Project Ico: Silence and singularity

Why play old games? Having spent four weeks writing about a twelve year old game from two console generations ago, can I recommend it to someone who hasn’t played it before?

As the three of us involved in Project Ico have noted, the game is a bit clunky, both in terms of visuals and controls. It’s not a terribly long game, and maybe worse, the length of the time the player spends on a single playthrough is likely to be directly proportional to their trouble in navigating Ico‘s spatial puzzles. That is, the more time the player spent in the world, the more time they probably spent standing still.

There’s not much in the way of secrets or Easter eggs. After consulting a walkthrough (sparingly, I promise!), I clued in my partners on how to find the spiked club — it seemed to fit the spirit of the sort of informal information sharing Sara talked about in her first post — but at least in the first playthrough, I’m pretty sure that’s the only side track to discover.

But for all that, I can totally understand why so many of the relatively small number of people who have played Ico seem to love it so much.

There’s a difficulty in talking about a game with so little exposition or dialogue as a game of ideas — it might even be easier if Ico were, like Journey, entirely wordless and thus more self-consciously a consideration of the challenges of communicating across time and the loss of cultural context — but even so, Ico stands (like Journey) as a prime example of the potential for games to convey the transcendent.

Even more, perhaps, than a puzzle game, Ico can be described as a mystery game, concerned in the Catholic, mystic sense with that which is beyond explanation or comprehension. From the wordless introduction, to Yorda’s untranslated speech, to the final battle against the shadows in the casket room, Ico tends toward contextual clues — visual rather than verbal — to help the player understand the world. After finishing the game, I’m reasonably sure that the shadows that have followed me through the castle are the spirits of the other horned children, the sacrifices of the past — whose caskets glow as they take semi-corporeal form — but I can’t be entirely sure. The game itself will never actually tell me.

I know that Yorda, the luminescent girl, is meant to be a vessel for the dark queen, but I don’t know where she comes from. I don’t know anything about the castle or the queen. I don’t know anything about the village whose safety my sacrifice is supposed to ensure. I never even see it.

None of this, of course, is necessary, and so Ico simply declines to provide it.


As I’ve been playing Ico, I’ve also been watching Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s new version of Cosmos, which, like Carl Sagan’s original series, bears a striking, almost spiritual tone of awe and wonder. Even as Tyson places the scientific view of the universe in fairly explicit opposition to some religious conceptions of history and time, he marvels at the scope and scale of what we do and don’t understand about space and life. It’s a fascinating juxtaposition, criticizing dogma while frankly embracing what can be described as the religious impulse — the desire to recognize and make sense of a reality that is so much bigger than ourselves.

It’s a combination, however, that simply doesn’t work without two critical components: An experiential focus on result rather than process (that is, the grand theories rather than data and experimentation), and an individual subject (Tyson) who acts as the viewpoint of the series. Both science and spirituality are capable of producing awe, and both, at their best, point to a world in which we are humble creatures, navigating the paradox of our insignificance to the greater (and smaller) cosmos and the impact of our agency within our local universes.

But science, for all its wonders, is when it really works an absolutely impersonal process, relevant only when its results are repeatable. Science probes the ineffable, but it ultimately cannot reach that which cannot be modeled and explained. The mysteries of contingent, subjective experience escape it entirely.

Which leaves me with a second paradox — that a game like Ico, an environment entirely planned, explicitly designed, absolutely described by the source code that recreates the world every time it loads, can create an experience that begs to be described in transcendent, mystical terms. There are hundreds of thousands of copies of that code, creating the same boy, the same castle, and the same shadows.

But we each experience that castle one at a time, without explanation, or with only the lore handed down by players who have been there before, secrets and legends, rituals and rites.

This is one of the things that games can do — to ask us to walk through the world by ourselves and to try to make sense of it, to create ways of knowing that may only work once, or that can change the way we look at our place in the world. Games are not science, and they are not religion, but most of us don’t actually live in one of those worlds or the other. We live in our own subjective, contingent experiences, and games, even old ones, are really good at creating those.

We play old games for the same reason we read old books, listen to old music, and watch old films. It’s the same reason we recite old prayers and chant old liturgies. These things can still speak to us, singularities in a common cosmos. They are still compelling as much for their silences as their speech, for the explanations they decline to provide.

The gates are open.

Time played: 08:57:44
Location: Sandy Beach

Other Project Ico Posts

Week 5:
The End by Daniel J. Hogan at Clattertron

Week 4:
Almost There by Daniel J. Hogan at Clattertron
Silence and singularity by Gavin Craig at
Rest You Happy by Sara Clemens at Videodame

Week 3:
Big and Tall by Daniel J. Hogan at Clattertron
Just a little longer by Gavin Craig at
Vertigo by Sara Clemens at Videodame

Week 2:
Take My Hand, Leave the Camera by Daniel J. Hogan at Clattertron
Broken to work by Gavin Craig at
The Sound and the Fury by Sara Clemens at Videodame

Week 1:
Project Ico, Part 1: First Thoughts by Daniel J. Hogan at Clattertron
Project Ico: Fear and trembling by Gavin Craig at
Project Ico: Crane by Sara Clemens at Videodame

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