This is not a video game review, this is a tribute to a perfectly realized work of art.
It just doesn't get any better than this. I remember the first time I saw Myst -- issues with the gameplay aside, the look of the game was just like the places I visit in my dreams. Mysterious, foggy, ineffably beautiful.
But Myst didn't move. You clicked through the hypercard stack, finished the game, saw a few postage stamp-sized Quicktime Movies, and that was it.
Having finished Ico, I can confidently say that this must have been what the creators of Myst dreamed of. A huge, detailed puzzle-castle, triumphantly realized using the power of the Playstation 2. It's like Myst, but it moves -- my god, it's alive. Its environments are huge, light filters in through the dusty halls and broken walls, every room is awash with foreboding, every courtyard tinged with nostalgia.
Then, there are the characters. Ico, a 12-year-old boy that must be the archetype of all 12-year-old boys. He scrambles around, nattily finding his way past the obstacles in the castle. When his princess is attacked, he flails desperately away at her assailants, not with the digital precision of a videogame fighter, but with the naive determination of the boy-child. As the only directly controllable character in the game, he's never boring or tedious to control, and the controls are intuitive. A glance at the instruction manual is all you'll ever need to navigate the treacherous castle -- that, and your wits and observation.
The girl is Yorda. She's not blind, and not completely helpless per se, but she. . . she's somewhere else. It's never quite clear whether she's glowing, or just very fair-skinned, but in either case, she belongs to another place and time. Like The Shining Prince, we fear she is far too precious to last long in this world. Her every movement conveys innocence and wonder: she looks down at Ico, her protector, with a serene trust that implores the player not to fail. She startles at sudden noises, chases birds, and sometimes provides clues to solutions of puzzles. Watch her. I feel that this sort of characterization must be what the designers of the Playstation 2 had in mind when they named its CPU the Emotion Engine.
This game terrified me in a way no other game has. It succeeded in making me want to protect the girl, and then conjured up some of the most evil creatures I've seen. They're seemingly made of darkness, and they're bent on dragging Yorda down into their world of shadows. If they succeed, it is heartbreaking.
I beat this game in the course of two days -- I estimate 8 to 10 hours of total gameplay, which is not enough. But the sheer aesthetic and emotional intensity of those hours is unmatched, for my money, in all of video gaming. Its half-plot answers a few questions and asks many more. I desperately hope that the talented Sony team that brought us this game stays together, because there is magic there.