In Decadent, we explore two games united by a common theme and separated by time—specifically, by a decade or so.
What makes someone the hero of a video game? Yes, that’s a pretty vague and potentially obvious question, but think about it for a second. In nearly every single game, I bet the answer boils down to something like, “Well, I started playing as this person, so they’re the hero…I guess?”
The earliest character-driven games tested heroes’ mettle with the pursuit of a big rescue. Mario was rescuing Princess Peach. Link was rescuing Princess Zelda. Samus was rescuing Princess Metroid. Thus we put these pixels on a pedestal, because the most selfless thing a person can do, digitally or otherwise, is put the needs of another before their own.
Ico (released in 2001) and Amy (2011) start at the end, after the actual rescue. In Ico, a boy with horns—that would be Ico—is born into a village that routinely brings such children to an ancient temple, locks them away in a tomb, and leaves them for dead. He escapes and finds a pale girl trapped in a cage who speaks a different language, and he decides in that moment that he’s going to guide her to safety.
Ico is the rescuer in his game, but Amy is named after the one in need of rescue—a troubled, silent little girl with seemingly magical abilities. Lana, her caretaker, is escorting Amy on a train when it breaks down due to ZOMBIE APOCALYPSE. At this point, Lana doesn’t make a decision so much as she takes it as a given that she’ll escort Amy past zombie hordes and evil military personnel.
And in both cases, the proof of the hero’s mettle, the victims themselves, come along for the ride—a human trophy you have to consistently and repeatedly earn.
In Ico, affinity is a residue of time. You know nothing about the girl, Yorda, yet you have sworn to protect her. The game tests your devotion at every turn. Your wispy companion is attacked by shadow enemies that manifest as giant birds and tiny, pesky spiders. They appear out of holes in the ground, making their way towards Yorda as she runs away in fear, often not fast enough. Their goal is to pick her up and drag her into the abyss; your goal, then, is to beat them back with a wooden plank until they vanish, occasionally grasping at Yorda’s hand as she’s half-submerged.
Because the game includes extremely little talking and a quiet, atmospheric sound design, there’s a real sense of urgency when the enemies arrive. The background noise changes, now occupied by a high-pitched whine that sounds like a menacing, sentient dryer. There’s the change of pace, too. Ico is a game that mostly revolves around solving puzzles—pushing blocks in just the right configuration for Yorda to climb, for instance, or blowing up part of a bridge so Yorda can cross a chasm. When the enemies appear, all other concerns are abandoned, and Ico has to run as fast as he can toward the danger. Because the puzzles often require Ico to venture away from Yorda and climb where she can’t go, there’s often a terrifying distance to close in these moments. There are plenty of times that Ico will slowly work his way around a room, climbing chains and swinging onto high towers—only to have the darkness come and force him to retrace his steps in a hurry.
Ico’s surprise factor makes me incredibly protective of Yorda. Part of that is inherent in the game’s structure: Yorda won’t move too quickly unless you call for her or actually grab her hand and lead her forward (the preferred option given Yorda’s tendency to wander). It’s not long before enemy battles include one-handed plank swashbuckling as you grip Yorda’s digits, praying nothing sneaks up behind you. Even when the all-clear comes—the silence of an abandoned castle, peppered with the occasional chirp of a faraway bird—I still feel like I’m on my toes.
Much like the daemons in the His Dark Materials book series, being too far from Yorda creates a tremendous amount of anxiety; if you can’t see her, the literal darkness might envelop her. Nine times out of 10, everything is fine, and you’re only gone for a few seconds. But that one time, when you’re gone just a smidge too long, and the monsters return, your protective instincts kick in tenfold. The most effective way to control behavior, it turns out, is to randomly punish you.
About a third of the way through the game, Ico and Yorda spot the castle’s huge swinging doors—one of the only times Yorda rushes ahead without fear. As quickly as you see them, though, they begin to close, and Ico shouts at Yorda to rush ahead. She trips, Ico picks her up, and by then it’s too late. And just when that sinks in, an evil queen appears, warning Ico not to interfere with the affairs of her only daughter. Because much like Ico’s not the first horny boy (heh) to be locked away, neither is Yorda likely the first daughter to be sacrificed to the darkness. Speaking to him in his own language, the queen could not be more clear. When she leaves, however, Yorda speaks to Ico in a language he does not understand, an audible sadness in her words.
Ico doesn’t know the whole story. Maybe he’s intruding on a ritual that is truly none of his business. Maybe he’s about to forever alter history for the worse. (Cabin In The Woods, anyone?) Maybe the queen’s full of it. But it’s in this moment that you realize it doesn’t matter. You started by rescuing a damsel in distress. You’ve led her by the arm, sometimes against her will, through perils that are surely not going to end any time soon. You’re armed with a piece of wood in an Alcatraz-style prison full of brutish Smoke Monsters. You press on.
There is no such choice, even implied, in last year’s Amy. Lana begins the game possessing a familiarity with Amy that’s never quite explained. She’s a caretaker of sorts who picked Amy up from a hospital where they were running tests, and all we know (thanks to an opening cutscene) is that Lana will stop at nothing to make sure Amy doesn’t have to go back.
Boom! There’s an explosion at the hospital, seen off in the distance. The train Lana and Amy are riding derails. And everyone has been turned into a zombie. Well, they act like zombies, but even that is never fully explained. At this point, the game’s summed up with, “Woman takes little girl to a place while avoiding things, because why not?”
Lana needs Amy’s help to move forward in the game, and the physical nuts and bolts of their interplay, unlike their personal connection, is explained to death. As Lana makes her way through abandoned warehouses and trainyards, she occasionally asks Amy to shuffle through vents and push buttons—illuminated with big, colorful Icons that depict Amy’s face. When Amy does what she’s told, Lana’s ready with words of encouragement. The phrase “You did it, Amy! I’m so proud of you!” gets repeated until it no longer holds meaning.
There are times you have to ditch Amy all together, stashing her in a locker or leaving her in a room as you plow forward, bashing zombies with your wooden board (again with the makeshift weaponry) and very slowly dragging shopping carts out of the way, clearing a path for the terrified Amy.
It’s here that Amy diverges from Ico in two significant ways, both of which are fundamental flaws in Amy’s hero-creation logic. The first is that Amy, like Yorda, has a sort of magic about her, but in Amy’s case, it can be conscientiously harnessed by the player. Occasionally there are weird symbols on the wall, and after Amy copies them on her iPad-like doohickey, she gains a new ability. One is a bolt of power that pushes unsuspecting enemies away, usually into electricity mines; another is a cone of silence that allows Lana to break glass without attracting unwanted attention. This means that if Amy were to be left alone for too long and wander off (her favorite activity!), she’s not entirely defenseless.
Then again, that wouldn’t matter anyway, because the second major difference is that Amy’s not the target; Lana is. If a room full of zombies attacks the pair and separates them, Amy might be completely left alone. Amy never seems to be in much danger, except indirectly: The ghouls might harm Lana and keep her from helping Amy. But nobody seems to care about Amy, anyway, so why is this a problem? Still the game maintains the pretense. There could be a jawless monster clawing at Lana’s face, and she’d still cry, “Watch out, Amy!”
That’s the cosmic disconnect in Amy. The game sets itself up so that Amy doesn’t need a hero, yet Lana insists on being one. Like if Batman showed up long after the Joker was apprehended. In fact, as the game progresses, Lana becomes more of the victim. She’s stricken with the illness everyone else has, and being in the presence of Amy mysteriously heals her (but nobody else, for whatever reason). Amy’s always right there—a talisman of sorts to remember why you’re playing. In Ico, the hero rushes back to his damsel in distress for valor; in Amy, the “hero” rushes to the damsel’s side out of a misplaced sense of duty. Where Yorda comes off as a full-fledged being, Amy is a talisman—a human MacGuffin that supposedly gives you a reason to keep playing.