There have been countless relationships that have captured gamers over the years, and many ways that developers have used to achieve them. I spent hours with Zidane & Garnet of Final Fantasy IX and Tidus & Yuna of Final Fantasy X, both games where strangers become intertwined through hundreds of lines of dialogue and cut scenes, strengthened by hardships and innumerable battles together. I remember being struck by the issues Jack & Rose shared in Metal Gear Solid 2, who communicated through their codecs each time you wished to save. Their relationship was developed long before the player became involved, but through their joint reminiscing the player is taken back through the history the characters have shared, which is made believable by its imperfections.
Some developers even allow the player some degree of control over the characters’ relationships. Bioware is famous for this, as both Mass Effect & Dragon Age allowed players to choose which characters they wished to pursue through dialogue choices and sidequests. It’s almost inevitable that when groups of friends discuss these games, they will compare which characters they chose. The gamification of relationships in this manner creates an investment within the player as they become more involved within the relationship themselves.
But back in 2001 ICO took a different direction. It’s a relatively short game, clocking in at around 6-7 hours and unlike the games listed, barely has any dialogue.
In ICO you play as a young boy (Ico) who is taken and dumped in a castle on a remote island. Ico has horns, which makes him a sacrifice. The purpose of this sacrifice is never explicitly said, like much within the game, and my Twitch chat actually figured it out long before I did. The game doesn’t focus on this, but instead on a girl (Yorda) found within a cage in one of the opening sections. Ico rescues her and together they seek to escape the castle.
The game consists mostly of solving environmental puzzles and occasionally combating the shadowy creatures looking to take Yorda away from you.
To lead Yorda through the castle you can shout to her or if you are close enough, you can hold her hand. It has been said before, but the first time the children grasp one another’s hand invokes an intimacy and gentleness rarely seen in games, and the choice to invoke it is with the player. You grab Yorda’s hand (which is convenient but unnecessary as shouting to her will suffice) and see it carried out through the child on screen. The player is thrust into this relationship as the characters are and you feel the innocence, fear and urgency within these two children in their first moments together.
The game goes further than this. Ico is athletic, nimble and able to fight but unable to use Yorda’s magic, which is required to take down the barriers that block their escape. The puzzles in ICO revolve around the question “How do I get Yorda over there?” Together you are a team and neither can escape without the other.
Combat is similar. There are no health bars and Ico cannot be killed other than by falling. In combat the shadowy creatures do not attack you but attempt to take Yorda to the pits they create. Ico can bat them away with whatever weapon he holds and eventually kill them. Ico cannot be hurt, only pushed down for an agonisingly long time (grasping his knee in an animation familiar to anyone who remembers falling over in a playground) as the creatures pick up Yorda and whisk her away. Yorda can survive a little while within the pit before succumbing to its pull and within that time Ico can pull her out by the hand.
Both combat and exploration are tied to this co-dependency between Ico and Yorda. The developers minimised the threat to the player character, meaning you focus on helping Yorda through Ico. The whole game is built around caring for her.
Had this been dealt with ineffectively, this could have become Escort Mission: The Game or Yorda could have just been seen as a tool to allow the player to progress. The investment the player feels from the get-go prevents this, causing these trials to strengthen the bond with the characters instead.
SPOILERS TO FOLLOW - skip the next 3 paragraphs if you’re as late to this game as I am.
In the final sections of the game you come to a bridge. Yorda is drained of her powers just getting you there and as you pull her along, she falls repeatedly. Then the bridge breaks between you and you must jump to return to her. You fail the jump but Yorda is able to catch your hand. As you dangle there, you see Yorda exert herself to breaking point to try to do for you as you have done for her. She holds on for as long as she can but ultimately you fall into the river and must make the ascent to save her.
It’s worth noting that here you pass the boat that brought you to the island. You cannot use it, Ico could never leave Yorda behind, and at this point it is unlikely the player could either.
You save her (of course) and the castle begins to crumble as her Mother, who has kept her captive, is slain. In these final moments Yorda uses her magic to get you to the boat, but cannot join you as she is now a literal shadow of what she was. As I read out messages of “this is so sad” and cry emoji’s from the Twitch Chat, I felt it too. These two had a real bond that we all felt; it was awful to see them part.
EDIT: I did the post credit ending. Sorry for any confusion!
I was amazed at the developer’s ability to grow such a relationship in such a short amount of time and in stark opposition to the wordy norm of other games. If you’ve read this far: are there other games that sucked you into a relationship through its mechanics? Whether it’s between a Pokémon trainer and their Pokémon who say nothing, or the characters within a visual novel where your actions are constrained to dialogue choices, games have hundreds of ways they can involve us in a way no other media can.
This piece was heavily inspired by Heather Alexander and her wonderful articles on the games she streams.
JEMcG can be found on twitter or over on Twitch streaming mostly SoulsBorne, but on Fridays will be streaming his first playthrough of The Shadow of the Colossus because it would be ridiculous not to after this...