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ICO: How it broke the rules to rewrite history

A look back at Fumito Ueda's masterpiece...

Are games art? Not really. But that doesn't stop well-meaning, but insecure, gamers justifying their hobby on internet forums. And one of the games that always gets dragged out during such discussions is ICO (pronounced 'ee-ko', before you start).

The game's titular hero (the game is called ICO and the character is called Ico. It's important, alright?) was born with horns on his head, which was something his fellow villagers didn't take kindly to.

It happens to one boy from each generation, and is said to bring misfortune and death to everyone around him. But, as luck would have it, there's a massive off-shore castle stuffed with sarcophagi, perfect for imprisoning innocent young children once they come of age.

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It's into one of these stony tombs that Ico is thrown, and left to rot. But that would make a pretty dull game, so he soon breaks out and stumbles across Yorda: a pale, quiet and largely helpless girl who has a mysterious knack for opening the magically sealed doors strewn about the castle.

She can't fight or climb around like Ico can, and once you realise that an army of mysterious shadowy creatures are out to capture Yorda, it becomes clear that some teamwork is required. What follows is a load of puzzle-solving, exploration and closequarters combat, as Ico and Yorda attempt to escape the labyrinthine castle together.

I WANNA HOLD YOUR HAND
Alarm bells might start ringing at this point - can anyone remember the last time you enjoyed a hand-holding section where you've got to protect a defenceless sidekick? ICO bases an entire game around the idea.

Why does it work? It could be because Yorda's a bit frail and angelic-looking, so you feel sorry for her. Or because she hardly speaks, so you can imprint your own ideal persona onto her. Or maybe it's since she's actually kind of pretty, if you're into elfi n girls with glowing skin who can shoot lightning out of their chests. And, er, who isn't?

The fact is that almost everyone who plays ICO starts to care for Yorda, which is what really sets it apart from most games. We still gasp every time she sizes up a leap. Even though you could be out of the castle in ten minutes if it wasn't for her slowing you down, you adjust to her limitations as if they were your own, accepting them as part of the game's challenge.

The notion of a male lead character constantly helping out a female sidekick verges on sexist, but that's missing the point. As unlikely as it sounds, you become genuinely emotionally attached to Yorda - an entirely fictional character - and not because of a load of naff cut-scenes or pages of expository dialogue, but just because of what you've done together.

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That's why the cruel reverse of the crumbling bridge is so powerful... you know Yorda can't hold your weight, having spent the last six hours helping her up ledges. This is why ICO is truly special, and makes a good case for the idea that video games can be art; it's emotionally involving in a way that only works because of the medium.

That said, there are a few cut-scenes, but most of the dialogue is intentionally gibberish (though completing the UK release unlocked a translation mode, so you could play the game through a second time and decode Yorda's mystery language). There is a loose plot, but it's open to interpretation.

And when a game as wonderful as ICO lets you draw your own conclusions about what you've seen or done, it gets inside your head, and refuses to leave. Six years after ICO's original release, we still occasionally catch ourselves whistling the 'save point' music, and smiling like idiots.

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