Video Game: ICO

Sit back, relax, and enjoy the Scenery Porn.

ICO is an Action Adventure PS2 game designed and directed by Fumito Ueda, who wanted to create a minimalist game around a "boy meets girl" concept. It is the first game in the Team Ico Series.

The team employed a "subtracting design" approach to reduce elements of gameplay that interfered with the game's setting and story, in order to create a high level of immersion. This means that the gameplay is realistic, with actions such as climbing, hitting things and making difficult jumps being limited to what a child would actually be capable of.

The titular Ico is a young boy born with horns on his head, which his village considers a bad omen. Warriors lock Ico away in a sealed coffin within an abandoned castle. He escapes by chance, and while exploring his prison, Ico encounters Yorda, a mysterious young princess who speaks a strange language.

The goal of the game is to escape the castle with Yorda. While she is physically weak, locked doors in the castle open when she gets close enough, making her a living skeleton key. Her presence is also necessary to save the game, and some pressure plate puzzles require Yorda to open doors for Ico. This is where her utility ends, however: Yorda is unable to climb chains, lift, or fight anything, leaving the work involving dexterity or pointed sticks to Ico, who tries his best to keep her alive. Escaping the castle is complicated by the shadow creatures sent by the evil Queen, Yorda's mother. These creatures attempt to drag Yorda into their shadowy spawn points if Ico leaves her for any length of time, or if she just happens to enter basically any area of the castle, presumably because she was born unlucky. Ico can prevent this by beating the shadows with a stick or sword, and can also pull Yorda free if she is drawn into a vortex. While the shadow creatures cannot harm Ico, they can impede him in his attempt to keep Yorda from being taken away. The game practically revolves around the fact that she's a burden — on purpose, as the emotional bond that the gamer develops with Yorda grows and evolves over time because of this.

Shadow of the Colossus is both prequel and spiritual successor to ICO, sharing a similar aesthetic approach, although the two games are both standalone.

A novelization of the game, Ico: Castle in the Mist by Miyuki Miyabe, was released in Japan in 2004, with an English translation by Alexander O Smith released in 2011. The original creator does not recognize it as canonical, but then again, he doesn't recognise his own interpretation as canonical, either - he encourages each player to come up with their own stories about what exactly is going on and how the game does or doesn't relate to Shadow of the Colossus.

Note that the game's title is always written in capital letters, but the character's name is not. Also, it is spelt "IKO" in katakana, and thus pronounced "ee-ko", not "ai-ko". (Although many Anglophone people still say it like that anyway.)

This game provides examples of:

  • American Kirby Is Hardcore: The European and Japanese cover was inspired by the surrealist art of Giorgio de Chirico, with Ueda painting his own take for the game, and expressed the loneliness of the setting and the importance of the companionship. The North American cover, on the other hand, features generic shots of a Race Lifted Ico, Yorda, and a windmill, and lacks any emotional depth (though it does show Ico looking about as bad-ass as one can with a wooden sword). The NA cover was so famous for being bad that its badness gained an acknowledgment in some interviews with staff in the PS3 re-release. The only reason this cover was used in North America was due to its fixed release deadline; Ueda wasn't able to provide the more abstract cover in time for release.
  • Artificial Brilliance: Unusual for a Distressed Damsel or an Escort Mission game, Yorda hints at puzzle advancement by pointing to the place or object of interest and saying Ico's name (though this was left out of the original NTSC version). It varies depending on the location-level: On the windmill, she walks right to the place that you can climb and points at it, while in the cemetery she points at the cube on high grounds that you need so both Yorda and Ico can pass the gate. Furthermore, Yorda sometimes walks around and looks for a way before she points to the object/area of interest, giving the impression that she's helping you look for a way out. In some occasions (like the first level that introduced the stick-lighting mechanic) if you call to her while she's away, Yorda will face (even run) at the direction of where you need to go instead of trying to get to you. Just as how Yorda trusts Ico to navigate her around the castle, you can trust Yorda to find what you need to advance the navigation. It's the biggest reason as to why their bond is as endearing as the fans remember it to be.
  • Artificial Stupidity: Though not as bad as many other examples of lackluster AI, Yorda needs to be led by the hand very often in the original NTSC release, otherwise she will tend to just stand still — even if shadow monsters are actively approaching.
    • Another case happens in other versions: sometimes, when going down a long ladder, just before touching the ground, she will stop and go back up, for no reason. Especially annoying because you have to wait for her to arrive at the top and to come down again; and she's painfully slow when climbing ladders.
  • As Long as It Sounds Foreign: Both Ico and Yorda speak rather elegantly creator-designed gibberish; Ico's sounds vaguely Korean-based, and is subtitled in the player's language. Yorda's language sounds just a bit like French (and is subtitled in nonsense glyphs that call to mind Central American indigenous art) but is in fact mostly "translated" from Japanese by writing the words in English letters, then spelt backwards, then tweaked.
  • Award Bait Song: You Were There.
  • Backtracking: A variant in the level "Symmetry (pt. 2)". It's technically a new area, but is in fact just the previous level "Symmetry (pt. 1)" flipped symmetrically, and requires the player to complete essentially the exact same series of puzzles from that level all over again.
  • Benevolent Architecture / Malevolent Architecture: The Sands of Time trilogy took inspiration from the Benevolent Architecture aspect, and it shows. But on the other hand, one can wonder why such a ridiculously complex and difficult to access mechanism is needed to open a door (a huge one, but still)…
  • BFS: The Queen's sword
  • Bigger Stick: Ico doesn't power up, he just finds better things to smack monsters with.
  • Boss Arena Idiocy: The Queen is probably regretting those lovely decorative pillars she put up in her throne room.
  • Boss Battle: A rare case where there is only one boss in the entire game.
  • Boy Meets Girl
  • Broken Angel
  • Broken Bridge: The bridge breaks while Ico and Yorda are trying to make use of it (rather than being broken before they get there), but the result ends up being the same.
  • Camera Screw: Awkward camera positioning sometimes lends a frisson of Fake Difficulty to some of the platforming sequences.
  • Cave Behind the Falls
  • Check Point Starvation: There are no Save Points in the last segment of the game, which contains some difficult jumping puzzles and few checkpoints. Just hope it's not dinner time when you arrive at the final battle.
  • Cherubic Choir: "You Were There", the closing song of ICO, sung by the then Libera boy chorister Steven theGeraghty.
  • Christmas Rushed: Arguably the reason why the NTSC version is stripped down compared to the PAL and Japanese versions of the game. This was corrected in the re-release.
  • Chunky Salsa Rule: Getting punched around by shadows or falling off medium-height ledges only stuns the player. Falls higher than three stories and certain magical effects are an instant Game Over.
  • Cinematic Platform Game
  • Con Lang
  • Controllable Helplessness: A variation, considering that until a second playthrough when another player can control her, Yorda is effectively controlled by the player as Ico leading her by the hand, but when the two have reactivated the main gate and Yorda has used a HUGE amount of her power opening it, the player will notice that her hair has lost its color and is completely white. When you take her hand and resume leading her around, every few meters she'll collapse with exhaustion. There's nothing you can do to help her but keep trying to lead her forward until the cutscene triggers — which makes it even worse.
  • Cut-and-Paste Environments: "Symmetry (pt. 1)" and "Symmetry (pt. 2)" are the exact same level, just flipped symmetrically.
  • Cute Ghost Girl: Yorda is about as close to a ghost as you can get without actually being one.
  • Damsel in Distress: Yorda is one of the purest examples of this trope in the medium: completely incompetent and utterly defenceless, requiring Ico to protect her at every turn.
  • Determinator: Ico will do absolutely anything to escape from the castle with Yorda in tow, including jumping over a gigantic chasm as the front bridge quickly retracts.
  • Difficulty By Region: The North American version is considerably easier than other versions. A few puzzles have the tricky bits cut out, and enemies are slower and less aggressive.
  • Does Not Like Shoes: Yorda is never seen having shoes on.
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?: The bonus lightsaber weapon (previously only available in the Japanese/PAL release) only works by holding Yorda's hand, causing the ''blade to grow''.
  • Escort Mission: Almost the entire game is one big escort mission. The developers put in a massive amount of effort to avoid the more annoying elements of the trope and play to its strengths. Yorda doesn't do anything infuriatingly stupid (supposedly, anyway), she unlocks doors (with the added bonus blowing up any nearby monsters real good in the process), and her relationship with Ico is so endearing that you actually WANT to protect her (see the Videogame Caring Potential examples below). Which isn't to say the developers don't use all the other infuriating elements of the trope in full force: she's completely defenceless, can't access the same areas Ico can and moves incredibly slowly, the result being that a not-insignificant part of the game is running back to areas already covered to make her come with you, or patiently waiting at the top of a ladder for her to ascend.
  • Even the Subtitler Is Stumped: Both Ico and Yorda speak in some sort of Con Lang, but only Ico's dialogue has proper subtitles. Yorda's speech is rendered into what looks like hieroglyphs to emphasize that whatever language she's speaking, it's completely alien to Ico. (In non-NTSC versions of the game, Yorda's speech is rendered in English subtitles in New Game+.)
  • Fake Longevity: One of the main criticisms of the game was its brief running time, and it still pulls this trope:
    • The aptly titled chapters "Symmetry (pt. 1)" and "Symmetry (pt. 2)" require the player to solve essentially the exact same lengthy, time-consuming series of puzzles twice, except with the level design flipped symmetrically. Naturally, the second time around is pure padding.
    • The player will spend an unconscionably long time simply waiting for Yorda to catch up to Ico. In particularly, the amount of time she spends climbing ladders beggars belief. For this reason, the final chapter of the game in which the two are separated feels incredibly fast-paced by comparison.
  • Fallen Princess
  • Fantasy Counterpart Culture: Ico was designed to look and sound Korean, which is strange, considering most of the setting appears nonspecifically European. This may be meant to emphasize the fact he's an outcast.
  • Finger Twitching Revival
  • First Blood: Ico loses one of his horns at the start of his final battle with the Queen, resulting in a gout of red blood spurting from his head. He loses the other at the conclusion of the fight.
  • Go Back to the Source / Where It All Began: The end of the game makes you go back to the place where Ico freed himself and met Yorda.
  • God Save Us from the Queen!
  • Grand Theft Me: The reason the Queen keeps Yorda around is to get her new body and presumably continue to Body Surf.
  • Haunted Castle
  • Hit Points: Averted; Ico can't actually be killed by the shadow monsters' attacks, all they can do is delay him while another one attempts to take Yorda back through a shadow portal.
  • Holding Hands
  • Horned Humanoid
  • HUD: Averted; there is no inventory or health meter or anything, so no heads-up display.
  • Human Sacrifice: Ico is intended to be one before he escapes, and he guesses Yorda was as well when they meet.
  • Implied Love Interest: A lot of people see Ico and Yorda's relationship ending up like this.
  • Infinity+1 Sword: Lightsaber (but not in the North America release!)
  • It's Up to You: Yorda's no use in a fight, and there aren't any other playable characters, so good luck, Ico.
    • Or so you think. Using Yorda as a stalking horse is one of the most effective tactics in the game. When Yorda opens an idol gate, all shadows present get zapped.
    • In the PAL release, Yorda is a playable character in a second playthrough.
  • Jump Physics: Averted, Ico can't jump particularly high, he is just very scrappy.
    • Some fun can be had with the PAL version regarding this trope. There's a puzzle where Ico needs to jump up to a very high ledge and, well, the jump is pretty sweet.
  • Kid Hero
  • Language Barrier: Ico and Yorda speak different languages, and cannot understand each other. The Queen can speak both languages, but doesn't ever act as a translator. To keep the player in the dark as well, Ico's language is subtitled, but Yorda's is written in strange hieroglyphs (except for New Game+, see below).
  • Living Shadow
  • Minimalism
  • Minimalist Cast: Ico, Yorda and the Queen are the only main characters.
  • Multi-Mook Melee: Subverted in a way that suits the game at the end: you will start fighting these hordes of shadows, trying to keep them away from Yorda… before realizing they don't even try to attack you. Add to this a magnificent Soundtrack Dissonance, and this scene really makes you feel uneasy.
  • Mysterious Waif
  • Never Split the Party: Wander away from Yorda at your peril.
  • New Game+: Except for the original NTSC (US) version, after completing the game you can enable translated subtitles for Yorda's speech, and have a second player control Yorda directly.
  • Nonstandard Game Over: There are roughly two ways to get a game over here — fall from a great height (in one instance, you fall for quite some time before the Game Over appears), or if the shadow monsters successfully capture Yorda.
  • Now Let Me Carry You: See Crowning Moment of Heartwarming above.
  • One-Hit Kill: That lightning sword you saw soldiers use in the opening cinematics? It dispatches shadow monsters instantly.
  • Panty Shot: In this video.
  • Playable Epilogue
  • The Power of Blood: Type O. In the climax, Ico's horns are snapped off, and he bleeds pretty well from the wounds. Comes like a punch to the gut after a game full of nothing but intangible shadow people.
  • Recurring Riff: The few notes when Yorda steps out of her cage can be heard in several other tracks, including the ending song (if you listen closely) and Castle In The Mist.
  • Scenery Porn: A good deal of it is architecture porn, to be more precise.
  • Schizo Tech: The castle incorporates a number of divergent technologies in its construction. On its own, the place seems to be your standard medieval-esque castle, but several areas incorporate metal scaffolds, pipes, mine carts, and even elevators into their decor.
  • Sequence Breaking: A jumping glitch in the PS2 PAL version can be used to skip roughly 50% of the game. See Speed Run below.
  • Shout-Out: The original cover is painted in the style of Giorgio de Chirico, particularly resembling "The Nostalgia of the Infinite".
  • Sleep Cute: It's how you save. Awwwwww.
  • Speed Run: The PS3 Updated Re-release has a trophy for finishing the game in less than 4 hours. And one to finish it in less than two hours
    • The former isn't actually too difficult — many first-time players will need little more than 5 hours to beat the game. Two hours is another story, but a glitch in the original PAL version's Jump Physics made doing a run in under one hour possible. It has been removed from the Updated Re-release though…
  • Sword of Plot Advancement: Ico eventually finds a sword that opens the doors that only Yorda can previously open. Good thing he didn't find it until after her inevitable kidnapping, otherwise she would have been redundant.
  • Take My Hand
  • Taken for Granite: If Ico fails to save Yorda from a shadow vortex in time, a wave of the Queen's magic flashes out from it, petrifying Ico. Later, the Queen petrifies Yorda after recapturing her at the bridge.
  • The Dev Team Thinks of Everything: When you are running, the controller will begin to vibrate a little to indicate a racing heartbeat.
  • Tiny Guy, Huge Girl: Ico and Yorda.
  • Updated Re-release: Released as The Ico & Shadow of the Colossus Collection, features widescreen HD graphics and a few other goodies. More importantly for North American players, the rerelease has all of the features from the PAL version, finally averting Bad Export for You.
  • Use Your Head: If Ico's unarmed, he'll headbutt the shadow monsters.
  • Videogame Caring Potential: So damn much. You WILL worry about what is happening to Yorda every time she is out of sight.
    • Watching Yorda make those leaps of faith, trusting to Ico to catch and raise her up after jumps she can't possibly reach on her own, well, that kind of childlike trust is very endearing.
    • The first time Yorda goes off on her own, to show Ico the order in which to light the torches in the courtyard, it's a wonderful humanizing moment. It's the first time that she comes across less like luggage and more like a partner. Her autonomous acts here and elsewhere really make the player care about her beyond her role as gameplay mechanic.
  • What Kind of Lame Power Is Heart, Anyway?: So Yorda can open doors in that one castle and maybe also do some specialized magic? That's great and all, but it would have been nice if she had some eldritch way of keeping the shadows from grabbing her.
  • "What Now?" Ending
    • Fumito Ueda stated in an interview "In Japan there's this saying, 'when it ends well everything's well'. My theory was to already in the beginning of the game make the player understand how important the ending would be. Then the player would strive to reach it, it would keep up motivation the game through. Because I believe that the only purpose that games have is to enrich the hard life we live. And that's why ICO got a happy ending."
    • There's an alternate ending that's ever-so-slightly less ambiguous. Fans like considering that as the real ending.
  • Woman in White: Yorda

The novelization provides examples of the following:

  • Adaptation Expansion: Necessary, considering the minimalist nature of the game itself. A good quarter of the novel consists of Ico's life before coming to the Castle as a Sacrifice, and Yorda's time before her imprisonment takes up about half of it. Some things it expands on include: why Ico doesn't have a health bar (Yorda has healing powers which are maintained by physical contact), the world beyond the Castle, why the Queen is a Load-Bearing Boss, the ancestral heritage of the Sacrifices (which was later possibly retconned by Shadow of the Colossus), shows the amount of time that Yorda's been imprisoned, what happened to Yorda and Ico before they met, and the reason the Queen got her powers to begin with.
  • Ancestral Weapon: The Queen's sword.
  • Catch Phrase: Sir Ozuma always responds with either "it is as you say" or "as you say" when confirming something is true.
  • Genius Loci: The eponymous Castle in the Mist. The Queen's spirit is explicitly tied to the Castle, explaining her status as a Load-Bearing Boss.
  • God of Evil: The Dark God, one of many gods in the expanded backstory. The Queen is apparently blessed by it, being born on the day of a solar eclipse.
  • Heroic Lineage: Ico, as well as all the other Sacrifices. Their horns mark them as descendants of a knight who helped Yorda before her imprisonment in the castle.
  • Hoist by His Own Petard: The shadows protect Ico in the final battle with the Queen, allowing him to retrieve his sword when it's blasted away from him.
  • Sealed Evil in a Can: The Queen.
  • Time Stands Still: For the Castle in the Mist. Yorda has been imprisoned for ten to twenty lifetimes, long enough for generations of Sacrifices.

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