Catching up: ICO and Shadow of the Colossus

I gotta admit - I have skipped an entire console generation. I of course had to make up for it in some way, mostly by reading or using emulators. There was one game I actually wanted to buy a PS2 for. Then I discovered a HD remake of it came out for PS3. Shadow of the Colossus. And the other game by the same studio - ICO. Both on one BluRay. Isn't this awesome?

I don't want to get into reviewing these games, it doesn't really make sense. They are awesome and it has been proven by so many reviews it is impossible to deny it. Just a quick peek on the hard evidence: gamesradar's top 50 PS2 games. ICO on 9th place, Shadow of the Colossus on 1st place. IGN's top 100 PS2 games. ICO on 5th place, Shadow of the Colossus on 1st place. Out of 10,828 titles released on the console. Team ICO, studio that only made 2 games in its history. Both games placed in almost every top list, in most of them in the leading 10. Let's try to analyze what makes these games so special. What makes the guys from IGN call Shadow of the Colossus the title that clearly proves games are art?

Consistency of the design
Both games focus brilliantly on their core esthetics and every element of the game helps deliver it. ICO focuses on responsibility. From the first moment you meet Yorda, you are responsible for her safety. You need to get the hell out of that mazelike castle while making sure she comes with you, safely. You can lead her by her hand or leave her to access places she can't reach. You always have to come back for her though. And not just when you finish setting up the easy path for her. Every time you leave her out of sight, shadows can come to steal her from you. She is considerably weaker than you. She can't fight, she can't jump as high or far as you. She can only open door that seem to react with some power she has. This makes the whole game revolve around her - that one person you need to protect.

Shadow of the Colossus has a different core esthetic - challenge. You are to battle monsters hundred times bigger than you. Your only weapons seem to be a bow, a sword and... determination. To emphasize how lonely the task is, you only get a horse as your companion. There are no monsters on the vast lands surrounding the temple you start in. There's only you and the Colossi. One at a time. One on one. A man versus an ancient beast the size of an Eiffel Tower. Imagine being Atreyu from The Neverending Story, just with less journey and more epic battles. The challenge and burden stays though.

Characters are strong element of immersion here
When you play both these games, you see that the protagonist is always a young boy. A young boy that is way more natural match with any gamer than Kratos or Enzio. A young boy you can identify yourself with, as he doesn't wield magic or do anything out of ordinary. He can run, jump, climb and swing a weapon in a manner that isn't overly acrobatic or impressive. Nothing an average human being wouldn't be able to do. A boy has a name - Ico or Wander, but it's never used. You can call him any way you like. You can, and probably will, put your own name there. 

In both games there is also a girl that you need to save in some way. In ICO, her name is Yorda, but you learn that after a great chunk of the game. She speaks a language you can't understand yet you feel right away you cannot leave her and she feels right away she can trust you and follow you. The name of the girl from Shadow of the Colossus is never revealed. She is just laying there, waiting to be revived by you and on some deepest level of intimacy, you subconsciously know who it is you want to save. Your friend, your wife, your mother... The dead girl on the altar becomes a manifestation of who you would risk your life to save. Yorda becomes the one that you would protect at any cost.

Suddenly, these games do tell you the abstract story of escaping from a castle or fighting giants, but it is an abstract story where you and that other special person play the main roles, as if you were magically warped there. But that's not all just because of the characters.

The magic of R1
The way Team ICO utilizes this one gamepad button is so simple and ingenious it hurts. Literally. After a few hours of pressing this button your hand hurts for another few. Let's look closer at ICO's input design. The game's core esthetic is responsibility.  How do you do it? R1. When Yorda is far, you call her with R1. When she's near, you hold her hand with R1. When you jump higher, you pull her up with R1. After only 10 minutes of constantly pressing or holding R1, your index finger feels like your whole hand. The pad disappears. You are actually leading the girl by her hand, feeling responsible for her. Rushing like crazy on the shadow demons, bravely taking care of the friend that you can't even understand when she's speaking.

Shadow of the Colossus does pretty much the same thing. Here, R1 is responsible for grabbing onto stuff. You hold onto the ledges and fur of the Colossi. Whatever is happening - whether they are trying to shake you off, dive under water, fly in the sky or bury in the sand, you keep holding onto them. You need to defeat them to save the one you care for the most. Again, after an hour of playing the game, you discover you are pressing onto R1 way harder than you normally would. You develop a cramp in your right hand while holding onto the Colossi. And it is you holding onto them. Not the other way round.

ICO and Shadow of Colossus easily traverse the barrier of the screen. Without any use of a motion controler, they make the player feel the actions of his onscreen character. Let the player be his onscreen character, caring about the other characters. Feeling responsible for that clumsy girl that can't jump too high. Feeling connected to this stubborn horse that doesn't always react when you try to control it. Feeling the mission that is ahead of you. All using the simplest methods possible. There's no need for a complicated plot or tons of dialogues. They would actually do harm to these games.

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