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Physical Touch and Love in Ico (and Games in General)

July 15, 2012

Lately I’ve been working on catching up on some classic PlayStation games that I can finally play now that I own a PS3. A couple of weeks ago I began playing Uncharted and Uncharted 2, finishing them this past week. Without discussing them in any great detail (since this post is not about them—their time will come), I was pleasantly surprised to discover that despite being “action movie games”, as people like to call them, they were really quite good and quite fun.

But now that I’m done with those (I’ll get to Uncharted 3 in due time), I’ve moved on to the HD remastered versions of Ico and Shadow of the Colossus. I’ve only played about an hour of Ico so far, but already I have things that I want to discuss.

Since the whole game revolves around the parts of the game that I will be discussing today, I don’t think that a spoiler warning is necessary. Everything I discuss you will encounter within 10 minutes after the intro cutscenes.

From a high-level view, Ico is a game about helping a girl (and yourself) escape from some sort of prison fortress. Your relationship with the girl begins when you find her held in a cage suspended in a tower, from which you promptly free her. She speaks only some mysterious language, and although she seems to appreciate the help, she remains quiet and still most of the time. Something occasionally catches her eye and she’ll wander off toward it, but otherwise she simply waits for Ico to decide where to go, as though she hasn’t the will to try to escape herself.

Furthermore, instead of following Ico where he wanders, she awaits his call or his guiding hand: she does not follow, she is led. And in this relationship is born (in me, at least—I cannot speak for other players) a connection with this girl. She needs me to escape: it is very clear that she is unable or unwilling (taken to mean that she does not seem to have a will) to find her own way out. This dependence is made complete by the physical touch of their interaction, by Ico’s reaching out his hand to hold hers and tug her toward her freedom. And it’s truly brilliant how the developers created the hand-holding mechanics.

In particular, in order to hold her hand you must press and hold R1. Needing to keep that button pressed is a constant reminder that this girl depends on you. And by actively using your own hand (IRL) in this manner creates an obvious parallel between yourself and Ico; your hand and his; and therefore by extension, between your hand, and hers. Then finally, the connection is made complete by a gentle rumble of the controller whenever Ico tugs the girl along. Subtle yet powerful, these two mechanics really create a physical connection between myself and the girl.

Such a relationship reminds me of my experience with Journey, in which I felt strong connections with my fellow players. But in terms of gameplay, there is also a similarity between how your jump power is restored for touching your partner in Journey and how you hold the girl’s hand in Ico. Both of these developers (thatgamecompany and Team Ico, respectively) were able to create a very physical experience from a virtual world. (However, unlike in Journey, I have not yet found that I have developed an emotional connection to the girl in Ico.)

I am curious how other players have perceived these mechanics, though. I know that for myself, I am aware of and value the touch of friends and family, so the language of touch is familiar to me. As such, it’s natural for me to appreciate it in games—though I’m still surprised that it’s possible for them to achieve this. Yet what of others who are not as aware of their physical interactions with others: what of people who are familiar with one of the other so-called 5 Love Languages (which I have recently read, prompting these questions)? Are there other games that speak to people in each of these languages? I think Quality Time can be a part of multiplayer experiences, but especially for co-op games like Journey. Are achievements at all like Gifts, or is there something else that is? Surely Words of Affirmation are spoken in some degree to the player since most games are about achieving tasks and being rewarded. But what of Acts of Service? Can a game elicit the feeling of being served in love by another?

Surely many of these things can happen in multiplayer games, but so far I’ve really only seen Physical Touch and Words of Affirmation being expressed in single-player games. It makes me wonder whether it’s possible to speak to people in many such ways, or if different art forms are capable (and incapable) of expressing different things. I will have to be aware of this question as I play Ico and Shadow of the Colossus. And please feel free to chime in if you have your own thoughts to share.

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