ICO (イコ Iko,? English pronunciation: /ˈiːkoʊ/) is a 2001 action-adventure video game published by Sony Computer Entertainment and released for the PlayStation 2 video game console. It was designed and directed by Fumito Ueda, who wanted to create a minimalist game around a "boy meets girl" concept. Originally planned for the PlayStation, Ico took approximately four years to develop by Team Ico. The team employed a "subtracting design" approach to reduce elements of gameplay that interfered with the game's setting and story in order to create a high level of immersion.
The titular protagonist is a young boy born with horns whom his village considers a bad omen. Warriors lock the boy, named Ico, away in an abandoned fortress. During his explorations of the fortress, Ico encounters Yorda, the daughter of the castle's Queen. The Queen plans to use Yorda's body to extend her own lifespan. Learning this, Ico seeks to escape the castle with Yorda, keeping her safe from the shadow-like creatures that attempt to draw her back. Throughout the game, the player controls Ico as he explores the castle, solves puzzles and assists the less-agile Yorda across obstacles.
Ico introduced several design and technical elements, including a story told with minimal dialog, bloom lighting and key frame animation, that have influenced subsequent games. Although not a commercial success, it was critically acclaimed for its art and story elements and received several awards, including "Game of the Year" nominations and three Game Developers Choice Awards. Ico is listed on several overall top game lists, and is often considered a work of art. The game was reprinted in Europe in 2006, in conjunction with the release of Shadow of the Colossus, the spiritual successor to Ico. Along with Shadow of the Colossus, Ico will be released in the Ico and Shadow of the Colossus: The Collection for the PlayStation 3 which will feature HD graphics, Trophy and 3D support.
The game's main protagonist is Ico (イコ Iko?), a young boy with a pair of horns on his head—considered a bad omen by his village. As part of the village's tradition, he is taken by a group of warriors to a castle surrounded by water and locked inside one of the sarcophagi in a crypt. Some time after the warriors depart, a tremor runs through the castle, and Ico is able to take advantage of it to escape his confines. As he searches the castle, he comes across Yorda (ヨルダ Yoruda?), a captive girl who speaks in an unknown language. Ico helps Yorda escape, but finds she is hunted by shadow-like creatures (the souls of other horned children sacrificed to the fortress) that attempt to drag her body into the portals from which they emerged. Although Ico cannot be harmed by the shadows and is able to drive them away from Yorda, he finds he cannot defeat the enemies with his simple weapons. The pair make their way through the abandoned castle, eventually arriving at the bridge leading to land. As they cross, the Queen, ruler of the fortress and Yorda's mother, appears and tells Yorda that as her daughter she cannot leave the castle. Ico and Yorda attempt to flee, but the Queen destroys part of the bridge in their path; although Yorda tries to save him, Ico falls off the bridge and loses consciousness.
Ico awakens in the chambers below the castle and travels back to the upper levels. During his explorations, he finds a magic sword that is able to dispel the shadow creatures. After discovering that Yorda has been turned to stone by the Queen, he seeks out the Queen in her throne room. The Queen reveals that she is preventing Yorda from leaving so that she may extend her own life, which she had previously done by draining the life of those placed in the sarcophagi. Now, she plans to restart her life anew by taking possession of Yorda's body. Ico and the Queen fight, Ico losing both of his horns in the process. Ico is able to slay the Queen with the magic sword, but with her death the castle begins to collapse around him, and he loses consciousness again from falling debris. The Queen's spell on Yorda is broken, and as a shadow creature Yorda carries Ico safely out of the castle and onto a boat, sending him to drift to the nearby shore and choosing not to accompany him. Ico awakens to find the castle in ruins and Yorda, in her human form, washed up beside him.
Ico is primarily a three-dimensional platform game. The player controls Ico from a third-person perspective as he explores the castle and attempts to escape it with Yorda. The camera is fixed in each room or area but swivels to follow Ico or Yorda as they move; the player can also pan the view a small degree in other directions to observe more of the surroundings. The game includes many elements of platform games; for example, the player must have Ico jump, climb, push and pull objects, and perform other tasks such as solving puzzles, to progress within the castle. These actions are complicated by the fact that only Ico is able to carry out these actions; Yorda can only jump short distances and cannot climb over tall barriers. The player must use Ico so that he helps Yorda cross obstacles, such as by lifting her to a higher ledge, or by arranging the environment to allow Yorda to cross a larger gap herself. The player is able to tell Yorda to follow Ico, or to wait at a spot. The player can also have Ico take Yorda's hand and pull her along at a faster pace across the environment. Players are unable to progress in the game until they move Yorda to certain doors that only she is able to open.
Escaping the castle is made difficult by shadow creatures sent by the Queen. These creatures attempt to drag Yorda into black vortices if Ico leaves her for any length of time, or if she is in certain areas of the castle. Ico can dispel these shadows using a stick or sword and pull Yorda free if she is drawn into a vortex. While the shadow creatures cannot harm Ico, the game is over if Yorda becomes fully engulfed by a vortex; the player restarts from a save point. The player will also restart from a save point if Ico falls from a large height. Save points in the game are represented by stone benches which Ico and Yorda rest on as the player saves the game. In European and Japanese releases of the game, upon completion of the game, the player has the opportunity to restart the game in a local co-operative two-player mode, where the second player plays as Yorda, still under the same limitations as the computer-controller version of the character.
Lead developer Fumito Ueda came up with the concept for Ico in 1997, envisioning a "boy meets girl" story where the two main characters would hold hands during their adventure, forming a bond between them without communication. Ueda's main inspiration for Ico was Eric Chahi's game Another World (Outer World in Japan), which used cinematic cutscenes and lacked any head-up display elements as to play like a movie. It also featured an emotional connection between two characters, despite the use of minimal dialog. Ueda also cited Lemmings, Flashback and the original Prince of Persia games as influences, specifically regarding animation and gameplay style. With the help of an assistant, Ueda created an animation in Lightwave to get a feel for the final game and to better convey his vision. In the three-minute demonstration reel, Yorda had the horns instead of Ico, and flying robotic creatures were seen firing weapons to destroy the castle. Ueda stated that having this movie that represented his vision helped to keep the team on track for the long development process, and he reused this technique for the development of Shadow of the Colossus, the team's next effort.
Ueda began working with producer Kenji Kaido in 1998 to develop the idea and bring the game to the PlayStation. Ico's design aesthetics were guided by three key notions: to make a game that would be different from others in the genre, feature an aesthetic style that would be consistently artistic, and play out in an imaginary yet realistic setting. This was achieved through the use of "subtracting design"; they removed elements from the game which interfered with the game's reality. This included removing any form of interface elements, keeping the gameplay focused only on the escape from the castle, and reducing the number of types of enemies in the game to a single foe. An interim design of the game shows Ico and Yorda facing horned warriors similar to those that take Ico to the castle. The game originally focused on Ico's attempt to return Yorda to her room in the castle after she was kidnapped by these warriors. Ueda believed this version had too much detail for the graphics engine they had developed, and as part of the "subtracting design", replaced the warriors with the shadow creatures. Ueda also brought in a number of people outside the video game industry to help with development. These consisted of two programmers, four artists, and one designer in addition to Ueda and Kaido, forming the base of what is now known as Team Ico. On reflection, Ueda noted that the subtracting design may have taken too much out of the game, and did not go to as great an extreme with Shadow of the Colossus.
After two years of development, the team ran into limitations on the PlayStation hardware and faced a critical choice: either terminate the project altogether, alter their vision to fit the constraints of the hardware, or continue to explore more options. The team decided to remain true to Ueda's vision, and began to use the Emotion Engine of the PlayStation 2, taking advantage of the improved abilities of the platform. Character animation was accomplished through key frame animation instead of the more common motion capture technique. Ico is recognized as one of the first games to incorporate bloom lighting into video games, a feature that is common in later seventh generation console video games. The game took about four years to create. Ueda purposely left the ending vague, not stating whether Yorda was alive, whether she would travel with Ico, or if it was simply the protagonist's dream.
The cover used for releases in Japan and PAL regions was drawn by Ueda himself, and was inspired by the surrealist artist Giorgio de Chirico and his work, The Nostalgia of the Infinite. Ueda believed that "the surrealistic world of de Chirico matched the allegoric world of Ico". The North American version lacks this cover as well as additional features that become available after the player completes the game once. The development team was unable to provide Ueda's cover or the additional features such as the two-player mode in time for Sony's planned North American release date, but included them for the later releases in Japan and PAL regions. On reflection, Yasuhide Kobayashi, vice-president of Sony's Japan Studio, believed the North American box art and lack of an identifiable English title led to the game's poor sales in the United States, and stated plans to correct that for the release of The Last Guardian. For its original release, a limited edition of the game was available in PAL regions that included a cardboard wrapping displaying artwork from the game and four art cards inside the box. The game was re-released as a standard edition in 2006 across all PAL regions except France after the 2005 release of Shadow of the Colossus, Ico's spiritual sequel, to allow players to "fill the gap in their collection".
Ico uses minimal dialog in a fictional language to provide the story throughout the game. Voice actors included Kazuhiro Shindō as Ico, Reiko Takahashi as Yorda, and Misa Watanabe as the Queen. Ico and the Queen's words are presented in either English or Japanese subtitles depending on the release region, but Yorda's speech is presented in a symbolic language. Ueda opted not to provide the translation for Yorda's words as it would have overcome the language barrier between Ico and Yorda, and detracted from the "holding hands" concept of the game. In the non-North American releases, playing through the game again after completing the game replaces the symbolic text with appropriate language subtitles.
Ico's audio featured a limited amount of music and sound effects. The soundtrack, Ico: Kiri no Naka no Senritsu (ICO～霧の中の旋律～ Iko Kiri no Naka no Senritsu?, lit. "Ico: Melody in the mist"), was composed by Michiru Oshima and Kōichi Yamazaki (aka. Pentagon) and released in Japan by Sony Music Entertainment on February 20, 2002. The album was distributed by Sony Music Entertainment Visual Works. The last song of the CD, ICO -You Were There-, includes vocals sung by former Libera member Steven Geraghty.
Ico received several gaming acclamations from the video gaming press, and was considered to be one of the Games of the Year by many publications, although it was in competition with other best-selling 2001 releases, such as Halo, Metal Gear Solid 2, and Grand Theft Auto 3. The game received three Game Developers Choice Awards in 2002, including "Excellence in Level Design", "Excellence in Visual Arts", and "Game Innovation Spotlight". The game won several Interactive Achievement Awards from the Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences in 2002 including "Art Direction" and "Character or Story Development", and was nominated for awards of "Game of the Year", "Game Design", "Level Design" and "Sound Design".
A novelization of the game titled Ico: Kiri no Shiro (ICO-霧の城- Iko: Kiri no Shiro?, lit. "Ico: Castle of Mist") was released in Japan in 2004. Author Miyuki Miyabe wrote the novel because of her appreciation of the game. A Korean translation of the novel, entitled 이코 - 안개의 성 (I-ko: An-gae-eui Seong) came out the following year, by Hwangmae Publishers, while an English translation will be published by Viz Media on August 16 of 2011. Costumes (including Ico and Yorda), stickers, and sound effects from Ico will be part of an add-on pack for the game LittleBigPlanet, alongside similar materials from Shadow of the Colossus, after being teased by the game's developers Media Molecule about two weeks prior. A film adaption of Ico may come about based on the success of the adaptation of Shadow of the Colossus being created by Misher Films in conjunction with Sony and Fumito Ueda.
Several game designers, such as Eiji Aonuma, Hideo Kojima, and Jordan Mechner, have cited Ico as having influenced the visual appearance of their games, including The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, and Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, respectively. Marc Laidlaw, scriptwriter for the Half-Life series, commented that, among several other more memorable moments in the game, the point where Yorda attempts to save Ico from falling off the damaged bridge was "a significant event not only for that game, but for the art of game design". Movie director Guillermo del Toro (Pan's Labyrinth) has cited both Ico and Shadow of the Colossus as "masterpieces" and part of his directorial influence. Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead considers, of his top ten video games, "Ico might be the best one".
Other Team Ico games
Shadow of the Colossus (ワンダと巨像 Wanda to Kyozō?, Wander and the Colossus), released for the PlayStation 2 in October 2005 in Japan and North America, was developed by the same team that developed Ico. The game features similar graphics, gameplay, and storytelling elements as Ico. The game was referred by its working title "Nico" ("Ni being Japanese for the number 2") until the final title was revealed. Ueda, when asked about the connection between the two games, stated that Shadow of the Colossus is a prequel to Ico, specifically citing the ending of Shadow where a child is born with two horns.
Team Ico is presently working on a game for the PlayStation 3 since at least early 2008, with a working title of "Project Trico". The title was revealed as The Last Guardian at E3 2009. A trailer released in May 2009 depicts a young boy travelling with a large griffin-type creature, supposedly carrying on the companion theme of the series. However, no details have emerged on what connections, if any, there are to Ico and Shadow of the Colossus. Ueda has stated that "the essence of the game is rather close to Ico".
Ico, along with Shadow of the Colossus, will be receiving a high-definition remake for the PlayStation 3 that will be released in the second quarter of 2011, before the release of The Last Guardian later that year. In addition to improved graphics, the games will be updated to include support for stereoscopic 3D and PlayStation Trophies. The Ico port will also be based on the European version, and will include features such as Yorda's translation and the two-player mode. In North America and Europe/PAL regions, the two games will be released as a single collection, while in Japan, they will be released as separate titles. This follows similar moves previously made by Sony to assemble past PlayStation 2 games as a single collection for God of War and Sly Cooper. There has been strong interest by Ueda to prepare such a collection for Ico and Shadow. Ueda noted that such a release would depend on Sony's executives, and that such a conversion may be difficult due to the complexities Team Ico had to create to push the technical limits of the PlayStation 2, but felt that it was still possible. The existence of the collection was hinted by industry rumors, and appearances of the collection on on-line vendor catalogs just prior to the 2010 Tokyo Game Show, where the collection was formally announced.