Near Flawless Execution of Minimalism in a Contemporary Video Game Setting

With any sort of medium–television, books, movies–there is a vast spectrum of the quality and type. The subjective nature of such works tend to create radically polarized opinions.

Suffice to say, me an avid video gamer, when Roger Ebert declared that video games can not be art i was tiffed.

No, no. Let me be honest and blunt: i was pissed off; very, very pissed off.

Now, generational gap aside and Ebert’s unflinching unwillingness to lend his hand to just try playing a video game, i would agree that video games as a collective whole are not exactly in that elevated status of artfulness (again, who has the authority to say? [That’s an argument for another time]). These are, after all, products meant to be sold as interactive entertainment with an intention of making profit. But not all of these games are meant to be mindless hack & slash/shooters/platformers/what have you.
In fact one can find quite a bit of thought and foresight put forth into these games and their writing–not necessarily a focal point whole games but an indication that something more is going on. The Silent Hill series in their earlier incarnations had a level of writing that delved into taboo sides of humanity never truly exhibited in games before; the Metal Gear Solid series moved into video game post-modernism with its lengthy and well directed cinematics with a wide array of fractured and damaged characters and tackling issues of political, military, and human nature never really touched upon; even Halo has a unique writing style and approach that has won over millions (of people and dollars), at times using imagery, symbolism, and under-the-radar storytelling tactics courtesy of its creators.

Bungie sure loved the number 7 in the "Halo" series.

 

And we can go all night long about what game has what and what game is more intelligent or justified than others, etc., etc.; however, i think it is safe to confidently say that some games go a bit further in attempting to be more than just a video game and approach and even obtain a tasteful level of that vague and abstract notion of “art.”

With that, i come to Team ICO, directly headed by the quiet and shy Fumito Ueda whose interview answers rarely exceed 100 words.

Photograph of the team from 2002.

 

Most people who delve into the video-games-as-art realm know this company or are at least familiar with their work, even at a small degree. As a company established only in 1997, Team ICO is astoundingly still a part of Sony Computer Entertainment’s Japan Studio having only released two full games to this day, an HD remake of these aforementioned two, and a third game with a troubled development on the way.

Their championed first two: ICO released in 2001 and Shadow of the Colossus in 2006, both on the Playstation 2 console.

Partial American covers.

 

Now why should one pay attention to these games?
Why should anyone care that one of the largest technological companies worldwide still has this team retained?

These games are unlike anything ever produced or executed.

As much as i love talking about these games and analyzing them for hours on end, there is a cutoff point.
For brevity’s sake, ICO will be the main focus of this blog post.

ICO is a bona fide gem of the video gaming world. The game itself went under the radar in America save for the appreciative critics. Much of this un-attention was attributed to terrible Americanized and American cover art. The Japanese and European cover art, for example:

Japanese/European/International cover

 

The cover itself is artwork done in the style, and in allusion to, Giorgio de Chirico; specifically, The Nostalgia of the Infinite, shown in the center here:

Examples of de Chirico's work.

 

The cover is tasteful, textured, ominous, appears to sketched by hand, and we get the sense that these two small shadows are running in a world that is far too big for them. The surrounding architecture is gigantic and imposing.

But then we have the Americanized cover (oh boy…):

American artwork for the game cover.

 

All right. Well…at least for starters we still have the main cast here, and some foreboding architecture in the background. The way it has all been done, however, just detracts from the initial artistic feel we get from the original cover. For starters, the picture itself has this sharper, less textured, clean look to it. Clean is not always bad, but here it really hurts the overall scheme. There is no artful…i don’t know, faded look of genuineness if that can even be said objectively? Their characters look like poorly executed CGI renders of models that are nonexistent within the actual game.
The faces of the characters are nothing–NOTHING–like they actually are in-game. Their game models are, dare i say, more ethnic, more Asian appearing–this being natural considering Team ICO is based in Japan. Even the boy’s parka is not the same as it is in the game.

In short, the American cover was not a success.
Honestly, what looks more appealing to an arbitrary customer who just happens to find themselves in a game store and is browsing solely based on the looks of the covers?

Decisions, decisions...

 

So before even having delved into the actual game itself, one can see–based from the more artful cover–that the game is going to be a bit different than your usual action/adventure interactive entertainment. One also does them self a service if they do not read the instruction manual unless only for the purpose of figuring out controls. Otherwise, they way the game story unfolds is ruined and the overall experience dampened.

But now we come to the game itself.
A game in which has its own architectural design, its own cultural patterns, and invented languages. A universe all its own.

Upon first hitting “Start,” we are greeted with men in armor riding on horses through a forest with sunlight streaking through while a boy, with horns on his head, has his hands bound and is traveling with them.
No one says a word.
No one makes a gesture, or gestures to anything in particular.
We have absolutely no idea what is going on here.

Eventually this odd group comes to a perpendicular drop with a dramatic change in scenery: an ocean stretching beyond the horizon with a huge bridge connecting to an immense castle.
A castle far too big.
A castle far too deserted.

This group, though, does not take the bridge and opts for a more dangerous route down the side of the cliffs to the water’s edge. Here a boat is found and the group now rows toward the castle with this boy with horns still captive.
Still nobody says a word.

Upon coming toward the castle the group enters caverns with a discernible path and nearby altar. On this altar sits an ornate sword. Upon approaching an entrance, one armor clad man simply grunts the first words, “Get the sword,” as one of the men follows his order. This sword interacts with gates of unique architecture to allow entrance. The men and captive boy go up a primitive elevator into a large chasm filled with what appears to be hundreds of tombs.

One of these tombs is opened, and the boy placed inside. As the men close the heavy stone door, the same man that issued the previous order quietly says, “Do not be angry with us. This is for the good of the village.” The boy is left alone as the men take their leave.

As narrative chance would have it, a tremor shakes the castle and the statue with the boy inside falls and cracks. He is freed, but stuck here.
Lever pulling, simple puzzle solving, and a couple rooms later, the boy enters a new room and sees white figure–i’m talking white here. Translucent, beaming, bright–and asks if they are okay and then states he’ll get them down. Platforming and jumping on top of their cage hanging from a chain, the cage falls and the cage door opened. Out walks a tall, slender, fairy-like girl who simply stares. She looks at our eponymous hero and says something in a language foreign to all in textual characters, symbols, and hieroglyphics we are not meant to understand.

We simply cannot understand what she says throughout the entire game.

After having some statement spoken to him that he cannot comprehend, Ico says, “I–I’m a sacrifice, because I have horns. Children who grow horns all get taken here. Are you a sacrifice too?” He then takes her hand, and walks with her to hopefully escaping.

And thus the stage is set.

What follows is, to put it bluntly, a game of getting from Point A to Point B with a rescue-the-princess daring.

Tricky puzzles and platforming challenges with monsters in between are the obstacles that need to be overcome. The way this is done is far more emotional and satisfying than a simple straight path as all actions revolve around this girl with whom you bop around in this castle.

The castle is, for the sake of the game’s progression, the true antagonist. It is not alive in any sense, but it is far more dangerous than most of what they game throws at you. This silent and impossibly built piece of work within which you run yourself ragged. The series of buildings of the castle do give off a quiet sort of aura of danger. Any fall or misstep or grabbing the girl as she jumps a broken bridge with your help to grasp her up at the last second tend  to be the biggest active challenges.

In order to progress, Ico must hold hands with this girl whose name you eventually impersonally find out is “Yorda.” Ico is hampered and slowed down, but without Yorda cannot continue. In order to grab her hand, you must control Ico by moving him next to her and pressing the R1 shoulder button of the controller. What is absolutely fascinating at this point–and i’ve confirmed this with fellow players–is that you only need press the button once to hold her hand. BUT! i, and as have many others, held that damn R1 button down to keep a tight grip. We did not need to, but this game somehow put enough emotion without having really said or done anything that gets us to really hold on.

Another minimal yet ingenious gameplay tactic was the use of the vibration function of the controller. You do feel the vibration when Ico falls a long distance or attacks these illusory shadow creatures that try to steal Yorda away (i won’t give away spoilers here, but they are constantly trying to snatch her). What is so subtly used via the vibration function are the footsteps you take while holding on to Yorda. The controller vibrates ever so slightly–almost to the point of being below the threshold of consciousness–with every step you take with one another.

Fight! No, wait! Run! Run, damn you, run! Fight a little more! Now run some more!

 

The game functions to bring you closer to this girl you have no relation to or cannot understand all with minimal communication and focused problem-solving and helping interaction. When separated, you can call out to her and gesture her to follow and hold your hand. You save by sitting down on glowing couches next to each other and fall asleep until the game is next booted up for more play. You have to stop all these shadow demons from taking her or else the game is lost. You cannot leave her behind. If left alone too long, more shadows come to try and take her and you better haul your scrawny little horned boy ass to stop them. If she starts getting dragged into a liquid pool of shadow, you better get down on your knees and grab her by the hand and pull her out because it is game over otherwise.

All this done in a game with minute amounts of dialogue and very little music. Minimal dialogue occurs between Ico and Yorda; as little as possible considering the language barrier. The most Ico can really say happens during gameplay when he calls her over and gestures to come with him. The game generally opts for ambiance over music with wind blowing by, animals chirruping in gardens, the sound of water falling, and more natural sounding audio as an aural experience more than anything. Little snippets of music occasionally play if an objective is completed. Scores do occur with larger events but are saved solely for them. When shadows come to try and steal Yorda, their leitmotif begins to hauntingly creep in:

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IHangv4RlcA&feature=related[/youtube]

 

But the visual aspect…wow.

Visuals serve to display just how small these characters are in relation to their surroundings.

Ico calling Yorda.

 

A tower to conquer that will move to memory.

 

Vistas of long distances and the castle stretching off into fog and dust that go beyond your view are quite common. Places you have previously come through are often visible in the background (and sometimes stylistically in the foreground) as a reminder where you are, and seeing places you once were in the background instills a sense of little to no progression. The game developers utilized fixed camera angles much like a film director would to attain a certain affect from its players.
You are small.
You are in far too big of a place.
You are actively being challenged by a passive building, its architecture, its caverns, its caves, and its inner workings.

All what amounts to a game of getting from Point A to Point B.

This is a video game. Video gaming is the media platform that this quiet piece of entertainment was intended to be experienced on. But that is just it! This game is a video game experience. Your senses are engaged in a very different manner and your emotions tapped into at a near subconscious level. The art style, the progression, the sound choices, the visual fixed-camera choices…all of these work in tandem with a game that is played and experienced.

By the time the credits roll (and a little bit after [hint hint]), you walk away with a definitive degree of catharsis. ICO is meant to tap into a part of us that goes beyond simple entertainment. There is an emotional investment going on here packaged with an art and visual style all its own. All of this carries over into the spiritual loose successor of ICO, Shadow of the Colossus, and the upcoming The Last Guardian. These all have these traits of Fumito Ueda’s created universe: the clothing, the architecture, the language, the art style, the minimalistic approach in all facets…this guy has made his own universe and can creatively manipulate it to create true works of art that are markedly different from anything else in the video game market.

ICO is a game about many things, least of all human connection.  Of course not all will like it, but the game is something else, man.

Go experience ICO if you are a gamer looking for something more. Do not watch a play through, do not take my word for it, do not take a friend’s word for it. Finding a Playstation 2 copy is rather difficult but there is an HD remake of both ICO and Shadow of the Colossus for the Playstation 3 if you can spare the money. But if you can afford it and are genuinely looking for something artful, ICO is a wonderful experience with which to get started.

  2 comments for “Near Flawless Execution of Minimalism in a Contemporary Video Game Setting

  1. March 5, 2012 at 11:44 am

    This is a nice, very thorough post. As you probably recall, ICO is one of those games that many people waved at Ebert saying “You should play this before you say games can’t be art!!!”

    And here I may have to trade in my geek badge and admit that I myself haven’t played ICO. In part, it may be that I found the cover art so uninspiring, so I’m glad you took the time to juxtapose it with other options. That does make a big difference, I think. The US cover art looks like just other generic PS2 action title with epic pretensions, so even though I’ve known and heard for some time that ICO is one to play, I just haven’t gotten around to it for various reasons. I checked on Amazon, by the way, and you’re right — it’s expensive. Used copies aren’t so bad (around $15), but new ones are quite high.

    I’m curious, what difference do you think an HD remake would make? It’s a moot point for me, since I don’t own a PS3, but is it possible that a visually-sharper ICO would lose some of its appeal? I confess I like the murky graininess for the early Silent Hill games, so much that I prefer it over the cleaner lines of, say, Silent Hill 4 (even though it frequently employs a grainy filter on the imagery to make it look lower-res).

    Anyway, my venture into Amazon also led me to this novelization of ICO. Do you know anything about it? The reviews look pretty good.

  2. jpugach
    March 12, 2012 at 12:10 am

    Evidently they did make an HD remake that included both ICO and Shadow of the Colossus. It never really made much of a difference to me as i have both originals for the PS2 and a working PS2.

    i started supporting the older graininess after i heard David Lynch make a statement that things today are almost too clear and too sharp. He didn’t like that some of his older movies were being remastered for the HD world we are in now and that it does indeed remove some of that grittiness. It worked wonders for Silent Hill 2 and 3, but i have yet to get around to actually playing 4 (although i do own a copy of a used Silent Hill 4 that i need to give a run as well).

    Apparently! The original developers have seen the new HD remakes of Silent Hill 2 and 3 and they are not too big of fans. They are indeed too clean and sharp and remove that grainy delicious nastiness that made the games so aesthetically appealing (in that cool and sick morbid kind of way).

    i didn’t know there was a novelization for ICO. That’d be an interesting read, but after having played ICO so many times…i’m not sure. Seeing as it is a game meant to be consumed in the video game medium…who knows? It’d be a mind trip for anyone who hasn’t played the game and couldn’t visualize all this stuff going on. Again, all those words in text…a wholly different beast when there is such minimal dialogue throughout the game’s entirety.

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