ICO is an Action AdventurePS2 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. (In other words: realistic gameplay, gorgeous graphics.)The titular protagonist 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 quite weak, locked doors in the castle open when she gets close enough, making her a kind of 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 most of the work involving dexterity or pointed sticks to Ico, not that he seems to mind. 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, and yet, the emotional bond that the gamer develops with Yorda grows and evolves over time.While not commercially successful, ICO is a frequent flier on lists like "100 Best Video Games Ever Made", "Top 25 Most Artistic Video Games", "Top 42 Games that Show that Video Games Don't Have to be Mindless Frag-Fests", etc. This, combined with its minimalist concept and certain visual tropes, has led to it having a surprising amount of influence. The makers of The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, later additions to the Metal Gear series, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, Knytt, and the director of Pan's Labyrinth have all said that they consciously imitated some aspect of its theme, tone, or aesthetic in their works. ICO itself drew much of its influence from Another World, both in gameplay and design, and from the Zelda series, which it then influenced back.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:
All There in the Manual: The novelization explains why Ico doesn't have a health bar: Yorda has healing powers which are maintained by physical contact. It even explains why the Queen is a Load-Bearing Boss, reveals the ancestral heritage of the Sacrifices, shows the amount of time that Yorda's been imprisoned, expands on what happened to Yorda and Ico before they met, and shows the reason the Queen got her powers to begin with. See Adaptation Expansion below for a few of the details.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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+.)
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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 before her imprisonment, as well as elaborating on the world beyond the castle.