Games and Stories

*Comics ‘n Movies Dept: A nice compliment for the news that Vertigo will be putting out a $19.99 softcover version of The Fountain on October 4th: the first full trailer for the film version (due in theaters also in October), written and directed by creator Darren Aronofsky. I can’t say it drew from me the reaction it must have wanted, but maybe you’ll feel differently as you join Hugh Jackman on his journey from a 16th Century kingdom of stilted fantasy movie dialogue to our melodramatic present day (“Your wife neeeds you!”) and beyond into a magical, hairless future of bubbles and pajamas that seems to have adopted the visual design theme of ‘department store Christmas display in the midst of arson.’ Still, Aronofsky might yet do something interesting with those repeating shot setups on evidence - and even if the film fails, it has the markings of an unintentional success as high camp anyway.

*And speaking of high style filmmaking, how about reliving the glory of the Mystery Science Theater 3000 version of the 1952 educational short Cheating? I truly love these old Centron social hygiene films, packed with real Kansas teens acting out torrid little dramas - many of them were directed by Herk Harvey of the influential 1962 B-horror classic Carnival of Souls, and evidence a certain off-the-cuff down-home aplomb. This one famously goes way over the top with the heavy shadows and schoolhouse angst, but I think it’s fitting for the world of a screwy, desperate high school kid. Everything seemed so much more dramatic to me at that age too. The bots get off some of their best cracks too, enough so to have made this sequence a classic among MST3K fans.

*This one’s for Johnny Bacardi - an 8-page preview of the new collected edition of Rick Veitch’s Abraxas and the Earthman, from the pages of Epic Illustrated. Nothing like that lush, colorful early Veitch! Coming this September.

*I just don't have a lot of time anymore to play video games; I'm lucky when I can get in any spare minutes just to fire up some freeware material from the internet, let alone invest the 80 or so hours that some console RPG might demand of me. Still, I do manage to dust off the old PS2 at times to check out some title or another that's been commended to me - Chris Mautner had me try out the two Katamari Damacy games, and they were really neat (and I can still hear the theme song in my head). Plus, there's usually a game or two I bought way back when, and just never got around to playing. Hell, I still have Dreamcast (bow your heads) titles I've not totally finished with.

So a few weeks ago, I actually got around to playing something I've had for years. People online were talking about it, and I liked the demo that came in some PS2 freebie package, so I picked it up, then never so much as watched the opening cinema.


That's the title. It was rushed into US release for the Fall of 2001, enough so that the Japanese and European versions of the game are somewhat different and improved. It didn't make much of a splash, but its cult following was a ferocious one, similar in loyalty to the fandom surrounding the (short, wonderful) 2001 art-shooter Rez. The director of Ico was a fellow by the name of Fumito Ueda, whose next game, 2005's Shadow of the Colossus, would garner all sorts of critical praise for its mood, gameplay, and sophisticated grasp of moral ambiguity (which is not the same as having a badass antihero in the lead).

Ico is also a sophisticated game, though it must be said right up front that it's somewhat flawed as, well, a game. A little too much emphasis is put on action and fighting, a focus which the game's combat system simply cannot support. Often you'll be forced into confrontations with shadow demons, lengthy clashes that are rendered utterly annoying by the fact that you're given exactly two moves to use, a pair of attacks that counter the two or so stratagems employed by the enemy. And especially in the first half of the game, when you have only a stick to fight with, these monotonous skirmishes last forever, and have a way of popping up when you least want them - my eyes rolled whenever I heard enemies slithering nearby, pulling the emergency brake on the game.

Luckily, such problems aren't quite enough to dim Ico's luster. It's basically a stripped-down graphic adventure game, one with no onscreen interface whatsoever, and an inventory limited only to what your character can realistically carry in his arms. There are only three characters in the game (save for what's seen in the opening cinema), and very little dialogue. The story concerns your character, the titular Ico, a young boy born with horns on his head and thus taken to a remote castle upon his twelfth birthday for the purposes of human sacrifice. The castle is vast, mysterious, and long ago fallen into disrepair, so Ico manages to escape, eventually encountering a slightly older girl named Yorda who wields a curious magic tied to the castle's operation. Together, the two of them try to find a way out of the castle, though the evil Queen who runs the place isn't keen on the idea.

The accomplishment of Ico is twofold and connected: the game is all about escaping the castle, which means observing every detail and making every effort to gather a sense of the place, and that's really handy considering that most of the game's storytelling is pulled off through implication, details left sitting around. The castle is quite intuitively designed, puzzles naturally flowing from one room to the next; you'll get to see all of that castle, and even learn how the damn place works by the end of the game. Everything is carefully positioned so that all of the pulling of boxes and climbing of walls seems natural to the game's flow - this attention to detail even extends to the relationship between Ico and Yorda, who stick together for most of the game without talking. Why? Because they speak different languages, of course, and so it's only natural that they'd communicate in mainly the yelps and gestures that make the gameplay so easygoing.

And that gameplay - to the extent of the primary activity of puzzle-solving - is smooth as silk. Ico can run and climb almost anywhere. However, he cannot at first wield the magic that can open certain paths, so he needs Yorda with him to get anywhere. Yorda is not controlled by the player, can hardly do anything by herself, and much of the real challenge of the game thus surrounds your finding ways to make the castle's many paths simple enough for Yorda to either traverse by herself or at least get dragged through by you without too much fuss. Oh yes, much of the game is spent literally grabbing Yorda's arm and pulling her through the game. And needless to say, if you leave her alone for too long, shadow demons will swoop in and capture her and it's game over (as my brother remarked upon observing bits of the game going on, "I guess they're not shooting for a lot of female appeal here, eh?").

Sometimes you can sense the gears turning in the designers' heads. At certain points Yorda's getting captured is used as an obvious crutch to prevent you from straying too far from the path the designers want you to stick to - it's essentially a more elegant way of having your character bump up against an invisible wall at the edge of the finished game field. I can think of at least one moment where I solved a puzzle not by acting in any logical manner, but by simply 'reading' the positioning of certain items and acting in the way I'd expect a game designer would want me to act - breaks the fourth wall, but adventure games are at heart a battle of wits between the player and the designers anyway. And Ueda and crew utterly have their wits about them much of the time, the puzzles not too hard (I solved the game in about 8 hours without consulting any hints) but not a cakewalk either, not to mention always used as a means of conveying to the player the world of the game.

The graphics of Ico are quite lovely, hardly dulled at all in impact considering they're half a decade old. I can't tell you how important the look and feel of a 'world' is to a game fixated on unraveling every secret of a single environment - Ico always draws you in, inviting you to track the paths of the castle, gaze upon the light-drenched beauty of its subtle rot, and understand its very bones. If there's any feeling Ico gives off, it's ominous loveliness; if only Ico and Yorda could slow down even more and just be at peace with the power of the castle. But the ruin goes far too deep for that.

I mentioned that there's a lot of storytelling through implication here. It's not just the puzzles you need to pay attention to, it's the tenor of the voices of Yorda and the Queen in the few moments when they talk (amusingly, not only does the Queen hold all the cards as ruler of the castle, but she's even master of communication since she's the only one in the game fluent in both Ico's and Yorda's tongues), and the hallways Ico's villagefolk carry him through in the very beginning. You'll never know exactly why Ico is being sacrificed, in that the game never comes out at tells you, but you can make a very good guess by the penultimate fighting scene where several major revelations are sitting right in front of you to observe, if you care to see (it's telling that said action scene is one of the only really effective ones in the game). The same goes for Yorda's true relationship with the Queen, not to mention the particulars of why the castle is falling apart, why the Queen doesn't just up and kill you herself, why you just happen to find a very powerful weapon sitting around near the end - what seem like gameplay limitations (and, truth be told, that's exactly what they are) are neatly tucked away as part of the story, a
marvelous integration of not only puzzle solving but the very limits of puzzle solving into the plot's subtle flow.

Truly, this serves as a fine game for study, one of the few games I can think of where a second playthrough is warranted simply by the opportunity to admire how Ueda and company put the damn thing together. There's no other replay premiums (those wound up in the more complete Japanese/European version, which also added a 2 player mode and some revised, tougher puzzles), not even a cinema-viewing theater. You've got to see it all in play, in the game where it belongs. You might not even notice that the last fifteen or so minutes of gameplay is actually a recreation of the opening cinema, in all the same locations, but with Ico no longer as captive, but as rescuer. That's the kind of sly nothing-goes-to-waste aesthetic Ueda is shooting for, and it's worth pouring over again, despite its flaws. He even slips in a wonderful, playable epilogue, one that stands in clever contrast to the rest of the game in both its visual style and gameplay thrust.

It's the kind of sensitivity to presentation and smart interactive storytelling that's rarely seen in most current games (not that I'm an expert). I can see why that cult got so enthusiastic, this game from 5 years ago just as fresh a time in 2006 as when I bought the damn thing.