Part One: Some Explanation and History
Part Two: The Tale Proper
Part Four: Last Words and Acknowledgments
Webmaster's Notes: Resources and Technical Information
ICO fans are few in number not because few liked it but because few tried it. But I am glad that those few have continued to talk about it and kept it from fading. Though neglected it will never quite be forgotten. The thought is not satisfying but it is at least encouraging.
People often use words to describe ICO which they would not use for any other games, perhaps even for those games they like better than ICO. Few ICO fans will go so far as to declare it the best game ever made, but nearly all will agree it is a special experience the likes of which they have not seen elsewhere and do not expect to see again for a long while. The word special is to be stressed--not merely unique, not just odd, but special. I do not want to belabor why it is special; if you agree with me you must already know why, and if you don't I doubt I will be able to explain it to you. The following was written for all those (including myself) who enjoyed ICO a great deal but had trouble making sense of it. I wrote it because on the ICO message board at GameFAQs I saw the same questions come up again and again. I often answered them but rarely liked my own replies. The reason was that the questions were always treated out of context. I tried whenever I could to establish a basic context before replying, and this tended to make my posts rather lengthy. And after a few weeks the posts would be automatically purged from the board, forcing me to repeat myself when similar questions were posed later.
I decided therefore to write an annotation of sorts to the story from the beginning to the end. I posted the first part on the aforementioned board on May 15, 2003 and concluded it on August 25. In March of the following year I compiled the posts, with substantial changes made to some places, into a plain text commentary. Both that commentary and the original message thread are still available in the ICO section of GameFAQs. And now, over two years after the first posting, the work is available in this pleasing new version thanks entirely to Clover's effort.
Let me clarify exactly what I am setting out to do. ICO is at once intriguing and confusing because it insists on holding silence on its own narrative. It shows and suggests enough to convince us that something big is going on but will not tell us what it is. So I propose an exercise: I am going to take a walk through the story and point out noteworthy elements that may help us make sense of what is happening. I will not be a neutral observer; I will advance my thoughts on what I observe. I of course realize that what is sense to me may well be nonsense to you. I make no pretense at authority; you are welcome to disagree with me if you find my reasoning flawed or groundless. Nor do I believe for one moment ICO cannot be enjoyed without some sort of post-mortem examination. If you think an exercise of this sort will only spoil its charm, you should dismiss it.
Allow me also to stipulate what this exercise is not. It is not meant to explain what makes ICO such a fabulous game. I do believe it is wonderful entertainment, but my knowledge about games, electronic or otherwise, is very shallow and I would not consider it my business to debate what makes a game better than another. I will leave that question to real aficionados. My attention is on the story, not the gameplay. Nor am I trying to show why ICO is a great story. Again I do find the story charming, but I assume you and I are agreed on that point and need not argue over it. I am not here interested in how good a story it is. I am only interested in determining what the story is.
As I said these posts were written over three months' time. I have revised them for compilation, but I have left the journal-like expressions ("Last time I said...," "Today I should like us to look at...") unchanged. Each segment will be marked with the date on which it was first posted.
One last thing: when I refer to the game title I will spell it as ICO in capital letters. Ico, on the other hand, refers to the story's hero.
If you wish afterwards to discuss any part of this exercise, find me at the GameFAQs board or e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Let us agree on one thing before we begin. As we move along the story I want us to assume for the talk's sake that we are seeing it unfold for the very first time. That is, I want us to pretend that this is our first run through the game. In fact let us pretend that we have not even read the introduction in the manual. In this exercise all our knowledge about ICO comes from the screen and the screen alone. But if you have not completed the game yet, be kind to yourself and read no more until you have.
(First posted 15 May 2003)
So let us talk about the opening sequence. It is long but like the rest of the game it contains little speech--all seventeen words. The opening still tells us quite a few things.
Because the modern audience is an impatient crowd, opening a story with an unforgettable sequence or paragraph has become rather important. The storyteller wants to make sure as far as he can that once the story begins the audience will feel driven to see it to the end and not get off midway. A stock strategy of ensuring this is to drop the audience in the middle of the action and leave them to figure out what is happening--to forgo introduction and begin the story in the middle. Accordingly ICO plunges into the tale without showing us so much as a title screen.
The narrative opens with a view of a forest--green, lush and warmly lit by the sun, with birds chirping in the trees. It is a beautiful, pristine landscape. As it happens it is the only shot in the entire game wholly free of suspense or melancholy. We are shown next a group of horsemen making their way through the forest. Evidently these are fighting men, wrapped from head to toes in armors. Their beasts are burdened with traveling articles, which tells us the men are on a journey of some distance. From their knightly garbs we may expect a distinctly Medieval flavor in the story that is about to unfold.
Impressive as they are the knights do not command our attention for long. A member of the party stands out like a lamb amongst wolves: a young boy, seated before one of the knights. Next to the ironclad frames of the men the boy is tiny, and conspicuously unarmed. His puny form catches our eyes because his presence in this outfit does not make sense. He is the only anomaly in an otherwise consistent pattern. Had someone asked us a moment ago what we were seeing, we should probably have answered "a party of knights on horseback." Now the answer might be "a little boy in a party of knights on horseback." The child has completely got our attention. And he keeps it through the opening. How could he not, when he is the only one in the company who has a face? The knights are hidden behind iron masks, and barely distinguishable from one another. They are thoroughly anonymous--faceless, nameless, and as we will soon learn, without personalities relevant to the tale. They are instruments, not men; their job is to fulfill a function and make themselves scarce so that the characters that do matter can get on with the story.
Our curiosity turns to alarm once we have observed the boy, which we can hardly help. He raises his hands to wipe his brow in the heat of the sun, and we see that the hands are bound. So he is not here because he wants to be; he is a captive. What is more, he appears to sport a pair of bullhorns on his head. And these appear to be genuine unlike the metal horns adorning some of the men's helmets. Who is this boy who looks harmless enough apart from the oddities poking from his head? And where is he being taken to against his will?
We find the answer soon enough. The forest path terminates and with it the land. The ocean stretches before the party, and jutting from the waters is an island of singular appearance--a colossal column of solid rock. A fortress sits on it half shrouded in the morning mist. It dwarfs the men and the horses and the trees and everything else in sight. The screen fades to the title shot. I should like to place the end of the prologue here.
Next part will treat the other half of the opening. In the meantime I hope I have aroused your interest enough to stay with me the rest of the way. I would also like to mention that I do not intend to go through every puzzle in the game like I did here. That would make this a walkthrough and not a very good one.
(First posted 16 May 2003)
So the knights have brought the horned boy, Ico, to a mysterious offshore fortress. Well, what is the deal with this fortress? We will not know for a good while but the opening affords us a number of things to observe about its mystery.
We left Ico and his captors gazing on the castle from a handsome if somewhat run down stone platform, sporting Greek style colonnades, at the edge of a shoreside cliff. Next we see that same platform from below. The camera traces the cliff down to the sea, where a mean-looking wooden dock extends from the shore. The party, now horseless, crosses the channel to the island on a very small boat. This ought to strike an observant viewer as being rather odd. To explain let me show you some screen shots I have borrowed from Vincent Lam's fine fan page.
You should recognize this shot from the title screen. Near the lower right corner is the portico-like platform we just left behind. Here is another shot of much the same from a frontal view.
This shot presents the castle as Ico and the knights must have seen it from the cliff. In both pictures we can plainly see the front gate, flung wide open. Now why would they not enter through it? Why would they go to the trouble of climbing down the precipice and braving ocean waves on a tiny boat you would not want for a fishing excursion on the village lake? We of course know that the bridge is not yet available. But remember that we are pretending to see all this for the first time without any prior knowledge about ICO. Imagine, in fact, that you are the boy himself who just saw the castle for the first time in his life. Would you not be surprised to see an open gate a hundred yards ahead, only to learn that you are not to enter that way?--that a gate exists but it is useless because there is no way for you or anybody to get to it? That the knights do not have the option of using the main entrance and are forced to use a back door (if you will) informs us that they are treading a territory not their own. They are setting foot on someone else's turf, someone evidently more powerful than they.
Now if you please, take one more look at the images above. Suppose now that a castle just like this one actually existed somewhere. What about it would surprise you the most?
If you have an inkling of what it took to erect a castle a thousand years ago, the most striking thing in these pictures is undoubtedly the geography. People simply did not build a castle that big on that sort of terrain. For starters the island is hundreds of feet tall. It is so steep that climbing it on foot would be a task only for daredevils. Imagine now having to haul many millions of tons of bricks to the top of that island. And there isn't just one island. There are four. I might have fancied the bricks came from the islands, but another look at the castle suggests differently. The structure is so humongous that if it was removed the mass of the islands would shrink by half. It occupies every available square inch of the islands so that there is hardly any surface that is not built on. The islands could not have supplied the needed quantity of materials. They do not even have space enough to allow so massive a construction work. Medieval architects, who had no mechanized cranes to raise stones to great heights, erected the frame for a castle by first mounting up an artificial hill much broader than the finished edifice. That would not be a possibility here.
Now of course this castle is as fictional as the rest of the story. Such a fortress as this does not exist and could not exist. It is quite silly to speculate how a nonexistent building might have been built, since it never was built. I am only trying to impress upon you that, granting for the story's sake that the castle existed, it would have to be a staggering feat of engineering on the par with the pyramids in terms of labor involved. It would leave us wondering who in the world built it. That is if human hands could build something like that at all. But if not human hands then what? Would it be the work of whomever the castle belongs to? If so that person must be, or must have been, a mighty lord indeed.
Let us move on. I said that the castle stands on four islands. Here let me for a moment waive my proposal that we use on-screen information only for our exercise. Below is a map of the castle which shows the layout of the islands.
The islands are arranged in an unnatural symmetry. The tiny strip of land at the bottom is the shore from which the party sets out on the boat. Directly facing the shore is the main keep, and to its left and right are the two buildings that house the "keys" for the gate. The fourth and smallest island is at the top of the map. It is hidden from the view ashore. Later we will see that this island is the heart of the fortress. It is also where our boat is bound. The knights sail halfway round the islands and bring their prisoner to the point farthest from the shore. A cavern opens into the island. Its entrance is marked by rows of immense stone pillars that appear to be rooted in the seabed, another remarkable feat. Some of the pillars are on the verge of collapse. Like from the ruinous stone platform atop the cliff we get a sense that the castle, though majestic, has not been terribly well cared for of late. The lattice barring the cavern is lowered and we are finally inside the island. The party stands directly underneath the castle.
"Get the sword," a knight in a pointy mask--it looks ominously like an executioner's cap--tells another man. The man departs with the order while the rest of the company leave in the opposite direction. So the knights have not brought "the sword" with them, whatever it is. It was already here on the island--whatever it is.
Next we see the knight rejoin the company, having secured the sword. Here another detail ought to strike us as curious, though we only see it briefly. Ico and the men are presumably still in the bowel of the island. But the space surrounding them is not the jagged and coarse interior of a natural cavern. They stand inside a vertical circular vault. And it is gigantic--especially when we consider that it is underground. The island's rocky core has been hollowed out like a macaroni noodle, yet another example of the awesome labor that created the castle. Later we will have a far better opportunity to appreciate the scale of this vault.
The sword is unsheathed before a pair of statues at the center of the vault. An eerie flash crackles and the statues part to reveal a recess. Inside is a sort of elevator which takes the party to the crypt above. Now I admit that I did not like this elevator the first time I saw it. It seemed much too mechanical--much too modern--and seemed out of place in the ancient setting of the castle. I revised my opinion somewhat after completing the game. For now the only thing about the elevator I want to note is the switch that controls it. It is in the form of a glowing character whose meaning escapes us. When thrown off the switch turns to form a different character, causing the platform to rise. What is that about?
The knights have reached their destination: a rounded chamber reminiscent of an arena. Rows of stone caskets are arranged round the arena. One of them gapes open. The men deposit Ico in it and close shut the lid. They bid the child farewell. Their words betray that they do not enjoy what they do. Then they are gone. Ico is left alone inside the casket. We see that strange characters are carved on it. They look much like the ones we saw on the elevator and glow with the same cold blue light. The casket also features two kneeling figures, their hands outstretched to each other. An arrow points from one to the other as though a transfer of some sort is taking place. Make of that what you will, but here I stop. Next time we will look at Ico's first meeting with the princess.
(First posted 18 May 2003)
Ah, Princess Yorda--that enigmatic, aloof, captivating maiden! Some seem to find the passivity of her character frustrating and even infuriating, but apart from her alleged flaws it is rather obvious that any lasting pathos of ICO is to be credited entirely to this soft-spoken damsel. Without her we should have a good-looking puzzle game. With her presence we have got a tale that pulls at our heart long after the puzzles have ceased to amuse. But I am getting ahead of myself. We still have not got Ico out of his prison.
Next follows a brief sequence that may only be described as a dream or a vision. Ico is walking along a spiral path inside a tower. A storm rages outside the windows. He is startled to see something. A dark cage of iron hangs from the ceiling. A mysterious black substance begins to pool at the bottom of the cage, overflowing to drip. From the pool emerges a slender figure--so completely black that it seems a shadow come to life. It sits there limp and unmoving in the cage while the boy watches transfixed. A shadow opens up behind him and swallows him whole. He awakens from the vision on the chamber floor. Things are getting stranger by the minute.
The game is finally in our hands. Before we take leave of the crypt we might as well explore it a bit. The chamber is filled with dozens of sarcophagi like Ico's own. Presumably each one has been the end of an innocent victim. If we were allowed to peek inside we might perhaps glimpse the ghastly remnant of the atrocities that took place therein. Thankfully the game does not go that far. At one end of the crypt is a door of statues just like the one that the knights had opened with the magic sword, but it is inaccessible. So Ico leaves through the door at the opposite end. He passes through a nondescript room adjoining the crypt, and finds himself at the bottom of a very, very tall tower.
The only way out of the tower is, again, a door that requires the magic sword. He does not have the magic sword. He is doomed. But let us examine this door first, since we will be seeing a great many of them soon. It is made of four (usually two) identical statues, each of which contains a smaller statue inside. This latter is in the shape of a crouching horned child who hugs his knees, head buried despairingly in his arms. It bears an eerie resemblance to our boy; it is as if he were himself turned into stone and put inside the door. We are now doubtless that the castle is somehow connected with Ico's horns. With that thought behind us let us climb the tower. After all there is nowhere else we can go.
The tower begins to look familiar as we near the top. We have seen this place in Ico's vision. Does it have the cage hanging from the ceiling also? Sure enough, there it is. Does it likewise have the same black figure within? There we are surprised. Crouching inside the cage is a young girl of almost blinding pallor. Ico calls out to her but she is unresponsive. She looks, in a word, miserable. Before lowering her down to freedom, take a careful look at her posture. It is the mirror image of the horned child inside every statue-door. The only difference is that she has no horns. Meanwhile the view from the terrace by the cage confirms the boy's fear--outside, a blue ocean stretches as far as the eyes can trace, offering no means of escape. If he is to leave the castle his only choice is to find a way back to the shore whence he came.
And so the two children are introduced to each other, after a fashion. Ico does not know it, but she is the only friendly soul he will see in the castle. Who knows?--perhaps she is the only friendly soul he has ever known. It would not surprise us if she is.
I have only a few more things to say on this first meeting. The children speak different languages and are unable to understand each other. From the boy's bumbling attempt at self-introduction we finally gather that he has been brought to the castle as a sacrifice, an evil fate reserved for children with horns. Of the girl's speech all we can discern is that she speaks the language of the castle. We know this because her speech is spelled in characters identical to the inscriptions we have seen on the elevator and on the caskets. The girl must therefore belong to whatever civilization that built the castle. Unlike Ico who was brought in from the outside, she must be from this place originally. Ico does not know this yet but we do. And while we are talking about things he does not know, let us go a little farther. From our second run through the game we understand the girl's speech. Her first words to her rescuer are: "Who are you? How did you get in here?" What do these words tell us about her, if anything at all? Well, they tell us that even though she lives at the castle she is dreadfully uninformed about what goes on in it. She appears to know nothing about the horned children and the practice of sacrificing them. Keep this in mind because this ignorance of hers will be important later as we try to understand what she is about.
The maiden displays touchingly guileless curiosity about her liberator, but the moment is cut short by the sudden appearance of a hideous demon. This newcomer looks rather like the entity from Ico's dream; it too is wholly black and rises out of nowhere. It seems to have one aim in mind: claiming the girl. Ico will not have that, so the liberator becomes the protector. He decides to get himself and his newfound companion out of this terrible place. His altruism yields an unexpected benefit: the girl can open the statue-doors. In a heartbeat she goes from a tagalong to an indispensable ally. Curiously enough she seems surprised by her own ability. (At least that is what I think; you can observe her open the door for the first time and judge for yourself.) How does she do this? We will have a fairly convincing answer eventually, but for now let us concentrate on the obvious. If the magic sword can open the doors, and the girl can open the doors, then the likeliest explanation is that the two of them share a certain pertinent property. Let us leave it at that for the time being.
With the aid of the girl's power Ico leaves the northern island. The pair now faces the main keep where the bulk of their adventure and toil will take place. The demons lurk everywhere. They only want the girl, but they will fight Ico if he proves a hindrance. And that brings this section to a close. To review what we know so far regarding the mysterious beauty: (1) she seems to have a bearing on the vision Ico had; (2) she has been imprisoned for some time; (3) she speaks the language of the castle; (4) she is in danger of being captured by shadowy demons; and (5) she shares the magic sword's ability to open the statue-doors. To this we may tentatively add: (6) she seems to be rather ignorant of the goings-on at the castle and (7) she seems at least amenable to the idea of escape since she cooperates with the boy's lead. To all these we shall return as more information becomes available.
Next time we will shift our attention to the castle and try to clarify the puzzles' relevance to the narrative--if they have any.
(First posted 20 May 2003)
I said at the beginning that gameplay falls outside the scope of this exercise. I think I have made an unreasonable claim. ICO's story takes some hours to unfold, and we spend the majority of those hours solving puzzles. If I am to talk about those puzzles at any length I will after all have to treat gameplay even if I do not call it by that name. (I admit I am not very comfortable with the term; it is not in any dictionary, and I hesitate to make use of a word I could not define.) Let me say again that I make no pretense at anything like expert knowledge about games. Common sense is all I have got to guide myself on the subject. Please bear with me.
Having played through the game you know that everything I have talked about thus far is only the introductory stage of the game. We are barely past the opening scenes. Ico and the girl have only just now met. That is not to say that we have not learned quite a lot of information already, because we have. But all we really have done so far is watching, not playing. And a game is supposed to be played. In that sense the game has hardly begun. For we have only solved the first and the simplest of the puzzles. There are many more challenging puzzles to come. And the puzzles are the substance of this game, are they not? Of course they are. If we had no puzzles we should have no game. The puzzles must therefore be the one absolutely indispensable part of the game. And if they are the one absolutely indispensable part, they must be the most important part. That is true to logic, isn't it?
Clearly I do not believe so. I will explain why not. Without a doubt the puzzles are the most prominent feature of the gameplay. Yet most ICO fans seem convinced that the puzzles are not its real stock. If you are inclined to disagree, recall some praises you have heard people say about the game. Are they chiefly about the enjoyableness of the puzzles? Or are they about something else entirely?
It is a rather obvious question. People mention things like "awe-inspiring visuals," "heartwarming tale," "art" and "beauty" and what not. But some would say all these fine qualities are nonessentials to a game. Pac-Man may lack them, but that does not keep it from being a classic game. So one could argue ICO is a beautiful tale but an impoverished game. For there is exactly one way for us to complete the game. And once we have completed it, the element of challenge is all but gone. Puzzles we know the answers to are no longer puzzles. No wonder so many deem ICO worth no more than a rental. But we ICO fans are strange. We insist that ICO is not only competent but positively amazing. Can we justify that claim?
Now I already said this exercise is not about how good a game ICO is, and I stand by my word. But I think I do need to say something about how the game works its magic on us if the next segments are to make any sense to you. (As to how well it works, I will leave to you to decide.) Recently I exchanged some e-mails with a very devoted fan of ICO. He loves it so much that he has written a fifty-page essay on it. He surprised me by saying that he had not played it in months. He said that the experience feels more real when he seldom plays it. About then I was similarly surprised to hear another veteran say on this board that she was only then playing through the game for the second time; I know how she adores it. But I really should not have been surprised. I have myself played the game to completion just three times. Now we have got a bit of a paradox here. Here we are, three diehard admirers of the game who confess it to be their all-time favorite--and we hardly play it at all! A paradox is calling it politely. Either we are lying when we say ICO is our favorite game, or we have deluded ourselves that we like it more than we actually do. Isn't that right? No? Well, why not?
At first glance it seems perfectly reasonable that we should spend the most time on the games we enjoy the most. But it seems to me that people have been conditioned to think this way ever since they popped their first quarters into an arcade machine long before video games were a part of the home entertainment system. If you were a good gamer you got your quarter's worth of time and then some. If not you needed lots of quarters or you would not be playing very long. An idea took shape that in video gaming you invested money to be rewarded in time. That idea has stayed through the years. I think that is what the so-called replay value is about. It stems from the notion that a game's function is first and foremost to help us pass time. And though we may not have to pop quarters in every ten minutes anymore, we do have to pay hefty amounts for the system and the software. Economics cannot help but remain a factor especially given the age bracket most gamers fall into. But in the end that is all it is: economics. You may very well play through ICO just once a year. That is a sound financial reason not to purchase the game. It is not a sound reason to detract from its intrinsic worth. It does not keep ICO from being someone's fondest and fullest memory of a game.
Speaking of intrinsic worth, let us return to it. I apologize for digressing, but I felt it was necessary before we could place the puzzles in the proper context. I do not want anyone to suppose that I think the puzzles unimportant. On the contrary I think they are the muscles of the game. What I want to emphasize is that these muscles are meant to do two distinct sets of work. The first and more obvious set is of the conventional sort, which applies to any puzzles. We solve them because they are fun and because they help us pass time pleasantly. But is that all the puzzles do in ICO? I must say no. I have already given my reason: a puzzle is no longer a puzzle once it is solved. And since every task in ICO has exactly one prescribed solution, it is pointless to go back and try to work it out differently. By this logic ICO's puzzles ought to lose all capacity to entertain once the game has been completed. But at least for me that is hardly the case. That I have exhausted all technical possibilities in the game but my thought continues to dwell on it and be fascinated by it, tells me that its real strength is not in puzzle solving. Depending on our approach the experience can retain a great deal of their potency. That is where the second set of work, the narrative work, comes in.
And that is what I will be back with.
(First posted 27 May 2003)
It would be a mistake to think ICO is neatly divided between the story and the puzzles--that the cinematic interludes take care of storytelling while the puzzles pad out the spaces between. I suppose the puzzles could be enjoyed more or less on their own. But the narrative would collapse without the puzzles. This is because the puzzles are only parts of the whole, whereas the narrative is the whole. Now the term narrative can be--ought not to be, but can be--misleading since it hints at something spoken or written, and ICO is almost entirely nonverbal outside the interludes. But we have all heard that a picture tells a thousand words. Where they are sparing in words the scenes and the actions are rich in other kinds of information.
But a word before we go into that. The next three segments are concerned with everything between the pair's meeting and the first appearance of the villain. On that note I may have oversimplified the matter when I so stressed the puzzles in my last ramble, since the gameplay contains a good many things besides puzzle solving. But for the talk's sake let us agree that by puzzles we mean everything the children must do in their quest for freedom, outside the interludes--in other words every action which is left to our control.
Now I cannot take the puzzles apart the way I have done the opening because they do not have plot elements except one: they show us that the children are progressing from one part of the castle to the next. Therefore the narrative functions of any one puzzle are much the same as all the rest. (Does that mean if we have seen one we have seen all? No; there is such a thing as cumulative effect.) For our purposes it would be pointless to look at each puzzle in depth. So I am only going to articulate a few statements that apply to all the puzzles in their narrative capacity. These are:
1. THE CASTLE IS HOSTILE GROUND.
I imagine some of you would like to expand these. Someone pointed out after reading the last section, for instance, that the puzzles help us immerse ourselves in the environment. He was very right. But since this is more an aesthetic quality than a narrative tool I have here left it out. I will however mention it briefly when I talk about the second statement. Let us then look at each of the statements. Today we will consider only the first of the three.
1. THE CASTLE IS HOSTILE GROUND.
Once the pair starts exploring the castle in earnest we learn that the place is not merely unfriendly or indifferent; it is hostile. I am not here thinking of the lurking black wraiths, though they are certainly a part of it. I am thinking of the fortress itself. After all what is this fortress to the children? For her it is a prison. For him it was very nearly his tomb, and may still be that if he is not careful. For both it is the chief obstruction that stands in the way of their object--freedom. It is the cause of their suffering; it represents everything they must overcome.
People erect buildings in order to domesticate the environment--to make a domain of comfort and convenience out of an uncomfortable, inconvenient wilderness. But this castle almost seems to exist to make life miserable. Instead of putting things within easy reach it hides them from you and makes you work to find them. It makes you circle a building three times at three different levels just to get to the roof. It is full of high places from which you could easily fall to your death, made doubly dangerous since the place is falling apart everywhere. On top of that it will not let you go through a door unless by some cryptic reason it deems you fit to pass. It would be a nice place to live if you had wings and could walk through walls--a splendid dwelling for fairies but hardly habitable for mortals. The set-up smacks of a maze created to confound.
You might say "Well, of course it was created to confound. This is a puzzle game, for crying out loud." I realize that. I am only saying that the castle's labyrinthine character has something to contribute to the story as well as to the game. That is, given the story's premise it makes good sense that the castle should be so full of riddles. What is the story's premise? Well, a pair of children want to run away from a big, mysterious and frightening place. And the big, mysterious and frightening place doesn't want to let them get away. It is determined to block them, to frustrate them and to slow them down. To move through the castle the children must outwit it-- must meet and prevail against every challenge this dangerous maze throws at them. But wait a moment here. "Outwitting" the castle almost sounds as if we were treating it as a person. In fact it very much sounds like the castle has assumed an adversarial role against the children. And it has. The real antagonist of the story, the foe Ico and the girl must fight more than any other, is the very prison whose ground they tread. Every scene in ICO is a silent reminder of that. We are always looking at the young heroes at a distance so that the castle rises colossal and dominating in all directions around them--breathing down on them, making them appear in comparison utterly puny and utterly lost. Now, we may marvel at the castle for its sheer magnificence. But that is mostly because we are not in Ico's shoes. None of us would in reality enjoy being trapped inside a deserted citadel in the middle of nowhere. We can afford to be delighted because for us this is mere entertainment. For him it is a matter of life and death. When he looks around he does not see the enchantingly beautiful edifice we do. He sees the bane of his existence which at any moment may prove his doom. There he is never assured of surviving another hour. Delighted is the last thing he is.
There are many terrors in life, but the terror of being lost is surely the greatest--alongside its twin, the terror of being alone. The fear the castle arouses is of a subtle and pervasive sort. It rarely jumps you from behind. Rather it is always before you and around you, daring you to ignore it. To be sure there is great serenity throughout the castle. But anyone who has been lost in a quiet, deserted place knows that serenity is no equal of peace. There is no peace in this place, only desolation. And mute malice. For we sense that there must be a malicious mind behind the malicious plan. Every painting has a painter behind it and every book an author. Someone arranged this mystery for a purpose less than innocent. As yet we do not know who that someone is and what purpose. We do know that until we have left this castle behind we shall not be relieved of the dread.
Here I stop. I will be back with thoughts on the second statement.
(First posted 11 June 2003)
2. THE CHILDREN MUST EXPLORE THE CASTLE.
I had to scrap the first draft of this section because while I was mulling over the castle's role I got too deep into gameplay and lost sight of the narrative. Then I lost the second draft also when my laptop got stolen along with all the writing in it. More to set my own thoughts straight in all the rewriting confusion than anything else I should like to begin with some very basic considerations. I think I set down pretty clearly last time that the castle is exceedingly important. Very well, it is important. But how precisely is it important to the story--rather than to the gameplay or the sheer visual artistry?
To answer that I want to consider briefly what a story is. It is a popular mistake to confuse a "story" with "fiction." The two are not synonymous. For instance if I said "There is water on the moon" that would be fiction insofar as I made it up, but it would hardly qualify as a story. On the other hand a biography of Abraham Lincoln would not and ought not to be fiction, but it would certainly be a story. Similarly when I say "This is a story of my life" I do not mean "This is a story which I made up about myself." I mean "This is how my life unfolded and became what it is now." To tell a story therefore means to give an account of something, whether true or imaginary. The act of giving an account usually requires that we keep track of three things. These are characters, setting, and conflict.
Characters are a set of actors, who need not be people necessarily, that we see more or less from the beginning to the conclusion of the story. Setting refers to the sum total of circumstances under which the characters operate--the times, the places, the conditions. The last ingredient, conflict, is anything which drives the characters to abandon inactivity and do one thing or another. Examples of conflict in fiction may include outright fighting or competition, solving a murder mystery, falling in love, or a Coke bottle dropping out of the sky. A biography of Lincoln is a story since it has all three ingredients. The gibberish about there being water on the moon is just that--gibberish.
Let me see how the castle fits into this scheme. I immediately recognize it as the key element of the setting since it provides the environment for the story. But it is also the apparent source of the conflict; the children want freedom, and the castle keeps it from them. And since the castle is the greatest obstacle in the children's quest, it is not a mere arena in which to confront the enemy: it is the enemy. It thus behaves almost like a character also, and a crucially important character at that. The puzzles are its means of keeping the children imprisoned. That is why I said the narrative would collapse without the puzzles. They are the substance of the main conflict in the story. And a story without conflict is like pea soup without peas. It is gibberish.
I think I am ready now to take up the second statement, which states that the children must explore the castle. In place of "explore" we might substitute "deal with" or "overcome." The children must deal with the castle if they are to be successful. They must overcome its cunning with their own. But I used "explore" because that word has implications which the others do not. To explore a place is more than simply to visit it. You may visit Grand Canyon as a tourist, but until you have invested time and risked bodily harm to wrestle with its wilderness you cannot say you have explored it. Similarly it would be ludicrous for someone to boast of having explored the canyon when in fact he has only dealt with a negligible fraction of its vastness. Claims like that belong to committed folk whose scope of exploration extends far beyond popular hiking courses. Now the children must explore the castle in that sense. They must; they have no choice about it. One might explore some great wonder because he wants to learn, because he is curious, or because he wants excitement. Our young heroes do not want to learn about the castle, they are not curious about it, and they are most certainly not looking for excitement. What they want is to get out of it as fast as they can. They do not want anything to do with this dreadful place, do not want to stay in it one second longer than they have to. They are on the run for their lives. Sightseeing is the least of their priorities.
Let us imagine ourselves now in the children's place. Suppose we really were trying to escape from a ghoul-infested castle. Suppose we just entered a courtyard. We are surrounded on all sides by beautiful and wondrous sights. Should we take a moment to explore and enjoy? Not unless we are very dumb. We see an exit in plain view. We should make a beeline for it. But we cannot. The pathway is blocked. We must find a way around the obstruction. We have no choice but to explore. That is, we are forced to investigate places we would rather bypass and fiddle with contraptions we would rather let alone. We want the quickest shortcut out of here--but what we are offered instead is an endless string of detours within detours. That is what the puzzles amount to: an elaborate, grueling succession of detours which will eventually take the children through each and every area within the castle walls. They could not care less about seeing each and every area. They want a shortcut direct to the exit and to freedom. There isn't one. If there were, the children would be happy but the story would lose its conflict. It would lose its peas--lose its taste and become insipid and uninteresting. The poor youngsters have got to do things the hard way, and all for our enjoyment's sake. This sentiment is at the heart of every adventure ever written.
At this point let me bring in a previous poster's comment as I promised I would. I mean about the puzzles helping us immerse ourselves in the environment. How do you suppose they do that? Well, I said already that the children want as little to do with their prison as possible. But the puzzles require that they become intimately acquainted with it whether they like it or not. Let me use the illustration of Grand Canyon once more. Millions visit that national park every year. Most of them go no farther than contemplating its majesty from a safe distance, much like enjoying the ocean from the beach. But if you wanted to immerse yourself in it, if you truly wanted it to come alive, you would not be satisfied with that. You would venture into the canyon and put your hands and feet, not just your eyes, into the experience. You would want to cover as much ground as possible so that you would be able to appreciate the canyon from on high, from deep below, from the east, from the west, from within, from the extremities, at dawn, at midday, at sunset. Now this is just what the puzzles make us do. They make us encounter the castle from all points. And we have to do this every time we play through the game; we cannot say "Oh, I already know what that place looks like, so I won't bother to go that way this time." The game will not allow us to complete it until we have turned the castle inside out.
I spent four years at the university where I graduated not long ago. You would think I am thoroughly familiar with the campus of my own alma mater. But in truth there are facilities there I would not be able to give you directions to because I never had the occasions to make use of them. If you asked me what our business school building looks like inside you would only get a blank stare from me. In four years I was never in it. I would bet most people have similar memories. That is, they develop a routine and as a result remain surprisingly ignorant about some fixtures in their lives. They may only frequent certain parts of their hometown so that they feel like strangers in a foreign country when they venture beyond them. Or, when asked the name of the middle school they have driven by every day for ten years, they may realize with a start that they never learned it. You get the idea. But the castle is an entirely different story. I have spent only a few hours "inside" it. Yet its memory is vividness itself. I know it like the back of my hand. How is that? Well, I have been everywhere in it. I have been to, and have had to contend with, every chamber, tower, bridge, courtyard and weather-beaten cliff. I left no stone unturned. The game would not let me proceed otherwise.
And leaving no stone unturned is just what the puzzles are about. They demand that we experience the castle to the fullest. There is exactly one spot we wish to be, but to get there we must pass through every other spot in the whole godforsaken fortress. This is true in our first run through the game and in our seventh. There is never any shortcut. That we already know the solutions to the puzzles does not shorten the distance we must cover. In this the castle differs from a typical maze. In most mazes there is one correct path and ninety-nine false paths. But in ICO there is to begin with a single excruciatingly long-winded path and no other. In this way solving ICO's puzzles is less like answering riddles and more like climbing a steep slope or crossing a deep canyon. No one solves the same crossword puzzle twice for the fun of it. But there is plenty sense in revisiting a summit one has already conquered, and in fact many climbers do just that.
You may think I am putting you on. Playing a video game is of course quite unlike climbing a mountain. We do not exert our limbs or risk our lives when we play a video game. It is Ico rather who exerts his limbs and risks his life. And we imagine that for him the labor and danger are very much real. We make the same concession whenever we read a book or watch a film. We know perfectly well that we are ourselves in no danger of falling as we watch James Stewart hang on for his life in VERTIGO. But we do imagine that the danger is real for his character, or the scene would lose all suspense. Now if we have seen the film before, we know how it ends. But while that reduces the suspense greatly it does not destroy it altogether; we know what happens but we still watch it with interest. Something similar is at work when I play ICO. The puzzles are at best minimally entertaining now since I have solved them before. But the impact of watching those two youngsters struggle against the pitiless environment remains potent. Knowing the answers to the puzzles has reduced my labor greatly, yes, but it has not reduced Ico's labor nearly as much--for his labor is physical as well as mental, whereas mine was never more than mental. Though all is plain and easy for me now, it is not so for the children. Every time we play we put them through a fiendish ordeal. That is the great illusion the game weaves in our minds--an illusion I have not seen reproduced nearly as convincingly in any other games. And for me that is how the game continues to command my attention, if to a somewhat lesser degree, when the puzzles have ceased to present challenge.
So we now understand why things like realistic lighting, an accurate sense of scale, height and distance, and complex character animation are crucial in ICO. Aside from giving the game its pretty looks, their job is to create an illusion that these are real children in a real place and consequently in a real trouble. Is it silly, I wonder, to sympathize with computer-generated characters? Perhaps it is. But then it ought to be equally silly to sympathize with Disney's Bambi or his ill-fated mother; they are also mere pictures after all. The only way we can put up with animated characters is by imagining--that is, by pretending--that they are real after their own fashion. ICO is no different. It is an experience which rewards an imaginative audience.
In summation the puzzles force the children to explore every nook and cranny of the castle, which is akin to keeping them in constant clash with their archenemy. Do not be confused by the term archenemy here. Some of you are thinking "Isn't another character entitled to that role?" By archenemy I mean the enemy the heroes must deal with the most. Palpatine may rule over the empire, but one doesn't have to know much about STAR WARS to see that the place of archenemy belongs to Darth Vader. He is only a subordinate in the grand scheme of things, but he is the pain in the neck the heroes have to deal with at every turn. That is, he is immediate unlike the emperor who is usually beyond sight and reach. The castle too is immediate. It is always in your face. It is the presence you cannot ignore, the hand of the real foe who as yet remains unseen.
I will treat the third and final statement on the puzzles next time.
(First posted 15 July 2003)
3. THE CHILDREN ARE NECESSARY COMPANIONS.
By that I mean they are companions by necessity. They both want to escape from the fortress, and neither can do it alone. Each suffers from limitations that make escape an impossibility. Since their predicament is in the form of a prison--in other words restriction of movement--their limitations too naturally have to do with mobility. The boy cannot pass through the idol gates which the girl can open. She cannot negotiate certain terrains which he can. What is more, she will be captured by the wraiths if left undefended, and he will be petrified once she has been claimed. Someone on the net said of the situation "If you die, she dies. If she dies, you die." That about sums up the arrangement. In a biologist's book this would be called symbiosis, and in a sociologist's, partnership or alliance, but I prefer to call it simply companionship. After all it is not as if the two of them sat down and discussed the rotten fix they are in and came to the mutual understanding that since they seem to complement each other's handicaps they might as well stick together. For them the symbiotic arrangement is essentially a happy coincidence. (On the storyteller's part it was of course a deliberate choice.) Ico decides to take the girl with him while he is ignorant of her ability. They are companions before they become cooperators.
C. S. Lewis, whom I recently began reading and who is fast becoming my favorite author, wrote a slim wonderful volume on the nature of love titled THE FOUR LOVES. The four loves are Affection, Friendship, Eros and Charity. The companionship between our protagonists falls under Friendship by Lewis' estimation. Writing of Friendship he opined "Lovers are normally face to face, absorbed in each other; Friends, side by side, absorbed in some common interest." He meant that the chief concern of lovers is themselves, that is, each other--but friends come together when there is something outside of themselves in which they take a shared interest. Hence lovers are always looking at each other while friends are side by side looking at, and moving towards, that other thing. In short a friendship needs to be about something, be it a hobby, a taste in music, a political vision or a profession.
Therefore Friendship according to Lewis--between true bosom buddies, not just any "friendly" acquaintances--typically forms when a person looks at another and says "What? You too? I thought I was the only one." This fully applies to the children. Left to die, Ico doubtlessly thought himself quite abandoned. In the mysterious girl he has found not only an age peer but a fellow prisoner. The moment he recognizes her as such the thought of parting becomes unbearable; it would mean returning to total solitude. And I do not mean unbearable just for him; it becomes unbearable for us also. We recognize at once that these two are in a common plight, that they are a match, that they ought to be together. The need to reclaim the captured girl is not mere male heroism, you see. Certainly there is a good deal of "rescue the damsel in distress" mentality in play. But that is not the part of our imagination the game appeals most to. If it were, I doubt very many thoughtful female players would have enjoyed it. What it really appeals to is our desire to get back to a friend--the desire to banish the horrible solitude which her absence has imposed upon us.
One more observation, and I have done with this segment. As we make progress and solve more puzzles, the two children's respective roles become clearly defined. We come to categorize in our heads the list of things the boy can and cannot do, and likewise for the girl. But she is a curious creature. In appearance she is elegant and full of natural grace, but sometimes she acts as if she has not quite got all her wits about herself. It becomes increasingly evident that her limited prowess is more than a case of feminine frailty. She is not only weak; she is timid--not only inept; helpless. She seems to be unacquainted with the very notion of fending for herself. And she continues to demonstrate her ignorance about the castle which has been mentioned earlier; she makes for the most part no contribution to clearing paths, leaving it as Ico's burden to figure all out. The castle--presumably her home--is just as baffling to her as it is to him. Only, he has the facility to tackle it and she apparently does not. And all the while the curious fact is that she is the older of the two if looks mean anything. Ico is a little boy and behaves like one. The girl on the other hand is on her way to womanhood but not half as resourceful as her diminutive companion. He acts his age. She does not. By all logic she, who is older and has spent more time inside the castle walls, ought to be the sensible one who figures things out for them both. Yet Ico has to look after her and lead her by hand as though she were his little sister in this somewhat lopsided, though indissoluble, partnership. Why?
I am not going to answer that just yet. We need to learn more about the girl before accounting for her character, and we have not got that far into the story. In the next part we will look at the first appearance of you-know-who.
(First posted 24 July 2003; resumed August 5)
What we have got so far along the story are lots of facts and little by way of explanation. We do not know why Ico almost got sacrificed in the crypt, only that he in fact did. (By now we know better than to believe the excuse that horned children are ill omens.) We do not know why the castle is crammed full with puzzles, only that it in fact is. We do not know why the girl was imprisoned in the cage, only that she in fact was. We do not know how she can open the gates, only that she in fact can. And we do not know why the ghouls want her, only that they in fact do. These questions will largely be put off until the climax, but in today's segment we at last get the first glimpse of an answer.
The children's meandering journey through the ruins of the castle brings them to a great multi-leveled courtyard. Here a fierce battle ensues. If I recall right the fight must have gone on for a half-hour in my first run. The creatures come after the pair in such numbers that we cannot help but wonder if there is something special about this place--something the enemies want to keep the children away from. We can fight them to the last or we can save time and effort by running to the idol gate. This is a good place to mention that opening an idol gate destroys all nearby enemies. An intriguing morsel of information, this. The demons haunt the castle, but they appear powerless against the magic which operates that castle and which responds to the girl's presence. There is something at work here that is far superior to the demons. And the girl has access to it, is able to activate it, is able to use it--say it however you want. It is strange that she who can wield a power greater than the demons' is helpless in defending herself against them. One more thing for us to ponder until we have a clearer picture of the mystery.
As soon as the door is open, the girl rushes in ahead of Ico. It is the first time she has done anything of the sort. He follows her in and finds a colossal open gate. It is the very same he saw but could not use in the prologue. Gleeful for a moment, he is dismayed next to see the doors begin to drag themselves shut. He grabs his companion's hand and runs for it. She trips, and falls down. When he turns to help her up he is astonished to witness a dark figure, a woman, materialize behind her. The woman addresses the fallen girl in their speech. We infer therefore that she too is an inhabitant of the castle. Translated, her first words are "Come back, Yorda."
The girl's reaction to the stranger is telling. She returns no answer. She looks terribly dejected--she makes no attempt to pick herself up, and she keeps her face averted. In fact she has not once glanced back since falling, as one might be expected to if someone popped out of thin air not three steps behind her. She does not look back because she knows without looking precisely what has happened. She knows without looking precisely who stands behind her. It was perhaps inaccurate to say she is dejected. She is resigned. She has done something she was not supposed to do, and now she has been caught.
Let us take a closer look at the dark stranger who has mortified the poor girl so. Clearly no ordinary woman, she is regal, austere, and even beautiful and dignified in an icy sort of way. She is not monstrous like the demons we have seen. Yet she does not strike us as any less dreadful. If anything she inspires deeper dread. The demons were scary, but this woman is imposing. The demons were nasty brutes, but she has got something that goes beyond nasty or brutal blazing in her stern gaze. In some ways she does resemble the demons. Or rather the demons resemble her, albeit in pale imitation. In place of their smoky loose flesh she sports a cloak of swirling, crackling black which is indistinguishable from her flesh and which engulfs all but her face. Instead of crawling out from the ground she has leapt into form like black flame igniting. She betrays no violence of demeanor as the creatures did--does not make threatening gestures, does not raise her voice, in fact does not move a finger through the interview, but simply stands there calm, erect, immovable, unassailable. She stands in authority--and therefore she is fearsome. No one understands that better than little children.
And that stranger now turns her attention to Ico. She speaks to him in his own tongue, rebuking him for dragging "her Yorda" about. She identifies herself as the girl's mother. She expresses contempt for the horned child who in her eyes has no place beside her beloved daughter. The words sadden the boy. Why, I am not going to guess. She warns him to stop his futile effort and to leave the castle, and vanishes as abruptly as when she appeared.
He runs to the girl. "I have angered her," she murmurs fearfully. The woman's disembodied voice comes then: "Yorda, why can't you understand? You cannot survive in the outside world."
And so the children are left by themselves once again, and allowed to continue their quest for freedom. The word to keep in mind here is allowed. We receive a distinct impression that the woman has decided to humor the pair for the time being, and just as she authorized that liberty she is liable to revoke it when she pleases. We are doubtless that we will be seeing her again.
Now let us consider some immediate implications of this brief, dramatic encounter. There are many, but the first two will be more than enough for today.
(1) First and foremost it is abundantly plain that this woman who claims to be the girl's mother is the proprietor of the castle. We should realize that even if we had no manual to tell us who she is. (For the game itself is quite silent on her exact identity.) We have in our memory a far superior and more persuasive authority: the stories we read and heard as children, and the images they conjured into our collective imagination. Thanks to them we need no more than a glance at the newcomer before we are able to declare, with total confidence, "That is the villain of the story."
You see, ICO is not just any story but a fairy tale. And the dark woman is not just any villain either; she is a fairy tale villain. That means she has features which identify her as such--features which we recognize instantly. Call her the queen, the evil fairy, the sorceress, the witch, or whatever catches your fancy; it does not really matter; she is all those things. Some have compared ICO's queen to well-known Disney villains, heedless that those villains are themselves derived from long-standing traditions. The queen is that mystic, dark, all-powerful antagonist in our childhood imagination who is evil and who does evil, and whose overblown counterpart is the "dark lord" in modern fantasy fiction. She is that someone responsible for the mysterious enchantment which needs to be undone. She is the queen who poisons Snowdrop; the fairy who puts Briar Rose to a hundred-year slumber; the ogre who hoards treasure in his castle and enjoys eating little children; the witch who turns young maidens into songbirds and keeps them caged; the hag who puts Rapunzel up the tower and doesn't let her out. She is an embodiment of all those classic images. That is why she feels familiar though we have just met her. We may not know her per se, but we recognize her place in the story in a heartbeat.
And just what is her place in the story? Let me see now. In some of our best- loved fairy tales, it is the villains who typically dictate the setting and the conflict. So without them there would be no adventure, much as there would have been no Second World War without Hitler. Adventure here is something of a euphemism. Ordeal probably better describes the sort of things a fairy tale hero goes through. We may therefore define the queen's breed of fairy tale villain as "the one who is responsible for the hero's ordeal." And insofar as the hero's ordeal is the substance of the tale, the villain is absolutely pivotal. Snowdrop's adventure begins only when the queen becomes jealous of her beauty and tries to have her killed. Cinderella should have had no need of glass slippers had her nasty stepmother not kept her from attending the ball. And Jack's beanstalk should have led nowhere without the ogre's castle for it to reach up to.
But this central element of the story, you see, has been thus far missing. And all of us have been wondering about its absence consciously or unconsciously. All of us have been asking ourselves "We are up against something big here-- but what the deuce is it?" So when the queen finally makes her belated entrance we immediately realize "She is the one behind it all." No further introduction is necessary. (And none is given; when the story has ended, we will still not know even her name.) We know nothing about the stranger but we understand what she means to the story. She is the queen. She is the witch, the enchantress. The castle is hers. She rules over it and always has ruled over it. She is the children's enemy. They will have to fight her. What is more, they have been fighting her.
This is also why the queen does not get much time on screen. She does not need it. That is, she does not have to show up a great deal and do many things in order for us to grasp her character. Her character is more or less complete in our imagination. We have a wealth of valid ideas about fairy tale villains already established. So all she has to do is show up once and, with her darkly majestic appearance, announce to us "I am that villain." That is why in this scene she rears her head just long enough for us to take a good look at her and promptly disappears, not to be seen again till practically the conclusion of the story. The point is that we have seen her. And now that we know she exists she automatically becomes the focal point of everything.
From here on we must reorient our queries around the queen. We no longer ask "Why were horned children to be sacrificed at the castle?" but rather "Why did the queen want them sacrificed at her castle?" Similarly not "Why was Yorda put in the cage?" but "Why did the queen cage her?"; not "Why do the creatures come after her?" but "Why does the queen send them after her daughter?" The queen has not entered the picture just now, you see. She has been at its center all along, only she was not visible until now. Hers is the face behind the hostile presence we have sensed ever since entering the castle.
(2) A fairy tale villain in the queen's particular vein is invariably the most powerful being in the tale. Not all fairy tale villains are royal or magically endowed; some are fairly humble, like a scheming maidservant or an abusive stepmother. But regardless of their status with the rest of the world, the villains always exercise godlike powers over the protagonists. They are always the ones holding all the cards--thus forcing the hapless heroes to resort to wit and subterfuge to prevail against overwhelming odds and seemingly invincible foes. The queen too holds all the cards against the children. Therefore we infer, without being told, that the castle and its maddening contraptions are her work. The wraiths that come after Yorda are under her command. She is responsible for Yorda's imprisonment. And if the pattern means anything the practice of sacrificing horned youths is likely her idea also. How can I be so sure? Honestly I can't. These are speculations, some more so than others. But I think them reasonable. A fairy tale villain tends to be responsible for all evil that is found in the story. This is because the tales, with their small cast of characters, rarely have room for two villains. They prefer a single diabolical antagonist who represents the sum of all menace to the heroes. Consider also how the pair is united in a common quest. It makes excellent sense that they should have a common enemy as well. For these reasons, among many others, I must assume that the person responsible for Ico's entombment is one and the same as she put Yorda in the cage. But we will talk more about this later.
(Remainder of this section was posted on 5 August 2003)
(3) The queen commands extraordinary magic. The castle and the legions of demons are proof enough of her capability. Able to appear and vanish at will, she seems all but free of bodily limitations. Her impeccable timing in intercepting the pair also suggests she is aware of all that goes on in her domain. That would explain why opts to humor them for now; she knows she can surprise them whenever she wants. She may have hidden herself, but she is still there watching the children's every move. She may even be enjoying it; let the stubborn lass learn her lesson the hard way if she insists on it!
(4) Suddenly we understand why the girl, Yorda, can do the things she can. She has inherited her mother's nature and is able, to an extent, to exercise a queenlike power over the castle. The idol gates are a sort of security doors; like sentries guarding their posts, they will not let just anybody pass. But in Yorda they recognize something of their mistress and so make way for her.
We recall however that Yorda is not the only one thus authorized to open the gates. There is that sword we saw in the opening sequence. If Yorda can open the doors thanks to the queen's power she inherited, would that mean the sword too wields a power akin to the queen's? Let us add that to the list of things we must come back to.
(5) Unlike her daughter the queen is fluent in Ico's language. So she is knowledgeable about the outside world. Perhaps she has, or had, ties with it. If she indeed arranged for the horned children to be brought to the castle, she certainly should have required, or coerced in any case, the cooperation of outsiders.
(6) Yorda is a sharp contrast with her mother in this regard. She is just as ignorant about her companion's language as he is of hers. We may safely guess that he is the first and only contact she has had with the world beyond the castle walls. And if we had any doubt that she wants to see that world very badly, the queen's parting words have removed it. For they say in effect "Not this nonsense about leaving the castle again! How many times do I have to tell you that you can't survive there?" So it seems the girl has in the past expressed her desire to leave the islands. I could not say if she wanted freedom because she was caged or if she was caged because she dared to want freedom. Take your pick; I do not think it makes much difference in the end.
(7) But let us spend a little time on the queen's parting words since some people have pointed to them as evidence for a particular--I believe mistaken-- reading of the ending. What does she mean that Yorda cannot survive outside the castle? She could be saying one of two things: (1) the girl physically cannot sustain her life in the outside realm like a fish that has left the waters, or (2) she is too delicate for the travail of leaving home and looking after herself. In the former she gives a fact; in the latter, an opinion. Facts are given to inform; opinions, to persuade. Which is the queen doing here, informing or persuading?
Let us consider her words again: "Yorda, why can't you understand? You cannot survive in the outside world." Without much affecting their significance we may change the words to "Haven't I told you already that you cannot survive in the outside world?" That of course means "I have told you already that you cannot survive in the outside world."
If the words are not beginning to sound familiar, let me put them next to some that should: "I've told you already you are not going to that crazy party." "We've had this talk before--you are not driving the van." "Haven't I told you a hundred times not to run with scissors in your hand?"
Our parents had their reasons when they told us these things. We were not to go to the crazy party because they feared we might drink or mix with a wrong sort of people. We were not to be trusted with the van because in their opinion we were not yet very good with smaller cars. We were not to run with scissors because they thought... actually I never quite understood why not. But all these admonitions have a common thought running through them. They all draw from the same unspoken claim: "This is for your own good." Which means "I know better than you do what is good for you." And what that really means is "I have your best interest at heart." This is what all parental admonitions boil down to.
Now when my mother issued me one of her warnings, I believed she had my best interest at heart even if I did not always agree with her assessment. But if someone kept me in confinement for years and told me that I wasn't really missing out on anything outside the prison because I could not survive there anyway--I think I might have some misgivings about her sincerity. I should think she was trying to secure my compliance.
It appears Yorda herself has reached that very conclusion. She was told more than once that she could not live outside the castle. She decided to escape anyway. Why? Because she distrusted her mother's honesty. The queen and the princess are thus divided along a very simple line: the mother says leaving home is not a viable option for her daughter, and the daughter does not believe her mother. With excellent reasons.
But that is just half the story. We will probe this subject in greater depth when we get to the ending.
(8) Now that we know who caged Yorda, we find ourselves wondering afresh why in the world the poor girl had to suffer that wretched treatment. This being a fairy tale, it could well be that she was held captive purely for the sake of being a captive--sort of like the maidens in chivalric lore who apparently have nothing to occupy themselves with except to get themselves abducted by one man-devouring ogre or another. But that does not sit right somehow. There must be a reason for her incarceration. Having completed the game we of course know it already, but supposing that we did not we could still guess it somewhat.
There are just three reasons for which people keep a person--or a thing, for that matter--locked up. The first is punishment, as in the case of a convicted felon. The second might be called containment or quarantine, where someone or something represents a danger too great to be let loose. Violent lunatics, victims of a contagious disease and, again, felons are kept confined for this reason. The last is safekeeping; when there is a valuable which one doesn't wish to let out of his hands, he might opt to lock it up--be it money, jewelry, livestock, lab rats, hostages or slaves. Therefore Yorda was caged either because she committed some offense against the queen, or because she was deemed dangerous enough to warrant confinement, or else because she represented something valuable which the queen wanted to keep near. Even with the little we know at this point in the story we need not think long to judge the most plausible scenario.
But while we are on the subject let us spare a moment for that other captive in the story. I mean the boy himself. He too was imprisoned like many others before him. And unlike with Yorda the story will not explain why they suffered thus. So with the horned children speculation is all we have got. We have our three choices: either they were punished for an offense, or they were deemed dangerous, or else they were wanted for some specific design. Which makes the most sense to you?
(9) That Yorda is the queen's daughter means of course she shares her mother's nature. This raises a disturbing implication. Let us recall Ico's mysterious vision early in the story. In it we saw a black figure emerge inside the suspended cage. Later we found Yorda in that very setting. And we were a good deal confused. We had expected to find a pitch-black creature and instead got a little girl who is so pale she all but glows. The discrepancy was left unsettled in our minds. But now we have seen the queen who is dark as midnight and able to appear out of nowhere, so much like the creature in the vision. And this woman is Yorda's mother; that is, she and the girl are alike in some essential way. We can no longer doubt the vision. The amoeba-like creature must have been Yorda. How and why the boy dreamed of her is in my opinion unimportant. The vision's significance lies in that Yorda is something besides an ordinary human. We have suspected this for some time. But it is now confirmed, and will become crucial later as we try to make sense of the ending.
That wraps up this long chapter, though almost every point made here will be brought up again later. Next I would like to discuss how this new development changes the way we look at the story. Then we will finally address the tale's climax and conclusion.
(First Posted 8 August 2003; resumed August 10)
The queen's presence now forces us to redefine everything with regard to it. To be sure nothing much has really changed. The children's condition has neither improved nor deteriorated on account of the encounter. What they do after her appearance is the same as what have done prior to it--exploring, path clearing, fighting. What has changed is our perception of that condition. We will continue to see much the same that we have been seeing, but we will not look at it the same way. An easy example is the heroine herself. Thus far in our thoughts she was a pretty but rather strange girl who could do some useful things and who seemed interested in escaping from the castle. Now she is Yorda, the sole daughter of the castle's ruler. But this is the most superficial of the shifts. Thanks to the queen we now have solider grasp on nearly every aspect of the mystery.
Let us begin with the castle. Until now we were lost and we did not know where we were going. Well, we are still lost but we do know where we are going. We are going to the main gate. And since the queen has closed it shut, we need to find a way of unlocking it. We have got ourselves a definite object of aim. Before, we wandered in blind hopes. We wander with a purpose now.
The way we look at the castle has also shifted. Until now the chief impression we got from the castle was that it was very, very deserted. Not only that, it was crumbling to pieces everywhere. It clearly had not been inhabited for a long time. There were some sinister creatures loitering about, certainly, but we could hardly believe these vile brutes were the rightful occupants of so magnificent a keep. No, we did not take them for the castle's original residents. We regarded them as we might house pests--ghostly vermin that had taken over a fortress built by civilized beings, much as rats flourish in an abandoned mansion. When we met the queen, however, we learned that the mansion was not in fact abandoned. The mistress of the house was still living there. The wraiths were not freeloading pests but rather her servants. But the realization raises a baffling question. What sort of homeowner would allow her house to fall into such a sorry state? She would have to be either very lazy, or very incompetent, or else very ill. So it would seem that the queen, as mighty as she is, has got some deep problems. Her rule must be in decline. The castle's condition bespeaks her own.
The castle testifies a great deal more about its mistress. In fact it is almost the only thing that tells us anything about her. Let us backtrack here for a moment and recall what was said about the castle in earlier sections. I said that the castle was hostile to the children, and they had to fight and overcome it to proceed through its maze. I concluded that someone, some evil mind, was behind this evil fortress. Well, we now know who that someone is. But she has once again hidden herself from our senses--totally. So the only way for us to sense her is through her work, that is, the castle. In this way the castle, the only available sign of the witch's presence, becomes equated with the witch herself. That is, what we say about her may also be said about the castle. She possesses stupendous powers--well, the castle is stupendous. She is in decline--so is it. She is not willing to let the pair go free-- neither is it. And if she should die--why then the castle too will die. For all intents and purposes, the castle is the queen. It deals with the children in her place when she is not there.
Or let me put it this way. You must be familiar with the memory of "the scary old man down the street." The scary old man down the street did not mix with other people much. In fact the scary old man hardly ever set foot outside his house. But there his house stood, three blocks down from yours--dark in the shades, with weird plants in dense profusion growing on the lawn, and lights glimmering in the windows till late at night to tell you he lived there. You didn't like going near that house. Kids said he came out at night to dig up the bones buried in the backyard. You ran when you had to pass it by and tried not to look that way. But sometimes accidents would happen. You would hit a ball and it would roll into the scary old man's garden. You would rather give up the ball, except your pals would goad you into retrieving it. So you would go, feeling your back moisten as you got nearer and nearer to the house. Those eye-like windows would seem bigger than usual--the shadows darker somehow--and would that be a crack in the doorway, a faint sound of footsteps...? You would grab the ball and bolt out of the garden. You would fancy a hand behind you, stretching out to grab you. You would not look back until you were safe and away, only then to let out a relieved breath, glad that the scary old man didn't "get" you. But all along you had no idea what the scary old man looked like. You had never seen him. You just knew he lived in that dreadful house of his, with bones in the backyard. The house was the man. You were just as afraid of it as you were of him.
In a similar way the castle--so humongous, so unignorable, so always in our faces--makes up for the queen in her apparent absence. It does everything a villain might be expected to do: threatening, tricking, trapping, and frustrating the heroes at every corner. By fighting it the children in effect fight the queen. Every obstacle they come across is a reminder of the enemy responsible for the obstacle. And with each riddle they solve they have thwarted a piece of her scheme.
Now, this substitution only works because we understand all the while that the queen is not really absent. The scary old man is very much in the house, just out of sight for the moment. And it is precisely the fact that he is out of sight that makes him so scary. For when he is to be seen nowhere we imagine him everywhere. Ico and Yorda are trespassers in his garden, looking over their shoulders continually to see if that hand they felt was imaginary. They are captives to the fear that while they cannot see their enemy she can see them, and is at this very moment watching them. She has jumped them once. She can jump them again.
When I first played the game I did not know when and where the queen would appear next. I only knew that she would sooner or later. It was impossible to dismiss her from my thoughts. It was like the first time I watched JAWS--in that film the shark is invisible for the most part, but for that very reason the ocean entire comes to represent the creature; one grows to fear not so much the shark but the very sight of the waters. Thus the queen remains a fearsome villain though she hardly gets five minutes of screen time prior to the climax. In a story of lesser merits so little visibility would make her a very poor villain indeed. In fact games, especially combat-oriented games, are full of weak villains for just this reason. They tend to withhold the villain from the player lest he should be disappointed to find no fresh challenge in the all-important "boss fight." And so we find that the villain often remains veiled until the final moment, with a predictable and self-frustrating result that he is rendered harmless for the majority of the story.
(Remainder of this section was posted on 19 August 2003.)
We have covered the castle and the queen. I think we have said enough about the wraiths too. There really is not much to observe about those creatures. Before we knew of the queen we took them for a sort of demonic termites infesting the deserted fortress. But now we understand that they are under the queen's control and do her biddings. Yes, I think that is enough for now.
That leaves the children. Do we perceive them any differently after the queen's appearance? With Ico the answer is largely no. As to the girl--now she is a different story. Not only have we learned her name and heritage, but we also understand why she wants to leave the castle and why she has her ability. But most importantly we now have some insight into her behaviors. Earlier we touched on her curious and almost total reliance on the boy and left it unresolved for lack of information. The time has come to resolve it. Why does she, despite her more adult appearance, prove so utterly helpless?
Before I give my answer I want to impress upon you that ICO is a game, in which the complexities of the real world are reduced to those predictable patterns we call rules. (And there is no such a thing as a game without rules.) So when Yorda does not lift a finger to help Ico drag a crate or make even a token effort of climbing a chain to lessen his burden, instead of berating her cold indifference we ought to acknowledge that by the game's rules it is not her job to do those things. If this were a novel or a film, no doubt things would have been different. For instance the castle as we have it in the game should be perfectly silly in a novel. It is just too densely packed with puzzles to be convincing. It is somewhat forgivable here because a game must be allowed its peculiar quirks--granted of course that the quirks are consistent--if it is to be enjoyable. (Chess may be modeled after a battlefield, but only the thickest dunderhead would try to justify the "strategy" of having a rook move diagonally. "After all," he might say, "might it not be a clever idea to surprise the enemy by having the archers draw their swords?") The castle is therefore full of puzzles to carry the point across that it is hostile to trespassers. Likewise Yorda is less than agile to carry the point across that she is unused to exerting herself. To explain why I think that is a fair assessment I want us to consider her from two perspectives, one entirely poetic and the other practical.
By a poetic perspective on Yorda I mean nothing particularly grand. I mean the impressions and feelings she arouses in the beholder. Here ICO fans seem to entertain fairly uniform sentiments. Asked to describe the princess in a word, they are apt to use adjectives in the vein of ethereal, ghostly, spectral, otherworldly, elfin, angelic and the like. All these describe a state of being which is either wholly spiritual or belonging on the fringe of the physical realm--something more immaterial than substantial, more transparent than opaque, more fanciful and pliable than realistic or concrete. (I have commented a few times on the girl's extraordinary pallor. Poets and painters alike have long used pale complexion for that delicate, impermanent, or altogether incorporeal quality which certain individuals possess. It is no accident that we tend to imagine ghosts and spirits as translucent beings in muted tones of gray.) The princess' appearance and demeanor are intended to exploit these sentiments. I say exploit because the sentiments existed in our thoughts long before we knew of her; the storyteller fashioned her character in such a way as to tap them. Do you recall how the queen instantly struck a familiar chord in our imagination the moment we saw her? She was technically a stranger but at the same time recognizable--because she fit a type we already knew. Something similar is at work in the way we look at Yorda. We need then to determine the type--that is, the genre--to which she belongs.
Yorda's fairylike appeal hails from that class of mythical maidens which includes nymphs, sirens, elves, sylphs and sprites--supernatural creatures bearing more or less the form of human damsels, half spirit and half mortal, at once alluring and chaste, mysterious, capricious, eternally young and carefree. (She even has the pointy ears to show for it!) Traditions invariably place these enchanting creatures in idyllic settings. We think of fairy maidens dancing with bees or napping on flower petals, nymphs singing and playing the harp on the banks of a serene lake, mermaids harvesting pearls in the watery depth. We never think of them engaging in any sort of practical labor; we never picture them farming or chopping logs or cooking. These demigoddesses are too noble and too lighthearted for such mundane--such thoroughly human--activities. The concept rebels against their image. It rebels against Yorda's image also.
From the moment we met Yorda we had misgivings about her nature. She looked human but did not quite strike us as human. She seemed to be made of some finer stuff--so exceedingly delicate as to seem only half corporeal, and at sharp disagreement with the brute rigid surroundings of stones and bricks and walls. If she were introduced to us as an elf or a sylph, we should have thought it quite appropriate. Note here that both "elfin" and "sylphlike" have come to describe just her sort of slim, dainty young woman. Our heroine however is not merely reminiscent of such magical damsels; she is a supernatural being on her own right, a bona fide fairy princess in the rank of full-fledged elves and sylphs--those bewitching otherworldly beauties of folklore, impossibly fair, impossibly delicate, shielded from the humdrum necessities of life which plague ordinary mortals. The vulgar notion of manual labor is alien to a being so elevated. That is something people trouble themselves with. The queen has told Ico that he and Yorda belong apart. Condescending she may be, but she is right. Her contempt for the boy is as much for his being a lowly common mortal as for his horns.
Consequently my view of the girl's incompetence at certain tasks is not that she is dim-witted, but rather that she would have compromised her own image by excelling at those tasks. We must here keep in mind that she is at times preternaturally graceful and at times preternaturally clumsy. How do we reconcile the two? Are they even reconcilable? Well, in my experience a graceful person can prove quite awkward when she is forced to a task she never would have considered--like say a princess who suddenly found herself having to take up sewing or housecleaning. But someone oafish to begin with is oafish always. Elegance can turn sloppy by happenstance. The reverse never occurs.
So here I have the two seemingly opposed portraits of the fairy princess: one showing an unbecomingly inept adventurer who struggles only half successfully to negotiate some obstruction, and the other a picture of innocent beauty and grace, where she frolics with birds on a green sunlit yard by a clear pond and an old windmill, fair and spectral like the mythic sylph, and betraying no intimation whatever of her fugitive plight. Which is the true Yorda? Well, both. But which best demonstrates her nature? Most emphatically I say the latter; this is where she is at home. But we see precious little of that Yorda in the story. Rather we usually see the girl at her least natural and therefore at her most awkward--being manhandled and dragged around, climbing ladders, braving death falls with reluctance, running for her life. I am not surprised that she has come across to some as less than appealing. Their frustration arises from expecting Yorda to be more like Ico. But I think the foundational fact in the pair's companionship is precisely that they share nothing in common aside from their calamity. If on the other hand the frustration is owed to the technical limitations of the game's artificial intelligence, it is beyond my scope and I have nothing at all to say on the subject.
That was my musing on the sheer drama of her being. Next I should like to offer a bit more practical rationale for her demeanor. Before I came to the conclusion articulated above, I too fancied it chauvinist of the game to represent the heroine thus; not only is she a damsel in distress, but she is a weakling and, worse, a simpleton who has to rely on her male companion to do all that requires the least bit of muscle or intelligent thinking. But even then I did not really hold this against her. There was a regal beauty about her person which would not permit flat dismissal--a nobility that would not suit a fool. That she was ignorant was apparent from the start, but I could not believe she was stupid as well. And that distinction between ignorance and brainlessness cleared much of my own misunderstanding.
I have heard many speak fondly of Yorda's "innocent, pure" image. Similar praises are often said about young children because they have not (presumably) yet been corrupted by the world. That is really a euphemistic way of saying they are ignorant about the world. Yorda is certainly innocent in that sense, though I think it is one of the less wise euphemisms popularly used. She is very ignorant about the world, and for the same reason as young children: she has had little exposure to it. Her behaviors exhibit the telltale signs of one who was brought up in isolation--brought up caged, if you will--without much if any opportunity to acquaint herself to the surroundings. Consequently she knows next to nothing about the castle where she has lived since birth, which hints that she really is a sort of Rapunzel--shut up alone all her life inside a tower by the old witch, and forbidden all access to the outside. She acts as though she just stepped out of the prison cell for the first time in her life. The reality may not have been so simple, but I suspect the analogy holds more than a grain of truth. I doubt she ever even spoke with anyone but her brooding mother before the boy came along. She received no more education than might be given to cattle. Like cattle her purpose was to grow up to be consumed when the time came. Never until now was she called to apply herself to any endeavor. She is very like a newborn, awakening just now to the bumps and edges of a world from which she has long been sheltered.
And with that I am done covering the noteworthy instances in the tale up to the queen's second appearance. It only remains to get that gate open and greet the climax of the story. Now you may be surprised to hear that. You may think there is still much to go over. In a way you are right. A player would take perhaps eight hours or so to play through the game the first time. The queen is introduced about two hours into the game and does not show herself again until the last hour or thereabout. Most of the exploration and puzzle solving takes place between her appearances. But I have nothing to say of this interval that I have not said already. All the major elements have been introduced. What lies ahead is essentially repeats of the same cycle: enter an area, clear the path, enter the next area, clear the path, and so on. There will be no significant advancement in the plot until the main gate is reopened. Does that mean the narrative is to stagnate until then?
Heavens, no. It just means all the elements are now firmly in place, and it is time for them to come into full play. There is yet a great deal to enjoy. The really fun part is just beginning. But we do not have ponder them in tedious words anymore.
Nor does it mean these hours are a mere ploy to protract the story, like inserting unnecessary events to tell a three-hundred-page tale that needed no more than a hundred. While talking about the puzzles I said one puzzle serves the same functions as any other, but I also mentioned a cumulative effect. In other words the many puzzles strung together yield an effect which no single puzzle could produce. What is that effect?
Half of it was explained earlier: by completing all the puzzles we make a complete tour of the castle. A single puzzle means only an obstacle to clear, but all the puzzles together make a journey. And what a journey it is.
The other half concerns the growing bond between the pair. We can understand this readily. If I got through one perilous venture with another person, I might have found myself an ally, and perhaps a friend. If I got through twenty with the same person--why, we should be inseparable.
The real enjoyment of the game lies in accompanying the children on their journey and watching them forge a bond which I will not try to describe. And we need not take apart any mystery to find it. We have dug through an awful heap of information, true, but none of this was strictly necessary for us to see what the story is about. In fact I cannot grasp the two heroes through reasoning. I know too little about them. I do not know their histories, their habits and inclinations, their thoughts and reasons. But here is a strange thought: I know practically nothing about these two, yet I feel that at some level I "know" them far more intimately than characters from any other games. And some of those characters have their biographical data contrived down to birth date and favorite food. I wonder why this is?
The apparent contradiction is resolved once we realize that we are talking about two different modes of knowing. Ico and Yorda become known to us not by exposition but by impression. When you learn a thing by impression, the foremost part of your attention is not on factual details--what counts is how vividly the thing becomes engraved in your thoughts and fancies. It is a very simple matter. You see a man dive in front of an oncoming truck to save a child, and you receive an impression that he is brave and selfless. You watch a couple seated on a bench holding hands, and you receive an impression that they are fond of each other. You may not hear a word of their conversation, but your impression leads you to conclude the talk must be genial. In the same manner, you watch two children fight the rest of the world to escape a fate they have not deserved, struggling together to make the next hundred steps on their thorny path, and you receive an impression that--well, you fill in the blank. But that is how these characters, though largely strangers to us, become alive in our minds and we grow attached to them. And we need no analysis for that.
Now we must be mindful that impressions can mislead, and that they are poor ground on which to base dogmatic claims. In fact any statement that begins with the words "______ gives me an impression that..." presumes its own inaccuracy. For instance if I said "That girl gives me an impression of being more a ghost than a person," I would not be saying the girl is actually a ghost, or even that she is probably a ghost. I would merely mean "She looks and behaves as if she were a ghost and not a person." An impression makes no stronger a claim of truth than that. I should like you to remember this whenever you hear me speak of my impressions.
So next time we will find the pair at the main gate.
(First Posted 10 August 2003)
So they have done it. They have unleashed both keys to the gate, turning the castle inside out in the process, and now they stand before the gate. It only remains for Yorda to open it.
It seems some people are confused as to how this gate works. I think that detail is unimportant. We only need to understand that it operates the same way all the other magic doors at the castle operate. Since this is the main entrance, however, it is double bolted just as our own front doors have multiple locks while the doors inside only have one. It must be unlocked in order to respond to the girl's magic; like an electric security door it has to be switched on before it will accept the password.
Opening the immense gate saps Yorda's strength. She sinks to her feet exhausted. Ico tends to her in concern. A little more, she breathes. Almost there. Just a little more.
A bridge of stone extends from the castle, connecting to the bluff ashore. The mystery of the unusable gate which we observed in the prologue is at last answered. The existence of the bridge also lets me guess that the castle used to be in communication with the land, which agrees with my suspicion that the queen has or had ties with the outside world. Why then did she withdraw the bridge and isolate her realm?
The green shore stretches before them. At the other end of the bridge Ico can see the portico he had visited earlier in the knights' custody. He takes Yorda's hand and leads her between the gateposts. For the first time the princess breathes the air beyond the castle walls. But her first steps outside the prison are shaky. She barely keeps herself upright. Slowly, cautiously, the children make their way across the narrow bridge. There are no safety rails, and the sea is a long way down.
With no warning a globe atop a gatepost, the same they had used to unlock the gate, flashes white. A streak of bolt springs from it, striking the girl with deadly accuracy. She collapses upon the bridge. Ico is knocked away from the impact and nearly rolls off to the sea. The bridge splits--it begins to retract. The pair is left separated at each end, she on the castle side and he on the shore side.
Ico scrambles to his feet. At the other side, the princess moves weakly to the edge. For a moment the children gaze upon each other helplessly. The gap is fast widening. Then the boy makes a decision. He will rather rejoin his companion than return ashore without her. Darting to the edge he throws himself over the chasm.
He falls short by a step--the princess reaches out, and grasps his hand. He dangles a thousand feet above the waters. Desperately he claws at the stone with the free hand. The girl strains to bring him up. Her drained strength is already at the limit holding onto his weight. More than once her thin arm nearly gives out. Then displaying a grit we should hardly have expected from her, she almost hauls him onto the bridge--
But a shadow grows behind her. Bit by bit it devours her form, crawling up her limbs, turning her black as soot. The shadow rises and takes the form of the queen. It is the last thing the boy sees before he falls. "Thank you," the princess whispers. Then she is enveloped in darkness.
(First Posted 20 August 2003)
A storm rages under the dark and livid heaven. The sun has long since retired into the night. Blurry in the rain and lit by lightning, the castle has shed its old serenity and stands in unmitigated gloom. Before, it could look handsome. It is only monstrous now.
The boy awakens, wet and probably less than warm, on one of the great cages hanging off the cliff under the front gate. It appears that he, falling off the bridge when it was almost fully withdrawn, dropped down to the cage. (If you will, go to the first picture link in the chapter titled Entombment. You can see the cages under the gate.) What will he do now? His comrade is gone, reclaimed by the witch. Heaven knows what has become of her. He is friendless, weaponless, clueless--as he was at the beginning. What is left now, but to resume what he has been doing all along, to try and get himself out of the castle? For the queen has made it clear she has no interest in him. She has got her daughter back. She will not interfere if he escapes alone. Indeed did she not order him to leave? But what he does next goes against the advice of common wisdom. Let us take another look at the castle's map.
Where Ico regains consciousness is the southern tip of the central isle, which directly faces the shore he has been trying thus far to reach. Where he heads next is the northernmost isle at the top of the map--the farthest point from the shore. This is where he first met Yorda and also where he was entombed. Now what is this child thinking, backtracking through the whole island, undoing the progress he has made, to return to the very place he has risked his life all this time to get away from?
All of a sudden the adventure has taken on a new attitude. We thought freedom was the aim of this quest. But if that is true the boy is not helping himself by running back into the prison. Now we realize escape is not the object of the game. There has all along been another, less apparent object which commands greater priority. That object is the bond between the two children. Escape is agreeable only so long as it coincides with this. But now that one of the companions has been taken away--well, freedom will just have to be put on hold until she is recovered and the companionship restored. So back he must go.
Here some of you may raise a sensible objection. You may say "Eliot is exaggerating Ico's valor. He does not go back because he wants to, but rather because the path inevitably leads him that way. The puzzles he solves force him back to the northern isle. He has no choice to go elsewhere."
That is not true. The ones who have no choice are we. Ico has a choice. Or rather he had a choice--and made it. Consider for instance the murderously steep bluff he tackles to reach the northern isle. Now if he could do that, by common sense he should also be able to climb down to the shore and escape alone. Then you may say "Actually he couldn't, since the only available footpath along the cliff leads back to the prearranged destination." And why do you think the footpath is prearranged? It is put there by the storyteller to prevent us, the gamers, from taking Ico somewhere he does not want to go. It is there to ensure that we do not ruin the story by having him do something he would never do of his own will, such as abandoning Yorda to save his own hide. But the assumption all the while is that he could--if he wished, which he does not--have applied the same effort to saving himself instead of rescuing his friend. He is not, as we are, groping in the dark for just any exit. He is on a search. We of course do not learn this until he reaches his destination. Only then do we realize "So that's what he was trying to do. He was trying to get back to the tower where he met the girl."
In this linear adventure we are as much spectators as we are players. Our control over Ico's actions is limited to having him do more or less what he has already decided he will do. We "play as Ico"--that is, we are expected to behave as he would, and we are accordingly penalized when we go against that expectation. We can have him do what he wants well, or we can have him do it incompetently. But we cannot have him not do it at all. In other words we can either have him succeed at his aim, or we can have him fail--but we cannot alter the aim itself. And his aim is to rescue Yorda. On our part we can let him do exactly that or else refuse by quitting the game. That is all the choice we have. The script says "Either you let him do what he will, or the story does not progress beyond this point."
Let me repeat that ICO is a linear tale. That means it is entirely scripted. We are allowed to control the protagonist so long as we do not deviate from the script; when we do deviate, the story either halts until we get back on the track or it ends altogether with the boy's death. The storyteller has already decided how this tale is to end. Consequently he so set up the puzzles and the paths that we will play out the climax the way he wants it played out. We have no choice but to return to the northern isle. But that is only because Ico himself has chosen to do so.
Make no mistake about it: he still wants to escape. But not unless he has his friend with him. By now he knows this cannot be done without first confronting the queen. Twice already she has frustrated them when they were only steps away from freedom. What is more, she could have done so anytime she wished. There is not a spot in the castle hidden from her eyes, not a spot beyond her reach. As long as the queen is there rescuing Yorda is a lost cause. How much confidence does this boy have in his chances against her? Either he knows full well he is running to his doom, or--more likely--he gives no thought at all to the odds of success. Which is more heroic, I could not say.
Back he goes, into the shadowy underside of the castle which he had glimpsed earlier with Yorda, through the enormous water engines busy at some mysterious work, tracing the deadly slopes of the cliff, until he finds the northern tower rising in the storm like a ghost mansion. He enters the isle and finds himself in the subterranean vault--astonishingly immense!--where the knights had brought him before. He has come a full circle round the stronghold. At the bottom of the vault is the very first idol gate he saw, the same that the knights had opened with the magic blade. Outside, he finds the dock by which he had arrived at the castle. A path leads away from the dock to an altar of stone by the cavern's exit. A familiar object sits on it. The magic sword is at last found.
Ico can go anywhere in the castle now; he no longer requires Yorda's help to escape. Of course the game is so arranged that this will not be permitted. But what I said three paragraphs above applies fully here. In fact if he wanted to leave alone he does not even have to bother with the sword. He can simply take the boat out of the cavern. We know the lattice can be lowered; we saw the knights do it. Again the only reason we cannot lower the lattice or push the boat into the water is not that these actions are inherently undoable but that they contradict the script. It is not that Ico cannot do them but that he will not. This becomes easier to understand if you pretend that instead of playing a game you are watching a film or reading a book.
Now that he has the sword, let us take a good look at it; we couldn't before because it was kept sheathed. Intricate characters are carved on the blade. We have seen these characters before--on the elevator which he is now about to ride, on the casket in which he almost met his doom, and in the speech of the princess and the queen. No doubt about it: the sword is an artifact of the castle. It must have been placed at the cavern to allow the knights, and others like them, to carry out their terrible duty. But placed by whom? By the queen, I should think; for who else should have the authority to grant entry to the castle?
Armed with the queen's sword, the boy opens the gate and enters the crypt. Everything is the way he left it--the grim multitude of caskets, one of them overturned--except for a dark congregation of wraiths at the apse of the chamber. They dance about an unmoving figure like savages celebrating a kill. It is the princess. She has been turned into stone, arrested at the precise moment of the boy's fall, her hand still outstretched for his.
He charges at the gathering. The wraiths scatter, hissing at the intruder. He hacks at them unopposed. The sword's power is remarkable. It strikes down the foe with a single blow. And no wonder. It is a sword forged with the queen's own magic--drawing from the same power which operates the castle entire. The wraiths are helpless against their mistress' sorcery, just as they were whenever Yorda opened one of the gates.
Not long into the fight we notice something odd. Some of the caskets on the wall are glowing for no apparent reason. We have Ico examine them, but we can detect nothing otherwise special about them. The fight continues meanwhile, and more and more caskets begin to glow. At some point a chilling realization grips us. Every destroyed enemy causes a sarcophagus to lit up. We take a harder look at the demons Ico has been massacring. We note they are uniformly small, just about our hero's size. Then we observe in horror that each sports on its head horns like his.
Now if you were at all like me, you halted the assault at this point and debated whether you should continue what you had been doing. And I am certain that is how the storyteller envisioned Ico reacting. A game was never so successful in immersing the player into the protagonist's mind.
But destroy them he must; else he cannot proceed. One by one he cuts down the specters of the previous sacrifices whose rank he had come perilously close to joining. Now, many have drawn interesting inferences from this revelation such as: Ico is not so much killing the wraiths--since they are already dead--as freeing their enslaved souls; the wraiths do not seem as hostile here as the others we have seen; and the other wraiths were likely also humans in life. I will not comment further on these speculations though I find some of them appealing. I do not know enough to support or reject them. I point them out however so you can consider them on your own.
When the dreadful task is complete, the stairs before the final idol gate is lowered, making the last chamber of the castle accessible. I do not want to speculate exactly how the destruction of the specters triggers this. Like many other aspects of the game, to me it seems to make more dramatic sense than strictly logical sense. For all I know it may be the queen is inviting the boy. We know she was watching the whole time.
The final chamber is one of the castle's grandest and certainly its gloomiest. It is a Medieval great hall where the monarch met with the public and received guests. It is hard to describe its melancholy. There is not so much as a lit candle to allay the somber blue that pervades all. A lofty throne, solitary and unoccupied, sits under a soaring dome. Thick dust like fog shrouds the floor. The boy's own echoing footfalls alone relieve the utter silence. We can almost smell the cold stale air. It is the portrait of a bygone glory, of a dynasty in decay. For me this was the most intensely poetic moment in the story. It inspired a feeling akin to reverence. It made me afraid to disturb the deathlike calm. It made me slow down Ico's steps; it felt wrong to run in that space.
He approaches the throne. Nothing happens. The hall is quite deserted. He moves back towards the exit. A voice stops him short then. When he turns the queen is leaning into the throne, legs imperially crossed, looking eminently at home.
He demands to know what has been done to the girl. The witch replies he is too late to do anything and at last reveals her design. She is aging. She means to grant herself another life by seizing her daughter's body. Warning him that Yorda will be no more upon awakening, she tells him to give up the sword--it is hers after all--and leave. She is a pragmatic tyrant, it seems; she would spare violence where unnecessary. Three times now she has given him chances to turn back: first at the main gate when she ordered him thus, then on the bridge where she split the pair with mechanical precision, thinking no doubt that the boy would take the hint and stay on his side of the gap, and finally now. Again we are forced to assume that theoretically Ico could have escaped on his own. I do believe, though I cannot prove, that the queen would have spared him had he taken her offer. Somehow the thought makes her more formidable, not less.
Of course Ico, the bullheaded little hero he is, does not listen. He runs headlong at the throne, sword raised. He loses a horn for his trouble. The queen decides the child will not be diplomatic. The fight begins for real. She unleashes deadly petrification spell, which seems to be her favorite. (Next to transformation it is perhaps the form of enchantment most prominent in Western lore.) As long as he holds the sword he is safe. Apparently the only thing that can withstand the queen's magic is a weapon endowed with that magic. Slashing at the barrier cocooning the enemy, he plunges the sword into her heart. The queen sinks back into the throne, mortally wounded.
With her last strained breaths she tells her diminutive conqueror that her her death notwithstanding Yorda will never be able to leave the castle. Then she vanishes, never to reappear--in an invisible burst so forceful it flings the boy across the hall. His remaining horn snaps off. For the third time in two days he passes out.
Out in the crypt the caskets flash once again. They release mysterious white bolts--reminiscent of opening an idol gate--which converge on Yorda. The petrification is undone. But the Yorda that awakens is not the girl familiar to us. It is the dark figure we saw in Ico's vision. She examines her own hand curiously. Heaven knows what sort of a face she is making. She gazes meaningfully next at the open entrance to the great hall. She seems to divine instinctively what must have happened while she was unconscious.
An ominous tremor has seized the castle and will not subside. The walls begin to crumble around Ico's prone form. Yorda enters, her body crackling with black something, and looking more like her mother than ever before. Kneeling by the boy she touches a broken stump of his horn, a certain tenderness in her touch. She sees the sword embedded in the empty throne. She realizes what he has done. The chamber is meanwhile rapidly coming apart. There is only one thing left to do now. He has saved her. She will save him. With surprising ease she takes her companion into her arms. If I were to hazard a guess I should say she is indeed stronger than before. Timid uncertainty no longer marks her action. She has assumed what used to be his work. Casting a last lingering look at the queen's hall, she steps onto the elevator and descends to the cavern. The water has risen, and the boat is already afloat--or is it the isle that is beginning to submerge? She places him in the boat and releases it to the waves. So much she has braved to see the outside world, yet she chooses not to accompany him. For she now understands she is not like him. She does not belong in his world any more than he belongs in hers. Let him go back. She will stay. She bids him farewell.
The castle succumbs to decay it has so long resisted. First to cave are the parts which were already in ruins. Then the rest follows. With the queen no more it cannot hold itself together; as a river is doomed that has been severed from the source, the castle dies with its mistress. The very islands sink into the ocean. Not a brick, nor a pebble, remains of her dominion--once mighty, ruinous of recent, and having come so very near reviving itself.
All is swept away clean.
The hornless Ico walks along the beach. No doubt he is trying to reconcile, with little success, the current situation with his last conscious memory. The queen is dead. He slew her. But what of the castle? What of the princess? The sea is clear and unending, and offers no sight of the fortress.
He trudges onward. Once again he is friendless, weaponless, clueless--all that ordeal behind him and still an exile. He is as alone and lost as ever. Some things never change. But a moment. There is something ahead--on the sand, by the breaking waves. He keeps walking. It is beginning to look familiar. It is the girl. She lies on her side, still as a corpse. The water laps at her feet. He runs. He stands before her now.
No glad smile touches his lips, no happy relief in his eyes. He is afraid. She is so still. She cannot have survived the sea. He dares not touch her. She cannot be dead--
But look: her fingers, they curl. Slowly her eyes blink open to the light. Squinting ever so slightly she takes in the beach, then the boy. She opens her mouth--
(First Posted 22 August 2003)
Well, the story has ended. But are we the wiser for it? Do we care that we should be the wiser? It would be perfectly all right, you know, to forgo the dissection and leave the ending the wonderful thing it is. But if you would like further clarification of the mystery, let us take a step back and try to grasp the larger picture. What began as one small child's nightmare has blossomed into the monumental finale of a reign, of an era. Through his trials we witnessed the last hours in the ancient history of the castle. We know nothing of its inception, nothing of its prime. We only know how it fell. Our task--grasping the larger picture I mean--is therefore akin to reading the final chapter of a novel and divining what preceded it, akin to attending the deathbed of a stranger and from it reconstructing his life. Now this is a risky thing to do. We delude ourselves if we think we can produce anything like an accurate history. We must restrain our fancies within the scope of the clues at hand. The moment we overstep it, we have abandoned criticism in favor of fan fiction. Then we will be judging one another's theories based not on whose is more faithful but on whose is more entertaining. I should be quite satisfied if I could arrive at a contour, not a full portrait.
As we continue please remember: I do not claim that the following must be the case. I only submit that there are clues which point to it and none that I can perceive which contradict it. You are welcome to reject anything you find unconvincing.
I begin with the queen, who is the point of origin for all events in the story and the root to which all limbs and branches are to be traced. Just what sort of being is she? She is supposedly near death from age, yet she looks perfectly youthful. That is enough to make me suspect her extreme age. (Here I should like to remind you of the connection made earlier between Yorda and the mythical fairylike maidens, whose appearance invariably belies their age.) She is likely as old as the castle. She built it and maintained it, with increasingly inadequate care as her strength waned, so that upon her death the fortress came unglued. Is she human? I think that an inappropriate question for this particular genre of fiction. Folklore and fairy tales are full of characters who are human in every regard except their possession of certain powers which no human beings could conceivably possess. Sometimes those characters are placed in a race of their own. Sometimes we just call them wizards or witches or sorceresses and be done with it. Here I am more comfortable with the latter.
The queen's disappearance at death does tease my fancies a fair bit. Both she and her daughter give me consistent impressions that they are half spirit--that they have only a thin tie with the physical realm. They have that ghostly quality about them which makes me fancy that if I were to try and touch them my hands might pass clean through their flesh. The queen does appear and vanish like a specter, and in Ico's vision Yorda does rise out of a black pool like some mysterious primordial substance taking on a shape. There is something quite pliable and fluid about their nature. The same is true of the wraiths, whose case is a bit simpler since I am fairly certain they are already dead. Like her underlings the queen, instead of leaving behind a corpse, disbands upon death. I could not say if she was always this way, or if this shows that she has too long been clinging to life by unnatural means. In any case she decided to abandon her failing body and take over her daughter's.
And just how did Yorda come to be? Somehow the idea of the queen procreating like a normal female seems absurd, especially when I consider she has long lived in total seclusion and does not have much of a body left. She may have brought the girl directly into existence by magical means, which would give her enough ground to call her a daughter. Ico might even have taken a glimpse of the past and witnessed her birth, when he dreamed her emerging into form inside the cage. Who knows?--since the children's caskets seem to bear on her climactic transformation, perhaps the purpose of sacrifice was to enable her creation; which, if true, would explain why the queen is willing to let Ico off--she no longer needs the children now that she has Yorda. But now I am guessing much too far beyond what I can reasonably defend. This particular line of guessing, at any rate, has less affinity with fairy tales and more with science fiction. In fairy tales we find a great many instances of a damsel held captive by a witch or some such malignant being without the slightest indication as to how they came under such circumstances. Whenever there is an enchanted castle there is an ogre or a witch who occupies it, or a princess in need of rescue, or a prince who wants his deforming enchantment lifted; we are rarely told where the prince or the princess comes from, what has happened to the kingdoms where they are supposedly royalty, how a hag hunchbacked from old age has a rosy-cheeked maiden for a daughter, or why a towering giant kidnaps a human damsel not tall enough to reach his knees for a wife. It may be as simple as that. ICO is just the sort of nostalgic adventure that can get away with such formulaic set-ups. It is endearing precisely because it is old and familiar, if not completely reasonable. But if you are a type who abhors all things hackneyed, I imagine ICO will not long stay in your thoughts no matter how highly you think of its artistry.
The castle is the next. The term castle is obsolete today and is no longer used in nonhistorical contexts except, as a joke, to mean a very large or grand house. But the Medieval castle was less a house or a mansion and more a fortified downtown. And just as the downtown is the heart of a city, a castle implied a broader territory spread around it of which it was the center. That is why we never find two castles of this type in proximity to each other--it would be like having two city halls side by side. To be the lord of a castle therefore was much more than to own a fine home; it meant one was the chief authority in that region. An easy example may be found in the story of PUSS IN BOOTS where the cat ingeniously convinces the king that the miller's son is a great lord. The cat visits each of the fields belonging to a wealthy ogre and threatens the local farmers, the ogre's vassals, to tell the king that the land belongs to a fictional marquis. It then calls on the ogre at his castle, removes him by a trick, and declares the miller's son the ruling marquis of the region with no one to contest his claim of lordship. The cat's deception would have been short-lived had it not secured first the land surrounding the castle.
Let me explain why I brought up all that. The synopsis in the manual tells me that horned children are sacrificed because they are believed to be ill omens. But as I watched the opening sequence I found myself frowning, and thinking something was amiss. The manual suggested that Ico was to be disposed of much as garbage is put out, but it was at once clear to me that this boy was not being disposed of in that sense. He was being deposited--that is, stored for safekeeping. What was more, it was perfectly apparent that the knights were themselves nonresidents at the castle, and that they were following a prescribed procedure: they were to take the boy to the offshore fortress, sail round to the northern isle, enter it via the latticed cavern, reach the upper level by means of the sword and the elevator, and entomb the victim in a crypt prepared just for this purpose--prepared by the queen, I later learned. So it was not the villagers' idea to abandon the children at the castle. It was rather the queen's will that they be brought there. And now the question I must ask is, how could she get the outsiders to comply with this abomination? How indeed, unless she was in a position to exercise power over them? So she made a demand on them, and they obeyed because they feared her. And they feared her because they knew crossing her meant consequences. ("This is for the good of the village," the men tell their prisoner.) Now, I am not at all suggesting that the queen is the monarch of whichever kingdom Ico lives in. I am not even suggesting that she is a landed feudal lord like the ogre the cat tricked. I am only saying that she could not have done what she did without the compliance of the outsiders, and the fact that they did her bidding for generation after generation makes it impossible to doubt that her influence extends beyond the castle. I think it no accident that she is fluent in Ico's speech when her daughter is not.
But what of the pretext of a horned child bringing ill fortune? I see a few possibilities there. It may be that the queen outright lied to Ico's countrymen. Or it may be that the myth began among the countrymen and took roots over the years. For all the queen requires is the obeisance of the town leaders; the rest of the populace need not be enlightened, and in fact convenience would advise that they be kept in the dark. It is not unthinkable that no one besides the queen, not even the horsemen who deliver Ico, knows the true purpose of the practice. We must here realize that the sacrificing has been going on for many, many generations, if the number of caskets in the crypt is any clue. For all that time the queen has lived in seclusion, unseen by mortal eyes. For all that time none have dared to set foot on the isles except to bring a sacrifice every now and then. (That is of course a guess, but I believe a reasonable one. The queen does not seem much fond of human company and still less of trespassers.) Consequently the men now only have secondhand knowledge about the queen. Likely all they know is that a mysterious enchanted castle stands by the sea, fabled to be ruled by a powerful wizard whom no one now living has seen, and their ancestors have been making sacrifices of horned youngsters there since too long ago to remember, and they must keep at it if they are not to incur the wizard's wrath.
So it seems that the queen, despite her current policy of total isolation, once had enough of a presence in the world that she was able to impose her awful scheme on people. There was likely also some traffic between the castle and the shore, or else that stupendous bridge and the elaborate mechanism which operates it should not have been necessary. But one day she decided to cut off the castle from the land. She withdrew the bridge, retired into the dark impenetrable depth of the fortress, and in all probability did not speak with another outsider in person until Ico came along. She became a hermit. But why? I feel certain it was because she was growing decrepit. To explain I should like you to consider the following synopses. You may already be familiar with some if not all of them:
(1) Miss Havisham is deserted by her lover on her wedding day. Realizing that he had been after her fortune all along, she shuts herself up in the manor house and renounces the world forever. She stops all the clocks in the house, keeps the curtains drawn at all time, leaves the wedding table untouched for decades so that cobwebs grow thick on the cake, and refuses to wear anything but her wedding gown which is now yellow and in tatters. Until her death she does not take a step beyond the gate of her own home. (Charles Dickens; GREAT EXPECTATIONS)
(2) Roderick Usher is the last living member of an illustrious but cursed lineage. In the insufferable melancholy of his crumbling, once grand family villa he goes slowly mad contemplating the bygone glory of his progenitors and the inevitable end that awaits him. Upon his violent death the house caves in, sealing the doom of the family. (Edgar Allen Poe; THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER)
(3) At his ancient castle in Transylvania where he has ruled for centuries, Dracula plots to restore his waning empire by relocating to a new home, London, where preys are abundant. Failing in his design and pursued by foes, he retreats to Transylvania only to be caught and destroyed at the doorstep of his old home. (Bram Stoker; DRACULA)
(4) Thomas Sutpen is a self-made man obsessed with the dream of creating a personal dynasty in the Deep South. He buys a hundred square miles of land, names it Sutpen's Hundred, and builds himself a splendid mansion through brute will and tenacity. His blind obsession drives him to isolation from the community, tears his family apart, causes his son to murder his daughter's suitor, and finally leads to his own murder at the hands of a tenant farmer. His mansion stands for years as a ghostly remnant of his legacy and is at last torched by the remaining Sutpens who themselves perish in the blaze. (William Faulkner; ABSALOM, ABSALOM!)
(5) From his humble country beginning Charles Foster Kane goes on to dominate the newspaper business and to epitomize success. He erects an artificial mountain for his home Xanadu, the world's largest private residence. Success however corrupts his heart, causing his loved ones to leave him one by one. He dies alone in the palatial solitude of Xanadu. The film opens and closes with a dark, ominous shot of the mansion and its steel fence, sporting a "NO TRESSPASSING" sign. (Orson Welles; CITIZEN KANE)
Now it will be noted that the above scenarios share a remarkable uniformity of tone, theme, and circumstance that is very much echoed in our game. They involve a person of prestige or influence who grows estranged from the world (owing this estrangement usually to the very qualities which had made his success), shuts himself up in a private refuge, and there endures a lonely decline and eventual death. This refuge takes the form of a splendid dwelling equal to the greatness of the occupant. As the occupant decays in self-imposed exile the dwelling also decays, reflecting his condition. It comes to represent the man himself and all that is striking about him--a hulking shadow of the past grandeur and vitality, reeking with intense gloom, haunted by that bleak oppressive air of decay and ruin, and arousing in the beholder an eerie dread akin to what one might feel in a deserted cemetery or in the presence of a corpse. (Note also that all four of the written tales are first-person narratives. Compare the narrators' respective descriptions of, and reactions to, Miss Havisham's manor house, Usher's villa, Dracula's castle and Sutpen's mansion, and you will find the same uneasy dread dominating them all.) You probably know other stories that feature similar scenarios and sentiments--a picturesque but unnervingly somber house, mansion or castle occupied by a mysterious recluse who never shows himself outside his abode and thus becomes the center of fearful speculations, gossips, even legends. Mrs. Bates and "her" motel is a well known example, along with a host of ghost house stories. In fact "the scary old man down the street" we looked at in chapter IX is a playground variation of this very idea. The idea is not merely popular; it is pervasive, for its innate appeal to human imagination.
This image of a grim, alienated recluse brooding inside a prison of his own making is one of those classic motifs which appear time and again in fiction. The pairing of isolation and decay especially is prominent in classic romance tales. (I am using the term romance as a literary genre; GREAT EXPECTATIONS, THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER and DRACULA are all romances.) Each of the aforementioned characters ends up a hermit, unsociable in the extreme and wary of contact with outsiders. Each erects a formidable personal sanctuary to barricade himself against the world. Each meets his end in that very sanctuary, and this death invariably marks the tale's climax. The sanctuary becomes a symbol of its master, sharing his fortune and fate--and in the cases of Miss Havisham, Usher and Sutpen the houses are destroyed following their deaths to signify their complete ruin. All these we find to be true in ICO. In popular adventure films, too, the staple pattern of climax is to have the villain defeated and his lair blown up shortly thereafter. The pattern has been so abused that now it is more or less obligatory. ICO, I think, is a rare example of the classic motif executed faithfully and with admirable taste. That motif allows me to draw valuable inferences regarding the queen which are not strictly provided in the story itself.
This then is the queen as I envision her: a fearsome sorceress whose reputation once carried far beyond the walls of her castle; whose vigor declined after a long and iron-fisted reign; who then cut off the castle from the rest of the world and sequestered herself; who abided many generations in the stale safety of her ruinous shelter, seeking to revive her powers; and who just might have attempted to regain her old influence once she was restored to youth. For if what I saw is her dominion in a state of severe decline, what might it once have been like when she was at the height of her rule? And here I recall the desolate majesty of her throne room--a portrait of a fallen dynasty, I called it. I recall too the immensely stirring sequence of the isles' destruction, how they caved into the ocean in an almost dignified manner like a wounded behemoth laying itself to rest. It was magnificent visual poetry. The images cried out that something monumental was dying here. And it had almost cheated death--was on the verge of renewal when it was dealt the fatal blow. But what if it had succeeded? What if the boy had not gone back after his friend, had not stopped the queen? Young and strong once more, would she have been content to leave the wreckage of her dominion the way it is? Or would she have, like any sensible despot with the means, turned her attention to rebuilding what she had lost? By ridding the world of the queen Ico may have saved more than Yorda's life and his own. He may have protected from her tyranny the very neighbors who surrendered him to that tyrant. Imagine the astonishment of the next party of delegates that will come only to find the castle gone as though it had never been there! That is what I fancy at any rate, and again you are welcome to dismiss it if you find it groundless.
Finally, we come to the horned children. This is the very first mystery we encountered in the story. It is also the riddle that is least explained. I am afraid I will not be of much help on this one. I could not say even now exactly why the queen wants them, let alone why they are born with their anomaly. Let me list what I do feel fairly sure about.
1. That the queen indeed requires the horned children for some design is certain. I hope this will not be disputed after all we have looked at.
2. That the children are an essential part of that design also is certain. Hence the elaborate arrangement spanning decades if not centuries, and a special crypt prepared adjacent to the queen's own throne room.
3. It seems more than likely that this design is none other than the scheme to prolong her life.
And that, believe it or not, is all. The manner in which she intends to exploit the children is lost to me among a myriad of possibilities and suspicions which can be neither confirmed nor debunked. Most people, myself included, believe that some sort of essence or energy is involved which the queen needs and which only the horned children may yield. Very well, they yield something like that. But how is it used? Why do they have it? How does Yorda figure into this? And how is her transformation at the end related to their caskets? Before you propose your take on it, and I am sure you are itching to, let me assure you that no matter how thorough and obvious you think your theory is, I can suggest an equally plausible alternative which, if believed, will undermine yours. We will in fact not be exchanging theories at all. We will only be pitting one chain of assumptions against another. And one thing about assumptions is that they are perfectly useless in arguments unless the argument is understood to be hypothetical from the outset. Now, hypothetical arguments are often very useful, and even indispensable, in real life. There is always a chance that the hypotheses will be verified or falsified by factual discoveries. But in fiction they lead to mess and rarely, if ever, any resolution. There are innumerable possibilities and no reliable means of testing and eliminating false ones, which is how we deduce truth in real life. The only person who can put the matter to the rest is the storyteller, and he has quite deliberately chosen to whet our curiosity without satisfying it. I am sorry, but it will have to stay unsatisfied.
As I said earlier a contour, not a full portrait, is all I can aim at. I can only hope to determine the subject's rough size, shape, and pose. If anyone speaks of the shade of her hair or the mole on her cheek, you can bet he is not reasoning; he is inventing. For well over a year now I have seen dozens of people on this board contribute their own intricate variants of the mystery, none of which ever seemed to convince anybody else. This is a predictable situation. Whenever a thing seems out of place, our natural inclination is to imagine a scenario that will fit the oddity. This cannot and must not be avoided; we must do it if we are to reason. Problems arise however when we let inventiveness get the better of observation. That is, we might first observe a set of evidences and form a conclusion, A. Then when A is challenged by a conflicting claim we might introduce a modifying provision, B, which would allow us to override the objection and maintain A, albeit in a revised form. And when B is in turn found less than fully illuminating we simply come up with another modifying provision, C, that will fill the gap in B's logic--and so on and on, compounding one revision on top of another, so that by the time we get to H or K we are left with a conclusion that looks nothing like the evidences we started with. And I have seen this happen so many times it is not funny. The aggravating cycle might unfold like this:
Jack: I think all the black wraiths were formerly humans, just like the horned children. They must be the ghosts of people slain by the queen.
Bill: Not necessarily, when you look deeper into it. The queen took the children because they needed some unique essence of theirs. Why would she kill ordinary people also?
Jack: Maybe she didn't kill them for their essence. She probably had them turned into wraiths so she could control them as slaves.
Bill: But what would she need slaves for? The wraiths are pathetically weak compared to their master. What could they do that she herself couldn't?
Jack: Quite possibly she had them build the castle, which must have required incredible labor. Because they are spirits, they must be able to work without rest, sleep or food. One spirit could probably do five men's work, and that for centuries.
Bill: I am not convinced. I am thinking rather that the wraiths are simply her creations. They probably somewhat resemble the children's ghosts because they all depend upon the same magic. I observe that the horned children's ghosts look much the same as they did in life. But the other wraiths are in the shapes of all kinds of beasts. These obviously can't have been people.
Jack: So she took animals and turned them into wraiths--again so she could work them as slaves. And by the way some of them do look like men.
Bill: You know about any animals that are horned, winged, and two-legged? You know about any goat-sized spiders for that matter?
Jack: Well, maybe animals like that exist in Ico's world. It isn't the same universe as ours, you know.
Bill: But these wraiths are intelligent. They use teamwork and strategies to separate the kids and abduct the girl. They can't be animals. You can train animals, but you could hardly send them on a mission to bring back a prisoner, now could you?
Jack: The queen may have equipped them with a sort of quasi-intelligence so as to make them more useful underlings. Besides, given that these are fantasy creatures you cannot overrule the possibility that they were intelligent to begin with, just like the dragons and satyrs of our own myth...
This conversation will never end, so let us take leave of it at this point. By now you are thinking one of four things: (1) Jack is right; (2) Bill is right; (3) neither knows what he is talking about and you are ready to offer your own theory; or (4) the discussion took off on a sensible observation, but it quickly got out of hand. If the last of these is your choice, I am with you. But if you went for any of the rest I must encourage you to reconsider your entire approach to the story. Jack's very first observation, the one that began the debate, was valid enough a theory; it came direct from the clues that are presented to all of us. But everything that came afterwards was no theories at all but scenarios. Both Jack and Bill could probably write thoughtful fan fiction scripts. But as expositors they have failed utterly. What looks like progress of reasoning here is not progress but regress--a steady departure from the clues at hand, and increasing incorporation of elements foreign to the original subject. Jack and Bill think they are moving from the murky to the concrete, from the shallow to the deep, but what they have in fact done is take a concrete observation and sprout a host of murky speculations that will never be settled. They got deep, all right--so deep that they have lost themselves in the depth. I doubt they will ever resurface.
What then, you may ask, is the point of this whole exercise? Does not what I said above apply to all the arguments in this talk? As a matter of fact they do, though I hope to a lesser degree. I bring my own assumptions to my writing. I have offered scenarios of my own. But now you know why I accompanied those scenarios with disclaimers. In the end you must decide which riddles offer reasonably definite answers and which were never meant to be answered. I believe the horned children and the scheme surrounding their evil fate fall into this latter class. It is no use trying to arrive at a complete answer; if you somehow reach one, you and no one else will believe it.
Where ambiguity is the intended effect it will not help us to be specific. Let us not criticize a work in pastel for lacking clean lines. The fuzziness is its charm. You can put it under the microscope all you want and look for the precise, detailed sketch underneath, but you will not find it. The artist did not put it there. He was working with loose strokes from the beginning. And it is a mark of a competent draughtsman to be able to draw loosely and retain control and balance. At first glance the picture seems spare and disorderly. A closer inspection reveals that every stroke, every smudge is there for a reason. ICO may be cryptic, but it is eminently coherent.
Allow me then to paint, with very broad strokes, the larger picture of the tale as I understand it. The queen, having shut herself inside her castle when she grew old and frail, conceived a plan to restore herself to youth. She would usurp the body of a younger person who shared her nature. Her daughter was to provide the body, so she had the girl caged to prevent her escape. She also required additional ingredients for the plan. She found them in the horned children and had them brought to the castle to give up their lives. When she was very close to fulfilling her goal, one of the children escaped and, to her ire, freed the princess. They became partners on the run and friends besides. But the queen easily reclaimed her daughter and got rid of the boy. She no longer needed him, for she was on the brink of resurrection. She did not expect him to return for the girl. But return he did, and in a duel she was vanquished by the very victim she had intended to exploit. With the sorceress gone the enchantment over her domain dissolved, and all that owed its existence to her began to crumble. The princess, realizing her cursed nature, decided to send her brave rescuer back to his realm and share the castle's doom. Soon the very islands disappeared into the sea, forever erasing the queen's legacy from the world. But then something happened which none could have anticipated, not even the queen. When all that she had inherited from her mother had been washed away, a part of the girl remained. She awakened a free and pure creature, no longer under the burden of an enchanted destiny.
The talk got much longer than I had planned. I have just one task remaining, and that is to dispel some fans' suspicion that the pair's reunion takes place after death. I will have to write another segment after all.
(First Posted 25 August 2003)
I first heard of it on this board a few months after I began frequenting it, almost two years ago. I do not remember my exact reaction, nor do I recall the person who introduced me to the theory, but I think I was for the most part amused. His idea was that Ico and Yorda both die at the castle, and the reunion is a sort of their heavenly reward. The sun-washed beach is the afterlife, and the two children we see in the final scene are really the souls of the deceased. I did not say anything at the time. Apart from its juvenile perspective on heaven--it is a place you go to meet your old loved ones, and it will look exactly like this world or however you want it to look--the interpretation seemed to me in such vast disagreement with the flavor of the tale that I was sure no one would take it seriously. A while later I was surprised when I heard it again from another poster. Then I was aghast to see it spread like an epidemic particularly among those folk who seemed to value their mature and hard-nosed approach to life and literature. Apparently this was the enlightened reading of ICO--the sophisticated interpretation which, though admittedly somewhat depressing, a discerning intellect would not be afraid to adopt for fear of having his happy fragile illusions shattered. On several occasions I voiced the unreasonableness of that view. But there was not much I could do in a few measly paragraphs. I could not properly address the part without first taking the whole into the account. The matter became one of my prime motives for this exercise.
If you have read this far, you are used to my rambles. I am going to ramble a bit more. If you happen to subscribe to the afterlife interpretation you will probably want to refute me. I welcome your criticism, but I ask you first to read every word that follows. Should you challenge my points, I will assume you have considered those points and are intimately familiar with them.
Now, you know what I think happens in the ending. I think the two heroes, both pawns in the queen's plot, overcome the fate the witch has imposed on them. Thus he loses his horns (a symbolic event if I ever saw one) and she her enchantment. Each has willingly accepted death for the other's sake, and both are granted life. It is a thoroughgoing old-fashioned happy ending. The trademark of old-fashioned happy endings is in their moral emphasis; for the final reward one must be not only clever or hardworking but virtuous, an idea which has all but faded from modern fiction. This quaint notion is apt to suffer a proud dismissal from those who have "grown past" such "simplistic" and "primitive" outlooks and can no longer be satisfied with them. I have heard many complain that the ending makes things too easy. What they are likely saying is "I don't like this old cliche. I want something more complex and subtle, something not quite so ready-made, something that will make me think." I believe they are going about it the wrong way, but if something to think about is what they want--well, they shall have it.
Let me clarify at once that my rejection of the theory is not owed to any disbelief in life after death. If my open admiration for the writings of C. S. Lewis has not given me away, I am a Christian and assured believer in the existence of real heaven--not the romanticized heaven full of clouds and winged creatures in white robes, but the final concrete realization of the divine in man--and also, much as I dislike to dwell on the thought, in real hell. The reason I called the theory's image of heaven "juvenile" is not that I deem afterlife an immature notion, but rather that the theory looks at heaven as a kindergartener might--that is, she pictures it as a replica of this world from which all the bad and unpleasant things have been subtracted; whereas the great religious traditions, Christian or otherwise, that earned any degree of credential with discerning believers have consistently maintained that in heaven problems have not merely vanished but have been dealt with, solved, and conquered. The sort of afterlife which the theory hints at could only have been conceived by a writer who never gave serious thought to the subject and resorted to it as a convenient high note on which to end his story. The theory, it seems to me, claims to do away with the shallow cliche of a happy ending by substituting an interpretation which is equally shallow, a good deal less competent and vastly more pretentious. Allow me now to elaborate.
If I have read the argument correctly, people's main gripe about the ending is Yorda's survival. Suppose Ico awakened at the beach alone, and the story concluded there? No one would have come up with the afterlife theory then. No one would have had a problem with him alone surviving. It was only when they learned that Yorda too lives that some decided it was too much to believe. Yorda had to be dead. And if she were dead, then naturally he also was dead, for of course they would not otherwise be able to meet on the same plane of existence. Hence this was not a real beach but a manifestation of the spiritual realm. Thus the theory took shape.
So technically I do not have to explain how Yorda survived. All I have to show is that Ico is not dead, and the afterlife theory is rebutted. The glaring clue that he is still very much in this world is of course his horns, or what is left of them. After the heroic battle he is a rather piteous sight, with stumps stained in crimson where there used to be horns. And if I were to read a bit deeper, I should think he tumbles onto the sand because he is not feeling all that well after his injury; normally he is such a nimble boy. My opponent may then say that since that is how he was at death, that is how he looks in afterlife as well. So I suppose in his vision of heaven people who were decapitated in life would still be walking around headless; burn victims would spend eternity in bandages like Egyptian mummies; and the unfortunate souls who were blown to smithereens on some battlefield would, alas, be consigned to roam the heavenly atmosphere as a million dust particles. My, just what sort of heaven is this?
Moreover, if the boy we are seeing is the boy at the precise moment of his death, bloody wounds and all, how is it that the girl has been restored to her old self? I am told that since she could not have undone her transformation on her own, she must no longer be alive. But then she ought to look now exactly as she did at the moment of her death: black as ebony. So what is going on here? Did God decree that the boy keep his battle wounds but the girl be given back her pristine flesh? And then I am sure someone will come up with a work of fan fiction which will, in some convoluted way, settle the discrepancy--and we are right back to Jack and Bill's neverending discourse into the unknowable. You are not dragging me there.
I am further intrigued by an implication of the claim above, which I doubt many supporters of the theory have considered. They say "We don't see how Yorda has returned to her human form, except by assuming she is now dead." I think what they are trying to say is "Death has purified her of the enchantment, thus leaving her soul in her original state." But hold your thought for a moment. If her human form were her original state to begin with, would it be so hard to imagine her reverting to that form without suffering so cataclysmic an event as death?--that a tainted thing might be made pure again once the impurities melted away? My opponents should beware the double-edged nature of their own claim. They say they cannot imagine Yorda simply changing back to her old form. Yet their theory rides on the very supposition that her transformed state is not a natural condition. Clearly something has undone the spell. Why they insist death must be that something, I cannot fathom.
Let me then look into some evidences the theory points to and see if they are reasonable.
(1) "Yorda will never be able to leave this castle even if you take my life."
So the queen says a moment before her death. We have a name for this sort of statements. They are called taunts. "So you think you've beaten me, eh? Just you see." There is hardly an adventure tale that does not have a variation of this line uttered by the villain. It usually indicates a sore loser. Does that mean she is flat out lying? Not necessarily, though it does make her highly suspect of self-deception. She may well believe it. But please consider the following chain of logic:
-The beaten queen declares that Yorda cannot leave the castle.
I don't care how grandly they phrase their theory. In the end it comes down to "We must be seeing things." And their ground for this stupendous claim? The dying taunt of the enemy! They have decided that the villain's last brag is so trustworthy that it is reason enough to doubt--override--their own eyes.
(2) "Yorda is too weak to have swum ashore."
Let us recall how we find her on the beach. She looks, if I may put it bluntly, like a drowning victim. In fact we suspect her dead at first, and if his grim expression is any sign Ico does too. The storyteller is here deliberately exploiting our knowledge of the girl's frailty to lure us into fearing her dead--with the intent of reversing that expectation, that is, of surprising us. By refusing to allow that she has somehow survived at the sea, one is refusing to be surprised the way the storyteller wants him to be surprised. That is entirely his loss; he must go along with the story if he plans on enjoying it.
(3) "Yorda could not have returned to her human form."
We touched on this already. For some obscure reason the theory's supporters are convinced that her transformation could not be undone this side of the Jordan, though their view presupposes that her natural form is that of a human. But before anyone can set down what cannot happen, he must have a good idea of what can. If one does not know how A turned into B, how would he preclude the possibility of B turning back into A? And of course we must not forget that B has, in fact, turned back into A; we saw it with our eyes.
We do not know how and why things occur the way they do in this tale. We must be able to trust that we are being shown a consistent reality. Without that faith the entire experience, not just the ending, is suspect.
(4) "Sending Ico away, Yorda stays behind because she knows she cannot leave the castle, just as the queen said."
This is sheer nonsense. If the girl had known that she could not leave the castle, what on earth has she been doing all this time with Ico, braving a hundred deaths for freedom? Her reason for staying is rather simple when you think about it. Up until now she has tried very hard to escape to the outside world. But look at her now. She is a monster. She has no future in the human realm. Consequently she decides to send the boy back where he belongs and herself to stay where she belongs. Would you have acted very different?
(5) "The bolt that strikes Yorda down on the bridge is a mechanism designed to prevent her exit."
This is a bit cleverer but makes no better sense than the last. The bolt comes from a globe fixed atop a gatepost. This is the same contraption the children use to open the gate. If it has been programmed to "zap" Yorda should she try to run, why does it allow her to open the gate in the first place? And why would it wait until she is almost halfway across?--had she been hit only a second later, she would have made it to the shore side of the bridge. I think it is pretty clear. The gate opens in obedience to Yorda's command. It strikes her down in obedience to the queen's.
(6) "The queen must still have made some magical provision that renders it impossible for Yorda to step outside the isles."
This is the biggest speculation yet, and naturally the most unfounded. I think it extremely unlikely. The queen's own behavior testifies to that. She first keeps her daughter caged. Then after the girl breaks free she shows up twice in person, both times at the main gate, and foils her flight. Then she has her turned into stone, blocking all future attempts at escape. These actions do not match her claim that Yorda can never leave the castle. She acts very much like one who knows full well that the girl could leave if she tried hard enough. You would not leash your dog if you thought it could never run away.
In light of all the above I am inclined to think the queen's last words mean that Yorda, the special creature she is, belongs in the castle and is unfit for a life outside. In other words: "If you fancy she can now live as one of your kind just because I am gone, you are mistaken." And that, I suppose, would be reasonable enough a thing to say. In fact Yorda agrees. That is why she stays. Her metamorphosis has convinced her that she has no place after all in Ico's world, which it has been until now her dream to see.
But then, I may be asked, why would the queen say such a thing at all? Why utter a final word so overladen with meaning unless it is true? Surely the storyteller meant to accomplish something by betraying that kind of information at the climactic moment? Why, yes, as a matter of fact he did mean to accomplish something. He meant to get us to expect Yorda's doom. That is, he wanted us to fear for the girl--and fear the very worst.
We must here remember that the game has gone to a great trouble to establish a bond between Ico--that is, us--and his fair companion. That is why it constantly threatened us with her capture. Its principal drama hinges on getting us to grow attached to the girl, and then taking her away. Everything that comes before the pair's separation is meant to train us to be averse to parting with her. And everything that comes after is meant to have us seek, and fervently look forward to, reunion. That relentless anticipation is what makes Ico's lonely quest in the storm so gripping. And the storyteller does not want the anxiety to let up until the very end. He wants the moment of reunion, towards which his entire narrative has been building, to overwhelm us--wants our hopeful tension to break with such unexpected swiftness that we will be left stunned. And we could not be stunned unless we first gave up the girl as lost. For this reason it becomes necessary to drop clues that she may not be able to make it out after all. Else we would grow complacent once the villain is gone, and that is the last thing he wants. We must be made fearful that all is not yet well, and we must see that fear come true. Yorda must perish in our imagination, however briefly--a deliberate downward plunge in order that the ascent to come will be the more glorious. Those who charge that the ending is a shameless copout--a sort of emotional candy--to gratify the dejected audience rather miss the point. Their dejection was set up to be overturned from the beginning; indeed they were only dejected for that purpose. Therefore we cannot recast the ending without turning the story into something decidedly out of its intended character. The theory commits what seems to me the worst mistake that could be committed in making sense of ICO: it spoils the one moment for which the preceding ten hours have been preparing.
Before we move on, let me answer the charge that the ending is a copout. Copout means the failure to face some difficulty squarely--cowardly evasion. The theory's supporters claim that ICO's happy ending contradicts its tragic climax. In their opinion Ico and Yorda are dead, and to insist otherwise because it is depressing is cowardliness. They offer the afterlife theory as a manlier alternative.
Let us see if their remedy holds up under scrutiny. Imagine yourself as the screenwriter working on ICO's script. You have just written up to Ico's victory against the queen. You now need a suitable conclusion to the tale. You find yourself in a dilemma. "I have decided that the children are to die at the castle," you say to yourself, "but that will be too much for the audience to handle. I need a gentler exit for my two little heroes. But I cannot in all honestly have them walk into the sunset, either--that will undermine the tragic character of the story. What kind of compromise can I afford here? I've got it--I will have them reunite in afterlife. This way they remain dead, preserving the tragedy, and the audience gets a spoonful of sugar to swallow with the bitter medicine. Wait, I can make this even better: I will portray the reunion in such a way that the absolute majority of the audience will not realize they are looking at an afterlife. Most of them will blithely assume the children's survival. In fact many will come away thinking they have just seen the greatest happy ending to grace a video game! They are happy, and I am happy."
If any writer thus reasons to wrap up his story, I have no respect for that writer. It is a rule of thumb among students of fiction that the other-world is permissible as a setting only when it is an express element of the work's premise--as in Dante's INFERNO where the narrator takes a tour of hell, or Bunyan's PILGRIM'S PROGRESS where the hero sets out on a journey to reach the Celestial City, or C. S. Lewis' THE SCREWTAPE LETTERS whose main character is a devil. But to place the first nineteen chapters of your story in this world and switch to the other for the remaining one chapter, and this only to soften the tragedy of the nineteen chapters that already came, and that with deliberate ambiguity so as to grant yourself the benefit of doubt--that is inexcusable. If a writer ever succumbed to a copout, this is it.
And what about the charge that the ending is sentimental? I will not deny it; it is sentimental. But then the whole story is. One could hardly blame a sentimental tale for having a sentimental finale. If he does not like that type of stories he should keep away from them. But ICO's sentimentality is of the sincerest sort. There is nothing artful or cheap about it. You have felt this yourself. The pleasure you received from the ending was not an abstract satisfaction at seeing the hero and the heroine finally back together. It was an honest and heartfelt joy at finding a friend you feared lost.
But there is another accusation made against the sentimentality of the ending. Some people find it, as I heard someone say on this board, "too syrupy sweet." And this I must deny.
Syrupy sweetness is excessive sweetness. ICO's sentimentality is most emphatically not excessive. I have not seen many adventures so thoroughly understated. Reflect upon the fact that neither of the children is shown smiling even once. The dreariest and most ill-humored of stories rarely go so far to rid themselves of mirth. ICO's appeal is precisely that ability to convey rich emotions without flaunting them. Recall the first time you saw the ending. You found the girl, prone on the sand, and at first you were not quite sure what to make of it. Then you saw her awaken, and you knew she was alive. Your heart swelled. You were happy, you were relieved, you were full of anticipation--and then you stared stone still at the screen as it went blank with her whisper-soft utterance, leaving an unadorned FIN gazing back at you. It might have been a while before you moved. You were in a state of nearly reverential shock. And what was the shock? The shock at seeing the girl alive? That was certainly half of it. The other half was owed to the abruptness of it all. You were floored that the story ended where it did--at that exact moment when a lesser tale might have gone into a dramatic reunion scene. The sweet part of the ending had lasted all of five seconds. You were not even shown the children's reaction to the happy discovery. And you found that this did not at all take away from the ending's impact. Rather it augmented it manifold. Its restraint, you see, is the very thing that makes the ending great. If there is sweetness here it is not indulged in; it takes place in our imagination once the curtain has closed.
I now come to the most important part of this segment. I ask for your careful attention. If you forget everything else remember what is about to follow.
We have seen that the argument in support of the afterlife theory is in every way questionable. As the debate goes on, my opponent will eventually find himself left only with this in defense of his view: "Well, of course I can't prove they are dead. But then you can't prove they are alive either. Nothing can be proven in a story this vague. But the story is richer, makes deeper sense, when you look at it my way." And that is what it boils down to. Every defender of the theory I have come across is convinced that his is the superior conclusion--that the story improves with his understanding of the ending in place. Let me say it up front: it does not.
Going back through the previous sections of the story, I find that the theory, assumed to be correct, wreaks havoc with their dramatic flow. That the story spends its entirety in preparation for the ending, building momentum towards that final moment, I have already discussed. But even putting that aside, I find myself asked to accept a number of absurd scenarios--scenarios which are not strictly impossible, but which make so little sense that I cannot imagine a writer as competent as the one who penned ICO's script would go with them. If I were to believe the theory, I should have to conclude that the storyteller had Ico lose his friend, backtrack through the core of the isles, brave the elements and climb the cliff, return to his original prison, annihilate his horned brethren, and finally duel the queen and bury her own sword in her heart all in a quest to save his precious companion--only to have him promptly dashed against a wall and die. And what of Yorda? Am I to say that she goes to the trouble of taking the boy in her arms, fleeing the crumbling great hall, operating the elevator to descend to the cavern, finding a boat of which she had no prior knowledge, putting him inside alone and sending him out to the ocean in the nick of time all so she can spare a corpse from the impending destruction of the castle? As if she does not take the unconscious boy out of the tower, knowing it is about to fall, in order to save his life and repay her debt! Certainly both scenarios are conceivable. But which makes a story worth listening to? Which is infinitely lame? And if anyone is about to say "Maybe he is alive at the time but dies out at the sea" or "Maybe she isn't aware of his death"--well, would that be any less lame? Let us not be thick here. If they were both to die at the castle, the proper thing would be to have them die together. A farewell scene of this sort is appropriate only when one of the parties is expected to die while the other is expected to live. If ICO is a tragedy, it is no more than a third-rate tragedy.
Let me offer a more levelheaded rationale as to why the afterlife theory cannot help but ruin the tale. Once I again I ask for your close attention. Thus far we have examined the ending in one exclusive category: happy ending. But there is another class of ending that it belongs to, to which no one seems to pay any attention. ICO has what is commonly called a surprise ending, which we may loosely define as the literary technique of closing a story with some crucial or profoundly affecting revelation.
Why is that important? The reason becomes apparent when we dig into the nature of surprise endings. As noted earlier, surprise involves a reversal of expectation--i.e., you thought such and such were the case, only to be shown that you could not have been further from the truth. A surprise ending therefore requires that the audience be first led to form a false picture of the reality so as to set them up for the revelation to come; hence the queen's repeated claim that Yorda can never leave the castle, and the girl's voluntary acceptance of death. Now it is the nature of every surprise ending that without it the story cannot make proper sense. It is that last piece of puzzle which places all that came before it in the correct light. Consider for instance O. Henry's THE GIFT OF THE MAGI, a short story about a poverty-stricken young couple which features one of the most beloved surprise endings in all of fiction. In it Della, desperate to buy a suitable Christmas gift for her husband Jim, resorts to selling the only thing of value she possesses--her beautiful long hair. With the money she buys a gold chain for Jim's prized pocket watch, an old family heirloom. The story ends with the bittersweet revelation that Jim's gift for her is a set of jewel-studded hair combs she has long coveted. He has sold his watch to buy it.
A story of this sort places such an emphasis on the closing scene that it is hopeless to assess its character--its theme--until it has quite ended. If, for instance, your copy of ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN or THE ILIAD is missing the last page, you can still get out of those books most everything they have to offer. But if you were forced to forgo the ending of THE GIFT OF THE MAGI or Poe's THE BLACK CAT or Maupassant's THE NECKLACE you would be left with a crippled and incoherent tale. You would be left in want of the most vital part of the story, and your understanding of it must remain fundamentally flawed. Imagine not watching the final sequence of CITIZEN KANE or THE USUAL SUSPECTS. Would it not be all rather pointless? And that is just what a surprise ending is: the point of the story, compressed into a single moment of revelation. So it is that every surprise ending carries the same message at core: "This is what the story is about. Forget what you have seen, heard, and supposed thus far--this is the real deal." ICO is no exception. The surprise arrives at the precise instant we accept that a girl who should be dead is alive. It evaporates when we presume all this is taking place in afterlife. For of course there can be no surprise or revelation in realizing that a dead girl is still technically dead. Likewise there can be no point in showing her twitch her fingers, blink open her eyes squinting at the light, and issue an utterance in her dear old voice at the final moment of the story, unless one means to convey that she who ought to have died has miraculously survived.
But that is not all.
It seems clear to me that those who subscribe to the afterlife theory adopted that view in retrospect. That is, they too assumed the children's survival the first time they saw the ending. It was only when they mulled over it afterwards that they decided that is not the case after all. In other words they decided their initial grasp of the ending was faulty and invalid. I am afraid this has fatal implications for their claim. Let me clarify.
Recall to your mind any story that ends on a thrilling "shocker"--say THE USUAL SUSPECTS or THE SIXTH SENSE. Could these films be watched a second time and still be enjoyed? Yes, they could. (If they could not, the blame is on the the shallowness of the stories or the shallowness of the audience.) But will that second viewing be nearly as jolting and powerful as the first? No, of course not. And any writer competent enough to pull off a surprise ending knows that. He knows his ending will work its magic just once. That is why he must make absolutely certain that the audience will get the surprise at once. He cannot afford to allow misinterpretation. He has but this one chance to make the audience fall out of their chairs. He has to deliver the punch, and all of it, the very instant he unveils the surprise. If the audience has to mull over the ending to grasp it, the ending has failed. It has lost the element of surprise. For surprise, as you know, is an instantaneous event. And it cannot be reproduced; you can never be surprised twice by a thing. Thus by its nature a surprise ending does not expect multiple readings. It operates on the principle that it will not be given a second chance.
Do you see what this means? A surprise ending that leaves the audience scratching their heads, one that has to be interpreted in hindsight, one that has to be seen more than once to communicate itself to the audience, is a fiasco--just as a joke has failed if the listeners have to think long and hard about it before laughing, or worse, if it has to be repeated to get the laugh out of them. And yet this is just what the theory's proponents imply about ICO's ending. What is more, they believe they have enhanced the ending!
Just about one hundred percent of the players perceive--correctly--that Ico and Yorda have survived upon viewing the ending for the first time. A few of them change their minds in hindsight. Now if these few were right, that would mean that ICO's conclusion lends itself to faulty interpretation in one hundred percent of its viewers. It would mean it is a one hundred percent failure as a surprise ending. It would mean nobody understood the ending right away. It would mean the screenwriter put together a surprise ending so unintelligible that only a few would be able to fathom it, and none immediately.
Therefore by arguing for the afterlife theory I should be automatically arguing that ICO's ending is a disastrous denouement to an otherwise lovely tale. I should be accusing the storyteller of the worst error a writer could commit when he is trying to deliver an ending of this sort. Here then is my last plea to those who take that stance. It is one thing to say that an event occurred though you cannot explain how it did. It is quite another to insist that it must not have occurred at all because you cannot account for it. Now if you believe the girl's survival is inconsistent with the rest of the story, you would have been a great deal more sensible to say that the ending is badly written, rather than that it does not happen the way it so plainly does. You are entitled to criticize any flaws you perceive. But, please, let us not go into the nonsense about improving the ending with a fresh interpretation. It has not left that option open to us.
And with that I am done. I hope I have in some way added to your enjoyment of the game. If you came to this exercise thinking that ICO, despite its rich atmosphere, is rather thin in story, and I have helped you change that opinion, I should deem the exercise a success and be most content. I wish however to warn you against the opposite error. That is, I don't want you to get the idea--not from me anyhow--that this unassuming fairy tale is a masterpiece of Shakespearian proportions. Throughout the exercise I have invoked great works of literature to illustrate some aspects of the game, but the comparisons were to show how ICO draws from similar principles, and never to suggest that its merits rival those masterworks'. For its medium ICO is very unique, very sophisticated, and I wish there were more games like it. I have not seen a video game tell a story so skillfully and seamlessly. Thus ICO's brilliance as a work of fiction is, to a fair extent, comparative--it shines because the other games are so dull. I have scrutinized it as I have never scrutinized another game because it is the only game I know that even warrants that sort of treatment. Before ICO, I had seen stories in games that were entertaining as diversions, but they never made me want to study what made them entertaining. They did not have enough for a study, unless one meant to study bad storytelling.
Now, just about every person who is deep into gaming seems to believe that video game is as competent an art form as any. If he is a fan of ICO, he may point to it as his proof. Some people who share a similar view have even paid me compliments along the line of "I'm glad someone is finally treating video games with respect they deserve" or "It's great that you take your games so seriously." I am not and I do not. My regard for ICO is a very poor indicator of my opinions on video games in general. I think most video games, even those that boast beautiful visuals and grand epic themes, are severely awkward as art works--lacking any kind of unifying mandate apart from their all-important pursuit of "fun," which seems to me no more artistic than baseball or poker. I have often heard video games validated as art in words like these: "Video gaming is art because any creative human activities can find artistic expression. Why should games be any different?" And that is right of course. But I wonder if we are asking the right question to begin with. By the most generous definition of art we are almost constantly surrounded by art and doing things with artistic implications. Even a silly doodle scribbled in a notebook during a boring lecture counts as art. But surely we knew this already? Surely the question we ought to be considering is not "Is it art?" but rather "Is it good art?"
Let me recast the question in a different mold. None will deny that poetry is an art, and a much respected art. But is there such a thing as bad poetry? Of course there is. In fact an enormous portion of it is unreadable. So when we declare poetry an art form we are not really paying poetry as a whole any compliment. Like most creations art can be wonderful or terrible or merely mediocre.
And that is my problem with all this heated debate over whether video games constitute an art form. People speak as if they were bestowing some great honor upon games by calling them art. But art is a value-neutral term. When we say "This pottery is a work of art" we are not praising the pottery; we are stating a fact. The pottery may be a sublime work of art, or it may be an execrable work of art. Of course, should we be moved to exclaim "My goodness, this pottery is a work of art!" then we most certainly are praising it. But that is only because we are all along meaning to say it is a good work of art. We have merely left "good" unspoken--unspoken but clearly implied by the tone and the context.
The game industry has not produced many--if any--sublime works of art or it would not be struggling so much for respectability. Literature and music are better received as art forms because those fields have produced across centuries numberless masterworks whose enduring beauty and relevance have been tested and proven; works which allow the audience into the profoundest depth of the human genius. Until video games do the same, and I am not sure it will happen, the genre will continue to suffer the stigma of low-grade entertainment.
Look at popular comics for instance: it has been around for a century and has been far more successful than video games in cultivating its distinct brand of artistic integrity, but it fares only slightly better in finding acceptance as a meaningful art form. Recent popular comic artists have tried to improve its reputation by a number of tactics--rendering superhero comics in classic media like oil and pastel (some examples of which are quite skilled), injecting philosophical and social commentary into the drama, waiving two-dimensional heroes and villains in favor of rounded characters, shifting from flagrant optimism to increasingly dark and "mature" outlooks, and so on. All these have made popular comics more interesting, but where earning greater artistic validation for the genre is concerned they were more or less doomed to failure from the beginning. A tragic, complex, philosophical, photorealistically rendered BATMAN is still BATMAN--the exploits of a handsome young billionaire who protects the streets of Gotham by nightly donning a skintight bulletproof outfit, a cape and a mask with fake horns so he can go about manually beating up criminals. If there is a difference, it is that this reinvented BATMAN expects the kind of respect which the series' own nature denies, so that where it was merely silly before it is now pretentious. I often perceive the same pretentiousness when a gamer declares his pet title artistic or profound--as if grand pantheistic talks about a planet's life force saves it from being a role-playing game whose goal is to equip your characters for better combat moves, as if cramming a game full of religious and metaphysical allusions makes up for its being similarly crammed full of giant fighting robots and fetching sex symbols, as if turning the story into a treatise on some philosophical theme excuses the poor storytelling.
Some people may object that the flaws listed above do not really fall under the criteria of the so-called gaming art. Gaming art, I have been told by some, is about the ingeniousness of gameplay. I could not understand what this gameplay was and tried looking it up. None of the dictionaries I owned had the word. So I gave up on defining gameplay, but from what I have learned since it has to do with the cleverness, depth, and enjoyableness of the rules that make up the game. Superior gameplay makes the fun more enduring and rewards the skills of the player. Just a few weeks ago I saw a footage of someone completing a whole SUPER MARIO game in a matter of minutes. He did not make a single mistake. He blazed through the levels like a tiny 2-D god, killing all the enemies and getting all the points and making all the jumps at exactly the right times and not slipping or getting hit even once. It was like seeing a Karate master who so clearly saw through the opponent's moves that he was impermeable to them. It was impressive. So that's what those SUPER MARIO fans were always telling me about, I thought. (I had played the game myself and knew how hard it was.) I wondered if this might be what they mean by gaming art, and if this sort of gameplay indeed has artistic merits.
To explain the answer I came to, I want us to consider an illustration that may at first seem odd. I want us to consider ballet and gymnastics. Both words call to the mind the image of petite graceful young ladies in form-fitting attires. Both disciplines use the human body as the vehicle of their ideals. Both a ballerina and a gymnast spend year after year in rigorous training to achieve the utmost grace and efficiency of movement. Both must possess passion and commitment as well as talent in prodigious degrees if they are to succeed. We call ballet an art and categorize gymnastics under athletics. Now would you not say this is a most unfair distinction? What doe the gymnast lack against the ballerina that she is labeled an athlete but not an artist? Does she lack training, competence, zeal, even beauty? No; she uses the same medium for her skills and works just as hard if not harder. In fact if you are at all like me you probably find gymnastics much more spectacular than ballet. So why the distinction?
The reason is in the nature of the disciplines. Ballet pursues beauty, while gymnastics aims at nimbleness. Physical agility of course contains an element of beauty. Naturally some gymnastic competitions include artistic dimension as a part of the evaluation criteria. But every gymnast understands that her work is first about pushing the body to the limits of agility and second about expressing beauty. Consequently we say, and rightly, that the gymnast demonstrates and the ballerina performs. A gymnastic demonstration can and should have an artistic aspect, but that is not where its focus lies.
If by gaming art we mean no more than a very clever and efficient way of yielding pleasure, a kind of mental gymnastics as demonstrated by the SUPER MARIO expert--well, that may or may not be art, but one thing is for sure: if it is art, it is a kind of art that will be taken seriously by none save its own devotees. Any art in SUPER MARIO or TETRIS, or even in go or chess, is doomed to enjoy no recognition outside their circles of fans, however global those circles may be. For it is the mark of the great arts to be relevant to some essential aspect of what it means to be human. That is why they always find a broad audience to acknowledge, even if they do not fully appreciate, their value. I appreciate ICO because, much more than any video games I know, I find it full of that worthwhile and pleasurable relevance which I have found in good literature, music and paintings. But a gamer who praises the art of ICO, or the art of any other titles for that matter, ought to remember that superior art of similar kinds abounds outside the field of gaming. Else he may risk the nearsightedness of a child who thinks himself a fine poet because he is versed in nursery rhymes.
If you wish to discuss any points I have raised here, come to the ICO message board at GameFAQs (www.gamefaqs.com).
Kindly inform me of any technical errors you find in this text.
I would like to thank everyone at the message board for supporting this project of mine since the original thread began in May 2003. Thanks especially to those who enlivened, and who are still enlivening, the ongoing thread by sharing their own perspectives.
Vincent Lam ("ICO") has my special thanks for creating ICO Flash, the best ICO fan page on the Net. I have borrowed a number of images from the site. You can see it at [http://hk.geocities.com/icofan/].
Clover, the webmaster, has volunteered valuable time to make this version of the annotation possible. I am very grateful for her service, which I am sure was less for me and more for the game she loves. Everything other than the bare text is her work, so if you enjoyed this piece at all, do take the trouble to thank her.
I will not list here the books I mentioned throughout the exercise since I provided their titles and authors when I referred to them. They are all well-known classics, and I trust you will have no difficulty at all finding them if you are interested.
Finally I thank you for staying with me through the talk.
All of the written text is by PeterEliot; the only thing I have done is convert the document to HTML and add some pictures.
The entire document was coded by hand in Notepad; the screencaps were not altered except to crop, resize and add a border.
If you notice any problems code or image-wise with the document, please e-mail me.