Monday, May 30, 2011

Memory Card #2: Team Ico part 1

I wouldn't be very credible as an art and story-centric video game blogger if I didn't mention at least one of Team Ico's games. And considering the release of the HD edition of both their PS2 masterpieces is coming up this year, as well as their newest installment Last Guardian, I thought I should cover another game that has helped shape my perception of storytelling in games. (Sidenote: Since there's much to be discussed about this wonderful game company, this will be the first of a series of articles. This article will focus mostly on Ico, while the next will most likely be more about Shadow of the Colossus)

Much like Prince of Persia (4), Ico didn't receive a very big round of applause from all gamers when it was released, despite it's big ambitions and exquisite art direction. Team Ico have since become a cult-gaming phenomenon known for their minimal, elegant and quiet games. Shadow of Colossus was (in my opinion) Japan's answer to God of War with a character questing vast lands and fighting huge, ancient Colossi for which the game was named after.

I was relatively late in discovering Ico, which is a shame to admit. However, this did not affect my affinity for it in the least. In fact, if anything, it secured its place as a favorite that much more, because it proved that despite its aging, it was a timeless piece of work that only became more poignant with the passing of time.

My family had a copy of Ico laying around that we'd found for very cheap somewhere. I'd tried to start a file in it once back in, oh, 2003 was it? I was still in the early years of high school. Even then, something about the quiet elegance of it's minimalism stirred interest in me. In some ways, it reminded me of the more dark aspects of Ursula K. Le Guin's Earthsea novels. But I hadn't the attention span, or the time between homework assignments (curse you, principles of math!) to sit and play through even the very first of the puzzles.

2009, my family had already played and loved Shadow of the Colossus dearly. Yet, although it was only the spiritual successor to Ico, it felt as though there was a missing piece in Ico that one had to play through to discover. I'd always felt guilty that I had never finished the game and so, I ventured back to the old castle where Ico fatefully met Yorda in search of it.

Team Ico has a knack for creating dream-like worlds that seem to have arisen out of the debris of ancient times. Playing through one of their games feels like witnessing a firsthand account of legendary folklore that has been passed down through the eras. It's like bedtime stories for adults. There's a subtlety to their storytelling that is lost on many. A fine interweaving of shadow and light, much is left up to the player to imagine and ponder upon. Nothing is simply right or wrong in the stories of Ico and Shadow of the Colossus. There's a moral ambiguity which is refreshingly gray.

Another thing that is always astounding and humbling is the vast and monumental scale employed in their environments. Ico set the tone for the company, with it's genuine exploration and desolate locales. It's duality of hopefulness/hopelessness.

The final boss battle against Yorda's mother, The Queen is a wonderful case in point as a friend of mine once mentioned. You're fighting against this large, nameless, menacing entity as a scrawny little boy with horns and a sword that he's lugging around that's the length of his body. You can barely swing the weapon and it keeps getting knocked from Ico's hands as The Queen tries to turn you to stone. Yet no matter how many times you get knocked down, or how many near-misses you get, Ico manages to best the Queen, though still at some cost to himself.

The biggest whoop about Team Ico's games is that they make every part of themselves a work of art. Chief developer Fumito Ueda, even went so far as to reference fine art history with his own painting for the cover art of the Euro-release of the game. The cover looks like this 

And is a sort of tribute to the surrealist painter Giorgio Chirico who painted The Nostalgia Infinite


Fumito Ueda's background in fine art really lends a certain edge to his games. And what's lovely is that he's not afraid to show it. In a gaming market that's 90% about flash and bang, Ueda's understated yet poignant approach is a breath of fresh air. Many key game developers in the industry still draw inspiration from Ico today and it's easy to see why. The game is to its industry what Lawrence of Arabia is to the Hollywood industry. A reference point on how to do an epic game, and how to do it very well. It was the first game to completely envelop the player in it's unique world. A lot of games up until that point were simply about experimenting with the simple Super Mario A-to-B objective. Ico blew that out of the water with a huge, richly imagined, interactive world that could be explored to its limits. Its easy to see how video game developers like Hideo Kojima, Eiji Aonuma and Jordan Mechner would cite Ico as a huge inspiration for games such as Metal Gear Solid, Prince of Persia: Snads of Time and Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess.  In regards to the last, without even having known the creator's intentions it was easy to see the parallels in both design and story, from meeting a ghostly vision of Princess Zelda in an abandoned castle to the way that castle was re-imagined in the Twilight Realm.

Team Ico has made a landmark in the industry and I guarantee that if you appreciate artwork in a videogame that Ico will be a must have/must play on your list.

Let's meet at the next Save Point!

P.S. I may edit this later and add a few points (and more pictures) I may have forgotten. I thought it was about time I stopped messing around with this post and just throw it out there! 

P.P.S. If anyone recognizes images of Ico they might've used on their blog, please notify me and I'll gladly credit you! I was an idiot and forgot to note where I saved the images from.