You have probably played the games mentioned in the title, at least heard of them before, or maybe haven’t at all. And that’s alright because today you’ll discover something different.
The video games industry has evolved quickly over the years, changing into something different, something that’s almost alien compared to the gaming market back in the 90s and 2000s. Major publishers such as EA, Activision, Ubisoft, and Bethesda seem adamant on chasing the anti-consumeristic “Games As A Service” model with an incredibly worrying focus on hyper-realistic visuals – all style, no substance if you will.
However, there’s still hope with indies and other smaller-scale developers. We have seen how beautiful and stunning games like Gris, ABZU and even Hyper Light Drifter can be as examples of how indie games can be captivating as an art form with not a single hint of photorealism in sight.
Which leads us to today’s talk about the aforementioned games in the title – and the reasons why this gaming generation needs more such games.
1. Ico – Channelling Its Obscurity:
Playing Ico as a kid was confusing, but playing it as an adult turned out to be a fascinating experience. How? This cult classic PS2 game starts off as very obtuse – once you take control of the horned little boy Ico, the player is left to their own devices to find a way to leave the place until he meets Princess Yorda. This is where the game picks up and finally blossoms into something charming; Ico succeeds at sucking the player’s soul into the game and keeping the player engaged in its world for hours due to design I’ll elaborate on further. However… this game may not be for everyone – yes the game is connected to Shadow of The Colossus, and The Last Guardian – two other underrated PlayStation gems – but it is still unique in its own way.
1- The puzzles in this game are quite different than the puzzles you’d see in today’s mainstream games, ala ”God of War” puzzles. Back in its day, Ico would confuse some in the first playthrough since it doesn’t hold the player’s hand in any way – no tutorials or markers. That’s something this generation needs: puzzles that’ll make you almost ragequit, yet coming back to the game for more – even keeping enthusiasts glued to the screen for hours.
For example, one of the first puzzles the game introduced is freeing Yorda from her cage – which seems uncomplicated at first. However, the game’s clever design pushes you to go around the corner, move the camera around the whole place in order to figure out the way to go. With this, the game teaches careful observation of the environment and experimentation to the player. Meanwhile, most modern games offer “puzzles” that are nothing more than hitting a couple of glowing switches or pushing some objects into place at very lenient time intervals. Puzzles are meant to be challenging, not just a matter of efficient grunt work.
2- Another reason for Ico’s charm is the design from both an audiovisual as well as mechanical perspective; Fumito Ueda, the director behind this game and Shadow of the Colossus had stated that he was inspired by the Legend of Zelda series, and it takes notes from Nintendo’s iconic series in all the right ways: Despite being a somewhat dark tale, Ico offers a contrasting musical score even down to when saving progress in the game. The melancholic soundtrack acts as a relief for the player, a reward for beating the challenging puzzles and trumping the adrenaline-fueled chase from the evil shadows trying to steal Yorda to end her to the dark realm. Such a cohesive ying-yang of design is nothing short of pure ART.
And speaking of art, the game is a looker too despite some dated visuals; from the serene green fields in select areas, the sunrays flitting into the mysterious ruins whose every nook and cranny begs to be explored – the visual design works in tandem with the singing birds, as Ico holds Yorda’s hand throughout their journey to evade to relentless shadow monsters. Regardless of one’s opinion of Ico, it deserves applause for being able to induce calm and anxiety within a matter of moments.
3- The final reason is the story. The game starts with an introduction to Ico, a boy with horns who is locked inside a coffin, ready to be sacrificed by a group of warriors for being a “bad omen” – but, he manages to escape thanks to a fortunate tremor that frees him from his makeshift deathbed, and the story begins from there as he comes across the caged princess Yorda. Even after the credits roll, some players might be confused, wondering what actually happened in the game, due to the game’s subtle approach to storytelling.
As mentioned before, this is a cult classic and lore crazed fans are still discovering new things such as never seen before symbols. Most old games were designed that way – to invest the player into the game’s world and offer them a delicious trail of breadcrumbs to follow, discover and discuss with fellow fans. What I’m trying to make clear is this – if games spoonfeed everything, piece by piece, is it really worthy of being called “masterpiece” in an INTERACTIVE medium where environmental storytelling is key? Is it really necessary to explain everything from A to Z? In my opinion, no, sometimes you have to leave stuff for fans to figure out in their own way because that’s how you earn the player’s trust – by respecting their intelligence and skill, and rewarding them handsomely on top of that.
2. Okami – A Renaissance Against Realism:
This Clover Studio’s swansong for the PlayStation 2 successfully proved that even simple yet masterfully crafted cel-shaded graphics can achieve delightful levels of visual appeal; the game truly feels like an ancient Feudal Japanese mythological story due to the mesmerizing Sumi-E water painting art style. The world felt like a canvas in itself with how the mountains are drawn, the people, the flow of the wind & water – every detail in the game was taken care of to make it a magnum opus that pushed cel-shaded graphics to a whole new level of superiority. Surprisingly, the game still holds up to this day, and it even received a number of remasters on major platforms including current-gen devices (PS4, XB1, Switch) and also PC.
For example, the way our wolf protagonist, Sun Goddess Amaterasu can manipulate space using the Celestial Brush by simply drawing minimal geometric patterns on the screen (as a gameplay mechanic), the blossom trees that steal your gaze when encountering them for the first time and countless other breathtaking aspects of the game add an unparalleled level of immersion as well as a sense of wonder. In addition to that, Okami’s unique mechanic also re-births dead trees by drawing a circle on them, in particular, makes the cities you visited previously look more beautiful than the first time you visited them – this only reiterates the game’s focus on protecting and cherishing nature’s wonders.
The game also boasts a heartfelt story about restoring purity to a once-peaceful ancient land and wonderfully written characters like the annoying but cute Issun or Sakura: the peach bosomed blossom Goddess. The charming score that the player could listen to while running around Nippon’s dreamlike landscapes was just the cherry on top – a prime example being North Ryoshima Coast (my favourite part in the game).
Finally, to not talk about the dungeons would be a huge missed opportunity. Akin to its inspiration, Legend Of Zelda, Okami also encourages the player to tackle handcrafted areas teeming with puzzles and challenges that test the player’s ingenuity, often using the Celestial Brush. This marvel mechanic is used both outside and during combat. The latter situations arise when puzzle-solving: like you can zip towards magical floating flowers by drawing a line from Ammy towards the object, and this summons a vine that hook shots the primordial doggo to the top of the flower. The combat is fast-paced hack & slash action, allowing full use of the Brush (like drawing a circle with a small line in its circumference to create a bomb that explodes when enemies get close to it) plus Ammy’s own arsenal of weapons (categorized into three types: Mirrors with balanced attack and speed, heavy-&-heavy-hitting Glaives and quick-bit-weak Beads) with combo-based attacks and dodging against a variety of enemies straight out of traditional Japanese myths (like the tengu – humanoid crow demons). Of course, there are insanely impressive boss fights too that make great use of all the systems at hand. For each Celestial Brush power the player finds, it expands the player’s ability for experimentation and exploration, and as such manages to remain fresh throughout its 30+ hour campaign.
In conclusion, Okami succeeds with flying colors at everything it does – it’s a unique gem that’ll live in gamers’ hearts for ages. The ex-Platinum Games’ team that worked on this masterpiece deserves more than just a simple round of applause for the beautiful and engaging world of Nippon they’ve so carefully built. Newcomers who do find the game intriguing enough to be attracted to it will undoubtedly have the time of their lives – after all, Okami is an easy contender for one of the best video games in existence.
3. Journey: Minimalistic Yet Immersive
I saw this game back in 2012, a big year with many heavy hitters like Darksiders 2, Far Cry 3, Borderlands 2, Dishonest and so on… but there weren’t many games that could be considered “ART”.
Journey tells the tale of a nameless traveler who must reach the summit of a mountain. His journey wouldn’t be that facile, as it is filled with hardship and determination. However, this isn’t the main reason why Journey is worthy of being displayed in an art museum. The first reason is the gameplay. For starters, it’s honestly pretty simplified. Yet it’s this simplicity that elevates the game to the next level. Like, the way how the player jumps from a platform to another one using their glowing scarf is quite unique, and let us not forget the glide ability as well.
In most video games the UI often indicates how much magic or health the player has; meanwhile in Journey, a glowing light from the player’s scarf indicates the amount of power left for jumping – something reminiscent of Dead Space’s health bar on Isaac’s back as a blue tube. In addition, pressing a button allows the nameless traveller to speak using musical notes and summon cloth creatures to aid the player with a fearless leap. Journey also uses charming and instrumental music capable of easily luring the player into this calm world that seems to hide more than it let’s on.
But the core of Journey lies within its environment that truly coaxes the player in. The scintillating sand in the sunlight which follows the traveller with each footstep they make while listening to the calming music playing in the background, the weathered monuments rising out of the sand – each moment in the game feels like a painting accurately crafted and taken care of. All these details will make every person who experiences the game feel happy and calm. That feeling alone makes Journey the best game of 2012 in my opinion for simplicity and how the developer “Thatgamecompany” handled the game.
For example, unlike other online games where the players meet others and chat using human language, in Journey, you’ll come across other players but won’t be able to interact with them using conventional languages. This is where Journey glows with genuine ideas, you chat with other players using musical notes. These players will accompany you for a while until everyone goes their separate ways. Isn’t it a magnificent idea?
Upon finishing the game, some players may feel total despair as to why such a game has to end. This is one of those games that was well-done and nicely made by a very small developer. However, seeing how gaming is evolving into something else, something more of a zombie apocalypse in a creative ‘fallout’, it seems a considerable amount of players missed the opportunity to play these titles, or were turned off by them because they had something new or different OOOOOR MAYYYBEEE it was just “MUHHHHH GRAFIX” (in other words, game being wrongly judged on its visual aesthetic). Thankfully, the game is now on PC which will hopefully attract more players and make the game known to a larger audience.
In the end, despite being flooded with AAA games and other mainstream titles that heavily focus on realism, graphics, frames.. etc, sometimes it is good to know that there are other developers willing to take risks in order to create something different, something iconic. Although sales may disappoint, the games will stay forever in our hearts.
Thank you for reading!
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