icoI haven’t reviewed any games on this blog yet for two reasons. The first is that there are very few games I like enough to buy, let alone play all the way through; the second is that even once I find a game I like I’m pretty slow at playing it! But I’ve loved games ever since the days of Manic Miner on the ZX Spectrum (I never finished that one, but did spend a day of non-stop playing, with Garen and a friend of mine, Craig, after we found out a “poke” to get infinite lives.)

Games could well be the future of entertainment — being to the 21st Century what films were to the 20th — if they’re not already. The big problem for me is so many games are the same. They’re shoot-em-ups or racing games or platform games, all of which are basically about developing a skill with the game controls. I prefer games where the controls are secondary to what takes place in your imagination. Best of all are games which manage to tell a story, and though many attempt to do so by merely interspersing a few cut-scenes between otherwise identical levels, those that really manage it can have a much stronger effect on their audience, simply because that audience (the players) is actively involved in the story-world, rather than just passively observing it (as with film, for instance.)

So far my list of favourite games is quite short. I love the Tomb Raider series because I’m strange and love the idea of being left alone in some labyrinthine subterranean world so I can lose myself and explore. I love the Myst series. Myst III was the first game that really moved me emotionally, thanks partly to the acting of Brad Dourif (Wormtongue in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings), but also thanks to the fact that, near the game’s end, you get to make a non-black-or-white story decision (something that’s rare in a world of “no moral consequences” shoot-em-ups), which really requires you to feel as well as think your way through the final puzzle.

ico_yordaIco is another game I’m going to add to my list of favourites. Designed and directed by Japanese games-maker Fumito Ueda (also responsible for the recent Shadow of the Colossus, which is set in the same world as Ico), Ico is a puzzle-solving, exploratory game with some fighting elements, but with a unique twist that adds a very different feel to the game.

You control Ico, a young village boy born with horns. When children born with horns get to a certain age, they’re taken to a vast castle, entombed in tiny stone cells, and left there, presumably as some sort of propitiatory sacrifice. However, soon after this happens to Ico, there’s a fateful earthquake and his stone cell cracks open. Suddenly he’s free in this truly vast castle. Obviously, he wants to escape but, exploring, he finds a young girl trapped in a cage. The first problem in the game is freeing her. It turns out she doesn’t speak the same language as Ico. She is also rather weak, can’t climb, and is physically slower than Ico, but our hero immediately decides to rescue her as well as himself.

ico_icoFrom there on, the game basically consists of finding a way to lead this young woman, Princess Yorda, out of the castle. As Ico you explore ahead, experimenting with levers and doors to create a path for the physically inept Yorda, then rush back, grab her boyishly by the hand and drag her along after you in almost rag-doll fashion. If you get too far away from her, or leave her alone too long, dark creatures come along and try to drag her into shadow pools. If she’s dragged all the way in, you’ve lost the game. Fortunately, you have a stick (later a sword) to beat these shadow creatures off with.

The game play is simple, but Yorda’s presence changes it from being, say, a search for treasure, or the often rather meaningless quest to save the world. Having to take care of the helpless Yorda makes you feel protective of her, and gives the game’s objective an emotional slant that a mere finding-the-treasure ending doesn’t have.

Beyond that, there are a few further twists in the plot. For instance, you quite soon reach the castle’s main gates, only to have Yorda’s mother, the Dark Queen, suddenly appear and lock them, which means you have to delve back into the castle to find a way of unlocking them. There’s a further twist later on which I won’t reveal, as getting the full story is one of the rewards of playing (and perhaps can only be fully appreciated by playing, and getting involved in Ico‘s world.)

Another plus of the game is the sheer aesthetics of the world you’re in. The castle you have to find your way through isn’t just a series of strung-out puzzles, but a fully-realised place. You’ll see features in the background while playing one part of the game, then much later find yourself actually in that feature — be it a tower or a windmill or a cavern or whatever — and able to look back and see where you were earlier on. The locations, though obviously vast, don’t quite manage to conjure the awe I felt when I first stepped out onto the Sphinx’s head in Tomb Raider (whichever one it was — I or II?) even though the graphics are superior (but not up to the best of modern-day standards — Ico is a few years old, now). Another slight niggle is the automatic camera, which very occasionally gives you an awkward view of a puzzle you might solve a lot easier with a different angle. Aside from that, it’s one of the best games I’ve played in ages — and another of its virtues is it’s not monumentally long, meaning that (unlike some Japanese role-playing games, for instance — Final Fantasy VIII and IX excepted) it doesn’t outstay its welcome, and actually leaves you wanting to play it again. (Playing it for a second time, Princess Yorda’s peculiar twitterings are translated.)

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