Contained within this piece are two related arguments. On the one hand, I offer my initial Blogs of the Round Table investigation on healing and save points in Fumito Ueda’s Ico, examining the game’s emphasis on handholding and mutual rest as indicative of broader themes of unspoken solidarity. On the other hand (and against some better judgment), I felt compelled to share some still-percolating thoughts on the splintered state of writing games criticism, bolstered in part by the disbandment of many talented writers from Kill Screen. In a gaming culture sparsely populated with reliable sources of original criticism (and not simply the objectionable “consumer review”), Kill Screen possessed in its many writers—including Michelle Ehrhardt, Gareth Damian Martin, Chris Priestman, etc.—a distinct journalistic and critical voice with unique tastes and offenses. The distressing fragmentation of its writers suggests the publication’s obliviousness to its own meaningful voice, or worse, a total rejection of it as inconsequential. In trying to express frustrations without turning words into rants, I’ve observed this common refrain of division and impermanence as something that emerges throughout videogames criticism. It’s a problem that demands careful scrutiny.
Ico is a game that begins with cruelty. A paranoid village abandons the horned boy Ico, seen exiled inside a sacrificial urn and seemingly left to die. Likewise, an evil witch imprisons the young princess Yorda, first encountered trapped in a cage (a visual motif across Ueda’s games) that underscores her isolation. These damned figures serve as the protagonists of the game; although other characters have turned away from them, Ueda compels players to extend an empathetic hand in their time of need. When Ico and Yorda come across one another, they immediately find kinship in their shared need to escape the imposing castle holding them prisoner. Despite the language barrier that exists between them (a theme I further develop alongside The Last Guardian for Haywire Magazine), they communicate via touch. Ico reaches out with his hand, and Yorda reciprocates the gesture. The pair flees across the towering parapets of the castle grounds together, hands interlocked in solidarity.
Compared to the oft-cited Shadow of the Colossus, Ico is a surprisingly lonelier game despite the constant accompaniment of Yorda. Long stretches of wordless gameplay occur because of the language barrier between the two characters, and the soundtrack remains silent save for sounds of birdsong and whispery wind. Unlike the gallant battle music of Shadow of the Colossus, the silences of Ico more readily convey funereal hollowness. This pervading sense of lonesomeness accentuates the rare moments of affection. Because the world of Ico is a soulless one, Ico and Yorda must depend on each other for protection, comfort, and healing. They are the only ones to look out for and safeguard one another.
Yorda will occasionally be hounded by demonic figures that attempt to break the bond between her and the boy by stealing her away into some inaccessible, shadowy void. To prevent her kidnapping, Ico must once again reach out; when pulled into the void, Ico grabs her by hand so they can heal together. Scattered throughout the map of the game are stone benches that serve as secure save points. These seats are places of healing and tranquility; the peaceful music plainly titled “Heal” exclusively plays over these save points as a calming, wordless lullaby. Resting at these benches in between skirmishes with the demonic figures is Ico’s form of healing. Although the game lacks a formal health bar that quantifies overall health points, to rest in the game allows for a sense of downtime both for the characters and the player to regain composure for more arduous trials ahead.
However, the only way to access these save points requires the presence of both Ico and Yorda. If Yorda is idle and left alone in another part of the area, Ico must physically guide her by hand to the stone bench or get her attention by calling out to her. In this game, healing is something accomplished together and not simply a solitary task. Fumito Ueda suggests that healing is a selfless act, entailing mutual support to truly be effective. Without Yorda to activate the save points, the stone benches are just empty seats, but together, these locations have a meaningful charge. When Ico and Yorda rest at these benches, they sit hand-in-hand in a relaxed slump in a momentary pause from the anxieties of the world. That the save points of the game are benches makes narrative sense. The characters are tired after constant running and fighting, and a bench overlooking an impressive vista invites the weary and downtrodden. Moreover, these resting points always involve two seats, reinforcing the idea that recovery takes the effort of two people. The companionship at the heart of Ico suggests that the basis of a healthy relationship is togetherness and mutual effort. The heroism of an individual can only go so far; one must never be alone in this world.
Games criticism are islands upon themselves. To write from the outside of dominant publications like Polygon or Gamespot requires constant mobility, always migrating from one small site to another in search of work. The struggle of the independent games critic is the struggle to simply find a place for expression, and securing a location does not necessarily assure that one is heard. Since the beginning of this decade, I’ve witnessed the collapse of crucial publications like Nightmare Mode, Medium Difficulty, Bit Creature, Action Button, The Arcade Review, Pixels or Death, and many others. These are all publications that go beyond simply parroting press releases as news content, instead striving for insightful criticism that examines videogames and its relation to ideologies. The writing produced from these sites frequently analyzed how game mechanics and storytelling devices reflect political and cultural perspectives, bridging videogames with a broader context of aesthetics and criticism.
While comparatively miniscule in the sprawling landscape of the billion-dollar industry that is videogames culture, these small, writer-led publications demonstrate efforts from a few individuals to make the medium more inclusive. By gesturing towards a long history of art criticism and cultural commentary, the writers of these publications open room for richer discourse from more diverse voices atypical to games culture that would otherwise focus on hardware or consumer reviews. Some of these publications—Medium Difficulty and Pixels or Death in particular—were places I contributed to as a writer, and all of them are ones I regularly read. The unsustainability of games criticism stems from lack of funds, time, and assistance, all of which are everyday factors that hit hard in a world increasingly averse to mutual cooperation. Writers looking for work often cannot find permanent anchoring. There is no open hand; there is no place to rest.
Blog collectives and other small sites that encourage collaboration and submissions from these migratory games writers are crucial places of networking, editorial support, and broadcasting. The dozens of editors I’ve come across have fundamentally shaped my work in one form or another, and these folks often work without pay, driven primarily by passion for the culture and for writing. I recall pitching to Patricia Hernandez on Nightmare Mode before she miraculously landed a gig at Kotaku. The piece was shelved in the middle of the editorial process because Nightmare Mode ceased as a site entirely. Now kept alive as an archive only through community effort, this revival project reflects the need for games criticism to rely on mutual solidarity and gestures of support. When one publication falters, the effort and kindness of others is necessary to repair whatever damage is done. In an ideal world, the labor offered by games writers would be paid accordingly, but the current unsustainability of games criticism requires that it be done on a volunteer basis.
The reality is that maintaining a steady readership is difficult if games sites want to finance the costs of running a website while also paying a fair wage to writers. Mainstream sites like Polygon or Kotaku cater to general cultural interests, relying on a never-ending stream of easily digestible content to maintain consistent views. For every thoughtful article like Heather Alexandra’s topical investigation of the disappearance of videogame ephemera or Thomas Biery’s journalistic coverage of the New York professional gaming scene come a dozen flimsy news articles echoing press releases of upcoming Star Wars movies. Videogames lack a major publication like a Cahiers du cinéma for the purposes of criticism at the forefront, and when a publication does emerge, its lifespan always remains on the verge of extinction. Cahiers still exists over half a century later; games publications can barely last more than two or three years before collapsing.
One key difference between videogames criticism and that of other mediums is a sense of ongoing collaboration. Insightful film publications like Fandor Keyframe or Reverse Shot have stayed afloat posting critical articles with little to no ephemeral content because individuals and institutions support their existence. As the name suggests, the movie streaming service Fandor operates the digital magazine Keyframe. Likewise, Reverse Shot has backing in the National Endowment for the Arts and New York City’s Museum of the Moving Image. What about videogames? Why are they so often alone? How can fledgling videogame sites find healing in their time of need?
Important work by sites like Critical Distance represents efforts in actively reaching out and supporting independent games criticism. By highlighting the valuable writing produced every week, Critical Distance provides a broadcasting platform to better extend the readership of an individual article. Moreover, the existing publications that provide writers with access to productive editorial boards and opportunities for submission including ZAM, Five Out of Ten, Haywire Magazine, Waypoint, Bullet Points Monthly, Not Your Mama’s Gamer, Zeal, and many others reflect the benefits of companionship for writers looking for encouragement. If many gaming websites shut down or are left abandoned, the responsibility then turns to each and every one of us in making sure they are not forgotten and preserving the ones that continue fighting onward.
The ending of Ico finds the eponymous character washed up on a blindingly white beach, separated from the company of the once ever-present Yorda. The camera pulls back significantly, underscoring the juxtaposition of a tiny Ico dwarfed by the immense openness of an empty space that has been denied to the player for so long. Although the antagonist has been defeated and the character is now free, the game is not complete. Ico canvasses the beach, breathlessly searching for Yorda. Even up to the very end of the game, Ico never forgets the relationship at the center of its story. His search and eventual reunion represents that rare moment of solace in an otherwise soulless landscape. Victory is all the better if it can be shared, together.
Miguel Penabella is a freelancer and comparative literature academic who worships at the temple of cinema but occasionally bears libations to videogames. He is also a contributing editor and columnist for Haywire Magazine and a columnist for Thumbsticks. His complete written offerings are archived here, but can also be found at Kill Screen, PopMatters, First Person Scholar, Playboy, Unwinnable, etc.