is a 2001 action-adventure video game published by Sony Computer Entertainment and released for the PlayStation 2 video game console. It was designed and directed by Fumito Ueda, who wanted to create a minimalist game around a "boy meets girl" concept. Originally planned for the PlayStation in 1997, Ico took approximately four years to develop. The team employed a "subtracting design" approach to reduce elements of gameplay that interfered with the game's setting and story in order to create a high level of immersion.
The titular protagonist, Ico, is a young boy with horns that is locked away in an abandoned fortress by his village. Ico encounters Yorda during his explorations, the daughter of the Queen who plans to use Yorda's body to extend her own lifespan. Ico seeks to escape the castle with Yorda to prevent this fate from occurring, keeping her safe from shadow-like creatures that attempt to draw her back. Throughout the game, the player controls Ico as he explores the castle, solves puzzles, and assists the less-agile Yorda across obstacles.
The game introduced several design and technical elements including a story told with minimal dialog, bloom lighting and key frame animation, that has influenced games since its release. Though not a commercial success, it received critical acclaim for these elements and received many awards at the time of its release. Ico is listed on several overall top game lists, and is often considered more a work of art than a video game. The game was reprinted in Europe in 2006 in conjunction with the release of Shadow of the Colossus, Icos spiritual sequel developed by the same team.
Ico awakes in the chambers below the castle, and travels back to the upper levels. Along his explorations, he finds a magic sword that is able to dispel the shadow creatures. After discovering that Yorda has been turned to stone by the Queen, he seeks out the Queen in her throne room. The Queen reveals that she is preventing Yorda from leaving so that she may extend her own life, which she had previously done before by draining the life of those placed in the sarcophagi. Now, she plans to restart her life anew by taking possession of Yorda's body. Ico and the Queen fight, Ico losing both his horns in the process. Ico is able to slay the Queen with the magic sword, but with her death, the castle begins to collapse around him, and he loses consciousness again from falling debris. The Queen's spell on Yorda is broken though now she is a creature of shadow, and she carries Ico safely out of castle and onto a boat, sending him adrift to the nearby shore and choosing not to accompany him. Ico awakes to find the castle in ruins, and that Yorda, in her human form, has washed up besides him.
The player controls Ico from a third-person perspective as he explores the castle and attempts to escape it with Yorda. The camera remains at a fixed point in each room or area but tracks on Ico or Yorda as they move, though the player can also pan the view a small degree in other directions to observe more of the surroundings. The game includes many elements of platform games, in which the player must have Ico jump, climb, push and pull objects, and perform other tasks to progress or solve puzzles within the castle. These actions are complicated by the fact that only Ico is able to do these steps; Yorda can only jump short distances and cannot climb over tall barriers. The player must control Ico to help Yorda cross such obstacles, such as by lifting her to a higher ledge, or to arrange the environment to allow Yorda to cross a larger gap herself. The player is able to tell Yorda to follow him, or to wait at a spot; the player can also make Ico take Yorda's hand and pull her along at a faster pace across the environment. The player will be unable to progress in the game until they can move Yorda to certain doors that only she is able to open.
Escaping the castle is made difficult by shadow creatures from the Queen that attempt to drag Yorda into black vortexes should Ico leave her for a length of time or in certain areas of the castle. Ico can dispel these shadows using a stick or sword, and can also pull Yorda free if she is drawn into a vortex. While the shadow creatures cannot harm Ico, the game is over should Yorda be fully engulfed by a vortex and the player will need to restart from a save point. The player will also need to restart from a save point if Ico falls from a large height. Save points in the game are represented by stone benches which both Ico and Yorda rest on as the player saves the game.
Lead developer Fumito Ueda, came up with the concept for Ico in 1997, envisioning a "boy meets girl" story where the two main characters would hold hands during their adventure forming a bond between them without communication. Ueda's main influence for Ico was Eric Chahi's game Another World (Outer World in Japan), which used cinematic cutscenes and no heads-up display elements in order to play like a movie, as well having a connection between two characters despite using minimal dialog. Ueda also cited Lemmings, Flashback and the original Prince of Persia games as influences specifically towards animation and gameplay style. With the help an assistent, Ueda created an animation in Lightwave to get a feel for the final game and better convey his vision. In the three-minute demonstration real, Yorda was the one with horns instead of Ico and flying robotic creatures were seen firing weapons to destroy the castle. Ueda stated that having these movies to represent his vision helped to keep the team on track for the long development process, and reused this technique for the development of Shadow of the Colossus, the team's next effort. Ueda then began working with producer Kenji Kaido in 1998 to develop the idea further in order to bring the game to the PlayStation. Icos design aesthetics were guided by three key notions: to make a game that would be different from others in the genre; that would feature an aesthetic style that would be consistently artistic; and that would play out in an imaginary yet realistic setting. This was achieved through the use of "subtracting design"; they removed elements from the game which interfered with the game's reality. This included removing any form of heads-up display, keeping the gameplay focused only on the escape from the castle, and reducing the number of types of enemies in the game to a single foe. An interim design of the game shows Ico and Yorda facing horned warriors similar to those that take Ico to the castle. In addition, the game originally focused on Ico attempting to return Yorda to her room in the castle after she was kidnapped by these warriors. Ueda believed this version had too much detail for the graphics engine they had developed, and, as part of the "subtracting design", replaced the warriors with the shadow creatures. Ueda also brought in a number of people outside the video game industry to help on development, consisting initially of two programmers, four artists, and one designer in addition to Ueda and Kaido, forming the base of what is now known as Team ICO. On reflection, Ueda noted that the "subtracting design" may have taken too much out of the game, and did not go to as great an extreme with Shadow of the Colossus.
After two years of development in 1999, the team ran into limitations on the PlayStation hardware, and faced a critical decision: either terminate the project, alter their vision to fit the constraints of the hardware, or continue to explore more options. The team decided to remain true to Ueda's vision, and began to use the Emotion Engine of the PlayStation 2, taking advantage of the improved abilities of the platform. Character animation was done through key frame animation instead of the more common motion capture technique. Ico is recognized as one of the first games to incorporate to use bloom lighting into video games, a feature that is common in many seventh generation console video games. The game took about four years to create. Ueda purposely left the ending vague, not stating whether Yorda was alive, whether she would travel with Ico, or if it was simply a dream by Ico.
The cover used for releases in Japan and PAL regions was drawn by Ueda himself, and was inspired by the surrealist artist Giorgio de Chirico and his work The Nostalgia of the Infinite. Ueda believed that "the surrealistic world of de Chirico matched the allegoric world of Ico". The North American version lacks this cover as well as additional features that become available after the player completes the game once. The team was unable to provide Ueda's cover or the additional features in time for the North American release date, but were able to include them for the later releases in Japan and PAL regions. For its original release, a limited edition of the game was available in PAL regions that included a cardboard wrapping displaying artwork from the game and four art cards inside the box. The game was re-released as a standard edition in 2006 across all PAL regions except France after the 2005 release of Shadow of the Colossus, Ico spiritual sequel, to allow players to "fill the gap in their collection".
Ico's audio featured a minimal amount of music and sound effects. The soundtrack, composed by Michiru Oshima & Pentagon, was released in Japan by Sony Music Entertainment. The CD is titled . The last song of the CD, ICO ~You Were There~, is sung by former Libera member Steven Geraghty.
Reviewers liken Ico to older, simpler adventure games such as Prince of Persia or Tomb Raider, but expressing the game through its mood and environments help to evoke an emotional experience from the player; IGNs David Smith commented that stripped down, the game's "challenge is just to move from point A to point B", but as a whole was an almost indescribable experience. The game's graphics and sound contributed strongly to the positive reactions from critics; Smith continues that "The visuals, sound, and original puzzle design come together to make something that is almost, if not quite, completely unlike anything else on the market, and feels wonderful because of it." Reviews were impressed with the expansivenes and the details given to the environments and animation used for the main characters despite their low polygon count, and the use of lighting effects. Icos ambiance created by the simple music and the small attention to detail in the voice work of the main characters were also called out as strong points for the game. Charles Herold of the New York Times summed up his review stating that "Ico is not a perfect game, but it is a game of perfect moments."
The game is remarked to have a simple combat system that would "disappoint those craving sheer mechanical depth", as stated by Gamespots Miguel Lopez. The puzzle design, while not considered difficult and also at times repetitive, was found to have a structure that prompts players to work through the challenges themselves instead of relying on walkthroughs. Kristen Reed of Eurogamer said "you quietly, logically, willingly proceed, and the illusion is perfect: the game never tells you what to do, even though the game is always telling you what to do." Ico is also considered a short game, taking between seven and ten hours for a single play through, but compounded by the fact, as noted by G4TV's Matthew Keil, that "the urge to press on further into the breathtaking world of the game is so strong, many will finish 'Ico' in one or two sittings." The lack of features in the North American release, which would become unlocked on subsequent playthroughs after completing the game, is stated to reduce the replay value of the title.