The lights are on
Ico begins with a young boy (presumably named Ico; the game never says it explicitly) being exiled into a castle for reasons that are never explained. The boy finds a pale, ethereal-looking girl named Yorda locked in a cage, again, for unexplained reasons. You free the girl and try to escape together, and the game begins in earnest. We're discussing a section of the game that's later in the narrative, so if you plan to play Ico, be aware of spoilers.
Ico has often been jokingly and derogatorily called a handholding simulator, because from that point forward you spend your time leading Yorda by the hand through the castle. Together the two of you try to solve the traps and puzzles that line the castle and avoid the shadow demons that are out to get you. When I say the two of you try to get through the castle, I really mean Ico, because Yorda doesn’t contribute much of anything. You solve the puzzles and call to Yorda to come along. You fight the shadow demons with your sword while Yorda cowers helplessly. Yorda doesn’t help. Yorda can’t communicate with you because she speaks another language. She’s just there with you all the time, along for the journey.
Because she usually feels like more of a hindrance than an ally, it’s surprising how emotionally impactful the bridge scene is that occurs towards the end of the game. After hours of solving puzzles in two opposing towers of the castle, two beams of light from the towers hit the main gate, illuminating and opening it. Outside, a massive stone bridge extends from both sides of the chasm, converging and forming a path back to the mainland. Finally, freedom is visible. It’s right across the bridge!
Sadly, only tragedy awaits. When Ico and Yorda reach the halfway point of the bridge, the towers of light electrocute Yorda, and she collapses. The bridge begins pulling back in opposite directions, with Ico and Yorda on opposite sides, and the gap between them grows wider by the second. Ico jumps back over the gap and Yorda grabs him by the hand, but it’s no use; she’s too weak to pull him up, and he falls into the water below. The game continues with Ico navigating the caverns underneath the castle by himself, trying to find a way out.
When this sequence first played out, I was shocked at how profoundly sad I felt that Yorda was no longer with me. Yorda had become an annoyance over the course of the game, always being helpless and vulnerable as I had to escort her for hours. But after I was on my own, I missed Yorda. She had always been there; it hadn’t even occurred to me up to that point that she would suddenly be gone from the game. I had been the one protecting her for hours, and now, suddenly, I couldn’t.
The unexpected emotional wave that hit me is a testament to Ico’s brilliant, understated game design. Ico never beats you over the head with any idea. Yorda is not your sappy one-true-love that you could never live without. Heck, she’s not necessarily even your friend. She’s just your companion. And she’s your only companion. There’s no other life inside the castle, save for the chirping of birds overhead. It’s just you and her, exploring a desolate, mysterious environment. By sheer virtue of the fact that she’s there with you for so much of the game, you become attached to her without even realizing it until that moment on the bridge. She’s a part of your story; you inherently don’t want anything bad to happen to her. Then, instantly, something does, and as the player you’re powerless.
This moment works because it surprises you. Some games try to evoke emotion by having some grandiose, lavish cutscene with people you supposedly care about dying and buildings collapsing and everything going to hell. It often doesn’t work because the game is trying too hard. With Ico, the feelings of attachment sneak up on you as Yorda becomes an innocuous part of your journey. She turns from some mysterious girl into someone that’s casually always with you. You fall under the false assumption that she’ll be with you for the whole story, and then sneakily, the game rips her from you right when you feel the most comfortable.
Attachment is a powerful concept that’s rarely used in games. When used effectively, however, the power of attachment and loss can create moments as powerful as they are memorable. There are no words uttered on the bridge during that scene, yet anyone watching understands the weight of the situation. The entire game had led up to that moment. It begins with a glimmer of hope, and ends with separation, the exact opposite of what was expected. The way Ico subtly and cleverly twists the player’s emotions is the reason it holds such a strong place in the hearts of many who have played it. That scene on the bridge alone makes Ico a wholly unforgettable experience.
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