On Ico and the lost art of storytelling

Platforms: Sony PlayStation 2 | Sony PlayStation 3

A tear was shed today. The poetic story of the young Ico and Yorda and the emotional hurricane that follows it is one of the most heart rending journeys in art this century. While the game may be blighted with repetitive action, nauseating deaths and obfuscated puzzles the pure feeling that is delivered has rarely been matched in an industry fixated on sequalisation, strap-them-to-their-seats addictive gameplay and commercial success or death. The techniques used in Ico to summon these emotions seemingly fell upon deaf ears, and so, perhaps in a vain attempt to resurrect a lost breed of game, I present to you six styles that Ico taught us about art, and the industry promptly forgot.

1) A Voyage of Self-Discovery

Emotions in art are formed through attachment to a character. One needs to maintain a connection in order to have feeling for them. There are many styles and effects that Ico uses to create and hold this attachment, which will be discussed over the next few sections, but one of the most prominent ideas that is formed from the beginning is self-discovery. The young boy Ico, cursed with horns protruding from his skull, is imprisoned in a immense castle with nothing but his wits to help him escape. The player must learn, along with Ico, how to play the game. Absolutely no external help is given. This breeds a sense of wonder for the player, as they uncover the very basic ideas of the game themselves. How to run, jump, climb, swing or even simply walk must be discovered on one’s own impetus. As the knowledge slowly clicks into place you cannot help but sympathise for the young Ico.

The industry and, I would imagine, a wealth of players may argue that this is confusing, irritating and unnecessary. Admittedly, it is of course extremely frustrating when you find yourself stuck on a puzzle only to discover the solution was simply a lack of knowledge of the character’s basic abilities. A short tutorial would completely solve these problems. I can sympathise with this thought. I screamed absolute murder, followed promptly by an aggressive fist-shaking shut-down of the system when I discovered that the reason I could not solve the problem I had been stuck on for over an hour was simply because I had not realised that Ico could swing on ropes... however I would rather be distraught in such a way than have my connection to a game severed by a garish tutorial that distances the player from the character they control.

2) Lose the Guide

Holding itself hand-in-hand with the sense of wonder created by self-discovery is the game’s complete lack of a user interface. Having a bare screen, showing only the action, is like a blank canvas ready to be imbued with feeling. Displaying, indiscreetly, numbers, statistics or figures splashed all over a screen only serves to distract and distance the player from the character with whom they are trying to empathise. In Ico its absence serves to create an intimacy with the boy, as well as helping build that sense of wonder and intrigue.

Of course this approach would be completely unacceptable for some genres, and this is not a complete condemnation of a GUI in general, however designers need to consider the effect that an interface has on the player. Let us take two recent examples. The Elder Scrolls games often have foreboding interfaces that seem completely at odds with the encapsulating effect that the games are trying to create. In Skyrim it is a momentous scar on the face of the game, ugly, distracting and in many ways broken. Meanwhile the Dead Space series uses the futuristic setting and environment superbly to create a GUI that is placed within the world. The required information is on the screen, but it is disguised and the desperate essence of horror that the series is famous for is maintained. Ico does not need his health measured in units, he does not need to be told which level he is on, he does not own a map that pinpoints his location within the castle.

3) Oh, The Humanity!

Ico is a young, headstrong boy and Yorda is fragile bewildered girl. Just as an actor on stage needs to always needs to stay in character, these two must maintain these qualities if we are to believe in the story. The way the game succeeds in this is almost entirely down to its fantastic animations and realistic gestures. The way Ico flails wildly as he climbs, or Yorda delicately darts across the floor are so wonderfully animated it makes you believe that the characters are human. Combine this with the loving gestures such as hand holding, calling and sitting down at a bench (ingeniously used as an in-obtrusive save game mechanic) and you cannot help but care for these two, and believe in the bond that develops between them.

The gaming industry keeps throwing super-heroes at us. Atair, Ezio, Lara Croft, the many Princes of Persia... the list is virtually endless, and it is very hard for us mere mortals to find any connection to these bastions of humanity. Of course many gamers simply play games to feel like they are super-heroes, and escape the doldrums of life. This is all well and good, but if the industry wants to rise above its low self-esteem in relation to other art forms and create emotionally affecting stories it needs to understand that to invoke feelings in players they need to be able to believe in and understand the characters they control. Ico is one of the few games that has ever managed this. It is for this reason I cried at the melancholic ending, and I didn’t even cry over Bambi.

4) Language is a barrier

Similarly, a player’s bond with a character will shatter if they feel irritated by any small part that just feels wrong. One of the most common causes of this (in all art forms, although it raises its ugly head far more often in video gaming) is poor voice acting and horrendous scripts. One of the most brilliant ideas that Team Ico had when they developed the game was to strip out all recognisable language entirely. The children do not even speak the same language themselves, leaving all the conversation between them as emphatic but incomprehensible yelps and cries. These utterances are believable because they never feel awkward, stilted or out of place. They emphasise that intimate bond that forms between the two central characters. Cleverly at the same time it also reduces the costs associated with localisation and overdubs.

This solution is only acceptable for a very small niche of gaming. It works for Ico because it is essentially an interactive childrens story. However designers of all games need to make themselves aware of how great an effect a script and voice acting can have. Those familiar with the world of Oblivion will know it only takes a matter of minutes before the fantasy illusion is shockingly broken by a strange sense of dejavu as you meet yet another NPC with an identical voice. The industry is of course slowly waking up to this. Larger studios hire consultants and writers from the film industry, with years of experience on how to create the desired emotional effect, as well as top tier actors to perform the scripts. Mass Effect for example is a game virtually built on conversation, and for the most part, it works. We can sympathise with Shephard and his / her team because they are superbly acted by recognisable stars such as Micheal Sheen, Seth Green and Claudia Black. Perhaps this then is a lesson for the smaller teams or indies, lacking the resources required to hire professional voice artists. Think, like Team Ico, outside of the box.

5) Direction

The camera is a powerful tool in telling a story. Different shots can reveal a whole different experience for the same scene. The camera work in Ico is possibly one of the most interesting parts of the game. Instead of floating at some allocated distance from the boy’s head, following his every move in what is coined ‘third-person’, it positions itself in each scene to a shot that portrays what the director wishes the player to experience. If the journey takes Ico outside for example, the shot will pan out to show the large expanse beyond the castle, emphasising the desire to escape. At the same time it allows the game designer to cleverly suggest to the player where they should be proceeding and hint at solutions to problems. The player also has a modicum of control over the camera direction, with the flexibility to turn and zoom to overcome problems such as viewing areas that they wish to jump to, or glancing enemies just out of shot. The combination of directing and player involvement with the camera is incredibly compelling and, when it works, it really helps to drive the story.

Others may argue that the camera is actually one of the games major failings. It is confusing, disorientating and simply serves to obstruct progression. While it may be true that playing the same game in third person would perhaps make it easier and less infuriating, this would miss the whole point. The game is trying to tell an emotional story and the camera is a tool being used by the story teller to elucidate this. With the camera in complete control of the player, as is common in video games, an element of narration is lost. The industry seems to have forgotten this and so there is a complete drought of narrative based games using this technique. If a game is trying to tell an emotionally powerful story then directorial control over the camera is equally as important as the script or voice acting.

6) The power of silence

From the introduction screen which leaves you staring over the castle with only the wind rushing through your ears, it is clear that Ico is different. The silence automatically fills you with a sense of anticipation, and wonder and it is a style that is maintained throughout the entire game. Silence is powerful, it not only plays on the main themes of isolation, desperation and wonder, but it also serves to emphasise the sounds that rise up out of nowhere. The foreboding theme of the enemies, that bubbles up when the shadows appear, instantly becomes more daunting and fearful. The majestical melodies that play during important parts of the plot are more relevant and affecting. Even the dainty voices of Ico and Yorda, or the screams of the wind or the drops of distant water are more powerful because they appear over a backdrop of silence.

The use of silence is a wonderful technique, and one that is rarely seen in gaming world. There seems to be a unspoken rule within the developer’s guild that states that all screen time should be filled with music and sound effects. Each town that a hero visits should have a theme that is constantly blurted out during the duration of their stay, and each battle must be filled with the same repeated song. While these scores of music may well be beautiful and captivating in themselves, without a sense of silence around them it is often the case that they are lost to the tired ear. Consider how powerful and terrifying Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds is, yet there is an almost complete lack of a musical score and the only sounds are used to emphasise key points. This is certainly a lesson that any industry could learn from Ico, and a technique that can be used in virtually all genres of gaming, whether it is to emphasise an emotional scene or simply to add more grit to a fight scene.

Ico succeeds in so many areas. It is certainly one of the most powerful and evocative pieces of work that has clambered out of the gaming genre. I would like to think that it is a tribute to its success that games have not attempted to mimic its style or techniques, however it is more likely that it was simply ignored due to miscomprehension and under-performing sales figures. Perhaps with the recent HD release of the game, and a new generation of players having access to it, we may see some of these ideas being resurrected in the future. And that is something to think about while we sit and wait in anticipation for Team Ico to rebuild their next release - The Last Guardian.

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