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    Plot/Story Guide by PeterEliot

    Version: 1.00 | Updated: 03/03/04 | Search Guide | Bookmark Guide

                              TALKING ICO: AN ANNOTATION
                             COPYRIGHT 2004 by PeterEliot 
                                     VERSION 1.00
                                  TABLE OF CONTENTS
      Part One:  Some Explanation and History
      Part Two:  The Tale Proper
         I.     The Beginning
                     in which we are introduced to the young hero
         II.    Entombment
                     in which his predicament is made apparent
         III.   A Ghostly Beauty
                     in which he discovers he is not alone
         IV.    Some Thoughts on the Puzzles
                     in which the next three chapters are introduced
         V.     A Magnificent Prison
                     in which the castle's role is discussed
         VI.    Reluctant Explorers
                     in which the pair's quest is defined
         VII.   Companions
                     in which the nature of their companionship is defined
         VIII.  The Mistress of the Keep
                     in which Ico is forced to make an unpleasant acquaintance
         IX.    Reorienting
                     in which the recent revelation places all in a new light
         X.     The Gate Once More
                     in which the children stand on the verge of freedom
         XI.    The Last Battle
                     in which the tale concludes
         XII.   Retrospect
                     in which we attempt to make sense of it all
         XIII.  Final Retrospect
                     in which we must make up our minds
      Part Three:  Art or No Art?
      Part Four:  Last Words and Acknowledgments
                                      -Part One-
                             Some Explanation and History
    ICO fans are few in number not because few liked it but because few tried it.
    But I am glad that those few have continued to talk about it and kept it from
    fading.  Though neglected it will never quite be forgotten.  The thought is
    not satisfying but it is at least encouraging.
    People often use words to describe ICO which they would not use for any other
    games, perhaps even for those games they like better than ICO.  Few ICO fans
    will go so far as to declare it the best game ever made, but nearly all will
    agree it is a special experience the likes of which they have not seen
    elsewhere and do not expect to see again for a long while.  The word special is
    to be stressed--not merely unique, not just odd, but special.  I do not want to
    belabor why it is special; if you agree with me you must already know why, and
    if you don't I doubt I will be able to explain it to you.  The following was
    written for all those (including myself) who enjoyed ICO a great deal but had
    trouble making sense of it.  I wrote it because on the ICO message board at
    GameFAQs I saw the same questions come up again and again.  I often answered
    them but rarely liked my own replies.  The reason was that the questions were
    always treated out of context.  I tried whenever I could to establish a basic
    context before replying, and this tended to make my posts rather lengthy.  And
    after a few weeks the posts would be automatically purged from the board,
    forcing me to repeat myself when similar questions were posed later.  
    I decided therefore to write an annotation of sorts to the story from the
    beginning to the end.  I posted the first part on the aforementioned board on
    May 15, 2003 and concluded it on August 25.  It has been half a year since, and
    I am happy that the thread is still active.  But since it too will be purged
    eventually I am compiling the posts, with substantial changes made to some
    places, into this commentary.
    Let me clarify exactly what I am setting out to do.  ICO is at once intriguing
    and confusing because it insists on holding silence on its own narrative.  It
    shows and suggests enough to convince us that something big is going on but
    will not tell us what it is.  So I propose an exercise: I am going to take a
    walk through the story and point out noteworthy elements that may help us
    make sense of what is happening.  I will not be a neutral observer; I will
    advance my thoughts on what I observe.  I of course realize that what is sense
    to me may well be nonsense to you.  I make no pretense at authority; you are
    welcome to disagree with me if you find my reasoning flawed or groundless.  Nor
    do I believe for one moment ICO cannot be enjoyed without some sort of
    post-mortem examination.  If you think an exercise of this sort will only spoil
    its beauty, you should dismiss it.
    Allow me also to stipulate what this exercise is not.  It is not meant to
    explain what makes ICO such a fabulous game.  I do believe it is wonderful
    entertainment, but my knowledge about games, electronic or otherwise, is very
    shallow and I would not consider it my business to debate what makes a game 
    better than another.  I will leave that question to real aficionados.  My
    attention is on the story, not the gameplay.  Nor am I trying to show why ICO
    is a great story.  Again I do find the story charming, but I assume you and I
    are agreed on that point and need not argue over it.  I am not here interested
    in how good a story it is.  I am only interested in determining *what* the
    story is.
    As I said these posts were written over three months' time.  I have revised
    them for compilation, but I have left the journal-like expressions ("Last time
    I said...," "Today I should like us to look at...") unchanged.  Each segment
    will be marked with the date on which it was first posted.
    One last thing: when I refer to the game title I will spell it as ICO in
    capital letters.  Ico, on the other hand, refers to the story's hero.
    If you wish afterwards to discuss any part of this exercise, find me at the
    GameFAQs board or e-mail me.
                                      -Part Two-
                                    The Tale Proper
    Let us agree on one thing before we begin.  As we move along the story I want
    us to assume for the talk's sake that we are seeing it unfold for the very
    first time.  That is, I want us to pretend that this is our first run through
    the game.  In fact let us pretend that we have not even read the introduction
    in the manual.  In this exercise all our knowledge about ICO comes from the
    screen and the screen alone.  But if you have not completed the game yet, be
    kind to yourself and read no more until you have.
    I.  The Beginning
        in which we are introduced to the young hero
    (First posted 15 May 2003)
    So let us talk about the opening sequence.  It is long but like the rest of the
    game it contains little speech--all seventeen words.  The opening still tells
    us quite a few things.  As you read you might want to imagine you are watching
    the screen and listening to me talk.
    Because the modern audience is an impatient crowd, opening a story with an
    unforgettable sequence or paragraph has become rather important.  The
    storyteller wants to make sure as far as he can that once the story begins the
    audience will feel driven to see it to the end and not get off midway.  A stock
    strategy of ensuring this is to drop the audience in the middle of the action
    and leave them to figure out what is happening--to forgo introduction and begin
    the story in the middle.  Accordingly ICO plunges into the tale without showing
    us so much as a title screen.
    The narrative opens with a view of a forest--green, lush and warmly lit by the
    sun, with birds chirping in the trees.  It is a beautiful, pristine landscape.
    As it happens it is the only shot in the entire game wholly free of suspense or
    melancholy.  We are shown next a group of horsemen making their way through the
    forest.  Evidently these are fighting men, wrapped from head to toes in armors.
    Their beasts are burdened with traveling articles, which tells us the men are
    on a journey of some distance.  From their knightly garbs we may expect a
    distinctly Medieval flavor in the story that is about to unfold.
    Impressive as they are the knights do not command our attention for long.  A
    member of the party stands out like a lamb amongst wolves: a young boy, seated
    before one of the knights.  Next to the ironclad frames of the men the boy is
    tiny, and conspicuously unarmed.  His puny form catches our eyes because his
    presence in this outfit does not make sense.  He is the only anomaly in an
    otherwise consistent pattern.  Had someone asked us a moment ago what we were
    seeing, we should probably have answered "a party of knights on horseback."
    Now the answer might be "a little boy in a party of knights on horseback."  The
    child has completely got our attention.  And he keeps it through the opening.
    How could he not, when he is the only one in the company who has a face?  The
    knights are hidden behind iron masks, and barely distinguishable from one
    another.  They are thoroughly anonymous--faceless, nameless, and as we will
    soon learn, without personalities relevant to the tale.  They are instruments,
    not men; their job is to fulfill a function and make themselves scarce so that
    the characters that do matter can get on with the story.
    Our curiosity turns to alarm once we have observed the boy, which we can hardly
    help.  He raises his hands to wipe his brow in the heat of the sun, and we see
    that the hands are bound.  So he is not here because he wants to be; he is a
    captive.  What is more, he appears to sport a pair of bullhorns on his head.
    And these appear to be genuine unlike the metal horns adorning some of the
    men's helmets.  Who is this boy who looks harmless enough apart from the
    oddities poking from his head?  And where is he being taken to against his
    We find the answer soon enough.  The forest path terminates and with it the
    land.  The ocean stretches before the party, and jutting from the waters is
    an island of singular appearance--a colossal column of solid rock.  A fortress
    sits on it half shrouded in the morning mist.  It dwarfs the men and the horses
    and the trees and everything else in sight.  The screen fades to the title
    shot.  I should like to place the end of the prologue here.
    Next part will treat the other half of the opening.  In the meantime I hope I
    have aroused your interest enough to stay with me the rest of the way.  I
    would also like to mention that I do not intend to go through every puzzle in
    the game like I did here.  That would make this a walkthrough and not a very
    good one.
    II.  Entombment
         in which the boy's predicament is made apparent
    (First posted 16 May 2003)
    So the knights have brought the horned boy, Ico, to a mysterious offshore
    fortress.  Well, what is the deal with this fortress?  We will not know for a
    good while but the opening affords us a number of things to observe about its
    We left Ico and his captors gazing on the castle from a handsome if somewhat
    run down stone platform, sporting Greek style colonnades, at the edge of a
    shoreside cliff.  Next we see that same platform from below.  The camera traces
    the cliff down to the sea, where a mean-looking wooden dock extends from the
    shore.  The party, now horseless, crosses the channel to the island on a very
    small boat.  This ought to strike an observant viewer as being rather odd.  To
    explain let me show you some screen shots I have borrowed from Vincent Lam's
    fine fan page.
    You should recognize this shot from the title screen.  Near the lower right
    corner is the portico-like platform we just left behind.  Here is another shot
    of much the same from a frontal view.
    This shot presents the castle as Ico and the knights must have seen it from the
    cliff.  In both pictures we can plainly see the front gate, flung wide open.
    Now why would they not enter through it?  Why would they go to the trouble of
    climbing down the precipice and braving ocean waves on a tiny boat you would
    not want for a fishing excursion on the village lake?  We of course know that
    the bridge is not yet available.  But remember that we are pretending to see
    all this for the first time without any prior knowledge about ICO.  Imagine,
    in fact, that you are the boy himself who just saw the castle for the first
    time in his life.  Would you not be surprised to see an open gate a hundred
    yards ahead, only to learn that you are not to enter that way?--that a gate
    exists but it is useless because there is no way for you or anybody to get to
    it?  That the knights do not have the option of using the main entrance and are
    forced to use a back door (if you will) informs us that they are treading a
    territory not their own.  They are setting foot on someone else's turf, someone
    evidently more powerful than they.
    Now if you please, take one more look at the images above.  Suppose now that a
    castle just like this one actually existed somewhere.  What about it would
    surprise you the most?
    If you have an inkling of what it took to erect a castle a thousand years ago,
    the most striking thing in these pictures is undoubtedly the geography.  People
    simply did not build a castle that big on that sort of terrain.  For starters
    the island is hundreds of feet tall.  It is so steep that climbing it on foot
    would be a task only for daredevils.  Imagine now having to haul many millions
    of tons of bricks to the top of that island.  And there isn't just one island.
    There are four.  I might have fancied the bricks came from the islands, but
    another look at the castle suggests differently.  The structure is so humongous
    that if it was removed the mass of the islands would shrink by half.  It
    occupies every available square inch of the islands so that there is hardly any
    surface that is not built on.  The islands could not have supplied the needed 
    quantity of materials.  They do not even have space enough to allow so massive
    a construction work.  Medieval architects, who had no mechanized cranes to
    raise stones to great heights, erected the frame for a castle by first mounting
    up an artificial hill much broader than the finished edifice.  That would not
    be a possibility here.
    Now of course this castle is as fictional as the rest of the story.  Such a
    fortress as this does not exist and could not exist.  It is quite silly to
    speculate how a nonexistent building might have been built, since it never was
    built.  I am only trying to impress upon you that, granting for the story's
    sake that the castle existed, it would have to be a staggering feat of
    engineering on the par with the pyramids in terms of labor involved.  It would
    leave us wondering who in the world built it.  That is if human hands could
    build something like that at all.  But if not human hands then what?  Would it
    be the work of whomever the castle belongs to?  If so that person must be, or
    must have been, a mighty lord indeed.
    Let us move on.  I said that the castle stands on four islands.  Here let me
    for a moment waive my proposal that we use on-screen information only for our
    exercise.  Below is a link to the map of the castle which shows the layout of
    the islands.
    The islands are arranged in an unnatural symmetry.  The tiny strip of land at
    the bottom is the shore from which the party sets out on the boat. Directly
    facing the shore is the main keep, and to its left and right are the two
    buildings that house the "keys" for the gate.  The fourth and smallest island
    is at the top of the map.  It is hidden from the view ashore.  Later we will
    see that this island is the heart of the fortress.  It is also where our boat
    is bound.  The knights sail halfway round the islands and bring their prisoner
    to the point farthest from the shore.  A cavern opens into the island.  Its
    entrance is marked by rows of immense stone pillars that appear to be rooted
    in the seabed, another remarkable feat.  Some of the pillars are on the verge
    of collapse.  Like from the ruinous stone platform atop the cliff we get a
    sense that the castle, though majestic, has not been terribly well cared for of
    late.  The lattice barring the cavern is lowered and we are finally inside the
    island.  The party stands directly underneath the castle.
    "Get the sword," a knight in a pointy mask--it looks ominously like an
    executioner's cap--tells another man.  The man departs with the order while the
    rest of the company leave in the opposite direction.  So the knights have not
    brought "the sword" with them, whatever it is.  It was already here on the
    island--whatever it is.
    Next we see the knight rejoin the company, having secured the sword.  Here
    another detail ought to strike us as curious, though we only see it briefly.
    Ico and the men are presumably still in the bowel of the island.  But the space
    surrounding them is not the jagged and coarse interior of a natural cavern.
    They stand inside a vertical circular vault.  And it is gigantic--especially
    when we consider that it is underground.  The island's rocky core has been
    hollowed out like a macaroni noodle, yet another example of the awesome labor
    that created the castle.  Later we will have a far better opportunity to
    appreciate the scale of this vault.
    The sword is unsheathed before a pair of statues at the center of the vault.
    An eerie flash crackles and the statues part to reveal a recess.  Inside is a
    sort of elevator which takes the party to the crypt above.  Now I admit that
    I did not like this elevator the first time I saw it.  It seemed much too
    mechanical--much too modern--and seemed out of place in the ancient setting of
    the castle.  I revised my opinion somewhat after completing the game.  For now
    the only thing about the elevator I want to note is the switch that controls
    it.  It is in the form of a glowing character whose meaning escapes us.  When
    thrown off the switch turns to form a different character, causing the platform
    to rise.  What is that about?
    The knights have reached their destination: a rounded chamber reminiscent of an
    arena.  Rows of stone caskets are arranged round the arena.  One of them gapes
    open.  The men deposit Ico in it and close shut the lid.  They bid the child
    farewell.  Their words betray that they do not enjoy what they do.  Then they
    are gone.  Ico is left alone inside the casket.  We see that strange characters
    are carved on it.  They look much like the ones we saw on the elevator and glow
    with the same cold blue light.  The casket also features two kneeling figures,
    their hands outstretched to each other.  An arrow points from one to the other
    as though a transfer of some sort is taking place.  Make of that what you will,
    but here I stop.  Next time we will look at Ico's first meeting with the
    III.  A Ghostly Beauty
          in which the boy discovers he is not alone
    (First posted 18 May 2003)
    Ah, Princess Yorda--that enigmatic, aloof, captivating maiden!  Some seem to
    find the passivity of her character frustrating and even infuriating, but apart
    from her alleged flaws it is rather obvious that any lasting pathos of ICO is
    to be credited entirely to this soft-spoken damsel.  Without her we should have
    a good-looking puzzle game.  With her presence we have got a tale that pulls at
    our heart long after the puzzles have ceased to amuse.  But I am getting ahead
    of myself.  We still have not got Ico out of his prison.
    So that hapless boy has been abandoned in the crypt by some diabolical design.
    The exact nature of this design we do not yet know, except that it has driven
    the knights to the outrageous act of entombing a child alive.  (The manual's
    synopsis explains why, but remember we are assuming our ignorance and taking
    things as they come on the screen.)  After the knights leave Ico tries to break
    out of the stone casket.  The masonry beneath is crumbling, probably from age,
    and this causes the sarcophagus to topple and burst open.  Out tumbles Ico who
    promptly knocks himself out.
    Next follows a brief sequence that may only be described as a dream or a
    vision.  Ico is walking along a spiral path inside a tower.  A storm rages
    outside the windows.  He is startled to see something.  A dark cage of iron
    hangs from the ceiling.  A mysterious black substance begins to pool at the
    bottom of the cage, overflowing to drip.  From the pool emerges a slender
    figure--so completely black that it seems a shadow come to life.  It sits there
    limp and unmoving in the cage while the boy watches transfixed.  A shadow opens
    up behind him and swallows him whole.  He awakens from the vision on the
    chamber floor.  Things are getting stranger by the minute.
    The game is finally in our hands.  Before we take leave of the crypt we might
    as well explore it a bit.  The chamber is filled with dozens of sarcophagi like
    Ico's own.  Presumably each one has been the end of an innocent victim.  If we
    were allowed to peek inside we might perhaps glimpse the ghastly remnant of the
    atrocities that took place therein.  Thankfully the game does not go that far.
    At one end of the crypt is a door of statues just like the one that the knights
    had opened with the magic sword, but it is inaccessible.  So Ico leaves through
    the door at the opposite end.  He passes through a nondescript room adjoining
    the crypt, and finds himself at the bottom of a very, very tall tower.
    The only way out of the tower is, again, a door that requires the magic sword.
    He does not have the magic sword.  He is doomed.  But let us examine this door
    first, since we will be seeing a great many of them soon.  It is made of four
    (usually two) identical statues, each of which contains a smaller statue
    inside.  This latter is in the shape of a crouching horned child who hugs
    his knees, head buried despairingly in his arms.  It bears an eerie resemblance
    to our boy; it is as if he were himself turned into stone and put inside the
    door.  We are now doubtless that the castle is somehow connected with Ico's
    horns.  With that thought behind us let us climb the tower.  After all there is
    nowhere else we can go.
    The tower begins to look familiar as we near the top.  We have seen this place
    in Ico's vision.  Does it have the cage hanging from the ceiling also?  Sure
    enough, there it is.  Does it likewise have the same black figure within?
    There we are surprised.  Crouching inside the cage is a young girl of almost
    blinding pallor.  Ico calls out to her but she is unresponsive.  She looks, in
    a word, miserable.  Before lowering her down to freedom, take a careful look at
    her posture.  It is the mirror image of the horned child inside every statue-
    door.  The only difference is that she has no horns.  Meanwhile the view from
    the terrace by the cage confirms the boy's fear--outside, a blue ocean
    stretches as far as the eyes can trace, offering no means of escape.  If he is
    to leave the castle his only choice is to find a way back to the shore whence
    he came.
    And so the two children are introduced to each other, after a fashion.  Ico
    does not know it, but she is the only friendly soul he will see in the castle.
    Who knows?--perhaps she is the only friendly soul he has ever known.  It would
    not surprise us if she is.
    I have only a few more things to say on this first meeting.  The children speak
    different languages and are unable to understand each other.  From the boy's
    bumbling attempt at self-introduction we finally gather that he has been
    brought to the castle as a sacrifice, an evil fate reserved for children with
    horns.  Of the girl's speech all we can discern is that she speaks the language
    of the castle.  We know this because her speech is spelled in characters
    identical to the inscriptions we have seen on the elevator and on the caskets.
    The girl must therefore belong to whatever civilization that built the castle.
    Unlike Ico who was brought in from the outside, she must be from this place
    originally.  Ico does not know this yet but we do.  And while we are talking
    about things he does not know, let us go a little farther.  From our second
    run through the game we understand the girl's speech.  Her first words to her
    rescuer are: "Who are you?  How did you get in here?"  What do these words tell
    us about her, if anything at all?  Well, they tell us that even though she
    lives at the castle she is dreadfully uninformed about what goes on in it.  She
    appears to know nothing about the horned children and the practice of
    sacrificing them.  Keep this in mind because this ignorance of hers will be
    important later as we try to understand what she is about.
    The maiden displays touchingly guileless curiosity about her liberator, but the
    moment is cut short by the sudden appearance of a hideous demon.  This newcomer
    looks rather like the entity from Ico's dream; it too is wholly black and rises
    out of nowhere.  It seems to have one aim in mind: claiming the girl.  Ico will
    not have that, so the liberator becomes the protector.  He decides to get
    himself and his newfound companion out of this terrible place.  His altruism
    yields an unexpected benefit: the girl can open the statue-doors.  In a
    heartbeat she goes from a tagalong to an indispensable ally.  Curiously enough
    she seems surprised by her own ability.  (At least that is what I think; you
    can observe her open the door for the first time and judge for yourself.)  How
    does she do this?  We will have a fairly convincing answer eventually, but for
    now let us concentrate on the obvious.  If the magic sword can open the doors,
    and the girl can open the doors, then the likeliest explanation is that the
    two of them share a certain pertinent property.  Let us leave it at that for
    the time being.
    With the aid of the girl's power Ico leaves the northern island.  The pair now
    faces the main keep where the bulk of their adventure and toil will take place.
    The demons lurk everywhere.  They only want the girl, but they will fight Ico
    if he proves a hindrance.  And that brings this section to a close.  To review
    what we know so far regarding the mysterious beauty: (1) she seems to have a
    bearing on the vision Ico had; (2) she has been imprisoned for some time;
    (3) she speaks the language of the castle; (4) she is in danger of being
    captured by shadowy demons; and (5) she shares the magic sword's ability to
    open the statue-doors.  To this we may tentatively add: (6) she seems to be
    rather ignorant of the goings-on at the castle and (7) she seems at least
    amenable to the idea of escape since she cooperates with the boy's lead.  To
    all these we shall return as more information becomes available.
    Next time we will shift our attention to the castle and try to clarify the
    puzzles' relevance to the narrative--if they have any.
    IV.  Some Thoughts on the Puzzles
         in which the next three chapters are introduced.
    (First posted 20 May 2003)
    I said at the beginning that gameplay falls outside the scope of this exercise.
    I think I have made an unreasonable claim.  ICO's story takes some hours to
    unfold, and we spend the majority of those hours solving puzzles.  If I am
    to talk about those puzzles at any length I will after all have to treat
    gameplay even if I do not call it by that name.  (I admit I am not very
    comfortable with the term; it is not in any dictionary, and I hesitate to make
    use of a word I could not define.)  Let me say again that I make no pretense at
    anything like expert knowledge about games.  Common sense is all I have got to
    guide myself on the subject.  Please bear with me.
    Having played through the game you know that everything I have talked about
    thus far is only the introductory stage of the game.  We are barely past the
    opening scenes.  Ico and the girl have only just now met.  That is not to say
    that we have not learned quite a lot of information already, because we have.
    But all we really have done so far is watching, not playing.  And a game is
    supposed to be played.  In that sense the game has hardly begun.  For we have
    only solved the first and the simplest of the puzzles.  There are many more
    challenging puzzles to come.  And the puzzles are the substance of this game,
    are they not?  Of course they are.  If we had no puzzles we should have no
    game.  The puzzles must therefore be the one absolutely indispensable part of
    the game.  And if they are the one absolutely indispensable part, they must be
    the most important part.  That is true to logic, isn't it?
    Clearly I do not believe so.  I will explain why not.  Without a doubt the
    puzzles are the most prominent feature of the gameplay.  Yet most ICO fans seem
    convinced that the puzzles are not its real stock.  If you are inclined to
    disagree, recall some praises you have heard people say about the game.  Are
    they chiefly about the enjoyableness of the puzzles?  Or are they about
    something else entirely?
    It is a rather obvious question.  People mention things like "awe-inspiring
    visuals," "heartwarming tale," "art" and "beauty" and what not.  But some would
    say all these fine qualities are nonessentials to a game.  Pac-Man may lack
    them, but that does not keep it from being a classic game.  So one could argue
    ICO is a beautiful tale but an impoverished game.  For there is exactly one way
    for us to complete the game.  And once we have completed it, the element of
    challenge is all but gone.  Puzzles we know the answers to are no longer
    puzzles.  No wonder so many deem ICO worth no more than a rental.  But we ICO
    fans are strange.  We insist that ICO is not only competent but positively
    amazing.  Can we justify that claim?
    Now I already said this exercise is not about how good a game ICO is, and I
    stand by my word.  But I think I do need to say something about how the game
    works its magic on us if the next segments are to make any sense to you.  (As
    to how well it works, I will leave to you to decide.)  Recently I exchanged
    some e-mails with a very devoted fan of ICO.  He loves it so much that he has
    written a fifty-page essay on it.  He surprised me by saying that he had not
    played it in months.  He said that the experience feels more real when he
    seldom plays it.  About then I was similarly surprised to hear another veteran
    say on this board that she was only then playing through the game for the
    second time; I know how she adores it.  But I really should not have been
    surprised.  I have myself played the game to completion just three times.  Now
    we have got a bit of a paradox here.  Here we are, three diehard admirers of
    the game who confess it to be their all-time favorite--and we hardly play it at
    all!  A paradox is calling it politely.  Either we are lying when we say ICO is
    our favorite game, or we have deluded ourselves that we like it more than we
    actually do.  Isn't that right?  No?  Well, why not?
    At first glance it seems perfectly reasonable that we should spend the most
    time on the games we enjoy the most.  But it seems to me that people have been
    conditioned to think this way ever since they popped their first quarters
    into an arcade machine long before video games were a part of the home
    entertainment system.  If you were a good gamer you got your quarter's worth of
    time and then some.  If not you needed lots of quarters or you would not be
    playing very long.  An idea took shape that in video gaming you invested money
    to be rewarded in time.  That idea has stayed through the years.  I think that
    is what the so-called replay value is about.  It stems from the notion that a
    game's function is first and foremost to help us pass time.  And though we may
    not have to pop quarters in every ten minutes anymore, we do have to pay hefty
    amounts for the system and the software.  Economics cannot help but remain a
    factor especially given the age bracket most gamers fall into.  But in the end
    that is all it is: economics.  You may very well play through ICO just once a
    year.  That is a sound financial reason not to purchase the game.  It is not a
    sound reason to detract from its intrinsic worth.  It does not keep ICO from
    being someone's fondest and fullest memory of a game.
    Speaking of intrinsic worth, let us return to it.  I apologize for digressing,
    but I felt it was necessary before we could place the puzzles in the proper
    context.  I do not want anyone to suppose that I think the puzzles unimportant.
    On the contrary I think they are the muscles of the game.  What I want to
    emphasize is that these muscles are meant to do two distinct sets of work.  The
    first and more obvious set is of the conventional sort, which applies to any
    puzzles.  We solve them because they are fun and because they help us pass time
    pleasantly.  But is that all the puzzles do in ICO?  I must say no.  I have
    already given my reason: a puzzle is no longer a puzzle once it is solved.  And
    since every task in ICO has exactly one prescribed solution, it is pointless to
    go back and try to work it out differently.  By this logic ICO's puzzles ought
    to lose all capacity to entertain once the game has been completed.  But at
    least for me that is hardly the case.  That I have exhausted all technical
    possibilities in the game but my thought continues to dwell on it and be
    fascinated by it, tells me that its real strength is not in puzzle solving.
    Depending on our approach the experience can retain a great deal of their
    potency.  That is where the second set of work, the narrative work, comes in.
    And that is what I will be back with.
    V.  A Magnificent Prison
        in which the castle's role is discussed
    (First posted 27 May 2003)
    It would be a mistake to think ICO is neatly divided between the story and the
    puzzles--that the cinematic interludes take care of storytelling while the
    puzzles pad out the spaces between.  I suppose the puzzles could be enjoyed
    more or less on their own.  But the narrative would collapse without the
    puzzles.  This is because the puzzles are only parts of the whole, whereas the
    narrative *is* the whole.  Now the term narrative can be--ought not to be, but
    can be--misleading since it hints at something spoken or written, and ICO is
    almost entirely nonverbal outside the interludes.  But we have all heard that a
    picture tells a thousand words.  Where they are sparing in words the scenes and
    the actions are rich in other kinds of information.
    But a word before we go into that.  The next three segments are concerned with
    everything between the pair's meeting and the first appearance of the villain.
    On that note I may have oversimplified the matter when I so stressed the
    puzzles in my last ramble, since the gameplay contains a good many things
    besides puzzle solving.  But for the talk's sake let us agree that by puzzles
    we mean everything the children must do in their quest for freedom, outside the
    interludes--in other words every action which is left to our control.
    Now I cannot take the puzzles apart the way I have done the opening because
    they do not have plot elements except one: they show us that the children are
    progressing from one part of the castle to the next.  Therefore the narrative
    functions of any one puzzle are much the same as all the rest.  (Does that mean
    if we have seen one we have seen all?  No; there is such a thing as cumulative
    effect.)  For our purposes it would be pointless to look at each puzzle in
    depth.  So I am only going to articulate a few statements that apply to all the
    puzzles in their narrative capacity.  These are:
    I imagine some of you would like to expand these.  Someone pointed out after
    reading the last section, for instance, that the puzzles help us immerse
    ourselves in the environment.  He was very right.  But since this is more an
    aesthetic quality than a narrative tool I have here left it out.  I will
    however mention it briefly when I talk about the second statement.  Let us then
    look at each of the statements.  Today we will consider only the first of the
    At this time it may be helpful to summarize what we already know on the castle.
    We know it is absurdly enormous and must have demanded absurd amount of
    manpower to put together.  We know it is in disrepair and probably very
    ancient.  We know that parts of it are operated by mysterious spells.  We know
    that Ico has been brought here to die like others before him--and this by no
    accident nor by whim if the caskets and the horned effigies are any signs.  Add
    to these the awful gloom that haunts every corner of the castle, and the
    picture we have is one of decidedly sinister character.  The picture is of
    course blurry since we have not one solid bit of information about the castle.
    Yet we begin the game convinced beyond doubt that the castle is no friendly
    place.  We are right to assume so.  That is what visual storytelling is:
    getting us to believe certain things without telling us to.  We will be seeing
    a great deal of that in this tale.
    Once the pair starts exploring the castle in earnest we learn that the place is
    not merely unfriendly or indifferent; it is hostile.  I am not here thinking of
    the lurking black wraiths, though they are certainly a part of it.  I am
    thinking of the fortress itself.  After all what is this fortress to the
    children?  For her it is a prison.  For him it was very nearly his tomb, and
    may still be that if he is not careful.  For both it is the chief obstruction
    that stands in the way of their object--freedom.  It is the cause of their
    suffering; it represents everything they must overcome.
    People erect buildings in order to domesticate the environment--to make a
    domain of comfort and convenience out of an uncomfortable, inconvenient
    wilderness.  But this castle almost seems to exist to make life miserable.
    Instead of putting things within easy reach it hides them from you and makes
    you work to find them.  It makes you circle a building three times at three
    different levels just to get to the roof.  It is full of high places from which
    you could easily fall to your death, made doubly dangerous since the place is
    falling apart everywhere.  On top of that it will not let you go through a door
    unless by some cryptic reason it deems you fit to pass.  It would be a nice
    place to live if you had wings and could walk through walls--a splendid
    dwelling for fairies but hardly habitable for mortals.  The set-up smacks of a
    maze created to confound.
    You might say "Well, of course it was created to confound.  This is a puzzle
    game, for crying out loud."  I realize that.  I am only saying that the
    castle's labyrinthine character has something to contribute to the story as
    well as to the game.  That is, given the story's premise it makes good sense
    that the castle should be so full of riddles.  What is the story's premise?
    Well, a pair of children want to run away from a big, mysterious and
    frightening place.  And the big, mysterious and frightening place doesn't want
    to let them get away.  It is determined to block them, to frustrate them and
    to slow them down.  To move through the castle the children must outwit it--
    must meet and prevail against every challenge this dangerous maze throws at
    them.  But wait a moment here.  "Outwitting" the castle almost sounds as if we
    were treating it as a person.  In fact it very much sounds like the castle has
    assumed an adversarial role against the children.  And it has.  The real
    antagonist of the story, the foe Ico and the girl must fight more than any
    other, is the very prison whose ground they tread.  Every scene in ICO is a
    silent reminder of that.  We are always looking at the young heroes at a
    distance so that the castle rises colossal and dominating in all directions
    around them--breathing down on them, making them appear in comparison utterly
    puny and utterly lost.  Now, we may marvel at the castle for its sheer
    magnificence.  But that is mostly because we are not in Ico's shoes.  None of
    us would in reality enjoy being trapped inside a deserted citadel in the middle
    of nowhere.  We can afford to be delighted because for us this is mere
    entertainment.  For him it is a matter of life and death.  When he looks around
    he does not see the enchantingly beautiful edifice we do.  He sees the bane of
    his existence which at any moment may prove his doom.  There he is never
    assured of surviving another hour.  Delighted is the last thing he is.
    There are many terrors in life, but the terror of being lost is surely the
    greatest--alongside its twin, the terror of being alone.  The fear the castle
    arouses is of a subtle and pervasive sort.  It rarely jumps you from behind.
    Rather it is always before you and around you, daring you to ignore it.  To be
    sure there is great serenity throughout the castle.  But anyone who has been
    lost in a quiet, deserted place knows that serenity is no equal of peace. 
    There is no peace in this place, only desolation.  And mute malice.  For we
    sense that there must be a malicious mind behind the malicious plan.  Every
    painting has a painter behind it and every book an author.  Someone arranged
    this mystery for a purpose less than innocent.  As yet we do not know who that
    someone is and what purpose.  We do know that until we have left this castle
    behind we shall not be relieved of the dread.
    Here I stop.  I will be back with thoughts on the second statement.
    VI.  Reluctant Explorers
         in which the pair's quest is defined
    (First posted 11 June 2003)
    I had to scrap the first draft of this section because while I was mulling over
    the castle's role I got too deep into gameplay and lost sight of the narrative.
    Then I lost the second draft also when my laptop got stolen along with all the
    writing in it.  More to set my own thoughts straight in all the rewriting
    confusion than anything else I should like to begin with some very basic
    considerations.  I think I set down pretty clearly last time that the castle
    is exceedingly important.  Very well, it is important.  But how precisely is it
    important to the story--rather than to the gameplay or the sheer visual
    To answer that I want to consider briefly what a story is.  It is a popular
    mistake to confuse a "story" with "fiction."  The two are not synonymous.  For
    instance if I said "There is water on the moon" that would be fiction insofar
    as I made it up, but it would hardly qualify as a story.  On the other hand a
    biography of Abraham Lincoln would not and ought not to be fiction, but it
    would certainly be a story.  Similarly when I say "This is a story of my life"
    I do not mean "This is a story which I made up about myself."  I mean "This is
    how my life unfolded and became what it is now."  To tell a story therefore
    means to give an account of something, whether true or imaginary.  The act of
    giving an account usually requires that we keep track of three things.  These
    are characters, setting, and conflict.
    Characters are a set of actors, who need not be people necessarily, that we see
    more or less from the beginning to the conclusion of the story.  Setting refers
    to the sum total of circumstances under which the characters operate--the
    times, the places, the conditions.  The last ingredient, conflict, is anything
    which drives the characters to abandon inactivity and do one thing or another.
    Examples of conflict in fiction may include outright fighting or competition,
    solving a murder mystery, falling in love, or a Coke bottle dropping out of the
    sky.  A biography of Lincoln is a story since it has all three ingredients.
    The gibberish about there being water on the moon is just that--gibberish.
    Let me see how the castle fits into this scheme.  I immediately recognize it as
    the key element of the setting since it provides the environment for the story.
    But it is also the apparent source of the conflict; the children want freedom,
    and the castle keeps it from them.  And since the castle is the greatest
    obstacle in the children's quest, it is not a mere arena in which to confront
    the enemy: it *is* the enemy.  It thus behaves almost like a character also,
    and a crucially important character at that.  The puzzles are its means of
    keeping the children imprisoned.  That is why I said the narrative would
    collapse without the puzzles.  They are the substance of the main conflict in
    the story.  And a story without conflict is like pea soup without peas.  It is
    I think I am ready now to take up the second statement, which states that the
    children must explore the castle.  In place of "explore" we might substitute
    "deal with" or "overcome."  The children must deal with the castle if they are
    to be successful.  They must overcome its cunning with their own.  But I used 
    "explore" because that word has implications which the others do not.  To
    explore a place is more than simply to visit it.  You may visit Grand Canyon
    as a tourist, but until you have invested time and risked bodily harm to
    wrestle with its wilderness you cannot say you have explored it.  Similarly it
    would be ludicrous for someone to boast of having explored the canyon when in
    fact he has only dealt with a negligible fraction of its vastness.  Claims like
    that belong to committed folk whose scope of exploration extends far beyond
    popular hiking courses.  Now the children must explore the castle in that
    sense.  They must; they have no choice about it.  One might explore some great
    wonder because he wants to learn, because he is curious, or because he wants
    excitement.  Our young heroes do not want to learn about the castle, they are
    not curious about it, and they are most certainly not looking for excitement.
    What they want is to get out of it as fast as they can.  They do not want
    anything to do with this dreadful place, do not want to stay in it one second
    longer than they have to.  They are on the run for their lives.  Sightseeing is
    the least of their priorities.
    Let us imagine ourselves now in the children's place.  Suppose we really were
    trying to escape from a ghoul-infested castle.  Suppose we just entered a
    courtyard.  We are surrounded on all sides by beautiful and wondrous sights.
    Should we take a moment to explore and enjoy?  Not unless we are very dumb.  We
    see an exit in plain view.  We should make a beeline for it.  But we cannot.
    The pathway is blocked.  We must find a way around the obstruction.  We have no
    choice but to explore.  That is, we are forced to investigate places we would
    rather bypass and fiddle with contraptions we would rather let alone.  We want
    the quickest shortcut out of here--but what we are offered instead is an
    endless string of detours within detours.  That is what the puzzles amount to:
    an elaborate, grueling succession of detours which will eventually take the
    children through each and every area within the castle walls.  They could not
    care less about seeing each and every area.  They want a shortcut direct to the
    exit and to freedom.  There isn't one.  If there were, the children would be
    happy but the story would lose its conflict.  It would lose its peas--lose its
    taste and become insipid and uninteresting.  The poor youngsters have got to do
    things the hard way, and all for our enjoyment's sake.  This sentiment is at
    the heart of every adventure ever written.
    At this point let me bring in a previous poster's comment as I promised I
    would.  I mean about the puzzles helping us immerse ourselves in the
    environment.  How do you suppose they do that?  Well, I said already that the
    children want as little to do with their prison as possible.  But the puzzles
    require that they become intimately acquainted with it whether they like it or
    not.  Let me use the illustration of Grand Canyon once more.  Millions visit
    that national park every year.  Most of them go no farther than contemplating
    its majesty from a safe distance, much like enjoying the ocean from the beach.
    But if you wanted to *immerse* yourself in it, if you truly wanted it to come
    alive, you would not be satisfied with that.  You would venture into the
    canyon and put your hands and feet, not just your eyes, into the experience.
    You would want to cover as much ground as possible so that you would be able to
    appreciate the canyon from on high, from deep below, from the east, from the
    west, from within, from the extremities, at dawn, at midday, at sunset.  Now
    this is just what the puzzles make us do.  They make us encounter the castle
    from all points.  And we have to do this every time we play through the game;
    we cannot say "Oh, I already know what that place looks like, so I won't bother
    to go that way this time."  The game will not allow us to complete it until we
    have turned the castle inside out.
    I spent four years at the university where I graduated not long ago.  You would
    think I am thoroughly familiar with the campus of my own alma mater.  But in
    truth there are facilities there I would not be able to give you directions to
    because I never had the occasions to make use of them.  If you asked me what
    our business school building looks like inside you would only get a blank stare
    from me.  In four years I was never in it.  I would bet most people have
    similar memories.  That is, they develop a routine and as a result remain
    surprisingly ignorant about some fixtures in their lives.  They may only
    frequent certain parts of their hometown so that they feel like strangers in a
    foreign country when they venture beyond them.  Or, when asked the name of the
    middle school they have driven by every day for ten years, they may realize
    with a start that they never learned it.  You get the idea.  But the castle is
    an entirely different story.  I have spent only a few hours "inside" it.  Yet
    its memory is vividness itself.  I know it like the back of my hand.  How is
    that?  Well, I have been everywhere in it.  I have been to, and have had to
    contend with, every chamber, tower, bridge, courtyard and weather-beaten cliff.
    I left no stone unturned.  The game would not let me proceed otherwise.
    And leaving no stone unturned is just what the puzzles are about.  They demand
    that we experience the castle to the fullest.  There is exactly one spot we
    wish to be, but to get there we must pass through every other spot in the whole
    godforsaken fortress.  This is true in our first run through the game and in
    our seventh.  There is never any shortcut.  That we already know the solutions
    to the puzzles does not shorten the distance we must cover.  In this the castle
    differs from a typical maze.  In most mazes there is one correct path and
    ninety-nine false paths.  But in ICO there is to begin with a single
    excruciatingly long-winded path and no other.  In this way solving ICO's
    puzzles is less like answering riddles and more like climbing a steep slope or
    crossing a deep canyon.  No one solves the same crossword puzzle twice for the
    fun of it.  But there is plenty sense in revisiting a summit one has already
    conquered, and in fact many climbers do just that.
    You may think I am putting you on.  Playing a video game is of course quite
    unlike climbing a mountain.  We do not exert our limbs or risk our lives when
    we play a video game.  It is Ico rather who exerts his limbs and risks his
    life.  And we imagine that for him the labor and danger are very much real.  We
    make the same concession whenever we read a book or watch a film.  We know
    perfectly well that we are ourselves in no danger of falling as we watch James
    Stewart hang on for his life in VERTIGO.  But we do imagine that the danger is
    real for his character, or the scene would lose all suspense.  Now if we have
    seen the film before, we know how it ends.  But while that reduces the suspense
    greatly it does not destroy it altogether; we know what happens but we still
    watch it with interest.  Something similar is at work when I play ICO.  The
    puzzles are at best minimally entertaining now since I have solved them before.
    But the impact of watching those two youngsters struggle against the pitiless
    environment remains potent.  Knowing the answers to the puzzles has reduced my
    labor greatly, yes, but it has not reduced Ico's labor nearly as much--for his
    labor is physical as well as mental, whereas mine was never more than mental. 
    Though all is plain and easy for me now, it is not so for the children.  Every
    time we play we put them through a fiendish ordeal. That is the great illusion
    the game weaves in our minds--an illusion I have not seen reproduced nearly as
    convincingly in any other games.  And for me that is how the game continues to
    command my attention, if to a somewhat lesser degree, when the puzzles have
    ceased to present challenge.
    So we now understand why things like realistic lighting, an accurate sense of
    scale, height and distance, and complex character animation are crucial in ICO.
    Aside from giving the game its pretty looks, their job is to create an illusion
    that these are real children in a real place and consequently in a real
    trouble.  Is it silly, I wonder, to sympathize with computer-generated
    characters?  Perhaps it is.  But then it ought to be equally silly to
    sympathize with Disney's Bambi or his ill-fated mother; they are also mere
    pictures after all.  The only way we can put up with animated characters is by
    imagining--that is, by pretending--that they are real after their own fashion. 
    ICO is no different.  It is an experience which rewards an imaginative
    In summation the puzzles force the children to explore every nook and cranny of
    the castle, which is akin to keeping them in constant clash with their
    archenemy.  Do not be confused by the term archenemy here.  Some of you are
    thinking "Isn't another character entitled to that role?"  By archenemy I mean
    the enemy the heroes must deal with the most.  Palpatine may rule over the
    empire, but one doesn't have to know much about STAR WARS to see that the place
    of archenemy belongs to Darth Vader.  He is only a subordinate in the grand
    scheme of things, but he is the pain in the neck the heroes have to deal with
    at every turn.  That is, he is immediate unlike the emperor who is usually
    beyond sight and reach.  The castle too is immediate.  It is always in your
    face.  It is the presence you cannot ignore, the hand of the real foe who as
    yet remains unseen.
    I will treat the third and final statement on the puzzles next time.
    VII.  Companions
          in which the nature of the children's companionship is defined
    (First posted 15 July 2003)
    By that I mean they are companions by necessity.  They both want to escape from
    the fortress, and neither can do it alone.  Each suffers from limitations that
    make escape an impossibility.  Since their predicament is in the form of a
    prison--in other words restriction of movement--their limitations too naturally
    have to do with mobility.  The boy cannot pass through the idol gates which the
    girl can open.  She cannot negotiate certain terrains which he can.  What is
    more, she will be captured by the wraiths if left undefended, and he will be
    petrified once she has been claimed.  Someone on the net said of the situation
    "If you die, she dies.  If she dies, you die."  That about sums up the
    arrangement.  In a biologist's book this would be called symbiosis, and in a
    sociologist's, partnership or alliance, but I prefer to call it simply
    companionship.  After all it is not as if the two of them sat down and
    discussed the rotten fix they are in and came to the mutual understanding that
    since they seem to complement each other's handicaps they might as well stick
    together.  For them the symbiotic arrangement is essentially a happy
    coincidence.  (On the storyteller's part it was of course a deliberate choice.)
    Ico decides to take the girl with him while he is ignorant of her ability.
    They are companions before they become cooperators.
    C. S. Lewis, whom I recently began reading and who is fast becoming my favorite
    author, wrote a slim wonderful volume on the nature of love titled THE FOUR
    LOVES.  The four loves are Affection, Friendship, Eros and Charity.  The
    companionship between our protagonists falls under Friendship by Lewis'
    estimation.  Writing of Friendship he opined "Lovers are normally face to face,
    absorbed in each other; Friends, side by side, absorbed in some common
    interest."  He meant that the chief concern of lovers is themselves, that is,
    each other--but friends come together when there is something outside of
    themselves in which they take a shared interest.  Hence lovers are always
    looking at each other while friends are side by side looking at, and moving
    towards, that other thing.  In short a friendship needs to be *about*
    something, be it a hobby, a taste in music, a political vision or a profession.
    Therefore Friendship according to Lewis--between true bosom buddies, not just
    any "friendly" acquaintances--typically forms when a person looks at another
    and says "What?  You too?  I thought I was the only one."  This fully applies
    to the children.  Left to die, Ico doubtlessly thought himself quite abandoned.
    In the mysterious girl he has found not only an age peer but a fellow prisoner.
    The moment he recognizes her as such the thought of parting becomes unbearable;
    it would mean returning to total solitude.  And I do not mean unbearable just
    for him; it becomes unbearable for us also.  We recognize at once that these
    two are in a common plight, that they are a match, that they ought to be
    together.  The need to reclaim the captured girl is not mere male heroism, you
    see.  Certain there is a good deal of "rescue the damsel in distress" mentality
    in play.  But that is not the part of our imagination the game appeals most to.
    If it were, I doubt very many thoughtful female players would have enjoyed it.
    What it really appeals to is our desire to get back to a friend--the desire to
    banish the horrible solitude which her absence has imposed upon us.
    One more observation, and I have done with this segment.  As we make progress
    and solve more puzzles, the two children's respective roles become clearly
    defined.  We come to categorize in our heads the list of things the boy can and
    cannot do, and likewise for the girl.  But she is a curious creature.  In
    appearance she is elegant and full of natural grace, but sometimes she acts as
    if she has not quite got all her wits about herself.  It becomes increasingly
    evident that her limited prowess is more than a case of feminine frailty.  She
    is not only weak; she is timid--not only inept; helpless.  She seems to be
    unacquainted with the very notion of fending for herself.  And she continues
    to demonstrate her ignorance about the castle which has been mentioned earlier;
    she makes for the most part no contribution to clearing paths, leaving it as
    Ico's burden to figure all out.  The castle--presumably her home--is just as
    baffling to her as it is to him.  Only, he has the facility to tackle it and
    she apparently does not.  And all the while the curious fact is that she is the
    older of the two if looks mean anything.  Ico is a little boy and behaves like
    one.  The girl on the other hand is on her way to womanhood but not half as
    resourceful as her diminutive companion.  He acts his age.  She does not.  By
    all logic she, who is older and has spent more time inside the castle walls,
    ought to be the sensible one who figures things out for them both.  Yet Ico
    has to look after her and lead her by hand as though she were his little
    sister in this somewhat lopsided, though indissoluble, partnership.  Why?
    I am not going to answer that just yet.  We need to learn more about the girl
    before accounting for her character, and we have not got that far into the
    story.  In the next part we will look at the first appearance of you-know-who.
    VIII.  The Mistress of the Keep
           in which Ico is forced to make an unpleasant acquaintance
    (First posted 24 July 2003; resumed August 5)
    What we have got so far along the story are lots of facts and little by way of
    explanation.  We do not know why Ico almost got sacrificed in the crypt, only
    that he in fact did.  (By now we know better than to believe the excuse that
    horned children are ill omens.)  We do not know why the castle is crammed full
    with puzzles, only that it in fact is.  We do not know why the girl was
    imprisoned in the cage, only that she in fact was.  We do not know how she can
    open the gates, only that she in fact can.  And we do not know why the ghouls
    want her, only that they in fact do.  These questions will largely be put off
    until the climax, but in today's segment we at last get the first glimpse of an
    The children's meandering journey through the ruins of the castle brings them
    to a great multi-leveled courtyard.  Here a fierce battle ensues.  If I recall
    right the fight must have gone on for a half-hour in my first run.  The
    creatures come after the pair in such numbers that we cannot help but wonder if
    there is something special about this place--something the enemies want to keep
    the children away from.  We can fight them to the last or we can save time and
    effort by running to the idol gate.  This is a good place to mention that
    opening an idol gate destroys all nearby enemies.  An intriguing morsel of
    information, this.  The demons haunt the castle, but they appear powerless
    against the magic which operates that castle and which responds to the girl's
    presence.  There is something at work here that is far superior to the demons.
    And the girl has access to it, is able to activate it, is able to use it--say
    it however you want.  It is strange that she who can wield a power greater than
    the demons' is helpless in defending herself against them.  One more thing for
    us to ponder until we have a clearer picture of the mystery.
    As soon as the door is open, the girl rushes in ahead of Ico.  It is the first
    time she has done anything of the sort.  He follows her in and finds a colossal
    open gate.  It is the very same he saw but could not use in the prologue.
    Gleeful for a moment, he is dismayed next to see the doors begin to drag
    themselves shut.  He grabs his companion's hand and runs for it.  She trips,
    and falls down.  When he turns to help her up he is astonished to witness a
    dark figure, a woman, materialize behind her.  The woman addresses the fallen
    girl in their speech.  We infer therefore that she too is an inhabitant of the
    castle.  Translated, her first words are "Come back, Yorda."
    The girl's reaction to the stranger is telling.  She returns no answer.  She
    looks terribly dejected--she makes no attempt to pick herself up, and she keeps
    her face averted.  In fact she has not once glanced back since falling, as one
    might be expected to if someone popped out of thin air not three steps behind
    her.  She does not look back because she knows without looking precisely what
    has happened.  She knows without looking precisely who stands behind her.  It
    was perhaps inaccurate to say she is dejected.  She is resigned.  She has done
    something she was not supposed to do, and now she has been caught.
    Let us take a closer look at the dark stranger who has mortified the poor girl
    so.  Clearly no ordinary woman, she is regal, austere, and even beautiful and
    dignified in an icy sort of way.  She is not monstrous like the demons we have
    seen.  Yet she does not strike us as any less dreadful.  If anything she
    inspires deeper dread.  The demons were scary, but this woman is imposing.  The
    demons were nasty brutes, but she has got something that goes beyond nasty or
    brutal blazing in her stern gaze.  In some ways she does resemble the demons.
    Or rather the demons resemble her, albeit in pale imitation.  In place of their
    smoky loose flesh she sports a cloak of swirling, crackling black which is
    indistinguishable from her flesh and which engulfs all but her face.  Instead
    of crawling out from the ground she has leapt into form like black flame
    igniting.  She betrays no violence of demeanor as the creatures did--does not
    make threatening gestures, does not raise her voice, in fact does not move a
    finger through the interview, but simply stands there calm, erect, immovable,
    unassailable.  She stands in authority--and therefore she is fearsome.  No one
    understands that better than little children.
    And that stranger now turns her attention to Ico.  She speaks to him in his own
    tongue, rebuking him for dragging "her Yorda" about.  She identifies herself as
    the girl's mother.  She expresses contempt for the horned child who in her eyes
    has no place beside her beloved daughter.  The words sadden the boy.  Why, I am
    not going to guess.  She warns him to stop his futile effort and to leave the
    castle, and vanishes as abruptly as when she appeared.
    He runs to the girl.  "I have angered her," she murmurs fearfully.  The woman's
    disembodied voice comes then: "Yorda, why can't you understand?  You cannot
    survive in the outside world."
    And so the children are left by themselves once again, and allowed to continue
    their quest for freedom.  The word to keep in mind here is *allowed*.  We
    receive a distinct impression that the woman has decided to humor the pair for
    the time being, and just as she authorized that liberty she is liable to revoke
    it when she pleases.  We are doubtless that we will be seeing her again.
    Now let us consider some immediate implications of this brief, dramatic
    encounter.  There are many, but the first two will be more than enough for
    (1) First and foremost it is abundantly plain that this woman who claims to be
    the girl's mother is the proprietor of the castle.  We should realize that even
    if we had no manual to tell us who she is.  (For the game itself is quite
    silent on her exact identity.)  We have in our memory a far superior and more
    persuasive authority: the stories we read and heard as children, and the
    images they conjured into our collective imagination.  Thanks to them we need
    no more than a glance at the newcomer before we are able to declare, with total
    confidence, "That is the villain of the story."
    You see, ICO is not just any story but a fairy tale.  And the dark woman is not
    just any villain either; she is a fairy tale villain.  That means she has
    features which identify her as such--features which we recognize instantly.
    Call her the queen, the evil fairy, the sorceress, the witch, or whatever
    catches your fancy; it does not really matter; she is all those things.  Some
    have compared ICO's queen to well-known Disney villains, heedless that those
    villains are themselves derived from long-standing traditions.  The queen is
    that mystic, dark, all-powerful antagonist in our childhood imagination who is
    evil and who does evil, and whose overblown counterpart is the "dark lord" in
    modern fantasy fiction.  She is that someone responsible for the mysterious
    enchantment which needs to be undone.  She is the queen who poisons snowdrop;
    the fairy who puts Briar Rose to a hundred-year slumber; the ogre who hoards
    treasure in his castle and enjoys eating little children; the witch who turns
    young maidens into songbirds and keeps them caged; the hag who puts Rapunzel up
    the tower and doesn't let her out.  She is an embodiment of all those classic
    images.  That is why she feels familiar though we have just met her.  We may
    not know her per se, but we recognize her place in the story in a heartbeat.
    And just what is her place in the story?  Let me see now.  In some of our best-
    loved fairy tales, it is the villains who typically dictate the setting and the
    conflict.  So without them there would be no adventure, much as there would
    have been no Second World War without Hitler.  Adventure here is something of a
    euphemism.  Ordeal probably better describes the sort of things a fairy tale
    hero goes through.  We may therefore define the queen's breed of fairy tale
    villain as "the one who is responsible for the hero's ordeal."  And insofar as
    the hero's ordeal is the substance of the tale, the villain is absolutely
    pivotal.  Snowdrop's adventure begins only when the queen becomes jealous of
    her beauty and tries to have her killed.  Cinderella should have had no need of
    glass slippers had her nasty stepmother not kept her from attending the ball.
    And Jack's beanstalk should have led nowhere without the ogre's castle for it
    to reach up to.
    But this central element of the story, you see, has been thus far missing.  And
    all of us have been wondering about its absence consciously or unconsciously.
    All of us have been asking ourselves "We are up against something big here--
    but what the deuce is it?"  So when the queen finally makes her belated
    entrance we immediately realize "She is the one behind it all."  No further
    introduction is necessary.  (And none is given; when the story has ended, we
    will still not know even her name.)  We know nothing about the stranger but we
    understand what she means to the story.  She is the queen.  She is the witch,
    the enchantress.  The castle is hers.  She rules over it and always has ruled
    over it.  She is the children's enemy.  They will have to fight her.  What is
    more, they have been fighting her.
    This is also why the queen does not get much time on screen.  She does not need
    it.  That is, she does not have to show up a great deal and do many things in
    order for us to grasp her character.  Her character is more or less complete in
    our imagination.  We have a wealth of valid ideas about fairy tale villains
    already established.  So all she has to do is show up once and, with her darkly
    majestic appearance, announce to us "I am that villain."  That is why in this
    scene she rears her head just long enough for us to take a good look at her and
    promptly disappears, not to be seen again till practically the conclusion of
    the story.  The point is that we have seen her.  And now that we know she
    exists she automatically becomes the focal point of *everything*.
    From here on we must reorient our queries around the queen.  We no longer ask
    "Why were horned children to be sacrificed at the castle?" but rather "Why did
    the queen want them sacrificed at her castle?"  Similarly not "Why was Yorda
    put in the cage?" but "Why did the queen cage her?"; not "Why do the creatures
    come after her?" but "Why does the queen send them after her daughter?"  The
    queen has not entered the picture just now, you see.  She has been at its
    center all along, only she was not visible until now.  Hers is the face behind
    the hostile presence we have sensed ever since entering the castle.
    (2) A fairy tale villain in the queen's particular vein is invariably the most
    powerful being in the tale.  Not all fairy tale villains are royal or magically
    endowed; some are fairly humble, like a scheming maidservant or an abusive
    stepmother.  But regardless of their status with the rest of the world, the
    villains always exercise godlike powers over the protagonists.  They are always
    the ones holding all the cards--thus forcing the hapless heroes to resort to
    wit and subterfuge to prevail against overwhelming odds and seemingly
    invincible foes.  The queen too holds all the cards against the children.
    Therefore we infer, without being told, that the castle and its maddening
    contraptions are her work.  The wraiths that come after Yorda are under her
    command.  She is responsible for Yorda's imprisonment.  And if the pattern
    means anything the practice of sacrificing horned youths is likely her idea
    also.  How can I be so sure?  Honestly I can't.  These are speculations, some
    more so than others.  But I think them reasonable.  A fairy tale villain tends
    to be responsible for all evil that is found in the story.  This is because the
    tales, with their small cast of characters, rarely have room for two villains.
    They prefer a single diabolical antagonist who represents the sum of all menace
    to the heroes.  Consider also how the pair is united in a common quest.  It
    makes excellent sense that they should have a common enemy as well.  For these 
    reasons, among many others, I must assume that the person responsible for Ico's
    entombment is one and the same as she put Yorda in the cage.  But we will talk
    more about this later.
    (Remainder of this section was posted on 5 August 2003)
    (3) The queen commands extraordinary magic.  The castle and the legions of
    demons are proof enough of her capability.  Able to appear and vanish at will,
    she seems all but free of bodily limitations.  Her impeccable timing in
    intercepting the pair also suggests she is aware of all that goes on in her
    domain.  That would explain why opts to humor them for now; she knows she can
    surprise them whenever she wants.  She may have hidden herself, but she is
    still there watching the children's every move.  She may even be enjoying it;
    let the stubborn lass learn her lesson the hard way if she insists on it!
    (4) Suddenly we understand why the girl, Yorda, can do the things she can.  She
    has inherited her mother's nature and is able, to an extent, to exercise a
    queenlike power over the castle.  The idol gates are a sort of security doors;
    like sentries guarding their posts, they will not let just anybody pass.  But
    in Yorda they recognize something of their mistress and so make way for her.
    We recall however that Yorda is not the only one thus authorized to open the
    gates.  There is that sword we saw in the opening sequence.  If Yorda can open
    the doors thanks to the queen's power she inherited, would that mean the sword
    too wields a power akin to the queen's?  Let us add that to the list of things
    we must come back to.
    (5) Unlike her daughter the queen is fluent in Ico's language.  So she is
    knowledgeable about the outside world.  Perhaps she has, or had, ties with it.
    If she indeed arranged for the horned children to be brought to the castle, she
    certainly should have required, or coerced in any case, the cooperation of
    (6) Yorda is a sharp contrast with her mother in this regard.  She is just as
    ignorant about her companion's language as he is of hers.  We may safely guess
    that he is the first and only contact she has had with the world beyond the
    castle walls.  And if we had any doubt that she wants to see that world very
    badly, the queen's parting words have removed it.  For they say in effect "Not
    this nonsense about leaving the castle again!  How many times do I have to tell
    you that you can't survive there?"  So it seems the girl has in the past
    expressed her desire to leave the islands.  I could not say if she wanted
    freedom because she was caged or if she was caged because she dared to want
    freedom.  Take your pick; I do not think it makes much difference in the end.
    (7) But let us spend a little time on the queen's parting words since some
    people have pointed to them as evidence for a particular--I believe mistaken--
    reading of the ending.  What does she mean that Yorda cannot survive outside
    the castle?  She could be saying one of two things: (1) the girl physically
    cannot sustain her life in the outside realm like a fish that has left the
    waters, or (2) she is too delicate for the travail of leaving home and looking
    after herself.  In the former she gives a fact; in the latter, an opinion.
    Facts are given to inform; opinions, to persuade.  Which is the queen doing
    here, informing or persuading?
    Let us consider her words again: "Yorda, why can't you understand?  You cannot
    survive in the outside world."  Without much affecting their significance we
    may change the words to "Haven't I told you already that you cannot survive in
    the outside world?"  That of course means "I have told you already that you
    cannot survive in the outside world."
    If the words are not beginning to sound familiar, let me put them next to some
    that should: "I've told you already you are not going to that crazy party."
    "We've had this talk before--you are not driving the van."  "Haven't I told you
    a hundred times not to run with scissors in your hand?"
    Our parents had their reasons when they told us these things.  We were not to
    go to the crazy party because they feared we might drink or mix with a wrong
    sort of people.  We were not to be trusted with the van because in their
    opinion we were not yet very good with smaller cars.  We were not to run with
    scissors because they thought... actually I never quite understood why not.
    But all these admonitions have a common thought running through them.  They all
    draw from the same unspoken claim: "This is for your own good."  Which means
    "I know better than you do what is good for you."  And what that really means
    is "I have your best interest at heart."  This is what all parental admonitions
    boil down to.
    Now when my mother issued me one of her warnings, I believed she had my best
    interest at heart even if I did not always agree with her assessment.  But if
    someone kept me in confinement for years and told me that I wasn't really
    missing out on anything outside the prison because I could not survive there
    anyway--I think I might have some misgivings about her sincerity.  I should
    think she was trying to secure my compliance.
    It appears Yorda herself has reached that very conclusion.  She was told more
    than once that she could not live outside the castle.  She decided to escape
    anyway.  Why?  Because she distrusted her mother's honesty.  The queen and the
    princess are thus divided along a very simple line: the mother says leaving
    home is not a viable option for her daughter, and the daughter does not believe
    her mother.  With excellent reasons.
    But that is just half the story.  We will probe this subject in greater depth
    when we get to the ending.
    (8) Now that we know who caged Yorda, we find ourselves wondering afresh why in
    the world the poor girl had to suffer that wretched treatment.  This being a
    fairy tale, it could well be that she was held captive purely for the sake of
    being a captive--sort of like the maidens in chivalric lore who apparently have
    nothing to occupy themselves with except to get themselves abducted by one
    man-devouring ogre or another.  But that does not sit right somehow.  There
    must be a reason for her incarceration.  Having completed the game we of course
    know it already, but supposing that we did not we could still guess it
    There are just three reasons for which people keep a person--or a thing, for
    that matter--locked up.  The first is punishment, as in the case of a convicted
    felon.  The second might be called containment or quarantine, where someone or
    something represents a danger too great to be let loose.  Violent lunatics,
    victims of a contagious disease and, again, felons are kept confined for this
    reason.  The last is safekeeping; when there is a valuable which one doesn't
    wish to let out of his hands, he might opt to lock it up--be it money, jewelry,
    livestock, lab rats, hostages or slaves.  Therefore Yorda was caged either
    because she committed some offense against the queen, or because she was deemed
    dangerous enough to warrant confinement, or else because she represented
    something valuable which the queen wanted to keep near.  Even with the little
    we know at this point in the story we need not think long to judge the most
    plausible scenario.
    But while we are on the subject let us spare a moment for that other captive in
    the story.  I mean the boy himself.  He too was imprisoned like many others
    before him.  And unlike with Yorda the story will not explain why they suffered
    thus.  So with the horned children speculation is all we have got.  We have our
    three choices: either they were punished for an offense, or they were deemed
    dangerous, or else they were wanted for some specific design.  Which makes the
    most sense to you?
    (9) That Yorda is the queen's daughter means of course she shares her mother's
    nature.  This raises a disturbing implication.  Let us recall Ico's mysterious
    vision early in the story.  In it we saw a black figure emerge inside the
    suspended cage.  Later we found Yorda in that very setting.  And we were a good
    deal confused.  We had expected to find a pitch-black creature and instead got
    a little girl who is so pale she all but glows.  The discrepancy was left
    unsettled in our minds.  But now we have seen the queen who is dark as midnight
    and able to appear out of nowhere, so much like the creature in the vision.
    And this woman is Yorda's mother; that is, she and the girl are alike in some
    essential way.  We can no longer doubt the vision.  The amoeba-like creature
    must have been Yorda.  How and why the boy dreamed of her is in my opinion
    unimportant.  The vision's significance lies in that Yorda is something besides
    an ordinary human.  We have suspected this for some time.  But it is now
    confirmed, and will become crucial later as we try to make sense of the ending.
    That wraps up this long chapter, though almost every point made here will be
    brought up again later.  Next I would like to discuss how this new development
    changes the way we look at the story.  Then we will finally address the tale's
    climax and conclusion.
    IX.  Reorienting
         in which the recent revelation places all in a new light
    (First Posted 8 August 2003; resumed August 10)
    The queen's presence now forces us to redefine everything with regard to it.
    To be sure nothing much has really changed.  The children's condition has
    neither improved nor deteriorated on account of the encounter.  What they do
    after her appearance is the same as what have done prior to it--exploring,
    path clearing, fighting.  What has changed is our perception of that condition.
    We will continue to see much the same that we have been seeing, but we will not
    look at it the same way.  An easy example is the heroine herself.  Thus far in
    our thoughts she was a pretty but rather strange girl who could do some useful
    things and who seemed interested in escaping from the castle.  Now she is
    Yorda, the sole daughter of the castle's ruler.  But this is the most
    superficial of the shifts.  Thanks to the queen we now have solider grasp on
    nearly every aspect of the mystery.
    Let us begin with the castle.  Until now we were lost and we did not know where
    we were going.  Well, we are still lost but we do know where we are going.  We
    are going to the main gate.  And since the queen has closed it shut, we need to
    find a way of unlocking it.  We have got ourselves a definite object of aim.
    Before, we wandered in blind hopes.  We wander with a purpose now.
    The way we look at the castle has also shifted.  Until now the chief impression
    we got from the castle was that it was very, very deserted.  Not only that, it
    was crumbling to pieces everywhere.  It clearly had not been inhabited for a
    long time.  There were some sinister creatures loitering about, certainly, but
    we could hardly believe these vile brutes were the rightful occupants of so
    magnificent a keep.  No, we did not take them for the castle's original
    residents.  We regarded them as we might house pests--ghostly vermin that had
    taken over a fortress built by civilized beings, much as rats flourish in an
    abandoned mansion.  When we met the queen, however, we learned that the mansion
    was not in fact abandoned.  The mistress of the house was still living there.
    The wraiths were not freeloading pests but rather her servants.  But the
    realization raises a baffling question.  What sort of homeowner would allow her
    house to fall into such a sorry state?  She would have to be either very lazy,
    or very incompetent, or else very ill.  So it would seem that the queen, as
    mighty as she is, has got some deep problems.  Her rule must be in decline.
    The castle's condition bespeaks her own.
    The castle testifies a great deal more about its mistress.  In fact it is
    almost the only thing that tells us anything about her.  Let us backtrack here
    for a moment and recall what was said about the castle in earlier sections.  I
    said that the castle was hostile to the children, and they had to fight and
    overcome it to proceed through its maze.  I concluded that someone, some evil
    mind, was behind this evil fortress.  Well, we now know who that someone is.
    But she has once again hidden herself from our senses--totally.  So the only
    way for us to sense her is through her work, that is, the castle.  In this way
    the castle, the only available sign of the witch's presence, becomes equated
    with the witch herself.  That is, what we say about her may also be said about
    the castle.  She possesses stupendous powers--well, the castle is stupendous.
    She is in decline--so is it.  She is not willing to let the pair go free--
    neither is it.  And if she should die--why then the castle too will die.  For
    all intents and purposes, the castle *is* the queen.  It deals with the
    children in her place when she is not there.
    Or let me put it this way.  You must be familiar with the memory of "the scary
    old man down the street."  The scary old man down the street did not mix with
    other people much.  In fact the scary old man hardly ever set foot outside his
    house.  But there his house stood, three blocks down from yours--dark in the
    shades, with weird plants in dense profusion growing on the lawn, and lights
    glimmering in the windows till late at night to tell you he lived there.  You
    didn't like going near that house.  Kids said he came out at night to dig up
    the bones buried in the backyard.  You ran when you had to pass it by and tried
    not to look that way.  But sometimes accidents would happen.  You would hit a
    ball and it would roll into the scary old man's garden.  You would rather give
    up the ball, except your pals would goad you into retrieving it.  So you would
    go, feeling your back moisten as you got nearer and nearer to the house.  Those
    eye-like windows would seem bigger than usual--the shadows darker somehow--and
    would that be a crack in the doorway, a faint sound of footsteps...?  You would
    grab the ball and bolt out of the garden.  You would fancy a hand behind you,
    stretching out to grab you.  You would not look back until you were safe and
    away, only then to let out a relieved breath, glad that the scary old man
    didn't "get" you.  But all along you had no idea what the scary old man looked
    like.  You had never seen him.  You just knew he lived in that dreadful house
    of his, with bones in the backyard.  The house *was* the man.  You were just
    as afraid of it as you were of him.
    In a similar way the castle--so humongous, so unignorable, so always in our
    faces--makes up for the queen in her apparent absence.  It does everything a
    villain might be expected to do: threatening, tricking, trapping, and
    frustrating the heroes at every corner.  By fighting it the children in effect
    fight the queen.  Every obstacle they come across is a reminder of the enemy
    responsible for the obstacle.  And with each riddle they solve they have
    thwarted a piece of her scheme.
    Now, this substitution only works because we understand all the while that the
    queen is not really absent.  The scary old man is very much in the house, just
    out of sight for the moment.  And it is precisely the fact that he is out of
    sight that makes him so scary.  For when he is to be seen nowhere we imagine
    him everywhere.  Ico and Yorda are trespassers in his garden, looking over
    their shoulders continually to see if that hand they felt was imaginary.  They
    are captives to the awareness that while they cannot see their enemy she can
    see them, and is at this very moment watching them.  She has jumped them once.
    She can jump them again.
    When I first played the game I did not know when and where the queen would
    appear next.  I only knew that she would sooner or later.  It was impossible to
    dismiss her from my thoughts.  It was like the first time I watched JAWS--in
    that film the shark is invisible for the most part, but for that very reason
    the ocean entire comes to represent the creature; one grows to fear not so much
    the shark but the very sight of the waters.  Thus the queen remains a fearsome
    villain though she hardly gets five minutes of screen time prior to the climax.
    In a story of lesser merits so little visibility would make her a very poor
    villain indeed.  In fact games, especially combat-oriented games, are full of
    weak villains for just this reason.  They tend to withhold the villain from the
    player lest he should be disappointed to find no fresh challenge in the all-
    important "boss fight."  And so we find that the villain often remains veiled
    until the final moment, with a predictable and self-frustrating result that he
    is rendered harmless for the majority of the story.
    (Remainder of this section was posted on 19 August 2003.)
    We have covered the castle and the queen.  I think we have said enough about
    the wraiths too.  There really is not much to observe about those creatures.
    Before we knew of the queen we took them for a sort of demonic termites
    infesting the deserted fortress.  But now we understand that they are under the
    queen's control and do her biddings.  Yes, I think that is enough for now.
    That leaves the children.  Do we perceive them any differently after the
    queen's appearance?  With Ico the answer is largely no.  As to the girl--now
    she is a different story.  Not only have we learned her name and heritage, but
    we also understand why she wants to leave the castle and why she has her
    ability.  But most importantly we now have some insight into her behaviors.
    Earlier we touched on her curious and almost total reliance on the boy and left
    it unresolved for lack of information.  The time has come to resolve it.  Why
    does she, despite her more adult appearance, prove so utterly helpless?
    Before I give my answer I want to impress upon you that ICO is a game, in which
    the complexities of the real world are reduced to those predictable patterns we
    call rules.  (And there is no such a thing as a game without rules.)  So when
    Yorda does not lift a finger to help Ico drag a crate or make even a token
    effort of climbing a chain to lessen his burden, instead of berating her cold
    indifference we ought to acknowledge that by the game's rules it is not her job
    to do those things.  If this were a novel or a film, no doubt things would have
    been different.  For instance the castle as we have it in the game should be
    perfectly silly in a novel.  It is just too densely packed with puzzles to be
    convincing.  It is somewhat forgivable here because a game must be allowed its
    peculiar quirks--granted of course that the quirks are consistent--if it is to
    be enjoyable.  (Chess may be modeled after a battlefield, but only the thickest
    dunderhead would try to justify the "strategy" of having a rook move
    diagonally.  "After all," he might say, "might it not be a clever idea to
    surprise the enemy by having the archers draw their swords?")  The castle is
    therefore full of puzzles to carry the point across that it is hostile to
    trespassers.  Likewise Yorda is less than agile to carry the point across that
    she is unused to exerting herself.  To explain why I think that is a fair
    characterization I want us to consider her from two perspectives, one entirely
    poetic and the other practical.
    By a poetic perspective on Yorda I mean nothing particularly grand.  I mean the
    impressions and feelings she arouses in the beholder.  Here ICO fans seem to
    entertain fairly uniform sentiments.  Asked to describe the princess in a word,
    they are apt to use adjectives in the vein of ethereal, ghostly, spectral,
    otherworldly, elfin, angelic and the like.  All these describe a state of being
    which is either wholly spiritual or belonging on the fringe of the physical
    realm--something more immaterial than substantial, more transparent than
    opaque, more fanciful and pliable than realistic or concrete.  (I have
    commented a few times on the girl's extraordinary pallor.  Poets and painters
    alike have long used pale complexion for that delicate, impermanent, or
    altogether incorporeal quality which certain individuals possess.  It is no
    accident that we tend to imagine ghosts and spirits as translucent beings in
    muted tones of gray.)  The princess' appearance and demeanor are intended to
    exploit these sentiments.  I say exploit because the sentiments existed in our
    thoughts long before we knew of her; the storyteller fashioned her character in
    such a way as to tap them.  Do you recall how the queen instantly struck a
    familiar chord in our imagination the moment we saw her?  She was technically a
    stranger but at the same time recognizable--because she fit a *type* we already
    knew.  Something similar is at work in the way we look at Yorda.  We need then
    to determine the type--that is, the genre--to which she belongs.
    Yorda's fairylike appeal hails from that class of mythical maidens which
    includes nymphs, sirens, elves, sylphs and sprites--supernatural creatures
    bearing more or less the form of human damsels, half spirit and half mortal, at
    once alluring and chaste, mysterious, capricious, eternally young and carefree.
    (She even has the pointy ears to show for it!)  Traditions invariably place
    these enchanting creatures in idyllic settings.  We think of fairy maidens
    dancing with bees or napping on flower petals, nymphs singing and playing the
    harp on the banks of a serene lake, mermaids harvesting pearls in the watery
    depth.  We never think of them engaging in any sort of practical labor; we
    never picture them farming or chopping logs or cooking.  These demigoddesses
    are too noble and too lighthearted for such mundane--such thoroughly human--
    activities.  The concept rebels against their image.  It rebels against Yorda's
    image also.
    From the moment we met Yorda we had misgivings about her nature.  She looked
    human but did not quite strike us as human.  She seemed to be made of some
    finer stuff--so exceedingly delicate as to seem only half corporeal, and at
    sharp disagreement with the brute rigid surroundings of stones and bricks and
    walls.  If she were introduced to us as an elf or a sylph, we should have
    thought it quite appropriate.  Note here that both "elfin" and "sylphlike" have
    come to describe just her sort of slim, dainty young woman.  Our heroine
    however is not merely reminiscent of such magical damsels; she is a
    supernatural being on her own right, a bona fide fairy princess in the rank of
    full-fledged elves and sylphs--those bewitching otherworldly beauties of
    folklore, impossibly fair, impossibly delicate, shielded from the humdrum
    necessities of life which plague ordinary mortals.  The vulgar notion of manual
    labor is alien to a being so elevated.  That is something *people* trouble
    themselves with.  The queen has told Ico that he and Yorda belong apart. 
    Condescending she may be, but she is right.  Her contempt for the boy is as
    much for his being a lowly common mortal as for his horns.
    Consequently my view of the girl's incompetence at certain tasks is not that
    she is dim-witted, but rather that she would have compromised her own image by
    excelling at those tasks.  We must here keep in mind that she is at times
    preternaturally graceful and at times preternaturally clumsy.  How do we
    reconcile the two?  Are they even reconcilable?  Well, in my experience a
    graceful person can prove quite awkward when she is forced to a task she never
    would have considered--like say a princess who suddenly found herself having to
    take up sewing or housecleaning.  But someone oafish to begin with is oafish
    always.  Elegance can turn sloppy by happenstance.  The reverse never occurs.
    So here I have the two seemingly opposed portraits of the fairy princess: one
    showing an unbecomingly inept adventurer who struggles only half successfully
    to negotiate some obstruction, and the other a picture of innocent beauty and
    grace, where she frolics with birds on a green sunlit yard by a clear pond and
    an old windmill, fair and spectral like the mythic sylph, and betraying no
    intimation whatever of her fugitive plight.  Which is the true Yorda?  Well,
    both.  But which best demonstrates her nature?  Most emphatically I say the
    latter; this is where she is at home.  But we see precious little of that Yorda
    in the story.  Rather we usually see the girl at her least natural and
    therefore at her most awkward--being manhandled and dragged around, climbing
    ladders, braving death falls with reluctance, running for her life.  I am not
    surprised that she has come across to some as less than appealing.  Their
    frustration arises from expecting Yorda to be more like Ico.  But I think the
    foundational fact in the pair's companionship is precisely that they share
    nothing in common aside from their calamity.  If on the other hand the
    frustration is owed to the technical limitations of the game's artificial
    intelligence, it is beyond my scope and I have nothing at all to say on the
    That was my musing on the sheer drama of her being.  Next I should like to
    offer a bit more practical rationale for her demeanor.  Before I came to the
    conclusion articulated above, I too fancied it chauvinist of the game to
    represent the heroine thus; not only is she a damsel in distress, but she is a
    weakling and, worse, a simpleton who has to rely on her male companion to do
    all that requires the least bit of muscle or intelligent thinking.  But even
    then I did not really hold this against her.  There was a regal beauty about
    her person which would not permit flat dismissal--a nobility that would not
    suit a fool.  That she was ignorant was apparent from the start, but I could
    not believe she was stupid as well.  And that distinction between ignorance and
    brainlessness cleared much of my own misunderstanding.
    I have heard many speak fondly of Yorda's "innocent, pure" image.  Similar
    praises are often said about young children because they have not (presumably)
    yet been corrupted by the world.  That is really a euphemistic way of saying
    they are ignorant about the world.  Yorda is certainly innocent in that sense,
    though I think it is one of the less wise euphemisms popularly used.  She is
    very ignorant about the world, and for the same reason as young children: she
    has had little exposure to it.  Her behaviors exhibit the telltale signs of one
    who was brought up in isolation--brought up caged, if you will--without much if
    any opportunity to acquaint herself to the surroundings.  Consequently she
    knows next to nothing about the castle where she has lived since birth, which
    hints that she really is a sort of Rapunzel--shut up alone all her life inside
    a tower by the old witch, and forbidden all access to the outside.  She acts as
    though she just stepped out of the prison cell for the first time in her life.
    The reality may not have been so simple, but I suspect the analogy holds more
    than a grain of truth.  I doubt she ever even spoke with anyone but her
    brooding mother before the boy came along.  She received no more education than
    might be given to cattle.  Like cattle her purpose was to grow up to be
    consumed when the time came.  Never until now was she called to apply herself
    to any endeavor.  She is very like a newborn, awakening just now to the bumps
    and edges of a world from which she has long been sheltered.
    And with that I am done covering the noteworthy instances in the tale up to the
    queen's second appearance.  It only remains to get that gate open and greet the
    climax of the story.  Now you may be surprised to hear that.  You may think
    there is still much to go over.  In a way you are right.  A player would take
    perhaps eight hours or so to play through the game the first time.  The queen
    is introduced about two hours into the game and does not show herself again
    until the last hour or thereabout.  Most of the exploration and puzzle solving
    takes place between her appearances.  But I have nothing to say of this
    interval that I have not said already.  All the major elements have been
    introduced.  What lies ahead is essentially repeats of the same cycle: enter
    an area, clear the path, enter the next area, clear the path, and so on.  There
    will be no significant advancement in the plot until the main gate is reopened.
    Does that mean the narrative is to stagnate until then?
    Heavens, no.  It just means all the elements are now firmly in place, and it is
    time for them to come into full play.  There is yet a great deal to enjoy.  The
    really fun part is just beginning.  But we do not have ponder them in tedious
    words anymore.
    Nor does it mean these hours are a mere ploy to protract the story, like
    inserting unnecessary events to tell a three-hundred-page tale that needed no
    more than a hundred.  While talking about the puzzles I said one puzzle serves
    the same functions as any other, but I also mentioned a cumulative effect.  In
    other words the many puzzles strung together yield an effect which no single
    puzzle could produce.  What is that effect?
    Half of it was explained earlier: by completing all the puzzles we make a
    complete tour of the castle.  A single puzzle means only an obstacle to clear,
    but all the puzzles together make a journey.  And what a journey it is.
    The other half concerns the growing bond between the pair.  We can understand
    this readily.  If I got through one perilous venture with another person, I
    might have found myself an ally, and perhaps a friend.  If I got through twenty
    with the same person--why, we should be inseparable.
    The real enjoyment of the game lies in accompanying the children on their
    journey and watching them forge a bond which I will not try to describe.  And
    we need not take apart any mystery to find it.  We have dug through an awful
    heap of information, true, but none of this was strictly necessary for us to
    see what the story is about.  In fact I cannot grasp the two heroes through
    reasoning.  I know too little about them.  I do not know their histories, their
    habits and inclinations, their thoughts and reasons.  But here is a strange
    thought: I know practically nothing about these two, yet I feel that at some
    level I "know" them far more intimately than characters from any other games.
    And some of those characters have their biographical data contrived down to
    birth date and favorite food.  I wonder why this is?
    The apparent contradiction is resolved once we realize that we are talking
    about two different modes of knowing.  Ico and Yorda become known to us not by
    exposition but by impression.  When you learn a thing by impression, it matters
    little how much you already knew about it--what counts is how vividly the thing
    becomes engraved in your thoughts and fancies.  It is a very simple matter.
    You see a man dive in front of an oncoming truck to save a child, and you
    receive an impression that he is brave and selfless.  You watch a couple seated
    on a bench holding hands, and you receive an impression that they are fond of
    each other.  You may not hear a word of their conversation, but your impression
    leads you to conclude the talk must be genial.  In the same manner, you watch
    two children fight the rest of the world to escape a fate they have not
    deserved, struggling together to make the next hundred steps on their thorny
    path, and you receive an impression that--well, you fill in the blank.  But
    that is how these characters, though largely strangers to us, become alive in
    our minds and we grow attached to them.  And we need no analysis for that.
    Now we must be mindful that impressions can mislead, and that they are poor
    ground on which to base dogmatic claims.  In fact any statement that begins
    with the words "______ gives me an impression that..." presumes its own
    inaccuracy.  For instance if I said "That girl gives me an impression of being
    more a ghost than a person," I would not be saying the girl is actually a
    ghost, or even that she is probably a ghost.  I would merely mean "She looks
    and behaves *as if* she were a ghost and not a person."  An impression makes no
    stronger a claim of truth than that.  I should like you to remember this
    whenever you hear me speak of my impressions.
    So next time we will find the pair at the main gate.
    X.  The Gate Once More
        in which the children stand on the verge of freedom
    (First Posted 10 August 2003)
    So they have done it.  They have unleashed both keys to the gate, turning the
    castle inside out in the process, and now they stand before the gate.  It only
    remains for Yorda to open it.
    It seems some people are confused as to how this gate works.  I think that
    detail is unimportant.  We only need to understand that it operates the same
    way all the other magic doors at the castle operate.  Since this is the main
    entrance, however, it is double bolted just as our own front doors have
    multiple locks while the doors inside only have one.  It must be unlocked in
    order to respond to the girl's magic; like an electric security door it has to
    be switched on before it will accept the password.
    Opening the immense gate saps Yorda's strength.  She sinks to her feet
    exhausted.  Ico tends to her in concern.  A little more, she breathes.  Almost
    there.  Just a little more.
    A bridge of stone extends from the castle, connecting to the bluff ashore.  The
    mystery of the unusable gate which we observed in the prologue is at last
    answered.  The existence of the bridge also lets me guess that the castle used
    to be in communication with the land, which agrees with my suspicion that the
    queen has or had ties with the outside world.  Why then did she withdraw the
    bridge and isolate her realm?
    The green shore stretches before them.  At the other end of the bridge Ico can
    see the portico he had visited earlier in the knights' custody.  He takes
    Yorda's hand and leads her between the gateposts.  For the first time the
    princess breathes the air beyond the castle walls.  But her first steps outside
    the prison are shaky.  She barely keeps herself upright.  Slowly, cautiously,
    the children make their way across the narrow bridge.  There are no safety
    rails, and the sea is a long way down.
    With no warning a globe atop a gatepost, the same they had used to unlock the
    gate, flashes white.  A streak of bolt springs from it, striking the girl with
    deadly accuracy.  She collapses upon the bridge.  Ico is knocked away from the
    impact and nearly rolls off to the sea.  The bridge splits--it begins to
    retract.  The pair is left separated at each end, she on the castle side and he
    on the shore side.
    Ico scrambles to his feet.  At the other side, the princess moves weakly to the
    edge.  For a moment the children gaze upon each other helplessly.  The gap is
    fast widening.  Then the boy makes a decision.  He will rather rejoin his
    companion than return ashore without her.  Darting to the edge he throws
    himself over the chasm.
    He falls short by a step--the princess reaches out, and grasps his hand.  He
    dangles a thousand feet above the waters.  Desperately he claws at the stone
    with the free hand.  The girl strains to bring him up.  Her drained strength
    is already at the limit holding onto his weight.  More than once her thin arm
    nearly gives out.  Then displaying a *grit* we should hardly have expected from
    her, she almost hauls him onto the bridge--
    But a shadow grows behind her.  Bit by bit it devours her form, crawling up her
    limbs, turning her black as soot.  The shadow rises and takes the form of the
    queen.  It is the last thing the boy sees before he falls.  "Thank you," the
    princess whispers.  Then she is enveloped in darkness.
    XI.  The Last Battle
         in which the tale concludes
    (First Posted 20 August 2003)
    A storm rages under the dark and livid heaven.  The sun has long since retired
    into the night.  Blurry in the rain and lit by lightning, the castle has shed
    its old serenity and stands in unmitigated gloom.  Before, it could look
    handsome.  It is only monstrous now.
    The boy awakens, wet and probably less than warm, on one of the great cages
    hanging off the cliff under the front gate.  It appears that he, falling off
    the bridge when it was almost fully withdrawn, dropped down to the cage.  (If
    you will, go to the first picture link in the chapter titled Entombment.  You
    can see the cages under the gate.)  What will he do now?  His comrade is gone,
    reclaimed by the witch.  Heaven knows what has become of her.  He is
    friendless, weaponless, clueless--as he was at the beginning.  What is left
    now, but to resume what he has been doing all along, to try and get himself out
    of the castle?  For the queen has made it clear she has no interest in him.
    She has got her daughter back.  She will not interfere if he escapes alone. 
    Indeed did she not order him to leave?  But what he does next goes against the
    advice of common wisdom.  Let us take another look at the castle's map.
    Where Ico regains consciousness is the southern tip of the central isle, which
    directly faces the shore he has been trying thus far to reach.  Where he heads
    next is the northernmost isle--the farthest point from the shore.  This is
    where he first met Yorda and also where he was entombed.  Now what is this
    child thinking, backtracking through the whole island, undoing the progress he
    has made, to return to the very place he has risked his life all this time to
    get away from?
    All of a sudden the adventure has taken on a new attitude.  We thought freedom
    was the aim of this quest.  But if that is true the boy is not helping himself
    by running back into the prison.  Now we realize escape is not the object of
    the game.  There has all along been another object which commands greater
    priority and was not apparent until now.  That object is the bond between the
    two children.  Escape is agreeable only so long as it coincides with that
    other, more important, priority.  But now that one of the companions has been
    taken away--well, freedom will just have to be put on hold until she is
    recovered and the companionship restored.  So back he must go.
    Here some of you may raise a sensible objection.  You may say "Eliot is
    exaggerating Ico's valor.  He does not go back because he wants to, but rather
    because the path inevitably leads him that way.  The puzzles he solves force
    him back to the northern isle.  He has no choice to go elsewhere."
    That is not true.  The ones who have no choice are we.  Ico has a choice.  Or
    rather he had a choice--and made it.  Consider for instance the murderously
    steep bluff he tackles to reach the northern isle.  Now if he could do that, by
    common sense he should also be able to climb down to the shore and escape
    alone.  Then you may say "Actually he couldn't, since the only available
    footpath along the cliff leads back to the prearranged destination."  And why
    do you think the footpath is prearranged?  It is put there by the storyteller
    to prevent us, the gamers, from taking Ico somewhere he does not want to go.
    It is there to ensure that we do not ruin the story by having him do something
    he would never do of his own will, such as abandoning Yorda to save his own
    hide.  But the assumption all the while is that he could--if he wished, which
    he does not--have applied the same effort to saving himself instead of
    rescuing his friend.  He is not, as we are, groping in the dark for just any
    exit.  He is on a *search*.  We of course do not learn this until he reaches
    his destination.  Only then do we realize "So that's what he was trying to do. 
    He was trying to get back to the tower where he met the girl."
    In this linear adventure we are as much spectators as we are players.  Our
    control over Ico's actions is limited to having him do more or less what he has
    already decided he will do.  We "play as Ico"--that is, we are expected to
    behave as he would, and we are accordingly penalized when we go against that
    expectation.  We can have him do what he wants well, or we can have him do it
    incompetently.  But we cannot have him not do it at all.  In other words we can
    either have him succeed at his aim, or we can have him fail--but we cannot
    alter the aim itself.  And his aim is to rescue Yorda.  On our part we can let
    him do exactly that or else refuse by quitting the game.  That is all the
    choice we have.  The script says "Either you let him do what he will, or the
    story does not progress beyond this point."
    Let me repeat that ICO is a linear tale.  That means it is entirely scripted.
    We are allowed to control the protagonist so long as we do not deviate from the
    script; when we do deviate, the story either halts until we get back on the
    track or it ends altogether with the boy's death.  The storyteller has already
    decided how this tale is to end.  Consequently he so set up the puzzles and the
    paths that we will play out the climax the way he wants it played out.  We have
    no choice but to return to the northern isle.  But that is only because Ico
    himself has chosen to do so.
    Make no mistake about it: he still wants to escape.  But not unless he has his
    friend with him.  By now he knows this cannot be done without first confronting
    the queen.  Twice already she has frustrated them when they were only steps
    away from freedom.  What is more, she could have done so anytime she wished.
    There is not a spot in the castle hidden from her eyes, not a spot beyond her
    reach.  As long as the queen is there rescuing Yorda is a lost cause.  How much
    confidence does this boy have in his chances against her?  Either he knows full
    well he is running to his doom, or--more likely--he gives no thought at all to
    the odds of success.  Which is more heroic, I could not say.
    Back he goes, into the shadowy underside of the castle which he had glimpsed
    earlier with Yorda, through the enormous water engines busy at some mysterious
    work, tracing the deadly slopes of the cliff, until he finds the northern tower
    rising in the storm like a ghost mansion.  He enters the isle and finds himself
    in the subterranean vault--astonishingly immense!--where the knights had
    brought him before.  He has come a full circle round the stronghold.  At the
    bottom of the vault is the very first idol gate he saw, the same that the
    knights had opened with the magic blade.  Outside, he finds the dock by which
    he had arrived at the castle.  A path leads away from the dock to an altar of
    stone by the cavern's exit.  A familiar object sits on it.  The magic sword is
    at last found.
    Ico can go anywhere in the castle now; he no longer requires Yorda's help to
    escape.  Of course the game is so arranged that this will not be permitted.
    But what I said three paragraphs above applies fully here.  In fact if he
    wanted to leave alone he does not even have to bother with the sword.  He can
    simply take the boat out of the cavern.  We know the lattice can be lowered; we
    saw the knights do it.  Again the only reason we cannot lower the lattice or
    push the boat into the water is not that these actions are inherently undoable
    but that they contradict the script.  It is not that Ico cannot do them but
    that he will not.  This becomes easier to understand if you pretend that
    instead of playing a game you are watching a film or reading a book.
    Now that he has the sword, let us take a good look at it; we couldn't before
    because it was kept sheathed.  Intricate characters are carved on the blade.
    We have seen these characters before--on the elevator which he is now about to
    ride, on the casket in which he almost met his doom, and in the speech of the
    princess and the queen.  No doubt about it: the sword is an artifact of the
    castle.  It must have been placed at the cavern to allow the knights, and
    others like them, to carry out their terrible duty.  But placed by whom?  By
    the queen, I should think; for who else should have the authority to grant
    entry to the castle?
    Armed with the queen's sword, the boy opens the gate and enters the crypt.
    Everything is the way he left it--the grim multitude of caskets, one of them
    overturned--except for a dark congregation of wraiths at the apse of the
    chamber.  They dance about an unmoving figure like savages celebrating a kill.
    It is the princess.  She has been turned into stone, arrested at the precise
    moment of the boy's fall, her hand still outstretched for his.
    He charges at the gathering.  The wraiths scatter, hissing at the intruder.  He
    hacks at them unopposed.  The sword's power is remarkable.  It strikes down the
    foe with a single blow.  And no wonder.  It is a sword forged with the queen's
    own magic--drawing from the same power which operates the castle entire.  The
    wraiths are helpless against their mistress' sorcery, just as they were
    whenever Yorda opened one of the gates.
    Not long into the fight we notice something odd.  Some of the caskets on the
    wall are glowing for no apparent reason.  We have Ico examine them, but we can
    detect nothing otherwise special about them.  The fight continues meanwhile,
    and more and more caskets begin to glow.  At some point a chilling realization
    grips us.  Every destroyed enemy causes a sarcophagus to lit up.  We take a
    harder look at the demons Ico has been massacring.  We note they are uniformly
    small, just about our hero's size.  Then we observe in horror that each sports
    on its head horns like his.  
    Now if you were at all like me, you halted the assault at this point and
    debated whether you should continue what you had been doing.  And I am certain
    that is how the storyteller envisioned Ico reacting.  A game was never so
    successful in immersing the player into the protagonist's mind.
    But destroy them he must; else he cannot proceed.  One by one he cuts down the
    specters of the previous sacrifices whose rank he had come perilously close to
    joining.  Now, many have drawn interesting inferences from this revelation such
    as: Ico is not so much killing the wraiths--since they are already dead--as
    freeing their enslaved souls; the wraiths do not seem as hostile here as the
    others we have seen; and the other wraiths were likely also humans in life.  I
    will not comment further on these speculations though I find some of them
    appealing.  I do not know enough to support or reject them.  I point them out
    however so you can consider them on your own.
    When the dreadful task is complete, the stairs before the final idol gate is
    lowered, making the last chamber of the castle accessible.  I do not want to
    speculate exactly how the destruction of the specters triggers this.  Like many
    other aspects of the game, to me it seems to make more dramatic sense than
    strictly logical sense.  For all I know it may be the queen is inviting the
    boy.  We know she was watching the whole time.
    The final chamber is one of the castle's grandest and certainly its gloomiest.
    It is a Medieval great hall where the monarch met with the public and received
    guests.  It is hard to describe its melancholy.  There is not so much as a lit
    candle to allay the somber blue that pervades all.  A lofty throne, solitary
    and unoccupied, sits under a soaring dome.  Thick dust like fog shrouds the
    floor.  The boy's own echoing footfalls alone relieve the utter silence.  We
    can almost smell the cold stale air.  It is the portrait of a bygone glory, of
    a dynasty in decay.  For me this was the most intensely poetic moment in the
    story.  It inspired a feeling akin to reverence.  It made me afraid to disturb
    the deathlike calm.  It made me slow down Ico's steps; it felt wrong to run in
    that space.
    He approaches the throne.  Nothing happens.  The hall is quite deserted.  He
    moves back towards the exit.  A voice stops him short then.  When he turns the
    queen is leaning into the throne, legs imperially crossed, looking eminently at
    He demands to know what has been done to the girl.  The witch replies he is too
    late to do anything and at last reveals her design.  She is aging.  She means
    to grant herself another life by seizing her daughter's body.  Warning him that
    Yorda will be no more upon awakening, she tells him to give up the sword--it is
    hers after all--and leave.  She is a pragmatic tyrant, it seems; she would
    spare violence where unnecessary.  Three times now she has given him chances to
    turn back: first at the main gate when she ordered him thus, then on the bridge
    where she split the pair with mechanical precision, thinking no doubt that the
    boy would take the hint and stay on his side of the gap, and finally now.
    Again we are forced to assume that theoretically Ico could have escaped on his
    own.  I do believe, though I cannot prove, that the queen would have spared him
    had he taken her offer.  Somehow the thought makes her more formidable, not
    Of course Ico, the bullheaded little hero he is, does not listen.  He runs
    headlong at the throne, sword raised.  He loses a horn for his trouble.  The
    queen decides the child will not be diplomatic.  The fight begins for real.
    She unleashes deadly petrification spell, which seems to be her favorite.
    (Next to transformation it is perhaps the form of enchantment most prominent in 
    Western lore.)  As long as he holds the sword he is safe.  Apparently the only
    thing that can withstand the queen's magic is a weapon endowed with that magic.
    Slashing at the barrier cocooning the enemy, he plunges the sword into her
    heart.  The queen sinks back into the throne, mortally wounded.
    With her last strained breaths she tells her diminutive conqueror that her
    her death notwithstanding Yorda will never be able to leave the castle.  Then
    she vanishes, never to reappear--in an invisible burst so forceful it flings
    the boy across the hall.  His remaining horn snaps off.  For the third time
    in two days he passes out.
    Out in the crypt the caskets flash once again.  They release mysterious white
    bolts--reminiscent of opening an idol gate--which converge on Yorda.  The
    petrification is undone.  But the Yorda that awakens is not the girl familiar
    to us.  It is the dark figure we saw in Ico's vision.  She examines her own
    hand curiously.  Heaven knows what sort of a face she is making.  She gazes
    meaningfully next at the open entrance to the great hall.  She seems to divine
    instinctively what must have happened while she was unconscious.
    An ominous tremor as seized the castle and will not subside.  The walls begin
    to crumble around Ico's prone form.  Yorda enters, her body crackling with
    black *something*, and looking more like her mother than ever before.  Kneeling
    by the boy she touches a broken stump of his horn, a certain tenderness in her
    touch.  She sees the sword embedded in the empty throne.  She realizes what he
    has done.  The chamber is meanwhile rapidly coming apart.  There is only one
    thing left to do now.  He has saved her--she will save him.  With surprising
    ease she takes her companion into her arms.  If I were to hazard a guess I
    should say she is indeed stronger than before.  Timid uncertainty no longer
    marks her action.  She has assumed what used to be his work.  Casting a last
    lingering look at the queen's hall, she steps onto the elevator and descends to
    the cavern.  The water has risen, and the boat is already afloat--or is it the
    isle that is beginning to submerge?  She places him in the boat and releases it
    to the waves.  So much she has braved to see the outside world, yet she chooses
    not to accompany him.  For she now understands she is not like him.  She does
    not belong in his world any more than he belongs in hers.  Let him go back.
    She will stay.  She bids him farewell.
    The castle succumbs to decay it has so long resisted.  First to cave are the
    parts which were already in ruins.  Then the rest follows.  With the queen no
    more it cannot hold itself together; as a river is doomed that has been severed
    from the source, the castle dies with its mistress.  The very islands sink into
    the ocean.  Not a brick, nor a pebble, remains of her dominion--once mighty,
    ruinous of recent, and having come so very near reviving itself.
    All is swept away clean.
    The blinding sun awakens the boy.  He rises, and looks about in a daze.  Things
    had not quite looked like this when he lost consciousness.  He is in a boat,
    washed ashore.  The beach is foreign to him.  What in the world has happened?
    He jumps overboard onto the sand.  A spell of dizziness causes him to plop
    down.  He has forgotten about the nasty wounds dappling his head in crimson.
    They must throb quite painfully.
    The hornless Ico walks along the beach.  No doubt he is trying to reconcile,
    with little success, the current situation with his last memory.  The queen is
    dead.  He slew her.  But what of the castle?  What of the princess?  The sea is
    clear and unending, and offers no sight of the fortress.
    He trudges onward.  Once again he is friendless, weaponless, clueless--all that
    ordeal behind him and still an exile.  He is as alone and lost as ever.  Some
    things never change.  But a moment.  There is something ahead--on the sand, by
    the breaking waves.  He keeps walking.  It is beginning to look familiar.  It
    is the girl.  She lies on her side, still as a corpse.  The water laps at her
    feet.  He runs.  He stands before her now.
    No glad smile touches his lips, no happy relief in his eyes.  He is afraid.
    She is so still.  She cannot have survived the sea.  He dares not touch her.
    She cannot be dead--
    But look: her fingers, they curl.  Slowly her eyes blink open to the light.
    Squinting ever so slightly she takes in the beach, then the boy.  She opens her
    XII.  Retrospect
          in which we attempt to make sense of it all
    (First Posted 22 August 2003)      
    Well, the story has ended.  But are we the wiser for it?  Do we care that we
    should be the wiser?  It would be perfectly all right, you know, to forgo the
    dissection and leave the ending the wonderful thing it is.  But if you would
    like further clarification of the mystery, let us take a step back and try to
    grasp the larger picture.  What began as one small child's nightmare has
    blossomed into the monumental finale of a reign, of an era.  Through his trials
    we witnessed the last hours in the ancient history of the castle.  We know
    nothing of its inception, nothing of its prime.  We only know how it fell.  Our
    task--grasping the larger picture I mean--is therefore akin to reading the
    final chapter of a novel and divining what preceded it, akin to attending the 
    deathbed of a stranger and from it reconstructing his life.  Now this is a
    risky thing to do.  We delude ourselves if we think we can produce anything
    like an accurate history.  We must restrain our fancies within the scope of the
    clues at hand.  The moment we overstep it, we have abandoned criticism in favor
    of fan fiction.  Then we will be judging one another's theories based not on
    whose is more faithful but on whose is more entertaining.  I should be quite
    satisfied if I could arrive at a contour, not a full portrait.
    As we continue please remember: I do not claim that the following must be the
    case.  I only submit that there are clues which point to it and none that I can
    perceive which contradict it.  You are welcome to reject anything you find
    I begin with the queen, who is the point of origin for all events in the story
    and the root to which all limbs and branches are to be traced.  Just what sort
    of being is she?  She is supposedly near death from age, yet she looks
    perfectly youthful.  That is enough to make me suspect her extreme age.  (Here
    I should like to remind you of the connection made earlier between Yorda and
    the mythical fairylike maidens, whose appearance invariably belies their age.) 
    She is likely as old as the castle.  She built it and maintained it, with
    increasingly inadequate care as her strength waned, so that upon her death the
    fortress came unglued.  Is she human?  I think that an inappropriate question
    for this particular genre of fiction.  Folklore and fairy tales are full of
    characters who are human in every regard except their possession of certain
    powers which no human beings could conceivably possess.  Sometimes those
    characters are placed in a race of their own.  Sometimes we just call them
    wizards or witches or sorceresses and be done with it.  Here I am more
    comfortable with the latter.
    The queen's disappearance at death does tease my fancies a fair bit.  Both she
    and her daughter give me consistent impressions that they are half spirit--that
    they have only a thin tie with the physical realm.  They have that ghostly
    quality about them which makes me fancy that if I were to try and touch them my
    hands might pass clean through their flesh.  The queen does appear and vanish
    like a specter, and in Ico's vision Yorda does rise out of a black pool like
    some mysterious primordial substance taking on a shape.  There is something
    quite pliable and fluid about their nature.  The same is true of the wraiths,
    whose case is a bit simpler since I am fairly certain they are already dead.
    Like her underlings the queen, instead of leaving behind a corpse, disbands
    upon death.  I could not say if she was always this way, or if this shows that
    she has too long been clinging to life by unnatural means.  In any case she
    decided to abandon her failing body and take over her daughter's.
    And just how did Yorda come to be?  Somehow the idea of the queen procreating
    like a normal female seems absurd, especially when I consider she has long
    lived in total seclusion and does not have much of a body left.  She may have
    brought the girl directly into existence by magical means, which would give her
    enough ground to call her a daughter.  Ico might even have taken a glimpse of
    the past and witnessed her birth, when he dreamed her emerging into form inside
    the cage.  Who knows?--since the children's caskets seem to bear on her
    climactic transformation, perhaps the purpose of sacrifice was to enable her
    creation; which, if true, would explain why the queen is willing to let Ico
    off--she no longer needs the children now that she has Yorda.  But now I am
    guessing much too far beyond what I can reasonably defend.  This particular
    line of guessing, at any rate, has less affinity with fairy tales and more with
    science fiction.  In fairy tales we find a great many instances of a damsel
    held captive by a witch or some such malignant being without the slightest
    indication as to how they came under such circumstances.  Whenever there is an
    enchanted castle there is an ogre or a witch who occupies it, or a princess in
    need of rescue, or a prince who wants his deforming enchantment lifted; we are
    rarely told where the prince or the princess comes from, what has happened to
    the kingdoms where they are supposedly royalty, how a hag hunchbacked from old
    age has a rosy-cheeked maiden for a daughter, or why a towering giant kidnaps a
    human damsel not tall enough to reach his knees for a wife.  It may be as
    simple as that.  ICO is just the sort of nostalgic adventure that can get away
    with such formulaic set-ups.  It is endearing precisely because it is old and
    familiar, if not completely reasonable.  But if you are a type who abhors all
    things hackneyed, I imagine ICO will not long stay in your thoughts no matter
    how highly you think of its artistry.
    The castle is the next.  The term castle is obsolete today and is no longer
    used in nonhistorical contexts except, as a joke, to mean a very large or grand
    house.  But the Medieval castle was less a house or a mansion and more a
    fortified downtown.  And just as the downtown is the heart of a city, a castle
    implied a broader territory spread around it of which it was the center.  That
    is why we never find two castles of this type in proximity to each other--it
    would be like having two city halls side by side.  To be the lord of a castle
    therefore was much more than to own a fine home; it meant one was the chief
    authority in that region.  An easy example may be found in the story of PUSS IN
    BOOTS where the cat ingeniously convinces the king that the miller's son is a
    great lord.  The cat visits each of the fields belonging to a wealthy ogre and
    threatens the local farmers, the ogre's vassals, to tell the king that the
    land belongs to a fictional marquis.  It then calls on the ogre at his castle,
    removes him by a trick, and declares the miller's son the ruling marquis of the
    region with no one to contest his claim of lordship.  The cat's deception would
    have been short-lived had it not secured first the land surrounding the castle.
    Let me explain why I brought up all that.  The synopsis in the manual tells me
    that horned children are sacrificed because they are believed to be ill omens.
    But as I watched the opening sequence I found myself frowning, and thinking
    something was amiss.  The manual suggested that Ico was to be disposed of much
    as garbage is put out, but it was at once clear to me that this boy was not
    being disposed of in that sense.  He was being deposited--that is, stored for
    safekeeping.  What was more, it was perfectly apparent that the knights were
    themselves nonresidents at the castle, and that they were following a
    prescribed procedure: they were to take the boy to the offshore fortress, sail
    round to the northern isle, enter it via the latticed cavern, reach the upper
    level by means of the sword and the elevator, and entomb the victim in a crypt
    prepared just for this purpose--prepared by the queen, I later learned.  So it
    was not the villagers' idea to abandon the children at the castle.  It was
    rather the queen's will that they be brought there.  And now the question I
    must ask is, how could she get the outsiders to comply with this abomination?
    How indeed, unless she was in a position to exercise power over them?  So she
    made a demand on them, and they obeyed because they feared her.  And they
    feared her because they knew crossing her meant consequences.  ("This is for
    the good of the village," the men tell their prisoner.)  Now, I am not at all
    suggesting that the queen is the monarch of whichever kingdom Ico lives in.  I
    am not even suggesting that she is a landed feudal lord like the ogre the cat
    tricked.  I am only saying that she could not have done what she did without
    the compliance of the outsiders, and the fact that they did her bidding for
    generation after generation makes it impossible to doubt that her influence
    extends beyond the castle.  I think it no accident that she is fluent in Ico's
    speech when her daughter is not.
    But what of the pretext of a horned child bringing ill fortune?  I see a few
    possibilities there.  It may be that the queen outright lied to Ico's
    countrymen.  Or it may be that the myth began among the countrymen and took
    roots over the years.  For all the queen requires is the obeisance of the town
    leaders; the rest of the populace need not be enlightened, and in fact
    convenience would advise that they be kept in the dark.  It is not unthinkable
    that no one besides the queen, not even the horsemen who deliver Ico, knows the
    true purpose of the practice.  We must here realize that the sacrificing has 
    been going on for many, many generations, if the number of caskets in the crypt
    is any clue.  For all that time the queen has lived in seclusion, unseen by
    mortal eyes.  For all that time none have dared to set foot on the isles except
    to bring a sacrifice every now and then.  (That is of course a guess, but I
    believe a reasonable one.  The queen does not seem much fond of human company
    and still less of trespassers.)  Consequently the men now only have secondhand
    knowledge about the queen.  Likely all they know is that a mysterious enchanted
    castle stands by the sea, fabled to be ruled by a powerful wizard whom no one
    now living has seen, and their ancestors have been making sacrifices of horned
    youngsters there since too long ago to remember, and they must keep at it if
    they are not to incur the wizard's wrath.
    So it seems that the queen, despite her current policy of total isolation, once
    had enough of a presence in the world that she was able to impose her awful
    scheme on people.  There was likely also some traffic between the castle and
    the shore, or else that stupendous bridge and the elaborate mechanism which
    operates it should not have been necessary.  But one day she decided to cut off
    the castle from the land.  She withdrew the bridge, retired into the dark
    impenetrable depth of the fortress, and in all probability did not speak with
    another outsider in person until Ico came along.  She became a hermit.  But
    why?  I feel certain it was because she was growing decrepit.  To explain I
    should like you to consider the following synopses.  You may already be
    familiar with some if not all of them:
    (1) Miss Havisham is deserted by her lover on her wedding day.  Realizing that
    he had been after her fortune all along, she shuts herself up in the manor
    house and renounces the world forever.  She stops all the clocks in the house,
    keeps the curtains drawn at all time, leaves the wedding table untouched for
    decades so that cobwebs grow thick on the cake, and refuses to wear anything
    but her wedding gown which is now yellow and in tatters.  Until her death she
    does not take a step beyond the gate of her own home.  (Charles Dickens; GREAT
    (2) Roderick Usher is the last living member of an illustrious but cursed
    lineage.  In the insufferable melancholy of his crumbling, once grand family
    villa he goes slowly mad contemplating the bygone glory of his progenitors
    and the inevitable end that awaits him.  Upon his violent death the house caves
    in, sealing the doom of the family.  (Edgar Allen Poe; THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF
    (3) At his ancient castle in Transylvania where he has ruled for centuries,
    Dracula plots to restore his waning empire by relocating to a new home, London,
    where preys are abundant.  Failing in his design and pursued by foes, he
    retreats to Transylvania only to be caught and destroyed at the doorstep of his
    old home.  (Bram Stoker; DRACULA)
    (4) Thomas Sutpen is a self-made man obsessed with the dream of creating a
    personal dynasty in the Deep South.  He buys a hundred square miles of land,
    names it Sutpen's Hundred, and builds himself a splendid mansion through brute
    will and tenacity.  His blind obsession drives him to isolation from the
    community, tears his family apart, causes his son to murder his daughter's
    suitor, and finally leads to his own murder at the hands of a tenant farmer. 
    His mansion stands for years as a ghostly remnant of his legacy and is at last
    torched by the remaining Sutpens who themselves perish in the blaze.  (William
    Faulkner; ABSALOM, ABSALOM!)
    (5) From his humble country beginning Charles Foster Kane goes on to dominate
    the newspaper business and to epitomize success.  He erects an artificial
    mountain for his home Xanadu, the world's largest private residence.  Success
    however corrupts his heart, causing his loved ones to leave him one by one.
    He dies alone in the palatial solitude of Xanadu.  The film opens and closes
    with a dark, ominous shot of the mansion and its steel fence, sporting a "NO
    TRESSPASSING" sign.  (Orson Welles; CITIZEN KANE)
    Now it will be noted that the above scenarios share a remarkable uniformity of
    tone, theme, and circumstance that is very much echoed in our game.  They
    involve a person of prestige or influence who grows estranged from the world
    (owing this estrangement usually to the very qualities which had made his
    success), shuts himself up in a private refuge, and there endures a lonely
    decline and eventual death.  This refuge takes the form of a splendid dwelling
    equal to the greatness of the occupant.  As the occupant decays in self-imposed
    exile the dwelling also decays, reflecting his condition.  It comes to
    represent the man himself and all that is striking about him--a hulking shadow
    of the past grandeur and vitality, reeking with intense gloom, haunted by that
    bleak oppressive air of decay and ruin, and arousing in the beholder an eerie
    dread akin to what one might feel in a deserted cemetery or in the presence of
    a corpse.  (Note also that all four of the written tales are first-person
    narratives.  Compare the narrators' respective descriptions of, and reactions
    to, Miss Havisham's manor house, Usher's villa, Dracula's castle and Sutpen's
    mansion, and you will find the same uneasy dread dominating them all.)  You
    probably know other stories that feature similar scenarios and sentiments--a
    picturesque but unnervingly somber house, mansion or castle occupied by a
    mysterious recluse who never shows himself outside his abode and thus becomes
    the center of fearful speculations, gossips, even legends.  Mrs. Bates and 
    "her" motel is a well known example, along with a host of ghost house stories.
    In fact "the scary old man down the street" we looked at in chapter IX is a
    playground variation of this very idea.  The idea is not merely popular; it is
    pervasive, for its innate appeal to human imagination.
    This image of a grim, alienated recluse brooding inside a prison of his own
    making is one of those classic motifs which appear time and again in fiction. 
    The pairing of isolation and decay especially is prominent in classic romance
    tales.  (I am using the term romance as a literary genre; GREAT EXPECTATIONS,
    THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER and DRACULA are all romances.)  Each of the
    aforementioned characters ends up a hermit, unsociable in the extreme and wary
    of contact with outsiders.  Each erects a formidable personal sanctuary to
    barricade himself against the world.  Each meets his end in that very
    sanctuary, and this death invariably marks the tale's climax.  The sanctuary
    becomes a symbol of its master, sharing his fortune and fate--and in the cases
    of Miss Havisham, Usher and Sutpen the houses are destroyed following their
    deaths to signify their complete ruin.  All these we find to be true in ICO.
    In popular adventure films, too, the staple pattern of climax is to have the
    villain defeated and his lair blown up shortly thereafter.  The pattern has
    been so abused that now it is more or less obligatory.  ICO, I think, is a rare
    example of the classic motif executed faithfully and with admirable taste.
    That motif allows me to draw valuable inferences regarding the queen which are
    not strictly provided in the story itself.
    This then is the queen as I envision her: a fearsome sorceress whose reputation
    once carried far beyond the walls of her castle; whose vigor declined after a
    long and iron-fisted reign; who then cut off the castle from the rest of the
    world and sequestered herself; who abided many generations in the stale safety
    of her ruinous shelter, seeking to revive her powers; and who just might have
    attempted to regain her old influence once she was restored to youth.  For if
    what I saw is her dominion in a state of severe decline, what might it once
    have been like when she was at the height of her rule?  And here I recall the
    desolate majesty of her throne room--a portrait of a fallen dynasty, I called
    it.  I recall too the immensely stirring sequence of the isles' destruction,
    how they caved into the ocean in an almost dignified manner like a wounded
    behemoth laying itself to rest.  It was magnificent visual poetry.  The images
    cried out that something monumental was dying here.  And it had almost cheated
    death--was on the verge of renewal when it was dealt the fatal blow.  But what
    if it had succeeded?  What if the boy had not gone back after his friend, had
    not stopped the queen?  Young and strong once more, would she have been
    content to leave the wreckage of her dominion the way it is?  Or would she
    have, like any sensible despot with the means, turned her attention to
    rebuilding what she had lost?  By ridding the world of the queen Ico may have
    saved more than Yorda's life and his own.  He may have protected from her
    tyranny the very neighbors who surrendered him to that tyrant.  Imagine the
    astonishment of the next party of delegates that will come only to find the
    castle gone as though it had never been there!  That is what I fancy at any
    rate, and again you are welcome to dismiss it if you find it groundless.
    Finally, we come to the horned children.  This is the very first mystery we
    encountered in the story.  It is also the riddle that is least explained.  I am
    afraid I will not be of much help on this one.  I could not say even now
    exactly why the queen wants them, let alone why they are born with their
    anomaly.  Let me list what I do feel fairly sure about.
    1. That the queen indeed requires the horned children for some design is
       certain.  I hope this will not be disputed after all we have looked at.
    2. That the children are an essential part of that design also is certain.
       Hence the elaborate arrangement spanning decades if not centuries, and a
       special crypt prepared adjacent to the queen's own throne room.
    3. It seems more than likely that this design is none other than the scheme
       to prolong her life.
    And that, believe it or not, is all.  The manner in which she intends to 
    exploit the children is lost to me among a myriad of possibilities and 
    suspicions which can be neither confirmed nor debunked.  Most people, myself
    included, believe that some sort of essence or energy is involved which the
    queen needs and which only the horned children may yield.  Very well, they
    yield something like that.  But how is it used?  Why do they have it?  How does
    Yorda figure into this?  And how is her transformation at the end related to
    their caskets?  Before you propose your take on it, and I am sure you are
    itching to, let me assure you that no matter how thorough and obvious you think
    your theory is, I can suggest an equally plausible alternative which, if
    believed, will undermine yours.  We will in fact not be exchanging theories at
    all.  We will only be pitting one chain of assumptions against another.  And
    one thing about assumptions is that they are perfectly useless in arguments
    unless the argument is understood to be hypothetical from the outset.  Now,
    hypothetical arguments are often very useful, and even indispensable, in real
    life.  There is always a chance that the hypotheses will be verified or
    falsified by factual discoveries.  But in fiction they lead to mess and rarely,
    if ever, any resolution.  There are innumerable possibilities and no reliable
    means of testing and eliminating false ones, which is how we deduce truth in
    real life.  The only person who can put the matter to the rest is the
    storyteller, and he has quite deliberately chosen to whet our curiosity without
    satisfying it.  I am sorry, but it will have to stay unsatisfied.
    As I said earlier a contour, not a full portrait, is all I can aim at.  I can
    only hope to determine the subject's rough size, shape, and pose.  If anyone
    speaks of the shade of her hair or the mole on her cheek, you can bet he is not
    reasoning; he is inventing.  For well over a year now I have seen dozens of
    people on this board contribute their own intricate variants of the mystery,
    none of which ever seemed to convince anybody else.  This is a predictable
    situation.  Whenever a thing seems out of place, our natural inclination is to
    imagine a scenario that will *fit* the oddity.  This cannot and must not be
    avoided; we must do it if we are to reason.  Problems arise however when we let
    inventiveness get the better of observation.  That is, we might first observe a
    set of evidences and form a conclusion, A.  Then when A is challenged by a
    conflicting claim we might introduce a modifying provision, B, which would
    allow us to override the objection and maintain A, albeit in a revised form.
    And when B is in turn found less than fully illuminating we simply come up with
    another modifying provision, C, that will fill the gap in B's logic--and so on
    and on, compounding one revision on top of another, so that by the time we get
    to H or K we are left with a conclusion that looks nothing like the evidences
    we started with.  And I have seen this happen so many times it is not funny.
    The aggravating cycle might unfold like this:
    Jack: I think all the black wraiths were formerly humans, just like the horned
          children.  They must be the ghosts of people slain by the queen.
    Bill: Not necessarily, when you look deeper into it.  The queen took the
          children because they needed some unique essence of theirs.  Why would
          she kill ordinary people also?
    Jack: Maybe she didn't kill them for their essence.  She probably had them
          turned into wraiths so she could control them as slaves.
    Bill: But what would she need slaves for?  The wraiths are pathetically weak
          compared to their master.  What could they do that she herself couldn't?
    Jack: Quite possibly she had them build the castle, which must have required
          incredible labor.  Because they are spirits, they must be able to work
          without rest, sleep or food.  One spirit could probably do five men's
          work, and that for centuries.
    Bill: I am not convinced.  I am thinking rather that the wraiths are simply
          her creations.  They probably somewhat resemble the children's ghosts
          because they all depend upon the same magic.  I observe that the horned
          children's ghosts look much the same as they did in life.  But the other
          wraiths are in the shapes of all kinds of beasts.  These obviously can't
          have been people.
    Jack: So she took animals and turned *them* into wraiths--again so she could
          work them as slaves.  And by the way some of them do look like men.
    Bill: You know about any animals that are horned, winged, *and* two-legged?
          You know about any goat-sized spiders for that matter?
    Jack: Well, maybe animals like that exist in Ico's world.  It isn't the same
          universe as ours, you know.
    Bill: But these wraiths are intelligent.  They use teamwork and strategies to
          separate the kids and abduct the girl.  They can't be animals.  You can
          train animals, but you could hardly send them on a mission to bring back
          a prisoner, now could you?
    Jack: The queen may have equipped them with a sort of quasi-intelligence so
          as to make them more useful underlings.  Besides, given that these are
          fantasy creatures you cannot overrule the possibility that they were
          intelligent to begin with, just like the dragons and satyrs of our own
    This conversation will never end, so let us take leave of it at this point.  By
    now you are thinking one of four things: (1) Jack is right; (2) Bill is right;
    (3) neither knows what he is talking about and you are ready to offer your own
    theory; or (4) the discussion took off on a sensible observation, but it
    quickly got out of hand.  If the last of these is your choice, I am with you.
    But if you went for any of the rest I must encourage you to reconsider your
    entire approach to the story.  Jack's very first observation, the one that
    began the debate, was valid enough a theory; it came direct from the clues that
    are presented to all of us.  But everything that came afterwards was no
    theories at all but *scenarios*.  Both Jack and Bill could probably write
    thoughtful fan fiction scripts.  But as expositors they have failed utterly.
    What looks like progress of reasoning here is not progress but regress--a
    steady departure from the clues at hand, and increasing incorporation of
    elements foreign to the original subject.  Jack and Bill think they are moving
    from the murky to the concrete, from the shallow to the deep, but what they
    have in fact done is take a concrete observation and sprout a host of murky
    speculations that will never be settled.  They got deep, all right--so deep
    that they have lost themselves in the depth.  I doubt they will ever resurface.
    What then, you may ask, is the point of this whole exercise?  Does not what I
    said above apply to all the arguments in this talk?  As a matter of fact they
    do, though I hope to a lesser degree.  I bring my own assumptions to my
    writing.  I have offered scenarios of my own.  But now you know why I
    accompanied those scenarios with disclaimers.  In the end you must decide
    which riddles offer reasonably definite answers and which were never meant to
    be answered.  I believe the horned children and the scheme surrounding their
    evil fate fall into this latter class.  It is no use trying to arrive at a
    complete answer; if you somehow reach one, you and no one else will believe it.
    Where ambiguity is the intended effect it will not help us to be specific.  Let
    us not criticize a work in pastel for lacking clean lines.  The fuzziness is
    its charm.  You can put it under the microscope all you want and look for the
    precise, detailed sketch underneath, but you will not find it.  The artist did
    not put it there.  He was working with loose strokes from the beginning.  And
    it is a mark of a competent draughtsman to be able to draw loosely and retain
    control and balance.  At first glance the picture seems spare and disorderly.
    A closer inspection reveals that every stroke, every smudge is there for a
    reason.  ICO may be cryptic, but it is eminently coherent.
    Allow me then to paint, with very broad strokes, the larger picture of the tale
    as I understand it.  The queen, having shut herself inside her castle when she
    grew old and frail, conceived a plan to restore herself to youth.  She would
    usurp the body of a younger person who shared her nature.  Her daughter was to
    provide the body, so she had the girl caged to prevent her escape.  She also
    required additional ingredients for the plan.  She found them in the horned
    children and had them brought to the castle to give up their lives.  When she
    was very close to fulfilling her goal, one of the children escaped and, to her
    ire, freed the princess.  They became partners on the run and friends besides.
    But the queen easily reclaimed her daughter and got rid of the boy.  She no
    longer needed him, for she was on the brink of resurrection.  She did not
    expect him to return for the girl.  But return he did, and in a duel she was
    vanquished by the very victim she had intended to exploit.  With the sorceress
    gone the enchantment over her domain dissolved, and all that owed its
    existence to her began to crumble.  The princess, realizing her cursed nature,
    decided to send her brave rescuer back to his realm and share the castle's
    doom.  Soon the very islands disappeared into the sea, forever erasing the
    queen's legacy from the world.  But then something happened which none could
    have anticipated, not even the queen.  When all that she had inherited from her
    mother had been washed away, a part of the girl remained.  She awakened a free
    and pure creature, no longer under the burden of an enchanted destiny.
    The talk got much longer than I had planned.  I have just one task remaining,
    and that is to dispel some fans' suspicion that the pair's reunion takes place
    after death.  I will have to write another segment after all.  
    XIII.  Final Retrospect
           in which we must make up our minds
    (First Posted 25 August 2003)
    I first heard of it on this board a few months after I began frequenting it,
    almost two years ago.  I do not remember my exact reaction, nor do I recall the
    person who introduced me to the theory, but I think I was for the most part
    amused.  His idea was that Ico and Yorda both die at the castle, and the
    reunion is a sort of their heavenly reward.  The sun-washed beach is the
    afterlife, and the two children we see in the final scene are really the souls
    of the deceased.  I did not say anything at the time.  Apart from its juvenile
    image of heaven--it is a place you go to meet your old loved ones, and it will
    look exactly like this world or however you want it to look--the interpretation
    seemed to me in such vast disagreement with the flavor of the tale that I was
    sure no one would take it seriously.  A while later I was surprised when I
    heard it again from another poster.  Then I was aghast to see it spread like an
    epidemic particularly among those folk who seemed to value their mature and
    hard-nosed approach to life and literature.  Apparently this was the
    enlightened reading of ICO--the sophisticated interpretation which, though
    admittedly somewhat depressing, a discerning intellect would not be afraid to
    adopt for fear of having his happy fragile illusions shattered.  On several
    occasions I voiced the unreasonableness of that view.  But there was not much
    I could do in a few measly paragraphs.  I could not properly address the part
    without first taking the whole into the account.  The matter became one of my
    prime motives for this exercise.
    If you have read this far, you are used to my rambles.  I am going to ramble a
    bit more.  If you happen to subscribe to the afterlife interpretation you will
    probably want to refute me.  I welcome your criticism, but I ask you first to
    read every word that follows.  Should you challenge my points, I will assume
    you have considered those points and are intimately familiar with them.
    Now, you know what I think happens in the ending.  I think the two heroes, both
    pawns in the queen's plot, overcome the fate the witch has imposed on them.
    Thus he loses his horns (a symbolic event if I ever saw one) and she her
    enchantment.  Each has willingly accepted death for the other's sake, and both
    are granted life.  It is a thoroughgoing old-fashioned happy ending.  The 
    trademark of old-fashioned happy endings is in their moral emphasis; to be
    rewarded one must be not only clever or hardworking but virtuous, an idea which
    has all but faded from modern fiction.  This quaint notion is apt to suffer a
    proud dismissal from those who have "grown past" such "simplistic" and
    "primitive" outlooks and can no longer be satisfied with them.  I have heard
    many complain that the ending makes things too easy.  What they are likely
    saying is "I don't like this old cliche.  I want something more complex and
    subtle, something not quite so ready-made, something that will make me 
    *think*."  I believe they are going about it the wrong way, but if something
    to think about is what they want--well, they shall have it.
    Let me clarify at once that my rejection of the theory is not owed to any
    disbelief in life after death.  If my open admiration for the writings of C. S.
    Lewis has not given me away, I am a Christian and assured believer in the
    existence of real heaven--not the romanticized heaven full of clouds and winged
    creatures in white robes, but the final concrete realization of the divine in
    man--and also, much as I dislike to dwell on the thought, in real hell.  The
    reason I called the theory's image of heaven "juvenile" is not that I deem
    afterlife an immature notion, but rather that the theory looks at heaven as a
    kindergartener might--that is, she pictures it as a replica of this world from
    which all the bad and unpleasant things have been subtracted; whereas the great
    religious traditions, Christian or otherwise, that earned any degree of
    credential with discerning believers have consistently maintained that in
    heaven problems have not merely vanished but have been dealt with, solved, and
    conquered.  The sort of afterlife which the theory hints at could only have
    been conceived by a writer who never gave serious thought to the subject and
    resorted to it as a convenient high note on which to end his story.  The
    theory, it seems to me, claims to do away with the "shallow cliche" of a happy
    ending by substituting an interpretation which is equally shallow, a good deal
    less competent and vastly more pretentious.  Allow me now to elaborate.
    If I have read the argument correctly, people's main gripe about the ending is
    Yorda's survival.  Suppose Ico awakened at the beach alone, and the story
    concluded there?  No one would have come up with the afterlife theory then.  No
    one would have had a problem with him alone surviving.  It was only when they
    learned that Yorda too lives that some decided it was too much to believe.
    Yorda had to be dead.  And if she were dead, then naturally he also was dead,
    for of course they would not otherwise be able to meet on the same plane of
    existence.  Hence this was not a real beach but a manifestation of the
    spiritual realm.  Thus the theory took shape.
    So technically I do not have to explain how Yorda survived.  All I have to show
    is that Ico is not dead, and the afterlife theory is rebutted.  The glaring
    clue that he is still very much in this world is of course his horns, or what
    is left of them.  After the heroic battle he is a rather piteous sight, with
    stumps stained in crimson where there used to be horns.  And if I were to read
    a bit deeper, I should think he tumbles onto the sand because he is not feeling
    all that well after his injury; normally he is such a nimble boy.  My opponent
    may then say that since that is how he was at death, that is how he looks in
    afterlife as well.  So I suppose in his vision of heaven people who were
    decapitated in life would still be walking around headless; burn victims would
    spend eternity in bandages like Egyptian mummies; and the unfortunate souls who
    were blown to smithereens on some battlefield would, alas, be consigned to roam
    the heavenly atmosphere as a million dust particles.  My, just what sort of
    heaven is this?
    Moreover, if the boy we are seeing is the boy at the precise moment of his
    death, bloody wounds and all, how is it that the girl has been restored to her
    old self?  I am told that since she could not have undone her transformation on
    her own, she must no longer be alive.  But then she ought to look now exactly
    as she did at the moment of her death: black as ebony.  So what is going on
    here?  Did God decree that the boy keep his battle wounds but the girl be given
    back her pristine flesh?  And then I am sure someone will come up with a work
    of fan fiction which will, in some convoluted way, settle the discrepancy--and
    we are right back to Jack and Bill's neverending discourse into the unknowable.
    You are not dragging me there.
    I am further intrigued by an implication of the claim above, which I doubt many
    supporters of the theory have considered.  They say "We don't see how Yorda has
    returned to her human form, except by assuming she is now dead."  I think what
    they are trying to say is "Death has purified her of the enchantment, thus
    leaving her soul in her original state."  But hold your thought for a moment.
    If her human form were her original state to begin with, would it be so hard to
    imagine her reverting to that form without suffering so cataclysmic an event
    as death?--that a tainted thing might be made pure again once the impurities
    melted away?  My opponents should beware the double-edged nature of their own
    claim.  They say they cannot imagine Yorda simply changing back to her old
    form.  Yet their theory rides on the very supposition that her transformed
    state is not a natural condition.  Clearly *something* has undone the spell.
    Why they insist death must be that something, I cannot fathom.
    Let me then look into some evidences the theory points to and see if they are
    (1) "Yorda will never be able to leave this castle even if you take my life."
    So the queen says a moment before her death.  We have a name for this sort of
    statements.  They are called taunts.  "So you think you've beaten me, eh?  Just
    you see."  There is hardly an adventure tale that does not have a variation of
    this line uttered by the villain.  It usually indicates a sore loser.  Does
    that mean she is flat out lying?  Not necessarily, though it does make her
    highly suspect of self-deception.  She may well believe it.  But please
    consider the following chain of logic:
       -The beaten queen declares that Yorda cannot leave the castle.
       -The castle sinks, presumably killing Yorda.
       -I see Yorda washed ashore, alive and well.
       -But the queen said this could not happen.
       -Therefore Yorda must really be dead.
       -Therefore that is not Yorda I am looking at; it is her ghost.
    I don't care how grandly they phrase their theory.  In the end it comes down to
    "We must be seeing things."  And their ground for this stupendous claim?  The
    dying taunt of the enemy!  They have decided that the villain's last brag is so
    trustworthy that it is reason enough to doubt--override--their own eyes.
    (2) "Yorda is too weak to have swum ashore."
    Let us recall how we find her on the beach.  She looks, if I may put it
    bluntly, like a drowning victim.  In fact we suspect her dead at first, and if
    his grim expression is any sign Ico does too.  (We do not see him, or Yorda for
    that matter, *smile* in this story--not even once.)  The storyteller is here
    deliberately exploiting our knowledge of the girl's frailty to lure us into
    fearing her dead--with the intent of reversing that expectation, that is, of
    surprising us.  By refusing to allow that she has somehow survived at the sea,
    one is refusing to be surprised the way the storyteller *wants* him to be
    surprised.  That is entirely his loss; he must go along with the story if he
    plans on enjoying it.
    (3) "Yorda could not have returned to her human form."
    We touched on this already.  For some obscure reason the theory's supporters
    are convinced that her transformation could not be undone this side of the
    Jordan, though their view presupposes that her natural form is that of a human.
    But before anyone can set down what cannot happen, he must have a good idea of
    what can.  If one does not know how A turned into B, how would he preclude the
    possibility of B turning back into A?  And of course we must not forget that B
    has, in fact, turned back into A; we saw it with our eyes.
    We do not know how and why things occur the way they do in this tale.  We must
    be able to trust that we are being shown a consistent reality.  Without that
    faith the entire experience, not just the ending, is suspect.
    (4) "Sending Ico away, Yorda stays behind because she knows she cannot leave
    the castle, just as the queen said."
    This is sheer nonsense.  If the girl had known that she could not leave the
    castle, what on earth has she been doing all this time with Ico, braving a
    hundred deaths for freedom?  Her reason for staying is rather simple when you
    think about it.  Up until now she has tried very hard to escape to the outside
    world.  But look at her now.  She is a monster.  She has no future in the human
    realm.  Consequently she decides to send the boy back where he belongs and
    herself to stay where she belongs.  Would you have acted very different?
    (5) "The bolt that strikes Yorda down on the bridge is a mechanism designed to
    prevent her exit."
    This is a bit cleverer but makes no better sense than the last.  The bolt comes
    from a globe fixed atop a gatepost.  This is the same contraption the children
    use to open the gate.  If it has been programmed to "zap" Yorda should she try
    to run, why does it allow her to open the gate in the first place?  And why
    would it wait until she is almost halfway across?--had she been hit only a
    second later, she would have made it to the shore side of the bridge.  I think
    it is pretty clear.  The gate opens in obedience to Yorda's command.  It
    strikes her down in obedience to the queen's.
    (6) "The queen must still have made some magical provision that renders it
    impossible for Yorda to step outside the isles."
    This is the biggest speculation yet, and naturally the most unfounded.  I think
    it extremely unlikely.  The queen's own behavior testifies to that.  She first
    keeps her daughter caged.  Then after the girl breaks free she shows up twice
    in person, both times at the main gate, and foils her flight.  Then she has her
    turned into stone, blocking all future attempts at escape.  These actions do
    not match her claim that Yorda can never leave the castle.  She acts very much
    like one who knows full well that the girl could leave if she tried hard
    enough.  You would not leash your dog if you thought it could never run away.
    In light of all the above I am inclined to think the queen's last words mean
    that Yorda, the special creature she is, belongs in the castle and is unfit for
    a life outside.  In other words: "If you fancy she can now live as one of your
    kind just because I am gone, you are mistaken."  And that, I suppose, would be
    reasonable enough a thing to say.  In fact Yorda agrees.  That is why she
    stays.  Her metamorphosis has convinced her that she has no place after all in
    Ico's world, which it has been until now her dream to see.
    But then, I may be asked, why would the queen say such a thing at all?  Why
    utter a final word so overladen with meaning unless it is true?  Surely the
    storyteller meant to accomplish *something* by betraying that kind of
    information at the climactic moment?  Why, yes, as a matter of fact he did mean
    to accomplish something.  He meant to get us to expect Yorda's doom.  That is,
    he wanted us to fear for the girl--and fear the very worst.
    We must here remember that the game has gone to a great trouble to establish a
    bond between Ico--that is, us--and his fair companion.  That is why it
    constantly threatened us with her capture.  Its principal drama hinges on
    getting us to grow attached to the girl, and then taking her away.  Everything
    that comes before the pair's separation is meant to train us to be averse to
    parting with her.  And everything that comes after is meant to have us seek,
    and fervently look forward to, reunion.  That relentless anticipation is what
    makes the final hour of the story so gripping.  And the storyteller does not
    want the anxiety to let up until the very end.  He wants the moment of reunion,
    towards which his entire narrative has been building, to overwhelm us--wants
    our hopeful tension to break with such unexpected swiftness that we will be
    left stunned.  And we could not be stunned unless we first gave up the girl as
    lost.  For this reason it becomes necessary to drop clues that she may not be
    able to make it out after all.  Else we would grow complacent once the villain
    is gone, and that is the last thing he wants.  We must be made fearful that all
    is not yet well, and we must see that fear come true.  Yorda must perish in our
    imagination, however briefly--a deliberate downward plunge in order that the
    ascent to come will be the more glorious.  Those who charge that the ending is
    a shameless copout--a sort of emotional candy--to gratify the dejected audience
    rather miss the point.  Their dejection was set up to be overturned from the
    beginning; indeed they were only dejected for that purpose.  Therefore we
    cannot recast the ending without turning the story into something decidedly out
    of its intended character.  The theory commits what seems to me the worst
    mistake that could be committed in making sense of ICO: it spoils the one
    moment for which the preceding ten hours have been preparing.
    Before we move on, let me answer the charge that the ending is a copout.
    Copout means the failure to face some difficulty squarely--cowardly evasion.
    The theory's supporters claim that ICO's happy ending contradicts its tragic
    climax.  In their opinion Ico and Yorda are dead, and to insist otherwise
    because it is depressing is cowardliness.  They offer the afterlife theory as a
    manlier alternative.
    Let us see if their remedy holds up under scrutiny.  Imagine yourself as the
    screenwriter working on ICO's script.  You have just written up to Ico's
    victory against the queen.  You now need a suitable conclusion to the tale.
    You find yourself in a dilemma.  "I have decided that the children are to die
    at the castle," you say to yourself, "but that will be too much for the
    audience to handle.  I need a gentler exit for my two little heroes.  But I
    cannot in all honestly have them walk into the sunset, either--that will
    undermine the tragic character of the story.  What kind of compromise can I
    afford here?  I've got it--I will have them reunite in afterlife.  This way
    they remain dead, preserving the tragedy, and the audience gets a spoonful of
    sugar to swallow with the bitter medicine.  Wait, I can make this even better:
    I will portray the reunion in such a way that the absolute majority of the
    audience will not realize they are looking at an afterlife.  Most of them will
    blithely assume the children's survival.  In fact many will come away thinking
    they have just seen the greatest happy ending to grace a video game!  They are
    happy, and I am happy."
    If any writer thus reasons to wrap up his story, I have no respect for that
    writer.  It is a rule of thumb among students of fiction that the other-world
    is permissible as a setting only when it is an express element of the work's
    premise--as in Dante's INFERNO where the narrator takes a tour of hell, or
    Bunyan's PILGRIM'S PROGRESS where the hero sets out on a journey to reach the
    Celestial City, or C. S. Lewis' THE SCREWTAPE LETTERS whose main character is a
    devil.  But to place the first nineteen chapters of your story in this world
    and switch to the other for the remaining one chapter, and this only to soften
    the tragedy of the nineteen chapters that already came, and that with
    deliberate ambiguity so as to grant yourself the benefit of doubt--that is
    inexcusable.  If a writer ever succumbed to a copout, this is it.
    And what about the charge that the ending is sentimental?  I will not deny it;
    it is sentimental.  But then the whole story is.  One could hardly blame a
    sentimental tale for having a sentimental finale.  If he does not like that
    type of stories he should keep away from them.  But ICO's sentimentality is of
    the sincerest sort.  There is nothing artful or cheap about it.  You have felt
    this yourself.  The pleasure you received from the ending was not an abstract
    satisfaction at seeing the hero and the heroine finally back together.  It was
    an honest and heartfelt joy at finding a friend you feared lost.
    But there is another accusation made against the sentimentality of the ending.
    Some people find it, as I heard someone say on this board, "too syrupy sweet."
    And this I must deny.
    Syrupy sweetness is excessive sweetness.  ICO's sentimentality is most
    emphatically not excessive.  I have not seen many adventures so thoroughly 
    understated.  Reflect upon the fact that neither of the children is shown
    *smiling* even once.  The dreariest and most ill-humored of stories rarely go 
    so far to rid themselves of mirth.  ICO's appeal is precisely that ability to 
    convey rich emotions without flaunting them.  Recall the first time you saw the
    ending.  You found the girl, prone on the sand, and at first you were not quite
    sure what to make of it.  Then you saw her awaken, and you knew she was alive.
    Your heart swelled.  You were happy, you were relieved, you were full of
    anticipation--and then you stared stone still at the screen as it went blank
    with her whisper-soft utterance, leaving an unadorned FIN gazing back at you.
    It might have been a while before you moved.  You were in a state of nearly 
    reverential shock.  And what was the shock?  The shock at seeing the girl 
    alive?  That was certainly half of it.  The other half was owed to the
    abruptness of it all.  You were floored that the story ended where it did--at 
    that exact moment when a lesser tale might have gone into a dramatic reunion
    scene.  The sweet part of the ending had lasted all of five seconds.  You were
    not even shown the children's reaction to the happy discovery.  And you found 
    that this did not at all take away from the ending's impact.  Rather it
    augmented it manifold.  Its restraint, you see, is the very thing that makes
    the ending great.  If there is sweetness here it is not indulged in; it takes
    place in our imagination once the curtain has closed.
    I now come to the most important part of this segment.  I ask for your careful
    attention.  If you forget everything else remember what is about to follow.
    We have seen that the argument in support of the afterlife theory is in every
    way questionable.  As the debate goes on, my opponent will eventually find
    himself left only with this in defense of his view: "Well, of course I can't
    prove they are dead.  But then you can't prove they are alive either.  Nothing
    can be proven in a story this vague.  But the story is richer, makes deeper
    sense, when you look at it my way."  And that is what it boils down to.  Every
    defender of the theory I have come across is convinced that his is the superior
    conclusion--that the story *improves* with his understanding of the ending in
    place.  Let me say it up front: it does not.
    Going back through the previous sections of the story, I find that the theory,
    assumed to be correct, wreaks havoc with their dramatic flow.  That the story
    spends its entirety in preparation for the ending, building momentum towards
    that sublime final moment, I have already discussed.  But even putting that
    aside, I find myself asked to accept a number of absurd scenarios--scenarios
    which are not strictly impossible, but which make so little sense that I cannot
    imagine a writer as competent as the one who penned ICO's script would go with
    them.  If I were to believe the theory, I should have to conclude that the
    storyteller had Ico lose his friend, backtrack through the core of the isles,
    brave the elements and climb the cliff, return to his original prison,
    annihilate his horned brethren, and finally duel the queen and bury her own
    sword in her heart all in a quest to save his precious companion--only to have
    him promptly dashed against a wall and *die*.  And what of Yorda?  Am I to say
    that she goes to the trouble of taking the boy in her arms, fleeing the
    crumbling great hall, operating the elevator to descend to the cavern, finding
    a boat of which she had no prior knowledge, putting him inside alone and
    sending him out to the ocean in the nick of time all so she can spare a
    *corpse* from the impending destruction of the castle?  As if she does not take
    the unconscious boy out of the tower, knowing it is about to fall, in order to
    save his life and repay her debt!  Certainly both scenarios are conceivable.
    But which makes a story worth listening to?  Which is infinitely lame?  And if
    anyone is about to say "Maybe he is alive at the time but dies out at the sea"
    or "Maybe she isn't aware of his death"--well, would that be any less lame?
    Let us not be thick here.  If they were both to die at the castle, the proper
    thing would be to have them die together.  A farewell scene of this sort is
    appropriate only when one of the parties is expected to die while the other is
    expected to live.  If ICO is a tragedy, it is no more than a third-rate
    Let me offer a more levelheaded rationale as to why the afterlife theory cannot
    help but ruin the tale.  Once I again I ask for your close attention.  Thus far
    we have examined the ending in one exclusive category: happy ending.  But there
    is another class of ending that it belongs to, to which no one seems to pay any
    attention.  ICO has what is commonly called a surprise ending, which we may
    loosely define as the literary technique of closing a story with some crucial
    or profoundly affecting revelation.  
    Why is that important?  The reason becomes apparent when we dig into the nature
    of surprise endings.  As noted earlier, surprise involves a reversal of
    expectation--i.e., you thought such and such were the case, only to be shown
    that you could not have been further from the truth.  A surprise ending
    therefore *requires* that the audience be first led to form a false picture of
    the reality so as to set them up for the revelation to come; hence the queen's
    repeated claim that Yorda can never leave the castle, and the girl's decision
    to accept death.  Now it is the nature of every surprise ending that without it
    the story cannot make proper sense.  It is that last piece of puzzle which
    places all that came before it in the correct light.  Consider for instance
    O. Henry's THE GIFT OF THE MAGI, a short story about a poverty-stricken young
    couple which features one of the most beloved surprise endings in all of
    fiction.  In it Della, desperate to buy a suitable Christmas gift for her
    husband Jim, resorts to selling the only thing of value she possesses--her
    beautiful long hair.  With the money she buys a gold chain for Jim's prized
    pocket watch, an old family heirloom.  The story ends with the bittersweet
    revelation that Jim's gift for her is a set of jewel-studded hair combs she
    has long coveted.  He has sold his watch to buy it.
    A story of this sort places such an emphasis on the closing scene that it is
    hopeless to assess its character--its theme--until it has quite ended.  If, for
    instance, your copy of ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN or THE ILIAD is missing
    the last page, you can still get out of those books most everything they have
    to offer.  But if you were forced to forgo the ending of THE GIFT OF THE MAGI
    or Poe's THE BLACK CAT or Maupassant's THE NECKLACE you would be left with a
    crippled and incoherent tale.  You would be left in want of the most vital part
    of the story, and your understanding of it must remain fundamentally flawed.
    Imagine not watching the final sequence of CITIZEN KANE or THE USUAL SUSPECTS.
    Would it not be all rather pointless?  And that is just what a surprise ending
    is: the *point* of the story, compressed into a single moment of revelation.
    So it is that every surprise ending carries the same message at core: "This is
    what the story is about.  Forget what you have seen, heard, and supposed thus
    far--*this* is the real deal."  ICO is no exception.  The surprise arrives at
    the precise instant we accept that a girl who should be dead is alive.  It
    evaporates when we presume all this is taking place in afterlife.  For of
    course there can be no surprise in realizing that a dead girl is still
    technically dead.  Likewise there can be no point in showing her twitch her
    fingers, blink open her eyes squinting at the light, and issue an utterance in
    her dear old voice at the final moment of the story, unless one means to convey
    that she who ought to have died has miraculously survived.  
    But that is not all.
    It seems clear to me that those who subscribe to the afterlife theory adopted
    that view in retrospect.  That is, they too assumed the children's survival the
    first time they saw the ending.  It was only when they mulled over it
    afterwards that they decided that is not the case after all.  In other words
    they decided their initial grasp of the ending was faulty and invalid.  I am
    afraid this has fatal implications for their claim.  Let me clarify.
    Recall to your mind any story that ends on a thrilling "shocker"--say THE USUAL
    SUSPECTS or THE SIXTH SENSE.  Could these films be watched a second time and
    still be enjoyed?  Yes, they could.  (If they could not, the blame is on the
    the shallowness of the stories or the shallowness of the audience.)  But will
    that second viewing be nearly as jolting and powerful as the first?  No, of
    course not.  And any writer competent enough to pull off a surprise ending
    knows that.  He knows his ending will work its magic just once.  That is why
    he must make absolutely certain that the audience will *get* the surprise at
    once.  He cannot afford to allow misinterpretation.  He has but this one chance
    to make the audience fall out of their chairs.  He has to deliver the punch, 
    and all of it, the very instant he unveils the surprise.  If the audience has
    to mull over the ending to grasp it, the ending has failed.  It has lost the
    element of surprise.  For surprise, as you know, is an instantaneous event.
    And it cannot be reproduced; you can never be surprised twice by a thing.  Thus
    by its nature a surprise ending does not expect multiple readings.  It operates
    on the principle that it will not be given a second chance.
    Do you see what this means?  A surprise ending that leaves the audience
    scratching their heads, one that has to be interpreted in *hindsight*, one that
    has to be seen more than once to communicate itself to the audience, is an 
    unmitigated fiasco--just as a joke has failed if the listeners have to think
    long and hard about it before laughing, or worse, if it has to be repeated to
    get the laugh out of them.  And yet this is just what the theory's proponents
    imply about ICO's ending.  What is more, they believe they have enhanced the
    Just about one hundred percent of the players perceive--correctly--that Ico and
    Yorda have survived upon viewing the ending for the first time.  A few of them
    change their minds in hindsight.  Now if these few were right, that would mean
    that ICO's conclusion lends itself to faulty interpretation in one hundred
    percent of its viewers.  It would mean it is a one hundred percent failure as a
    surprise ending.  It would mean *nobody* understood the ending right away.  It
    would mean the screenwriter put together a surprise ending so deep, so
    abstruse, that only a few would be able to fathom it, and none immediately.
    Therefore by arguing for the afterlife theory I should be automatically arguing
    that ICO's ending is a disastrous denouement to an otherwise lovely tale.  I
    should be accusing the storyteller of the worst error a writer could commit
    when he is trying to deliver an ending of this sort.  Here then is my last plea
    to those who take that stance.  It is one thing to say that an event occurred
    though you cannot explain how it did.  It is quite another to insist that it
    must not have occurred at all because you cannot account for it.  Now if you
    believe the girl's survival is inconsistent with the rest of the story, you
    would have been a great deal more sensible to say that the ending is badly 
    written, rather than that it does not happen the way it so plainly does.  You
    are entitled to criticize any flaws you perceive.  But, please, let us not go
    into the nonsense about improving the ending with a fresh interpretation.  It
    has not left that option open to us.
                                     -Part Three-
                                    Art or No Art?
    And with that I am done.  I hope I have in some way added to your enjoyment of
    the game.  If you came to this exercise thinking that ICO, despite its rich
    atmosphere, is rather thin in story, and I have helped you change that opinion,
    I should deem the exercise a success and be most content.  I wish however to
    warn you against the opposite error.  That is, I don't want you to get the 
    idea--not from me anyhow--that this unassuming fairy tale is a masterpiece of
    Shakespearian proportions.  Throughout the exercise I have invoked great works
    of literature to illustrate some aspects of the game, but the comparisons were
    to show how ICO draws from similar principles, and never to suggest that its
    merits rival those masterworks'.  *For its medium* ICO is very unique, very
    sophisticated, and I wish there were more games like it.  I have not seen a
    video game tell a story so skillfully and seamlessly.  Thus ICO's brilliance as
    a work of fiction is, to a fair extent, comparative--it shines because the
    storytelling in other games is so dull.  I have scrutinized it as I have never
    scrutinized another game because it is the only game I know that even warrants
    that sort of treatment.  Before ICO, I had seen stories in games that were
    entertaining as diversions, but they never made me want to study what made them
    entertaining.  They did not have enough for a study, unless one meant to study
    bad storytelling.
    Now, just about every person who is deep into gaming seems to believe that
    video game is as competent an art form as any.  If he is a fan of ICO, he may
    point to it as his proof.  Some people who share a similar view have even paid
    *me* compliments along the line of "I'm glad someone is finally treating video
    games with respect they deserve" or "It's great that you take your games so
    seriously."  I am not and I do not.  My regard for ICO is a very poor indicator
    of my opinions on video games in general.  I think most video games, even those
    that boast beautiful visuals and grand epic themes, are severely awkward as art
    works--lacking any kind of unifying mandate apart from their all-important
    pursuit of "fun," which seems to me no more artistic than baseball or poker.  I
    have often heard video games validated as art in words like these: "Video
    gaming is art because any creative human activities, especially those not
    essential to the immediate necessities of survival, can find artistic
    expression.  Why should games be any different?"  And that is right of course.
    But I wonder if we are asking the right question to begin with.  By the most
    generous definition of art we are almost constantly surrounded by art and doing
    things with artistic implications.  Even a silly doodle scribbled in a notebook
    during a boring lecture counts as art.  But surely we knew this already?
    Surely the question we ought to be considering is not "Is it art?" but rather
    "Is it good art?"
    Let me recast the question in a different mold.  None will deny that poetry is
    an art, and a much respected art.  But is there such a thing as bad poetry?  Of
    course there is.  In fact an enormous portion of it is unreadable.  So when we
    declare poetry an art form we are not really paying poetry as a whole any
    compliment.  Like most creations art can be wonderful or terrible or merely
    And that is my problem with all this heated debate over whether video games
    constitute an art form.  People speak as if they were bestowing some great
    honor upon games by calling them art.  But art is a value-neutral term.  When
    we say "This pottery is a work of art" we are not praising the pottery; we are
    stating a fact.  The pottery may be a sublime work of art, or it may be an
    execrable work of art.  Of course, should we be moved to exclaim "My goodness,
    this pottery is a work of art!" then we most certainly are praising it.  But
    that is only because we are all along meaning to say it is a *good* work of
    art.  We have merely left "good" unspoken--unspoken but clearly implied by
    the tone and the context.
    The game industry has not produced many--if any--sublime works of art or it
    would not be struggling so much for respectability.  Literature and music are
    better received as art forms because those fields have produced across
    centuries numberless masterworks whose enduring beauty and relevance have been
    tested and proven; works which allow the audience into the profoundest depth of
    the human genius.  Until video games do the same, and I am not sure it will
    happen, the genre will continue to suffer the stigma of low-grade
    Look at popular comics for instance: it has been around for a century and has
    been far more successful than video games in cultivating its distinct brand of
    artistic integrity, but it fares only slightly better in finding acceptance as
    a meaningful art form.  Recent popular comic artists have tried to improve its
    reputation by a number of tactics--rendering superhero comics in classic media
    like oil and pastel (some examples of which are quite skilled), injecting
    philosophical and social commentary into the drama, waiving two-dimensional
    heroes and villains in favor of rounded characters, shifting from flagrant
    optimism to increasingly dark and "mature" outlooks, and so on.  All these have
    made popular comics more interesting, but where earning greater artistic
    validation for the genre is concerned they were more or less doomed to failure
    from the beginning.  A tragic, complex, philosophical, photorealistically
    rendered BATMAN is still BATMAN--the exploits of a handsome young billionaire
    who protects the streets of Gotham by nightly donning a skintight bulletproof
    outfit, a cape and a mask with fake horns so he can go about manually beating
    up criminals.  If there is a difference, it is that this reinvented BATMAN
    expects the kind of respect which the series' own nature denies, so that where
    it was merely silly before it is now pretentious.  I often perceive the same
    pretentiousness when a gamer declares his pet title artistic or profound--as if
    grand pantheistic talks about a planet's life force saves it from being a role-
    playing game whose goal is to equip your characters for better combat moves, as
    if cramming a game full of religious and metaphysical allusions makes up for
    its being similarly crammed full of giant fighting robots and fetching sex
    symbols, as if turning the story into a treatise on some philosophical theme
    excuses the poor storytelling.
    Some people may object that the flaws listed above do not really fall under the
    criteria of the so-called gaming art.  Gaming art, I have been told by some, is
    about the ingeniousness of gameplay.  I could not understand what this gameplay
    was and tried looking it up.  None of the dictionaries I owned had the word.
    So I gave up on defining gameplay, but from what I have learned since it has to
    do with the cleverness, depth, and enjoyableness of the rules that make up the
    game.  Superior gameplay makes the fun more enduring and rewards the skills of
    the player.  Just a few weeks ago I saw a footage of someone completing a whole
    SUPER MARIO game in a matter of minutes.  He did not make a single mistake.  He
    blazed through the levels like a tiny 2-D god, killing all the enemies and
    getting all the points and making all the jumps at exactly the right times and
    not slipping or getting hit even once.  It was like seeing a Karate master who
    so clearly saw through the opponent's moves that he was impermeable to them.
    It was impressive.  So that's what those SUPER MARIO fans were always telling
    me about, I thought.  (I had played the game myself and knew how hard it was.)
    I wondered if this might be what they mean by gaming art, and if this sort of
    gameplay indeed has artistic merits.
    To explain the answer I came to, I want us to consider an illustration that may
    at first seem odd.  I want us to consider ballet and gymnastics.  Both words
    call to the mind the image of petite graceful young ladies in form-fitting
    attires.  Both disciplines use the human body as the vehicle of their ideals.
    Both a ballerina and a gymnast spend year after year in rigorous training to
    achieve the utmost grace and efficiency of movement.  Both must possess passion
    and commitment as well as talent in prodigious degrees if they are to succeed.
    We call ballet an art and categorize gymnastics under athletics.  Now would you
    not say this is a most unfair distinction?  What doe the gymnast lack against
    the ballerina that she is labeled an athlete but not an artist?  Does she lack
    training, competence, zeal, even beauty?  No; she uses the same medium for her
    skills and works just as hard if not harder.  In fact if you are at all like me
    you probably find gymnastics much more spectacular than ballet.  So why the
    The reason is in the nature of the disciplines.  Ballet pursues beauty, while
    gymnastics aims at nimbleness.  Physical agility of course contains an element
    of beauty.  Naturally some gymnastic competitions include artistic dimension as
    a part of the evaluation criteria.  But every gymnast understands that her work
    is first about pushing the body to the limits of agility and second about
    expressing beauty.  Consequently we say, and rightly, that the gymnast
    *demonstrates* and the ballerina *performs*.  A gymnastic demonstration can and
    should have an artistic aspect, but that is not where its focus lies.
    If by gaming art we mean no more than a very clever and efficient way of
    yielding pleasure, a kind of mental gymnastics as demonstrated by the Super
    Mario expert--well, that may or may not be art, but one thing is for sure: if
    it is art, it is a kind of art that will be taken seriously by none save its
    own devotees.  Any art in SUPER MARIO or TETRIS, or even in go or chess, is
    doomed to enjoy no recognition outside their circles of fans, however global
    those circles may be.  For it is the mark of the great arts to be *relevant* to
    some essential aspect of what it means to be human.  That is why they always
    find a broad audience to acknowledge, even if they do not fully appreciate,
    their value.  I appreciate ICO because, much more than any video games I know,
    I find it full of that worthwhile and pleasurable relevance which I have found
    in good literature, music and paintings.  But a gamer who praises the art of
    ICO, or the art of any other titles for that matter, ought to remember that far
    superior art of similar kinds abounds outside the field of gaming.  Else he may
    risk the nearsightedness of a child who thinks himself a fine poet because he
    is versed in nursery rhymes.
                                     -Part Four-
                            Last Words and Acknowledgments
    If you wish to discuss any points I have raised here, come to the ICO message
    board at GameFAQs (www.gamefaqs.com).
    Kindly inform me of any technical errors you find in this text.
    I would like to thank everyone at the message board for supporting this project
    of mine since the original thread began last May.  
    My thanks go to the board regulars (in alphabetical order): alegria, bansama,
    fatbaldguy0, Grub, justcook, ksabers, Kumari, ladyhawke2, MLai, Qwarky, The
    Siren.  I am sure I have left out some names.  Let me know and I will duly
    acknowledge you.
    I also want to thank all those who took the trouble of sharing their own
    perspectives at length on the thread: alegria, Anonymous Anemone, Argus, Auto
    Rock, blissfulnoise, CaptainSyrup, Dead Again, Hylian Jean, JamesMolloy,
    ksabers, ladyhawke2, Martin Pagan, MetOwer MLai, n3odymium, OBSeSsIveGaMUr,
    PeFromHolland, quigontcb, Rocketlex, ScHlAuChi, ScOULaris, twifkak, Wabbajack.
    Vincent Lam ("ICO") has my special thanks for creating ICO Flash, the best ICO
    fan page on the Net.  I have borrowed a number of images from the site.  You
    can see it at [http://hk.geocities.com/icofan/].
    I will not list here the books I mentioned throughout the exercise since I
    provided their titles and authors when I referred to them.  They are all well-
    known classics, and I trust you will have no difficulty at all finding them if
    you are interested.
    Finally I thank you for staying with me through the talk.  
    So long.
                                                              March 2004

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