Monday, April 22, 2013

ICO and the escort mission

I've finally got around to playing the remastered version of ICO; does it hold up after all this time... yes. Emphatically yes; sure some of the wall textures are a little blurry at times and the controls are reminiscent of Resident Evil, but the core of the game remains pure - that of an escort mission.

Don't run away I know what you're thinking "But the escort mission in games is the part that sucks the most; a whole game that's an escort mission - no way!" Let me explain why escort missions suck and why oddly enough Ico doesn't.

I don't know anyone who enjoys escort missions and they're the subject of much frothing on the internet, but why is this the case. To my mind it's not just one thing but a whole raft of flaws that make escort missions intolerable to players.

At the very beginning it's the fact that in most it's an escort mission. There you are as the player character (PC) tootling along by yourself quite nicely when the game suddenly throws a curve ball at you and tells you you've got to drag along someone because they're important or they're the only ones who can open a door. The reason they're their feels tacked on; you've never met anyone else so important; you've been able to open doors by yourself perfectly well before now. But nope now you need this person. It throws the game world for a loop and throws the gamer out with it. Is that just it though, merely the expectation of what the game is like being changed? No. The actions of the escorted thing compound the problem.

Things being escorted generally have two attributes. They're vulnerable or invulnerable; they have no free will or they can act independently.

If they're vulnerable, but have no free will they get in the way. Not only does the player have to manage where they're going, what they're attacking etc. they have to check where the escortee is going and what's attacking them.

If they're vulnerable, but act independently there's the same problem, but with them charging off and getting themselves killed

Either way it's a Game Over due to stupidity on the part of the escortee and not your fault. That doesn't make the game much fun.

If they're invulnerable and lack free will they'll get used as a meat shield. This reduces the attachment the player has to the escortee; they're just a portable barricade and there's no point in their exisiting.

If they're invulnerable and can act independently  they can either take on the enemies themselves, reducing the game to that of a movie; or there's no need for the PC to look for them in which case, again, there's no purpose in them existing.

How does Ico change this? Firstly by making the entire game about escorting Yorda; so no disconnect between mission types and secondly by plotting a clever middle ground between the two major traits of escortees.

Yorda will follow Ico around in a zero free will way; but she'll navigate her own way through obstacles to reach you if you call in an independent manner. She's invulnerable, but only because enemies won't attack her, but she's vulnerable in that they can try to kidnap her.

So you can leave Yorda alone as the PC explores, but not for too long lest monsters appear to carry her away, and then call her once you've found a viable route. You don't have to worry about hitting her when attacking monsters, but you can't use her as a meat-shield as she'll be kidnapped and carried away.

The part I've missed out for escort missions is the new tactic of being able to order them about "Stay here" "Go there" etc. Isn't that a good way to steer between independence and dependency? How is this different from calling Yorda to you? Because you're not ordering her; you're asking her to join you. She won't necessarily obey you like a good little automaton. Ordering escortees about emphasises that this is a game and that they are computer controlled objects. The degree to which Yorda responds to your call depends on how well you've defended her and how well you've treated her and it as this point that Ico pulls out the rabbit from the hat.

It is possible to leave Yorda alone, for a while and then just call her, but by far the most expedient method is to bring her with you and how do you do that? You hold her hand. It's really that simple. You hold her hand and walk with her to where you want her to be. You can can run and drag her along like a sack, but you can tell by the animation that she doesn't like it and the game excels in that even though you can do that for the entire game, you'll find yourself walking along because that suits her better.

These dimple touches mean that Yorda is a person, not a shield, not an annoyance. She is the entire purpose of the game and rather than have to keep her safe, you want to do so.


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