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Better 9 years late than never or: how I learned to stop discriminating and love the console
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xtal
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May 10, 2010 - 1:14 pm
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Grab a cold one. Or a cup of tea. Or whatever you fetch when you know you're going to be stuck involved in something long and boring. You've foolishly clicked on the wrong topic, and now you're stuck! * maniacal laughter *

That is unless you have, um... a back button. Then you can leave, I suppose. If you'd like to stay, however, don't say I didn't warn you. You're in for what I might call a rant; a collection of (mostly pointless) stories; a love letter to gaming.

 

One week ago-- Sunday evening to be precise-- I accomplished something that occurs far too infrequently: I finished a game. If memory serves I think that brings my 2010 total up to 5. Not that many considering if you asked what my favourite free-time-sucking hobby was I would reply "video games, for sure." It's hard to look back on your time and remember exactly what the hell you were doing. We tend to exaggerate and measure months, years, time in general by things we consider to be significant events. For example, if someone were to ask me "How was 1993 for you?" I would tell them "Well, I learned cursive writing, a bird shit on my grade 3 teacher's head one day in the playground, and I saw Jurassic Park."

Obviously a lot more happened to me in 1993 than just that, but hell if I remember it. Even years more recent I have no idea what I was doing. In 2004 I remember working as a security guard for some CFL (that's Canadian Football League) and PGA Tour events, getting asked by friends and family a lot "so when are you going back to school?" and discovering Joy Division. That makes for one weak 'gather round the fire' moment when the grand children are looking for a story.

 

There has been, however, one constant in my life when measuring time: video games. I can remember most games I've ever played, when I first played them, how long I played them for, if I ever finished them, and all other pertinent information. As a result of this I remember various times in my life for no reason other than what games I was playing; sometimes this actually helps me better recall other things I was doing.

I don't even remember 2010 too well, to be honest. What I do remember is that in early January I was playing crappy games on my Xbox like Jericho and King Kong, biding my time until Mass Effect 2 came out. I remember taking about two weeks-- into the middle of February-- to finish Mass Effect 2. All I remember about mid-February to mid-March was that most nights after getting home from work I sat down and put an hour into Assassin's Creed 2. I remember the same week I finished AC2 I bought a PlayStation 3 and spent the rest of March playing and completing both Heavy Rain and Uncharted: Drake's Fortune.

I don't even know what I ate for dinner three nights ago.

 

Memory is a funny thing, which brings me finally to what I began writing this topic for: within these larger memories of what you were doing for months, weeks, days are singular moments your mind just holds onto; images you won't soon forget and will likely look back on fondly for years to come. My latest come from this game I've just completed a week ago-- one I had a lot of trouble procuring-- and the game is Ico.

The second I finished Ico I knew I would never forget it. It's a game that makes me ask myself: Why do I waste my time on drivel when there are games like Ico? And wait, are there games like Ico? And then no, probably not, but sort of...but just enjoy this, dammit.

The question I asked most though echoed famous sentiment once made by David Byrne: How did I get here?

 

The question of how I came to know Ico, albeit 9 years late, is a fascinating one (to me, anyway). To answer it I have to go to the root cause which I can say begins roughly in 2003.

As I recall, 2003 was not an incredibly memorable year for computer gaming. I spent almost the entire year playing one game: Rainbow Six 3: Raven Shield. Playing a first-person shooter online can be exhausting. Being part of a team that played 342 ladder matches of a first-person shooter in a six month span was beyond exhausting: I was totally and utterly drained, sapped of my ability to love games. October through December I dropped video games completely, focusing still on school and work, just with different distractions at night. I didn't play a single game for nearly three months until the middle of January 2004. I read a handful of reviews about a new game set in the Star Wars universe: Knights of the Old Republic.

Knights of the Old Republic, or KotOR, was responsible for rekindling my love of gaming. At that time it became my favourite game, one that I would play through 4 times before the year was out, and it lead me to investigate its developer, BioWare. I learned that they would already have a new game coming out in the spring of 2005 but it would only be coming out for the Xbox. I then pondered the unimaginable...do I buy my first console since owning a Sega Genesis?

The answer, of course, was "yes." I bought an Xbox in December of 2004, along with KotOR's rushed sequel, The Sith Lords, to pass the time until Jade Empire arrived. It was interesting...there I was owning all of 3 games for my Xbox, by no means a devoted console gamer, but at the time I would have said those 3 Xbox games were my all-time favourites (the third was KotOR, which I now owned for both Xbox and PC). In the end I would only ever add Doom 3, X-Men Legends II, Prince of Persia: Two Thrones and Ninja Gaiden to my collection, totaling it to just 7 games. I was still a faithful disciple of the personal computer.

This would all change in the summer of 2007. It was about the second week of August when I began to hear rumblings of a Bioshock demo. Wait, that "spiritual successor" to System Shock 2? People actually give a shit? I'd better look into this.

Not owning an Xbox 360 at the time this lead me to download the demo on my computer. It was amazing and I needed to own it, pronto. The game would be out in a week. Oddly, I made the decision to buy an Xbox 360 for it since the demo ran so poorly on my computer, and I just couldn't risk not enjoying this game at its full potential.

 

In the end I would say it was Bioshock that completely opened me up to the notion of console gaming being a viable option. Through the rest of 2007 and 2008 the X360 was my go-to gaming platform-- save for a few ditties I had to enjoy on PC, like Portal-- where my preference had completely shifted. I never thought I'd buy the long-awaited third Fallout entry for a console, but I did. I was continuously hooked on entries like Gears of War, Mass Effect, Braid, Assassin's Creed and others. In January 2009 when I completed Fallout 3 I was a little burned out again- not from a bad game this time, but from an epic experience. I needed to head in a new direction for a while.

I scoured gaming websites for a guiding light and kept landing on one title in particular: Shadow of the Colossus. I'd never heard of it but some of the reviews left me with the impression that I should have been playing this game if I wanted something different. Lo and behold, it was when I remembered enjoying quite a few reviews on Four Fat Chicks in the past that I clicked on the link to this review from aggregate site Metacritic. That review sold me faster than, well... something fast. Within a week I went out and bought a PS2 along with Colossus.

I don't need to say much of anything about that game because I'm quite certain everyone living not under rocks knows about it by now. It is the most epic game I have ever played. It is like Ico, and it isn't. Ico's wordless chorus urges you along: as much as I loved it all I was desperate to escape. I beat the game in maybe five or six days. I've been playing SotC now for over a year and am still on the seventh colossus. The game beats your heart into a pulp. After each encounter I practically need a shower to wash away the atrocities I've done. That sounds awful, yes, but it is just signs of a game developer succeeding in the emotions department; transcending the medium, if you like. Like KotOR, I needed to find out who created this world and see if they had anything else to offer.

 

Enter: Ico.

 

So in answer to my other question: yes, there is one game like Ico, but not really like Ico, and that, of course, would be Shadow of the Colossus. I find it like Ico in three ways. One, they are graphically similar: washed out, bright blurry skies and crusty gray-brown architecture, both encased in seemingly endless horizons. Two: they both are filled with soul-crushing desolation. Three: as a result of one and two their universes feel directly related somehow. This relation becomes more obvious when, in the real-world, I know these games are created by the same people.

As for other games that Ico is like but not like, one came to mind often as I played: Beyond Good & Evil. They are not inherently similar to me at least for any other reason than they both evoked similar emotions.

In Ico there is a sense of foreboding the whole way through; an ever-impending doom: this shouldn't be considered an "enjoyable" game but it is. For all the loneliness there was also a serene calm about the world. As physically and mentally simplistic as every encounter with those black creatures of the ether was, they were terrifying. For each time Ico took Yorda's hand I knew they would have to separate in a few minutes; I grew to care for her and each time I had to leave her behind in a different room it was a nervous, frantic rush of adrenaline to find some way to reunite.

 

Puzzle after puzzle the world became clearer. This castle is a real place: there are no arbitrary constructions. If you see a ledge that looks out of reach, or a space that feels unattainable that's because it is...for now. The world, the castle that Ico is imprisoned within is a logical, beautiful work of art. This made the game enjoyable, indeed a joy to play and move through. Scout wrote an article last year on game spaces and how they leave a lasting impression. He even mentions Ico in it, and that could not be more true. If I were asked what I thought the strengths were in Ico I would say it is an all-around excellent creation. But that only becomes true because the world, the space flows so logically and satisfyingly that it makes the rest of the experience that much better. The combat isn't particularly outstanding: you swing a stick, sword, or mace with one button. The enemies never evolve, they only multiply. The art direction is fantastic; I would say flawless even, but this is also helped by the fact that everything crafted is not just eye candy: you will inhabit all of the space you see, and it is breathtaking to do so. The story? The story itself is Ico and Yorda's journey through their prison, through this space. No words are spoken for about 98% of the game, so your story had better be told entirely through on screen actions of the characters, and indeed it is. Mightily so, in fact.

On top of that I found the game's epilogue intense and powerful; something I feel all too rarely while gaming. It left me drained and satisfied, and I know that I will remember Ico for the rest of my days, whether I visit its world again or not.

 

If I were as pretentious or ridiculous as magazines with 100-point rating scales I would award Ico with a perfect score, one I feel it genuinely deserves. I never go into a game craving perfection; that is silly and nigh impossible. All of my favourite games are in some way flawed, and as an adult you know that flaws are just part of the package. Why do I get the strange sense then, that absolutely nothing could have been done to improve Ico? It really matters not... though I do feel, somehow, that Ico was a perfect adventure for its time.

 

I leave it at that.

If being wrong's a crime I'm serving forever

Jen
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May 10, 2010 - 1:34 pm
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Are you on staff here? If not, you should be. Steeerrrrpiiiiikeee!!!!!

 

That is a great post!

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Pokey
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May 10, 2010 - 2:04 pm
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I loved reading that. Ico was such a great game, the perfect adventure, I agree. I have only played a few games on my PS2, but Ico and Shadow of the Colossus were my two favorites. The artwork was quite similar, but the player's involvment was quite different. I cared for Ico and his friend and worried about them. I wanted to succeed in Colossus, but it left me with confused feelings. I felt bad about killing some of the creatures that did me no harm.

 

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Toger
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May 10, 2010 - 2:07 pm
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Fab post, xtal! I loved Ico, although there were times that Yorda just pissed me off to no end. She was the epitome of uselessness (except to open doors), yet I was compelled to save her.

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Yapette
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May 10, 2010 - 4:59 pm
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[Image Can Not Be Found] [Image Can Not Be Found] [Image Can Not Be Found] [Image Can Not Be Found] [Image Can Not Be Found] [Image Can Not Be Found]

Is the general consensus...pending Steerpike's input [Image Can Not Be Found]...that I start stitching up another T-R Outfit with mandatory helm? I figure the coordinating boots & belt can wait till he's more comfortable here. Luckily, bracers are optional.

P.S. I can't jump so I couldn't play very far into Ico. Without falling. And dying. Even with cheats. [Image Can Not Be Found]

Jarrod
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May 10, 2010 - 9:35 pm
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I haven't played Ico, but I enjoyed the read - thanks xtal!  It's definitely a funny thing that we remember more things that make an impact, than anything else (regardless of how 'important' the data might be).  Maybe it's part of our tribal defense mechanisms.

A man goes to knowledge as he goes to war, wide awake, with fear, with respect, and with absolute assurance. – The Teachings of Don Juan

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geggis
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May 11, 2010 - 5:21 pm
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Wow, what a great piece of writing xtal. I'd like to read more of your rants if they sound like that! [Image Can Not Be Found]

Team Ico are probably the only company to truly 'get' how to imbue a game with emotion without having to resort to sweeping musical scores, bloated dialogue and baggy cinematics. The adage 'less is more' has never been so true.

The only game that occupies the same space as Ico is Another World and that's because Ico was massively influenced by it. If you've never played Another World then I highly recommend you check out the 15th Anniversary edition from gog.com. It was (and still is) way ahead of its time, even if there are some questionably brutal trial-and-error bits in it. They're spiritually unmatched.

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Steerpike
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May 11, 2010 - 6:01 pm
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That was incredible, xtal. Truly and genuinely luminous.

Life is the misery we endure between disappointments.

Scout
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May 11, 2010 - 7:27 pm
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xtal stop it. I can't afford a PS3 (much less even use one) right now and this doesn't help.

 

I loved both the games you referenced though both times I hit the wall with my usual control-deficet disorder syndrome. 

 

I think ICO and Colossus both show how a subtley sustained tone can trump any amount of fiddly bits most games try to pass off as compelling gameplay.

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xtal
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May 13, 2010 - 10:49 pm
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Thanks everyone for the kind words.

 

I knew when I finished Ico that I needed to write about it; I find it a helpful way to deconstruct my own experience. It just took me a week to gather my thoughts and spill them appropriately. [Image Can Not Be Found]

If being wrong's a crime I'm serving forever

lakerz1
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May 14, 2010 - 1:13 am
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Ico...

 

A hauntingly beautiful game .... graphics and the use of shadows and light .... just excellent.

 

I didn't really like the combat at all.  I'm ashamed to admit I died quite a bit and got frustrated at times with the enemies.  I'd be trying to fight off 3 or 4 while another few would be stealing off Yorda while the enemies are knocking me around. I really wished the enemies would just go away so I could concentrate on exploring the fascinating game world and try to find a way out of it all.

 

I don't own a PS3 and haven't played 'Shadow of the Colossus'.  It's on my list of games to buy though when I do end up buying a PS3 (oh yes I will own one). 

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Toger
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May 14, 2010 - 2:19 pm
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Lakerz, you can always do what I did: buy a PS3 then realize the "media cabinet" you own is too small to hold a Wii, 360 and a PS3 without some serious shuffling not to mention it'll probably blow my 100+ year old wiring. Living in an old Victorian is not without it's disadvantages. [Image Can Not Be Found]

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xtal
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May 16, 2010 - 7:19 pm
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Lakerz, just keep in mind that if you are looking for a backwards-compatible PS3 you would probably have to buy used. I know the "slim" models that have been in production since September 2009 are not backwards-compatible, and I'm also pretty certain that the regular "fat" PS3 model ceased its backwards compatibility around mid-2009 after they stopped selling it bundled with Metal Gear Solid 4. Actually I don't even know if those original models are still made?

 

Anyway, just be sure to do your research if that is an important feature for you!

If being wrong's a crime I'm serving forever

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Yapette
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May 16, 2010 - 8:14 pm
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Ta-Da! —-> Behold my EduBookmark for a PS3 I am unlikely to buy.

 

 

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geggis
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May 17, 2010 - 8:30 am
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You beat me to it Yap. [Image Can Not Be Found]

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