This post is part of "The Sensationalist," a continuing series here at Experience Points in which we examine games' abilities to evoke emotions and sensations in video game players. Please have a look at the series' introduction as well its previous entries. As always, we welcome your thoughts on all the matters we discuss, and look forward to analyzing one of gaming's most powerful, yet intangible, abilities.
Let me begin by admitting I am already breaking Sensationalist rules by discussing two games at once, but the visual, mechanical, and thematic similarities between my choices warrant the approach. The two games I am discussing are Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, both developed in Japan by Team Ico.
If we want to get psychological with videogame consumption, it would not be a stretch to say the hobby lends itself well to power fantasies. Players are frequently transported into the body of a character with abilities vastly superior to their own. To highlight the player's new found strength, arm muscles will be thicker than thighs. Or just as frequently, players inhabit a lithe and nimble protagonist, able to traverse even the most difficult terrain with a preternatural ease.
Keeping in mind the tendency towards empowerment, what a brave feat it was for Team Ico to create two games, and two characters, that so successfully evoke a sense of frailty. Both the self titled protagonist of Ico and Wander of SotC (so named from the original Japanese title, Wander and the Colossus) appear suddenly in the game environment. Neither character reveals a cat-like prowess or mystical power. Aside from Ico's small set of horns, both are relatively unassuming. Beginning with these small characters alone in an immense landscape, Team Ico depicts an unlikely convergence of strength and fragility.
The Sound of Frailty
Ico and SotC have been lauded for their stunning visuals and sense of scale. Both worlds are visually enormous, and seamlessly explored by their comparatively small protagonists. Making Ico and Wander seem small is important to creating a sense of frailty. This is partly accomplished with large visuals, but equally important are the sounds.
Ico's cries to Yorda echo off massive stone pillars, through wide rooms or vast open spaces. Similarly, Wander's calls to Agro, his steed and loyal friend, stand in contrast to the silence of an open plane or the distant cries of an eagle. Also, each character's call changes depending on the distance to their companion. Where Ico changes his pitch and non-sensical words, Wander pierces the distance with a whistle. Team Ico gives players auditory measurements that remind them of their small and ineffectual stature.If you listen close, the sounds of Ico and Wander betray their frailty. Every high pitched cry Ico gives out when attacking opponents mirrors his youth. Lest we forget, Ico is a scrawny young boy, and with each strike at the shadow beasts making off with Yorda comes the sound of exertion. Ico's panting while running, and each grunt he emits when attacked, is matched by Wander. Just like Ico, Wander will let out a huff when landing after a fall. Wander makes the same sign of labor when riding atop Agro as well. These auditory signals accompany a character who toils through their accomplishments. These are not the sounds of a war hardened champion, but of a fragile character accomplishing strenuous tasks.
The Movement of Frailty
While playing through Shadow of the Colossus, yet again, I was taken aback by the number of character animations, some of them seemingly unnecessary. When Wander plummets from a cliff side, his limbs flail about, his body contorting to the whims of the player. Occasionally, he will swing his body to the side to move from a ledge above another. Also, his body will correct itself, trying to maintain balance on a moving Colossus or tumble over when thrown from Agro's saddle. Aside from imbuing Wander with a physical form, these animations belong distinctly to a character bound by the fragile human body.Ico's movements betray the same human frailty. When Ico swings at a wall, the force jolts his arm and sends him reeling back. Before dropping off the side of a wall, his arms will windmill about as he desperately tries to maintain balance. Even pulling Yorda along will result in physical tugs. These signs of relative frailty last into the final boss battle. Ico , wielding a sword not of his making, strikes at the dark queen and is knocked prone, unable to hold his grip on the weapon. His valiance is not that of a trained warrior, but an inexperienced child.
The End of Frailty
Setting aside the potential connection between Ico and Wander (Are they the same person? Has Wander found redemption at last?), both stories end in similar ways and take the same approach to frailty. When Ico defeats the queen, he is knocked unconscious. Shepherded by his previous ward, set adrift on a boat amidst a crumbling castle, Ico is in a complete state of helplessness. Yorda holds him as if a mother to a child, and though Ico has won, his victory is marked not by a new found strength, but a return to sleep.
Shadow of the Colossus takes this theme and runs with it. For a brief moment, Wander is given colossal strength but his power is dwindled and he is swept into a vortex. His sleeping beauty, for whom he underwent his trials, finds a baby with horns in his place. Wander is returned to the ultimate form of frailty: an infant. The nameless woman mimics Yorda's actions, and cradles the child like a mother.
At last, the player, accustomed to gaining ever amazing abilities as the game progresses, is allowed to rest. Ico and Wander become completely powerless, but their frailty is a reward. These games are not about beefy soldiers overcoming hordes of monsters or ninjas vaulting great heights. Rather, Team Ico weaves these stories about a hidden strength, the strength that reveals itself in times of great need, the strength, courage, and bravery found in even the most humble and frail of protagonists.