Ico and the Beauty of Ambiguity

Ico is an adventure game for the PS2 (and available for the PS3 in the amazing Ico and Shadow of the Colossus Collection) from Japan. You play as Ico, a young boy left to die in an elaborate temple because he has horns coming out of his head. He breaks free of his cell and finds a beautiful girl, Yorda, trapped in a cage high in the rafters. Ico frees Yorda and tries to return both of them to civilization. Out of nowhere, shadow monsters appear to steal back Yorda for whoever captured her. She cannot fight back, only follow the trail you blaze for her. Ico BeautyIn case you were wondering, that does mean that a large chunk of Ico is an escort mission. Yes, it gets annoying at times. The puzzle solving forces you to move objects to create paths for Yorda to follow. Some of the early ones are intentionally fussy to force you to learn that close enough isn't good enough in Ico.

The minor inconvenience is nothing compared to the grandeur of Ico. This is a game that, if enemies weren't randomly popping up all over the place, I would just wander around and take everything in. Everything is abandoned castle, skylines, and a distant beach yet it never feels repetitive or dull.

The characters are the real draw of the game. Ico has a really fascinating conceit. Ico and Yorda are unable to communicate. Their bond is forged over their shared journey. Trust is established immediately with Yorda taking Ico's hand without knowing anything about him. She follows his lead even though neither one knows where they are or where they're going.

Ico BondYou get to decide what you think the relationship is between the two characters. Has Ico fallen in love? Is he looking for support as he tries to return to the people who abandoned him? Does he simply feel obligated to help Yorda?

And what about Yorda? Why does she follow this boy? Has she fallen for him? Is she afraid of him because of the horns? Does she know why they're trapped the whole time?

Team Ico created a story of trust and human relationships without a single word of comprehensible dialogue between the two leads. They crafted an adventure game with no clear end goal as the main characters were abandoned by their own people. There are so many layers of mystery that you begin to question everything you think you've figured out long before the stakes in the game change drastically.

Perhaps the most ambitious aspect of the game is the replay option. Once you beat Ico, you can choose to play again with a different soundtrack. This unlocked version gives you every line of Ico's dialogue. The text that was so rewarding because it was so open now has the option of specificity if you choose to take it.

Ico is a game that will not play the same way twice because of the divide between ambiguity and storytelling. It's entirely up to the player whether or not they choose to turn on Ico's dialogue on a later attempt at the game. I prefer not knowing all the details because it encourages exploration and debate, but having a definitive answer allows for the quality of in-game storytelling to be judged against a literal blueprint. There is no right answer here. How you choose to read the relationship between Ico and Yorda is up to you.

Thoughts on Ico? Share them below.

Death Note and Temptation

Pokemon Finally Grows a Backbone