being the right thing to do. That Ico, and so the player, and Yorda do not know anything about each other and cannot communicate to any significant degree forces them to interact on a more basic level. We recognize that Yorda needs help, and we choose to help her. This is a very important aspect of Ico's and the player's relationship with Yorda which could not function if they could communicate normally.
Now we have to consider how Yorda is presented to the player. We know nothing about her and cannot communicate with her, so how is it that we are going to feel the desire to help her? We are told directly that Ico intends to help her, the first thing he says when he finds her is "I'll get you out of there", but even though this high degree of altruism can be forced on us because it is a game, the objective is to make the player think and feel the same way as Ico. If the player does not feel the same way as Ico, it will not be possible to build a bond between the player and the characters and they may not see Yorda's presence as anything more than a mechanic in a puzzle game.
We first see Yorda in the cage. Having been dragged to and imprisoned in the Fortress ourselves we already see the Fortress as a sort of enemy. Seeing Yorda in the cage like this tells us immediately that we have found someone who is in a similar situation to us and who appears to share this 'enemy', two immediate reasons to see Yorda as being 'on our side'. Seeing Yorda confined in such an elaborate fashion, in an intimidating looking cage raised to the top of the tallest tower, probably having been confined far longer than we were, we also see Yorda as being worse off than us, in need of our help despite the fact that we are not in the best situation ourselves.
Yorda is obviously no ordinary person. She appears an almost ethereal beauty, confined in a comparatively very solid looking prison. Her appearance further draws our curiosity and sympathy, not to mention making her seem all the more mysterious. When freed from her cage she emerges slowly, as curious as Ico but apparently less afraid. While we cannot communicate with her, she is very much alive and aware. Escape may be forgotten for a time, as both the player and Ico are completely focused on their new companion.
This is short lived however, as this is the point at which the game introduces the recurring enemy. While we are still trying to figure out our fellow prisoner, one of the Spirits grabs her and starts walking off. Once again we see the focus on acting on basic feelings rather than intelligent decisions. Ico does not know anything about Yorda and is not yet aware of her importance to their escape; he acts for the same basic reason for which he freed her from the cage in the first place, she needs his help. At this point it is hoped that the player has started to feel the same way about Yorda; as soon as she is taken the game hands control to the player. Unlike last time there is no prompt as to Ico's intention to help her, we are not told what to do, or rather we are not told in words what to do. If the setup has had its intended effect on us we have no real choice, we will help her. A note about Ico's character at this point is that while he seemed the more timid of the two a moment ago, this person he only just met being in danger immediately overrides that, helping her becoming more important than anything else.
Yorda's complete helplessness against the Spirits and their quick reaction upon her escape show quite powerfully that Yorda is still in danger and still needs Ico's, the player's, help. And so, having given the player this desire to help her, it is time to introduce the mechanic which is at the core of this analysis of Ico. Yorda is still sitting on the ground after being dropped by the Spirit, so we go and take her by the hand. Once again given basic guidance on what we are meant to do by Ico's words, we take her with us.
Now we find out why we need Yorda, that she has a strength of her own. When we bring Yorda near the Idol Doors she activates them, allowing us to leave the tower. This is important because simply forcing the player to bring her, with no real benefit, may make them see her as a burden, which would work against any bond with her. By giving a good reason that they should work together this is avoided somewhat. Of course, it is certainly not the intention that the player only helps Yorda because they need her, but this too is avoided, by establishing the desire to help and protect her before telling us that we need her. And so Ico and Yorda leave the Tower as both necessary and willing companions.
Beyond the Tower lies the entirety of their journey together. We learn Yorda's behaviour during the course of this journey, behaviour that is best described as passive. The detailed reasons for this in terms of plot are covered in my character analysis of Yorda. All that is relevant to this analysis is that this passivity is part of her behaviour both in and out of cutscenes. Being an NPC, Yorda's dynamic behaviour is limited to what her AI is capable of. Yorda's AI is not a typical one which is concerned with completing tasks in an efficient manner; while this is a component of it, Ico is trying to create something which feels real, so the priority for her AI is to make her seem alive and real.
Yorda's passive behaviour is another way in which the world of the game was adapted to meet the limitations of the medium, to meet the challenge of what they were trying to create. By making Yorda this passive character they were able to depict her realistically and accurately within the limitation of what the AI was capable of. Since this is her actual behaviour, not simply a limited AI version of it, her behaviour does not suddenly significantly change during the cutscenes. This removes the problem of characters being far more active and 'alive' during cutscenes, and further blurs the line between the scripted events and the dynamic elements of the story and game.
Having examined both the design of the environment and the most important element of that environment, Yorda, it is time to look at the actual formation of the emotional bond. Of course this has already begun to an extent with the player's discovery of and interaction with Yorda at the start of the game. The aspect I am going to discuss now is the aspect that all the rest of this builds on to - the actual interaction with Yorda throughout her and Ico's journey through the Fortress, the use of the medium that makes Ico stand out.
Ico and Yorda's journey together is spent trying to escape the Fortress. Between their initial meeting in the Tower and their separation on the bridge there is only one cutscene, and its purpose is simply to introduce the Queen. With this one exception all of the interaction between Ico and Yorda is handled by the game mechanics. This means that to a large degree it is really the player and Yorda working together. Having near constant control of Ico, the feeling that we are in his shoes is never really broken. While as I pointed before it is emphasised that we are watching a story unfold, the simultaneous feeling that we are actually a part of it is maintained as much as possible. It is through this that the emotional bond is either created, or not.
All of this would be for nothing if that interaction with Yorda didn't seem real and meaningful. Through her initial introduction the game creates a character we truly care about, but what makes Ico special is how it builds on this in the gameplay on which it is so focused. There are two main aspects which the game addresses in the gameplay. The first, for which it has already laid the foundation with the introduction, is how Yorda appears to us. The second, and one which is found exclusively in the gameplay side of Ico, is the player's interaction with her.
We start off with a positive image of Yorda for a number of reasons I have already mentioned. She is a mysterious beauty, needs our help, and is our only companion in this place. Her behaviour once she and Ico are out and about in the Fortress further enhances this view of her.
Despite being able to climb around when necessary and taking a few knocks from the Spirits with no ill effects, Yorda projects an image of fragility, of delicacy, as if she is less substantial than the world around her. Most of the time she needs Ico to lead her forward. When the Spirits threaten her, all she can do is run to Ico for protection. She can't climb ladders properly, she cries out if she falls more than a small way, she even gets a fright if Ico suddenly and randomly hits something (such as a lever the player wanted to pull but pressed the wrong button). It is not due to mere physical weakness that we need to help her, her very being seems to need protection from harshness of the real world. And as I pointed out this is never seen to be because she is some kind of lesser person, because Ico needs her just as much for the powers she possesses. All these little details give more reason for the player to care for her and want to protect her, emphasised hugely because this behaviour is not limited to cutscenes or scripted events. This is her real behaviour; seen every moment they are together in the Fortress.
This much covers how Yorda's behaviour throughout her and Ico's journey portrays her, why we want to protect her. Now what we must look at is how the game handles interaction with her, how we protect her. Ico goes a step above the already impressive creation of Yorda's character by allowing us to interact with her in an exceptionally natural fashion, allowing us and eventually making us want to interact with her in a certain way.
The place to start here is actually the times when we choose not to interact directly with her. When we, as Ico, are busy solving a puzzle or just trying to figure out where to go next, Yorda is content to be left to her own devices. Sometimes she watches Ico, sometimes she does nothing but stand around. Sometimes she wanders off to look around, or something has grabbed her attention, such as the birds, which seem to hold a particular fascination for her. If you open the way forward she will sometimes run on ahead, if you cannot figure out what to do she will sometimes point it out to you or try to lead you where you need to go. However if she is frightened, such as if the Sprits have recently attacked, she will try to stay close to you, even if you need her to stay put in order to proceed. Even if she has to climb through areas she would not normally traverse without your help, at these times she will stay with you unless she cannot. She seems to be a living thinking independent person, not just an image of a person in need, but an actual person in need.
When the time comes to lead the way, all you have to do is call out to her and she will come, if she can. You can then take her by the hand and continue your journey. To hold her hand the player must press and hold a button on the controller, and will physically feel her presence. It is a very real connection, despite being a connection to a character in a game. It is as if you can actually reach out and touch her. And you can make your way sedately through the Fortress and Yorda will keep up easily, or run as fast as possible to escape the Spirits and Yorda will slow you down as you drag her along as fast as she can go. In this, as when she is left alone, she reacts as a real person.
As is the point of this section, all of this is handled through the game mechanics. Her behaviour and actions and your interaction with her are constant and natural. It is as if it really is you who is working together with Yorda to escape, not you controlling a character and looking after an NPC. And over time you will interact more naturally than you would with a normal NPC. You will want to protect her from the Spirits not because the game demands it, but because you want to protect her. She seems so delicate that you will want to keep them from even touching her, let alone taking her away. Seeing her as this fragile creature you will guide her carefully through the Fortress, not drag her along roughly, help her over every obstacle, even when she can manage them herself. You will treat her as more than a character in game, because the game has made her more than just a character, and by having the capacity to allow you to interact in a way that has real feeling behind it, the game has made itself more than just a game.
Ico and Yorda's journey together comes to an end well before the end of the game. After activating both Reflectors they return to the Main Gate and Yorda uses her power to open it. This greatly weakens her, to the extent that she can hardly walk and will fall if you try to make her run. Of course this makes you all the more sympathetic, which is a useful setup for what comes next. When, on your way across the bridge, you cross the midpoint, the Orbs activate again and strike Yorda, causing her to collapse and blasting Ico aside. Just as Ico is recovering the bridge starts to withdraw, knocking him off his feet and almost off the bridge altogether. As the two sections get further and further apart Yorda crawls to the edge of the Fortress side, while Ico holds on for dear life on the land side.
At this point control is given to the player. This scene is designed to force the player to make a split second choice on two levels. On the narrative level Ico must choose between Yorda and freedom. Of course, this isn't a real choice for him, the story is written and the player must abide by it or it cannot continue. But nonetheless the game gives the choice to the player rather than having them simply observe. Having just fallen over the side of the bridge and with Yorda being pulled further away every passing moment you don't really have time to think about what you are supposed to do. In giving the choice to the player, the game is not asking what the player thinks Ico would do, there is no time for that, it is asking what the player is going to do. Whether the player does what the story intends Ico to do or not depends on whether the bond between the player and Yorda has been created, which is what the second level of this choice relates to.
As you climb back up onto the bridge Yorda crawls to the end of her section and stretches out her arm to catch Ico, similar to what he did for her many times during their journey. However, on top of the implicit choice between Yorda and freedom already discussed, by the time you have climbed up and can jump over the gap the seperation of the bridge sections is so much that it is probably too far to make it. In this way this scene not only puts returning to Yorda up against freedom, but also puts your instincts as a gamer against the bond which the game hopes to have formed. Having already played through most the game, you at this point have a solid sense of what jumps Ico can and cannot make, a sense which will be at best unsure about this jump. But the bond with Yorda, and her implicit invitation to make the jump, motivate you to jump anyway.
While the description is detailed and complex, as is the design behind this moment, this all occurs is mere seconds in reality. There is no time to think, you will choose not by weighing the options or trying to see through the game to what you are supposed to do, instead you will react quickly on a more basic level. Either you will see it as a game and hesitate due to the distance, or the bond with Yorda the game has created will override all that and you'll just jump. If and when you make the jump the cutscene takes over again to ensure you make it, and the story rolls on.
I refer to this as a 'test' as it can show whether the game succeeded in reaching you or not. Of course it is not this simple, it will not simply either succeed or fail, there are degrees to it. But if your bond with Yorda overrides your better judgement in a split second situation like that, if you react more like it is really happening than like it is a game, obviously the game has had its intended effect.
While this bond is formed by the journey up until this point, there is nothing until this that really highlights it. It is quite possible that the player won't even be conciously aware of it. By putting the emotional side of the game in conflict with the traditional gaming aspect, the designers highlight the emotional aspect, or lack thereof.
The creation of the emotional bond is the greatest achievement of Ico; it is the most unique aspect of the game and is done in a very interesting way. The ending is more of a clichéd tearjerker separation but I will discuss it anyway, not only because it is related to the bond this document is about, but also because it so thoroughly uses it to impact the player.
There are numerous emotional aspects which are built up during the game which are used in the ending. I will mention them all briefly here before discussing how they are used in the ending cutscene. The main element is obviously Yorda, but there are a number of particular aspects of her character which are used in the ending. The most obvious is that she is presented as a beautiful, pure, innocent being, the very essence of goodness, up against an equally effective rendition of evil. Next is Ico's dedication to her which builds up throughout the game, first in his willingness to help her, then how he jumps back to her on the bridge, how he makes his way back to where it all started to find her, and turns down the Queen's last offer of freedom to fight for her. Ico has to repeatedly choose between Yorda and freedom, and against the Queen choose between Yorda and his life, and he chooses Yorda every time. Finally there is the most important element, the bond between her and the player, who now shares Ico's determination to save her.
There is one additional element beyond these aspects of Yorda which is important; the Fortress itself. While in the context of the story it is a prison Ico and Yorda must escape in order to survive, from the perspective of the player it is a visually stunning location which comprises the entire world of Ico. Everything that happens in the game happens in the Fortress, all the time you spent with Yorda, all your emotional investment in the game, is in this place.
Finally, an element which is quite obvious but well used; that we interact with the world of the game through Ico.
After the Queen is defeated and the ending cutscene kicks in, we cut to the Casket Chamber and see Yorda resurrected by the caskets. Wasting no time, they attack our very first attachment to Yorda and to the game. She is brought back, but as a Spirit, robbed of the appearance that played a large role in initially defining her character. This is only a physical change, she is still the same person, but Ico is a game where presentation is very meaningful, so by taking away her appearance they take away part of her character. In fact a restatement of this in story terms offers an explanation for why she stays behind, because she is herself but not really herself. But we are not at that point yet. After taking a moment to gather her senses Yorda goes up to the throne room. She finds the unconscious Ico and takes him down to the dock as the Fortress collapses in the background.
Since she has not been brought back properly, and the Fortress is starting to collapse, not to mention the Queen reiterating that Yorda cannot leave the Fortress, the player knows what is coming next, and there is a sense of inevitability about it. The player does not want this to happen but cannot do anything about it, not only because it is a cutscene but also because the person they control, who also wouldn't want it to happen, also can't do anything about it. As I highlighted above, we interact with the world through Ico, and rather than have Ico go against our wishes in some way, or have him save Yorda again somehow, the writers take him out of the equation, keeping us powerless as we watch the events of the final cutscene.
They arrive down in the dock and Yorda does as expected, she sends Ico off in a boat but stays behind herself, quietly saying goodbye as the boat floats free of the islands. Yorda's last act is to give the freedom they both sought to her companion, and remain behind, alone again. That Yorda is being left behind to die after all they've been through hits the player pretty hard in itself due to the bond they have with her, but the designers make it even worse by not killing her off suddenly. She is right in front of you, still alive in some manner, but both the player and Ico, who have both chosen on multiple occasions to put her before everything else, can on this occasion do nothing due to Ico being unconscious. The player can only watch as she stays behind.
As the impact of this, and if you are the sort who did not hesitate in the slightest to jump to her on the bridge it is quite an impact indeed, is settling in the cutscene moves on. The song starts to kick in properly, with lyrics from Yorda's perspective underscoring the bittersweet sense of her gratitude for her freedom, no matter how short-lived it was, and music powerful enough to match the somewhat epic event of the Fortress' complete destruction, the end of the final chapter of a story no-one knows. And that brings us on to the next point, having used the purity and beauty of Yorda, the player's bond with her, and Ico and the player's desire to help her at any cost for emotional impact, the game moves on to the only thing left, the Fortress. I have already detailed why, from the player's perspective, the Fortress is a positive part of the game world. In fact it is the entirety of the game world. And, having killed off Yorda, they now destroy every place you ever were with her, every sight you saw while playing the game, and leave the player, like Ico, with nothing.
And roll credits.
There is no point in trying to describe the impact of the ending, or of the game as a whole. You either experienced it or you didn't.
But, Ico is a fairy tale, and as such has a happy ending. So, after letting the destruction of everything you knew and loved in the game sink in for a while, and showing some of your, Ico's, most significant moments with the character they apparently just killed off, you are suddenly back with Ico, who is awake and wondering what has happened. The player knows what has happened but, knowing that there must be a reason why they are being shown this, are wondering what is about to happen. Ico and the player wander along the beach, asking themselves their respective questions, and see someone lying on the shore in the distance.
It's Yorda. She's alive. She's her old self.
They are together again, and free.
Written by Crumplecorn
Last Updated 08/02/2010