The sunlight drifts in through the cracks of the castle walls. Only the wind and chains echo through the stones which creates a strange serenity. Up on high in a bird cage sits a girl, and the only driving force to get her down is curiosity. I may be twelve years too late, but I just finished Ico.
Recently, Anita Sarkeesian called Ico sexist, and while I’m not here to discuss her point of view or her series Tropes vs. Women, I have thought about the idea posited while playing the game. A boy comes in and rescues a girl from a cage and finds it’s his charge to drag her around, rather clumsily I might add, in a graceless manner through the castle. At times, the way in which he pulls the girl’s arm seems too forceful, and again I’ll use the word “clumsy.” After beating the game, I came to the conclusion that Ico the protagonist, and not the game, is just the word I’ve been repeating: clumsy. He’s clumsy because it’s not an adult rescuing someone, it’s a child. The game is a child’s reality and more than any other creature on this planet, a child is inexperienced.
Let me tell you about fairy tales for a bit.
In pre-revolutionary France, fairy tales offered different morals and lessons. One of the most famous could be Little Red Riding Hood who in the original French telling, never survived. I bring this up as a means of paraphrasing a literary scholar named Robert Darnton who argued that fairy tales were a form of older pop-culture, and in the same way our current generation is influenced by the popular media, so were the children of the past taught common-sense through these fables and fairy tales.
Now the general tone of each fairy tale varied from region to region, French fairy tales being darker and considerably less favorable to its heroes than dashing adventure tales from Italy, or the heavily religious tales of Germany. Regardless of that however, each of the stories found danger in the everyday and managed to transform them into fantastical scenarios. From the danger of strangers, the fear of wandering away from home, to more specific examples such as making deals with unsavory characters, or placing too much belief in fate. But regardless of the moral specific to individual stories, these fairy tales were the first part of a poor child’s education in being an adult as it taught valuable life skills necessary to survive during the time.
So how does that relate to Ico? Because the game, and its more mature successor Shadow of the Colossus, function in the same way that fairy tales do. They are very much the same dreamlike stories based around the sole knight and princess narrative that seems to attempt and realize a sort of fairy tale moral lesson, only Ico lacks any sort of gallantry.
So what’s a child taught through Ico? An outcast child with horns is taken away and while there witnesses the chance to help someone clearly distressed. He’s a bit crude in application and he lacks any sort of subtlety, calling out for the girl repeatedly, recklessly losing and fighting for her again when those shadow creatures appear. Yet despite all this, the game remains true to the idea of devotion and aid.
Be a good person. That’s probably the best thing any child can hope for. Throughout Ico, the singular need to rescue Yorda lacked any other motivation to me other than the end result of her rescue. There was no development of romance, nor much that could be described as characterization. Only the moral of the journey and the child hero’s determination to see to its completion.
He’s not a proper hero and he’s not a player avatar. Well that is unless the player is less than, say 13 years old, in which case he just might be. He is a child avatar. While playing the game I never felt like the hero. The child was too, well too much of a child, for me to relate to him. But as a representation of placing a child in the shoes of a hero, Ico just might be the most fantastic and interesting in that regard.
Like an 18th century fairy tale telling children through imprisoned girls, monstrous shadows, and towering castles that whether you’re a boy or not, whether you have horns or not, it’s just important to help those in need. I feel the child in Ico learned a similar lesson when he was even younger, and the entire game is his attempt to follow through with that sort of lesson even if he was fairly heavy-handed about it. And I’m sort of curious how an actual child will respond to the game and whether he could relate to the clumsy, child protagonist, more than I ever could finishing Ico 12 years since its release.