In Capturing Loneliness, ‘Ico’ Inspired the Video Game Companion

Ico, more than any other game at the time, modeled an entire design approach around this feeling.
October 4, 2021, 1:00pm
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Image: Sony

When I think about loneliness as a mood, I refer to “the jump”

The scene, self-explanatory: two people, designated as outcasts, racing along an extending bridge hand in hand. You first notice the eeriness of the stony castle at their backs in contrast to what's ahead. You notice the landscape of vegetation that awaits them on the other side—soon free to be who they are and wish to be. And you can’t believe that a moment, so rich with hope, can be taken away. But that’s the sort of game Ico is—the bridge separates, both plead from opposite sides and, without hesitation, you choose friendship over escape, and make a leap of faith.

Twenty years removed from the day Ico was released, I better understand the significance of this moment; which, apparently, is called perspective. I haven’t always recognized my own loneliness after all—which is to say that I’ve rarely confronted it as a primer to being changed by it. I’ve said: “I’m good,” or “I can’t complain,” and “everything is fine,” as if on auto-pilot. And I’ve name-dropped the brighter sides and greener pastures that became my cloaks, my reality, and my fiction. My other experiences — my experience with loneliness, to be specific — didn’t earn as much credit. Not until I revisited Fumito Ueda’s Ico that is.

To this day, I remember how this game set the template for a whole different vibe. Trailblazers like Grand Theft Auto III, Halo: Combat Evolved, and Metal Gear Solid 2 were all drums and percussion. And the graphically assaultive energy they gave off would rock generations—from the way we control reticles in Call of Duty: Warzone, to our Rockstar’ish open worlds today.

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Ico, however, felt like an exception. I was 13 years old when it was rentable at my local Blockbuster, just a week after the retail release. Like clockwork, I rushed home on a Saturday, listened to the plastic case snap open, and inspected the DVD side for scratches. Cue the PS2 splash and loading screens, and just minutes in, I couldn’t articulate what I felt so deeply. 

The first time I met Ico and Yorda, the player character and his companion for most of the game, they seemed different from the norm. On one hand, there was the young protagonist: a child left abandoned in a castle, completely ostracized over the superstitions surrounding his horns. On the other was princess Yorda on the verge of being sacrificed to sustain her mother’s youth. Both were alone until they weren't. One pulled as the other followed. They didn’t understand each other but knew enough to escape holding hands. A castle was the stage, but loneliness was their prison. 

In some way I must have known at the time that loneliness felt, and still feels, like this; a lone castle. It encircles you, shaping the unfamiliar rooms and barriers that become self-made separations. For most of my life, I’ve built the emotional walls of this place. I watched a father disappear without warning. I lost friends figuratively and tragically. And, as a Black man, I experienced my own inner outcasted-ness from life’s prejudices; the social anxiety, disappointments, and self-hatred would follow. I’d of course escape and find my way out until a new fortress made itself felt in the form of a pandemic, shutdowns, and social distancing. And it would surround, taunting me with another mission to escape. 

Ueda’s Ico, more than any other game at the time, modeled an entire design approach around this feeling. It was felt most in the phonic and mechanical choices etched into every area. The castle I encountered stood as a massive, multi-roomed space of vacant masonry. From obscured camera angles, I could see the scale of a maze that made me feel insignificant by comparison. Archaic push and pull puzzles would sit unmanned, implying a bygone sense of life here. The claustrophobic, vibe of it all felt real, while the lack of an immersion-breaking user interface displaying a mini map and hit points played its own part—thanks to Ueda’s auteur method known as, “subtracting design”—in supporting the believability of my bond. 

Yorda’s hand, of course, made that bond possible. Holding it was the draw. The nature of the mission meant that you were always on the move as Ico, but fully dependent on Yorda as the key. Forgetting about Yorda was impossible. You couldn’t save or open doors without her presence. But being proactively inconvenienced by holding her hand also felt like human touch in the form of a button press. What began as an irritating escort mission can suddenly take a surprising turn: I no longer gave a damn about shadow bosses or gamey puzzles. I only cared for Yorda. 

That button press has always been the higher power of the video game experience. It’s all in the interactivity, and the way that relationship can provoke self-reflection. We’ve seen Ico’s influences in everything from Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, The Last of Us, and Dark Souls—games that paired unfriendly conditions with friendly faces. In God of War (2018) for instance, Atreus felt like equal parts character development, player kinship, and gentle relief from a cheerless Kratos. While Demon Souls substituted continual companions with online ones, replacing NPCs with player invading messengers to alleviate my isolation. Just 20 years later, it feels as if Ico understood an emotional need that turned into a single-player revelation. It couldn’t predict the collective loneliness a pandemic would produce in many of us, but in so many ways, it still speaks the earliest language of what I personally may have taken for granted; my connections.

When I look back at that same scene with two companions and a separating bridge, I can embrace the jump for what it meant. Like everyone else, I’ve looked for the overpasses of my own prisons between tears and laughter. And my Yordas have taken the shape of therapy, friends, and self-care over the past few years—the kind of energy that sustains me. Will that bridge contract every now and again? It’s a question that I always prepare for. But much like my experience with Ueda’s masterpiece, I’m putting my everything into that jump. Every single time.