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How ICO flipped the script

Why I Love: Last Day of June's Massimo Guarini discusses how Fumito Ueda's classic changed the way he thinks about games

Why I Love is a series of guest editorials on intended to showcase the ways in which game developers appreciate each other's work. This column was contributed by Ovosonico founder and creative director Massimo Guarini.

Playing games has always put me in a very specific mindset. By its own definition a game is a set of rules with a clear goal, and the very self-aware sense of challenge that comes from it has always made me feel quite conscious I've been playing a video game.

I never really questioned why Mario would jump or how the Doom guy would manage to carry several different heavy weapons with him. I didn't really care too much about why Dante would frantically seek revenge in Devil May Cry. It just all made perfect sense in a cohesive and consistent game world where everything was masterfully crafted to support a game system made of precise rules and challenges.

I did feel immersed in fantastic worlds, but always very aware of their logical boundaries. I felt connected to my digital avatar, but always in terms of a super-heroic, fairly stereotyped challenge. I accepted it as the very essence of a video game, and I thought that was awesome, as I was constantly fully immersed in great gameplay and engaging experiences. The notion of being carried away by more complex emotions than just fear, anger and excitement, was simply not part of the equation. No one really ever asked for that. Neither did I.

Until that day.

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That day in September 2001, everything I knew and expected from a video game went straight out of the window. That day, the history of video games had been silently rewritten. The traditional and extremely conservative world of game systems and proven gameplay schemes was being questioned and unconsciously attacked for the first time, in a very Japanese, understated manner.

I clearly remember the very first time I launched the game. A beautiful shot of the forest, horses escorting a little kid somewhere, not a single line of dialogue, no heroic music themes... just realistic ambient sounds and an incredibly powerful mood. I already knew I was in front of something different.

"I felt my body was starting to process complex emotions that today I can identify as anxiety, loneliness, uncertainty"

I started playing, and just 10 minutes into the game, I was already feeling something unusual, something I never quite experienced before in any game, especially in their very initial moments. I felt my body was starting to process complex emotions that today I can identify as anxiety, loneliness, uncertainty. I was that little kid, abandoned and caged in a huge and mysterious castle-like building for some unknown but apparently good reason. I was running around, eager to know why I ended up there, slightly uncomfortable in being all alone, shouting loudly here and there in the hope someone would answer, someone would acknowledge my existence.

I had no real gameplay goal such as "don't die, kill this, collect that," but in fact I felt like my goal was quite clear. I felt deeply connected and realised for the first time as a gamer that my objectives within the game were related to me being that kid, and not to a clear challenge, game system or gameplay rule. I reckon I already felt somehow like that in my gamer career, when I played Another World, exactly 10 years before. But what happened within the next 10 minutes of gameplay have set this experience apart from anything else to such an extent it still stays in my heart as one of the most powerful gaming experiences I ever had in my life.

I was ICO. This is why I love ICO.

And then I found her. A ghostly white-skinned girl trapped in an iron cage resembling an antique torture device. I couldn't help being attracted to her, and not because of any dramatic, romantic dialogue or cinematic. I needed to set her free because the game initiated my experience through the very same perspective. I'd been a prisoner myself, I felt abandoned and lonely, and Yorda has been designed to act as the exact representation of my feelings before I found her.

ICO works his way up to Yorda's cage. (Image from 2011 HD re-release.)

I was sharing ICO and Yorda's emotions through an actual act of empathy, consistently developed and reinforced by the gameplay itself. In ICO, gameplay mechanics have been built around a theme, an emotional concept, to support it and expand it, and not the other way around as had always been the case. That was the revolution.

The game made a statement. A strong, universally relatable one. But also, one that would not be embraced by the gaming community that easily.

"You can clearly see there's a strong vision that drives everything in a single direction, making a strong statement. This is for me the true essence of authorial game design"

Until that moment, and for many other years to come after, video games have been designed starting from gameplay mechanics. While movies genres are named after the emotions they usually deal with (Romance, Comedy, Drama, Thriller), video games genres themselves have always been named after their core mechanics: First Person Shooter, Platform Game, Survival Horror, Driving Simulation and the list goes on. The mechanic has always been the starting point, and everything else, from the story to the theme, would be eventually added on top of it to support the gameplay through a meaningful, interesting context.

I believe Fumito Ueda approached this process from a completely opposite angle. It's like he started from the theme, the meaning and the context, and developed gameplay mechanics that could support those, giving birth to an incredibly consistent vision capable of triggering strong emotional reactions in players.

This was the first time a video game would move the player's health gauge from the main character itself to a secondary character, automatically implying the player would have to take care of this secondary character in order not to trigger the game over condition. This simple change to a such well-established rule ("I die = game over" changes to "She dies = game over") has universally proven the gameplay mechanic can be an incredibly powerful mean of expression.

In ICO, the gameplay mechanics initiated and supported my feelings towards Yorda. The gameplay itself made me feel in charge of her, made her appear fragile and in need of protection. The core mechanics and nothing else reinforced these lingering feelings of solitude and weakness in front of something bigger and more powerful than ourselves.

Even a mechanical and usually uninteresting feature such as the save system was being portrayed consistently with the game's high level theme, turning a chore into a pure act of beauty, where ICO and Yorda would peacefully sit together on a bench and take a break in order to save the game progress.

You can clearly see there's a strong vision that drives everything in a single direction, making a strong statement. This is for me the true essence of authorial game design.

ICO made me strongly care about someone, and it was just me and a game pad in the room. The very moment I realise I've been spontaneously caring for someone who doesn't exist, that's the moment I can say this game can be easily defined as the very first emotional experience in video games history.

Thank you, Ueda-san.

Upcoming Why I Love columns:

  • Tuesday, January 2 - Evangeline's Nicholas Laborde on Rainbox Six: Siege
  • Tuesday, January 16 - Quantum Soup's Chris Payne on Ultima Underworld
  • Tuesday, January 30 - Deus Ex: Mankind Divided's Rayna Anderson on Loom
  • Tuesday, February 13 - Ghost Story Games on DOTA 2, Doom (2016), Final Fantasy X, Kerbal Space Program, and Final Fantasy XIV

Developers interested in contributing their own Why I Love column are encouraged to reach out to us at