Friday, July 20, 2012

ICO: dissecting Ueda and his original masterpiece

As I'm banned from the boards (again!) I think I should feel compelled to do a post and with yet another assurance that The Last Guardian is still being made, perhaps now is the time to do a retrospective of what I've previously considered and possibly still do as the greatest game created.

To start off, here is a short list of games I've seen Ueda mention as games he's enjoyed or influenced by or some such:
Another World
Half Life 2
Burnout 3
Katamary Damacy
Portal 2
God of War (why?)
Obviously several of these... in fact almost all of them have no influence on him in direct relation to ICO, but certainly the character of his tastes will come out in his games, and certainly when he constantly derives his taste to making games that he "thinks he wants to play".

Another World is the most obvious influence of his, and because of this it will also demand the most attention and time so it, along with Half Life 2 and Portal 2 will be discussed last so first let us consider one of the choices that shall seem quite oddball considering a game that first and foremost is a quiet, subdued adventure: Burnout 3. A quick look at reviews for this high-octane racing game shows a dictionary of buzz words even more buzzy than high-octane including "intense", "electrifying", "heart-pounding", and "adrenaline pumping" (inducing?, not sure of the best wording), but of what I've seen a curious lack of "kinetic". The kinetic impact of Burnout is certainly what sets it apart, in a game thriving on ridiculous, nearly uncontrollable speeds, the focus on the crashes creates an odd moment for meditation, watching an opposing car float helplessly through the air in an oddly serene moment of destruction. The real satisfaction of such a moment is not the visceral destruction-porn of watching mangled bits of metal and perhaps the unconscious notion of "perhaps there's an equally mangled body in that mess", but rather that connection between cars. In that brief moment right before it all slows down you can FEEL the kinetic impact of the cars. In a fantastic moment of immersion, the game is able to send an impossible experience to the player. Perhaps this is more reasonably discussed when talking about that brilliant TISH that comes from sinking our sword in the giants of Shadow of the Colossus but, although less prevalent, it is an important aspect of ICO. The most notable aspect of ICOs combat is really how clunky little ICO is with his weapon. He holds the sword as if it's far too heavy for him, and swings it like it's his first time using his arms. There is an intense lack of power in every motion you have during combat, even if you're comfortable enough with the game that you don't really have a problem dispatching your foes. This is only highlighted in the actual impact of your swings, or perhaps the lack of. Especially with your measly stick in the beginning stages of the game, your attacks are met with a seeming equivalent to a wet fart of a sound effect, and very small push of the enemies momentum in the game, but it's a perfect feeling. The small movement is enough to feel like you have a fighting chance of surviving, but still too weak too feel like it's something you can ever count on. While most games, and certainly Burnout are about the power of such events, ICO is magnificent in conveying just how weak and insignificant you are.

Which brings to mind why Ueda would ever be interested in something as agonizingly masturbatory as God of War. In God of War, there is no connection in the battles. Your swinging swords simply slice through even  the most dense of enemies, and after the frequent QTEs, you're left with a gruesome, pornographic scene where you typically detach some part of the monster, eventually its life and all those health and magic blobs, and a lingering fascination of that violence (why is the center of the new God of War's marketing focused around the visceral treatment of its monstrous foes?). Perhaps his interest is only one of that fascination, and this is a case where his taste is escapism from his norms, or perhaps it only shows up in very vague moments (The adventurous, expansive arenas or the occasionally intriguing camera angles as it sweeps through those areas or the admittedly nice animations captured by it). Who knows, but I suppose it is always interesting to see a designer enjoy something so far off from their own creations.

And for something that is in fact, so close to their own creations, the coup-de-grace of this piece, ICO and Another World. For those wondering where Half-Life 2 and Portal(2) fit in, I would need another article perhaps, but Eric Chahi's brilliant Amiga masterpiece provided the framework that those games operate within (and actually a lot of interesting parallels in relation to the first Portal game). However, the parallels between ICO and Another world are not only more numerous, but something that has been explicitly stated by Fumito Ueda. Just going by the plot narrative of the games, they are incredibly similar: After arriving in a new, unfamiliar world our protagonist, after miraculously smashing his cell (yes yes yes, this happens several minutes into Another World rather than the start like ICO), finds another jailed prisoner (also of note: the familiarity between Yorda and the Another World cell-breaks). Nothing is really known or understood between the two, no familiar language, no familiar origins, and because of such, almost all interactions happen wordlessly. Shortly after that meeting, you pick up a weapon and go along your way, constantly juggling battling foes, solving environmental puzzles (occasionally with the help of your fellow prisoner), and eventually, and likely several times, get separated from your only friend. After some intensive exploration through this land (several similar locales, to be honest), the journey culminates in the desperate escape, with an uncertain end.

In terms of gameplay, the parallels come up again. The world of ICO is relatively linear, but it's never obvious where forward is. This is displayed more symbolically within Another World, curiously playing on the spacial metaphor of "right = forward", and toying with how you're forced to determine what is progress. With ICO, that same interplay and experimentation is in spacial limbo, and seemingly every environmental puzzle is just a new arena the game forces you into (much like the chapter dissection in Another World). The combat of the two games can be considered polar opposite, ICO relies on powerless defensive swings to eventually dispel your enemy, Another World relies on a one-hit gun built on its own system of building shields to provide yourself with a window of opportunity to kill your foes. The common theme is the very frantic feel it gives you, however. Because you have a one-hit-kill, does not mean you go looking for enemies to kill, it only means that that second you have to charge your shield becomes a horror moment beyond compare. When any hit can kill you, defense is paramount. ICO's defensive swings, in this light, are really more of a shielding blast than an aggressive attack to the enemy.

But more important than all that, and the guiding feature of that I suppose, is the feeling you get. In both of these games, you are lonely. Horribly, uncontrollably lonely. It's a new world, an environment you cannot even really comprehend, and you're left to escape it without anyone. When you do eventually meet your ally, it becomes even lonelier. No understanding between the two, no development within interactions, and the only real reason to connect in the beginning is only out of empathy or need. As the game advances, and as you learn to protect one another, and help one another, you get a sense of what help you can provide. The curious relation, is that it seems to be flipped in the two games. In Another World, your ally has all the power. You can defend yourself, and you will be there to help him, but more often than not, it's your ally that comes in the nick of time to pull you out of danger. However, there is a moment when this changes. In a short moment when you can imagine escape in your reach, your ally is caught by guards, forcing you to come from behind and quickly deal with that threat. Then, at the end, when it seems your ally is gone for good, you  allow a chance for escape, only for your ally to come back, and pick up your near-lifeless body for the dramatic escape.

In ICO, you have the "power". It's up to you to keep Yorda alive for pretty much the entire game, and it's always you that comes in the nick of time to pull her out from the shadow's portal. However, the great moment of role reversal comes towards the end of the game, as you have escape in view, and a weakened Yorda tripping behind you, the bridges moves apart. In possibly the most dramatic moment in gaming, you leave the exit behind you, and, mimicking Yorda's leap into your arms and let her catch you, her becoming the savior, and your the princess lagging behind. This does fail, however, not really suggesting that she is incapable of helping, but rather a cooperative failure, as it's now up to ICO alone to escape the castle, and save Yorda. This is the moment of despair, as you find Yorda, stoned up and seemingly dead. This is also the moment of redemption, in the other most dramatic moment in gaming, you defend her body once again (with this incredible background noise). It's actually hard to describe this scene, and it's really the most personal. Perhaps it's built on selfishness, perhaps on intuition, perhaps on just the outwardly hope that something will work to bring her back, but, alas, she come back in the very end, to pick up your near-lifeless body for the dramatic escape.

But most importantly, these two games are very austere and encompassing. The way that Chahi and Ueda discuss these games like this, is almost similar as well. The games themselves, in their eyes, are not even really represented with what is on screen, as Ueda says (rough paraphrasing as I'm not going to look it up again) "Games are about presenting a space that a player can buy as real, and to convince the player that they are having a personal experience", or as Chahi says "For me [Another World] does not exist. It does not exist on the screen, but it exists in the player's mind". To them, games are only as strong as what can be imagined from them. A game has to have a sufficient manner in letting a player imagine from them. The ability to superimpose their dreams and nightmares into the reality that is being supposed in their screen. If there's anything to cherish about ICO, it is that it is a game that allows you to accept everything that is going on, and forces you to make relations within it. While ICO grows to love his silent ally, we feel the same connections. The game holds our hand as it guides us along on this expansive journey, and as we help it with the puzzles, it helps our loneliness and need for comfort.

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