The Beautiful World—and Lone Novelization—of ‘Ico’
There was once a novelization of Team Ico’s iconic, mostly-silent story of a boy, a girl, and a castle full of puzzles.
Some stones are better left unturned. In a cluttered age of overstimulation, it's easy to forget naive childhood moments of awe, of greeting the unknown not with a scowl of hesitance but a wide-eyed and jovial "hello!" It's that first time riding a bike without training wheels, or walking out of a dense forest into an open field and finding a single lonesome, dried-up tree amongst a sea of dandelions. It's your first time riding horseback through the three-dimensional, digital plains of Hyrule on a summer's day.
As a player of games, I'm happy that there are still some in the mainstream game industry who strive to elicit bewilderment and reverie. One of these people is Fumito Ueda, the game designer leading a small team at Sony's Japan Studio and later at his own company, genDESIGN, on the loose trilogy of Ico, Shadow of the Colossus, and recently The Last Guardian. Their storylines eschew dialogue and employ fairytale archetypes to subvert the player's expectations and ultimately posit deeper questions. How do we fit together, and fit within the world around us?
Ueda and co. build games that are lighter on dialogue and plot, preferring instead to create atmosphere and character through gesture, action, and art direction. None of these screams "novelization," but in 2004, popular Japanese author Miyuki Miyabe made an attempt, with the story and world from Ico.
The novel bears the subtitle Castle in the Mist and weaves the thin characters and plot of the PlayStation 2 cult classic into a dense fantasy epic. I'm not here to make fun of what sounds a bit like a doomed project: instead, I want to interrogate the work.
Whereas the game starts in medias res with Ico on horseback, travelling toward a mysterious castle, Miyabe's book begins a little slower. It starts in Toksa Village, where young Ico lives with his foster parents, Oneh and the village elder. The elder has become consumed with guilt over his role in the upcoming Time of the Sacrifice, wherein the cursed sacrifice born of horns must be offered up to the titular Castle in the Mist. He was trained by his father to imprison Ico as the time for offering draws nearer, and now must grapple with the realities of what he's allowing to happen to such a young boy.
Ico has a best friend, Toto. Both are regular young boys who enjoy climbing trees and getting into all sorts of trouble. Some villagers here are soldiers, some are farmers; some just keep watch over the village. Oneh is a seamstress, weaving thread with a loom to make clothing for her village; she, too, has a family beyond those immediately present in the village.
The people here have thoughts and feelings, desires for the future. The village is all but a real place, inhabited by real people with lives to live. Miyabe, much like Ueda and his team, pays a lot of attention to the finer details irrelevant to the main story beats, though here in a different way. All this is to say nothing of Yorda's own—far heftier—backstory in the castle town. Here, she's far from the timid AI character that players had to protect, guide, and basically use as a puzzle-solving tool in the game.
It's clear that Miyabe was interested in appropriating the world of Ico to tell a relatively bog-standard fantasy tale of aristocracy, conflict, magic, demons, and gods. But when looked at in the broader context of what the original Ico was and represented, Castle in the Mist is rather perplexing.
The book frequently gets bogged down with lengthy explanations on the minutia of the castle and the villages surrounding it. Its lengthy interior monologues and over-explanations fly in the face of director Ueda's much-lauded "design by subtraction" ethos. This states that all superfluous elements of a game's design—whether they be mechanical, visual or aural—should be removed so as to distill the feelings governing a work down to their very essence.
There's nothing inherently wrong with Miyabe's grander approach to storytelling here. I'm a huge fan of authors like Thomas Pynchon and Upton Sinclair who aren't afraid to dive deep with their writing and storytelling styles, frequently going off on tangents to tackle bigger points.
Still, there is a particular aesthetic sensibility and narrative style to Ico—it's a big part of why it's remembered so fondly to this day. In leveraging the characters and world of Ico for a book, Miyabe delivers something antithetical to the source text's intentions. Maybe my expectations approaching the book were a tad unrealistic, but they weren't unfounded. The desire to recapture the feeling of playing Ico and Shadow for the first time will always drive me towards hope.
The fundamentalist in me says that this book didn't really need to exist. Yet in my head there's room, somewhere, for a novelization of this world and its people.
Where it stands, Ico: Castle in the Mist is a middling attempt to put a Tolkien or Song of Ice and Fire-esque fantasy spin on the original. As a critic, I can't help but balk at its over-explanations and general cruft. As a fan, I'm left disappointed that, while the book tried to do something interesting—with an approach to sequels and re-imaginings I'm generally fond of—it couldn't replicate those innate feelings of wonder and awe so core to the game.
I want an interrogating love-letter that is firm but reverent of the source material, not a pandering retelling with too many adjectives. The book's cover mirrors the Giorgio de Chirico-inspired original used for the game's Japanese and European release, but it feels more like the game that people who saw the much-maligned US cover probably imagined. I really just wanted a book that captured the essence, the eerie feeling that you too were there.