Sunday, April 5, 2009

Crawl, Walk, Run...

I've been thinking, as I so often do, about Ico.

More particularly, I've been thinking about the choice of whether to walk or run with Yorda, and what that means both for me, as well as game design in general.

For those who haven't played the game, you play the role of a young boy, Ico, as he guides a frail, young woman through a castle. She may or may not be blind, and you'll spend much of the game guiding her by the hand. Here's where it gets interesting; you can walk gently with her, which is slow, caring, and beautiful, or you can run, which makes it looks like you're hurting her.

Given how I once called Ico the most romantic game ever conceived, you'd think that I'd opt for the former option. You'd be wrong. I ran. I knew it was hurting her, but I ran anyway. Did I feel bad about it? Only momentarily. My reasoning, something I absolutely abhor having to admit, was that it was "just a game."

You see, had I been in that actual predicament, and Yorda an actual person, I would have been slower and gentler with her. I'd want to gain her trust and be tendering and nurturing towards her. But it wasn't real life. There was no benefit to taking things slow with her, other than seeing the animation of seeing them walk together. As a result, I found myself tuning out whilst walking with her, as my mind lay on simply getting from point A to point B. As such, I realized that if I were not to going to be engaged to these parts if I walk, I might as well run, in order to and make with the puzzle solving and more dramatic moments that make the game so worthwhile.

I realize that much of this is my own, personal issue. That perhaps my attention span is too short to stay focused on such a simple, menial activity. Though I wondered why this was. I loved Yorda, and Ico, and the castle, and the scenery. Why was I able to disconnect from these moments so involuntarily? Why did I find the walking such a terrible bore? In an earlier article, I wrote about how a game needn't be "fun" at all times, and cited the sailing in Wind Waker and the horseback riding in Shadow of the Colossus as examples. Why was I able to enjoy those slow, passive activities, yet found myself impatient with Ico? I've thought of a couple reasons:

a.) In both the Wind Waker and SotC, you had little control over my speed. Sure, you could change the directions of the winds in Wind Waker, but that would involve playing a song and watching an unskippable cutscene, which would often be more trouble than it was worth for a minor speed boost. And In SotC, you could bring Aggro up to a full gallop, but I'd imagine most players keep him at full speed as much as possible, which is still a very slow, passive activity. As such, I felt like I was going as fast as I could in these games, which was satisfying. Though, had you given me a faster option, I likely would have taken it. Ico gives you that faster option, and it's hard to resist. Other games do this too. A game like Fallout 3 gives you fast-travel, something that almost certainly breaks the immersion, though how many players have the patience to resist using it? I'd reckon seldom few, though my hats off to any such players out there.

b.) Both Wind Waker and SotC gave me a gorgeous, ever-changing landscape to admire. The charms of Wind Waker's day/night cycle and full range of weather and wave effects are mind numbingly gorgeous. The thrill off seeing an island a couple miles off as it gradually comes into full view is an absolutely stunning achievement (especially for a game over half a decade old on a Gamecube. Less pop-in than Fallout 3). You can also control the camera, adding a further level of input to the proceedings. SotC, had a similar feeling, with a unique, over-saturated aesthetic, giving you a landscape that would unrealistically evolve from a lush grassy plain to a barren desert in just a few seconds. That game was sheer eye candy, and I thoroughly enjoyed taking the time to admire the scenery (something I may not have done had it not been enforced). Ico, however, employs a mostly steady cam. It jumps from different viewpoints, ala an old Resident Evil game, and while you can change the angle of the camera a wee bit, you can hardly pivot it around. The art direction in Ico is stunning, but you'll be subjected to it for long periods of time even if you run through it.

This is something we discussed on Big Red Potion, regarding mechanics getting in the way of narrative. Jonathon Blow even cited Ico as an example, where the player was just as liable to tire of Yorda than care for her, as they'd start to think of her less as a person and more of a necessity to make their way through the game. At times, I would agree with this, hence my running with her. Yet, at the same time, I feel like there are times when the game mechanics enhance our relationship with Yorda. Notably when you've left her alone for awhile (often out of necessity) and she starts getting attacked by shadow creatures. That feeling of anger you get trying to protect her, crossed with guilt for leaving her alone, is among the finest examples I've yet witnessed of a game using its mechanics to establish an emotional bond.

This is furthered by the fact that unless you fall off a high ledge, you cannot get a game over simply by being attacked. You get a game over by letting her be taken away. I, for one, feel there should be more games where self-preservation is not the ultimate goal.

The question of how much game designers should leave pacing up to the player is a tough nut to crack. I'm not quite sure that there is any one "right" way of doing it, but I find the tug-of-war between keeping a player engaged, yet fully immersed (even during the slower moments) an inherently fascinating topic. Any and all comments on the matter would be appreciated. Thank you.
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