Given its function as both a prison and site of ritual child sacrifice, Ico’s castle is disarmingly picturesque. The setting achieves balance through contrasts; dank, moss-speckled chambers open out on sunlight-warmed courtyards. Its atmosphere teeters between comforting and oppressive, the familiar and the otherworldly. Still it remains one of the most coherent game spaces ever created: providing glimpses of areas already explored and others yet to be visited, the castle’s convincingly pragmatic architecture sets the imagination racing at what long-dead occupants may have used each area for. As game designers increasingly lean upon the narrative crutch of audio logs to deliver historical context, it’s refreshing to explore a world in which ghosts are conjured with the most subtle design touches.
“Things that have a history just by themselves tell us so much about them from the damage and tarnish due to deterioration,” the castle’s real-world architect, Team Ico creative director Fumito Ueda, tells us. “What’s appealing about that is that it evokes imagination, I think. It makes you wonder what kind of history it’s got. “I didn’t want the player to think that these were levels created by designers. I wanted them to believe that beyond their screen was a castle that had existed for a very, very long time, which was built by someone they didn’t know.”
It’s easy to fall under Ueda’s spell. Here stands a crumbling ruin whose macabre purpose haunts its empty chambers, and yet the place evokes childhood trips to real castles as you clamber through disintegrating merlons and leap gaps in gangways long since reclaimed by the sea.
“We removed unnecessary objects and elements as much as possible so that everything would fit in a small space,” Ueda continues. “We hated these objects that were very unnaturally placed in levels just for the sake of level design, so we removed them as well. For example, in Ico we don’t have invisible walls that would normally prevent the player character from falling off. And when we really needed those walls, we made them look very convincing.”
Though it may come as a surprise, given the obvious care invested in the castle’s realisation, Ueda admits that he and his team didn’t go out and scout real locations. “Everything in the game was a product of our imagination,” he says. He credits the work of artists such as French etcher Gérard Trignac, who trained as an architect, as a particularly valuable source of inspiration.
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