Love is a Game: Ico Revisited

Ico is a very good game. It is pretty, it is fun, it has a great (and understated) story and is a true artistic statement — a well realized vision that incorporates its theme in a holistic way, from its aesthetic straight on down to its mechanical structure.

It’s also old (almost 11 years old! A junior high student by now!) and was very difficult to find copies of until this fall when a remastered collection of Ico and its spiritual sucessor, Shadow of the Colossus were re-released as a single, lovely PS3 disc. I’ve just finished playing through Ico again thanks to this collection and was surprised to find that the experience held up as well as it did. Nostalgia has a way of colouring things, after all, and more than a decade of time has passed between playthroughs.

Like any good art, Ico also revealed far more of itself on a second time through than it did at first and the message it evokes struck home far more differently to my 25 year-old self than the 15 year-old version of me. Simply enough, going into Ico knowing what to expect (and having my reading coloured, no doubt, by emotional maturation) transformed the game from a lovably surrealist fairy-tale to a strangely impactful exploration of love.

Life is a labyrinth and navigating it is confusing, dangerous and, often enough, frightening. The two protagonists of Ico, the behorned boy Ico and ghostly , mysterious girl Yorda, are forced by the game to traverse an actual, literal labyrinth. Ico is pretty capable: he can whack things with a stick or sword and is brave (or dumb) enough to long-jump across gaps and climb massive chains. Yorda is less athletic but possesses weird, arcane powers that allow her to manipulate icon-blocking doors or, occasionally, lead Ico over magical stairways that appear from out of thin air.

Apart, they’re screwed. Together, they’re able to overcome the obstacles in their path. Is it too sappy to call this a pretty good allegory for love? I hope not.

It could be a pretty pessimistic view of relationships to define them as forms of mutual dependence but, regardless, it seems pretty fitting. We all enter the world pretty much alone and it’s only the support of our family, friends and romantic partners that distracts us from (or provides comfort in light of) this terrifying fact. It would probably take a psychology degree to go further into that particular can of worms but, if we can accept the premise that love is formed as a kind of makeshift blanket to keep out the existential cold, we can also be pretty hopeful — and thankful — that we humans have this emotion available to us.

Ico has been condemned to death because he was born was horns. His village must sacrifice him. Yorda has been condemned to a kind of “death” because the Queen (Ico‘s antagonist) must take possession of the girl’s body to extend her own life. Basically, both of the game’s main characters are staring their own demise straight in the eye from the opening scenes of Ico clamouring out of a sacrificial container and freeing Yorda from a holding cage. The only way for them to better their situation is to try to escape the Escher-inspired castle they then find themselves in.

I mentioned before that neither Ico or Yorda is able to do this on their own: all they have to continue forward is one another*. This is emphasized by their hand-holding and their give-and-take assistance of helping to climb an obstacle/opening inaccessible passages. That Ico and Yorda can’t communicate with one another makes no difference. They are the archetypal (heteronormative) partners and they can get ideas across to one another by gestures and the utterance of nonsensical phrases (“Oh-pa?”).

They are the moving pieces in a game that says much more about life and love than any other. It’s a universal idea, two people coming together to share their strengths and weaknesses in order to ward off the anxiety of mortality (for another, super-powerful expression read the “dark room” section of Haruki Murakami’s Dance, Dance, Dance) and Ico is an incredible accomplishment for using the mechanical structure of the videogame to portray it so well.

Luckily, it’s also beautiful to look at (few game visuals have aged so gracefully) and extremely fun to play. The strength of its themes and the realization of its developers odd, extraordinary vision is just further justification for Ico’s acclaim.

* Let’s not get into the fact that Ico is more capable than Yorda because it opens a whole other difficult discussion about a possible misogynistic undertones to the game that I’m 99% sure are not intentional. Whether they exist or not is an entire, seperate gamiary/article that falls outside of this one’s scope. I’d rather go with the idea that lead designer Fumito Ueda was once a boy and, so, conceived of his fairy tale style protagonist as a little boy as well.


Reid McCarter is a writer, editor and musician living and working in Toronto. He has written for sites and magazines including Kill Screen, The Escapist and C&G Magazine. He maintains literature and music blog, Sasquatch Radio, and, more importantly, founded, writes and is editor-in-extremis for game site Digital Love Child. His Tweet-fu is strong @reidmccarter.