You might not have heard of these games before, but I assure you that you should have. Ico and its spiritual successor Shadow of the Colossus are held by many to be two of the finest games ever made. Both developed by the imaginatively named Team Ico and originally released for Playstation 2, they have been remastered and re-released on the Playstation Store, and can be bought separately or as a bundle at notable discount. In truth, it’s difficult, maybe even futile, for me to try to adequately explain the experiences that these games provide. These are the two examples most commonly trotted out when the validity of the video game medium as an art form is being debated, and with good reason; the atmospheric storytelling and emotive power on exhibition are second to none.
Ico follows the exploits of a young boy named Ico, who is imprisoned in a castle due to being born with horns, seen as a bad omen by his people. Breaking free of his chamber, he tries to escape, encountering along the way Yorda, a girl also imprisoned in the castle. Together, they seek to escape the castle, pursued at every turn by the shadowy minions of the fortresses fearsome queen. In terms of gameplay, it’s a pretty straightforward puzzle-platformer; the player controlled Ico must escort and protect the vulnerable Yorda to progress. What makes this game real special is the beautifully crafted atmosphere, and the developing bond between the two characters. Despite the language barrier between them, they come together through handholding and their mutual wish to get away from the castle. Obviously, I’m far too fucking macho to be easily affected by such things, but even I was a little touched by the simple friendship and trust they share. The queen’s shadowy minions will take any opportunity to seize Yorda, and I found myself fiercely protective of her- “Unhand her, you shadowy ruffian!” I would howl, as yet another smoky apparition tried to make off with the frightened girl. That alone is noteworthy- Yorda has to be constantly protected and literally guided by the hand. She is defenceless against enemies and lacks Ico’s climbing and swinging abilities, meaning you have to make lengthy detours to accommodate her. In most games, this kind of escort mission is insufferable, a total pain in the arse; here, I felt genuinely responsible for my charge.
Shadow of the Colossus offers a very different experience. Players assume the role of a lone warrior, Wander, who seeks to raise his lost love from the grave by defeating sixteen fearsome monsters known as Colossi. These inhabit a barren, hopelessly bleak and forbidden land which Wander traverses on horseback. That’s it, really- sixteen boss battles, punctuated by the journeys from one to the next. It’s an unusual formula, and one that could have fallen flat were it not for the brilliant design of the foes, the unique thrill of each combat and the haunting beauty of the world the player crosses. The colossi are all great lumbering monsters, seemingly made from stone, so the only way to harm them is by climbing over their exteriors and stabbing them in certain weak spots. They’re all unique from one another, and each requires a different strategy to get at the vital spot. A huge amount of work has gone into making these monsters feel just right- the way they move around, the believably heavy thumps of their footfalls and their behaviours in their environments are all brilliantly realised. Maybe the most significant factor in making the colossi feel like real living things is the way they seem to really not want to die. The way they thrash around as you climb over their exteriors, the otherworldly moans of pain when they are injured, the way their big sad eyes look at the camera as you finish them- god damn. I mean, my lawyer has instructed me to state that I am no expert in the matter, but this game makes you feel like a real fucking murderer. The inter-battle exploration segments are similarly believable. The howling of the wind, the rolling, untamed terrain and the drab, bleak colour scheme conspire to evoke the feeling of true, deep wilderness. This isn’t Skyrim or Liberty City, bursting with side missions and secrets, but that’s the point; the lack of life and artefacts on display enhance the lonely wasteland feeling that this world is built to give, and on the occasion that you do find something interesting, it’s all the more so as a result.
The games are from the same developer, and though the storylines are only related by the flimsiest of threads, there are a lot of similarities- the lonely atmosphere, the mystery and otherworldliness. They also share many of the same flaws. There’s a certain clumsiness to the controls, particularly in Ico, that can see you miss vital jumps or strikes. Puzzles in both games often have one and only one solution, which can sometimes be really opaque, especially when you can see a way to progress which is inexplicably ineffective. On more than one occasion, too, the solution is evident but the execution is aggravatingly, infuriatingly and artificially difficult- after spending about ninety minutes in the company of the fifteenth colossus, chipping away at its health eternally while the vulnerabilities stared me in the face, I was ready to snap the fucking disc, which would have been really difficult since this was a digital download. Though the HD remaster treatment has been kind, and the artstyle in both games is great, you can tell they were both originally PS2 games, and, indeed, that Ico was for much of its development intended for the original Playstation- animations and textures are definitely far from cutting edge. Additionally, I found myself dissatisfied with both endings- they felt a little forced, and didn’t give quite the closure I’d have liked, but that might just be me. Nevertheless, these are both fantastic experiences overall- Shadow of the Colossus probably edges Ico out in overall quality, but I would really recommend them both as games everyone in the world should play. The PS3 owners among you should pick this bundle up from the online store, failing that, see if you can pick up a copy for the PS2, since everyone has one of those- hell, ask me nicely and I might dig my PS2 copies from the vault for you.
As for whether or not these games are bona-fide works of art, as for whether or not any games can be works of art; I’m not sure if I can properly comment. I know a hell of a lot about videogames, and not a lot at all about art. What I will say is this- these games demonstrate the unique ability of games to give the player a deep and genuine involvement in a narrative, something I’ve always been convinced of. I always thought that the complicity and interaction a video game requires of a player makes him a part of the story; it’s not just happening to a character, it’s happening to you. This makes the whole thing that much more effective, and, for my money, is not something other media can do anything like as well. I’d like to think that, if nothing else, lends the medium at least a measure of artistic validity; but, like I said, I don’t know much about art. Certainly, though, these games and others offer experiences that cannot be matched anywhere else.
Shit, look at me all serious-faced, talking about “the validity of the medium as an art form”. What am I thinking? I’ll stick to poop jokes in future. Next up- Crysis PS3. Stay tuned.