a close examination of fumito ueda's creations

Tuesday, September 9, 2008


"They tried to sacrifice me because I have horns."

"Do not be angry with us," a masked man says as he locks a horned boy inside a stone sarcophagus. "This is for the good of the village."

This boy, Ico, has no knowledge of the things that occurred near here centuries ago. Maybe he's heard stories and legends, but they do not justify why he, of all people, has horns, or why this must be his fate. It is simply a terrible truth, and part of the hand he has been dealt. It is said that horned children bring a curse upon their villages, and so they are duly sacrificed in an island castle to a dark matron.

The horned boys are not sacrificed immediately, however. They are only brought to the castle once they come of age, once their horns have grown to their full size.

These men who bring him here wear horned helmets. This could be ceremonial or rather typical -- but either way, horns have clearly become a symbol of sorts to these people. A symbol of fear? Of holiness? We cannot say, but their enigmatic Queen seems to revere these iconic features, and it's possible she herself organized the tradition of sacrificing horned boys.

For now, our focus is this dark Queen. Does she look familiar to us? Her shadowy essence certainly should, as well as her ability to use others as vessels. Even the architecture of her castle bears striking resemblances to what we've seen in Shadow of the Colossus. It's easy to assume these resemblances are purely aesthetic, but for the sake of intrigue and speculation, let's be open to the idea that they have some functional purpose, or at least implicitly indicate the preferences of someone within the narrative. Still, I will discuss the architectural similarities some other time.

Without Shadow of the Colossus, the Queen seems unique, and her aesthetic and functional aspects seem rather inconsequential, granted only for the purposes of a dark fairy tale. We don't really question the source of her power, we just assume it's a natural aspect of ICO's reality. A meaningful pattern hasn't yet been established. But as ICO's successor comes along and reveals Dormin, the Queen's shadowy nature is brought under the microscope.

The deliberate use of the shadow-like antagonist implies that this is another connection between the two games. Ueda could've taken any other visual approach to Dormin, but he specifically uses the same one as in ICO, and he also specifically ties that aesthetic style (and its fictional uses) to the horn motif.

So what are we to do with this implication? While it's still an assumption to suggest that these two antagonists are of the same origin, it's a safe one to make, because it satisfies a need for unity within the story and is supported by a concrete pattern.

Admittedly, it could be that these two antagonists simply share characteristics, but are not of the same origin. One could be a necromantic demon-being while the other is simply a sorceress of sorts, but these ideas don't really fit the clear pattern that we've been shown. That both of these beings represent themselves in this shadowy veil and both have a close relationship to horned boys strongly hints that they do have a direct connection.

So looking back at Shadow of the Colossus, we've hypothesized that Dormin has escaped his colossal prisons through sheer subterfuge, and by the rules of that hypothesis, for him to revive Mono at the end means a shred of his power must still remain within the mortal realm, or else his imprisonment would have meant nothing to begin with.

So now, a fraction of Dormin remains in the world, while the rest of him is sealed away somewhere. But where? Our greatest assumption, based on the Queen's habit of collecting horned boys, is that the essence of Dormin lies in Wander's horned body, and in the horned boys that come later. The two fused together at the end of Shadow of the Colossus, with Dormin's most prominent physical feature -- his horns -- representing his prevailing presence in Wander's body.

An interesting idea, though inconsequential, is that Dormin even chose to physically manifest himself with horns so that he could later identify which children contained his power.

Regardless, we can reasonably guess that Dormin, under the guise of Mono, raises the baby Wander in the Forbidden Lands.

A big subject many disagree on is the nature of the inheritance of the horns. ICO tells us that it happens "once every generation", but many speculations arise from this. It's unclear whether this occurrence is randomized among a certain group of people or if it has a genetic component.

A compelling solution that supports the former is that Dormin, by some metaphysical means, put the curse of his horns on to the descendants of those that entrapped him, eons before. In other words, the horns do not specifically appear in Wander's bloodline, but in the tribe or village that Wander came from, who have presumably prevailed the following centuries, evident in the similar garb characters in both games wear. The only real problem with this interpretation is that the supernatural device by which Dormin spreads this curse doesn't have a concrete basis in accordance with the set of abilities he displays within the story. We're shown Dormin's ability to control the dead, but not his ability to spread curses. Thus, the connection between Wander and the future horned boys is not concrete, though no less plausible than any other solution.

The other side of the coin is that Wander mates with someone, and that the horns do indeed travel through to his blood-related descendants. Many people immediately jump to the conclusion that he must mate with Mono, though this isn't necessarily true at all. While it wouldn't technically be incest (unless Mono was actually Wander's sister or something), it certainly violates the mother-child axioms that most modern cultures have established. Still, many theories of equal plausibility can be formulated, such as that Wander eventually finds a way out of the Forbidden Lands and re-unites with his old tribe or village (since the horned boys apparently prevail in that culture, indicated by Ico's attire), or even that many from his old village migrate to the Forbidden Lands, possibly believing the threat of Dormin to be over. The problem with this approach is that it relies heavily on a relatively complex set of assumed conditions in order to work, making it just as speculative as any other possibility.

Once we've decided which of these possibilities appeals most to our specific suspicions, we must fill in the large gap between the two stories, and our destination is the beginning of ICO.

A condition our theories must meet is that horned boys are sacrificed once every generation, and the incidences seem isolated to Ico's village. While it's possible that the horned boys prevail in many villages, via the bloodline theory or the revenge-curse theory, it doesn't really serve us to build anything on this possibility until it becomes a crucial element. It's just not useful for our current purposes.

Another condition is that the Queen has asserted some sort of dominion over these people. Whether or not she is an actual ruler, or if her influence only serves a ritualistic or religious purpose -- such as the of collecting horned boys -- is up to us, as well as the details of how she came into a position of power. We can speculate that she did it in much the same way as Dormin did when he originally impressed those that came to worship him; that is, probably by displaying some level of supernatural power, creating either fear or awe.

We can imagine a pattern of events stretching over several centuries, where a horned boy is born, raised until puberty, and then brought to be sacrificed at the castle. We can also surmise that this pattern would have continued, had it not been for Ico. But we can also speculate that Ico was to be the last horned boy, at least for awhile, as Yorda seems ripe and the Queen is apparently ready to begin the ritual.

Interestingly, Yorda's fate parallels that of Mono's. She is to be the future vessel of Dormin, just as Mono was. Yorda's origins are unclear: where she was born, to whom she was born, or even if she was born at all, and not a creation of some sort. While the Queen calls Yorda her daughter, this may not be true, and judging by the Queen's decrepit state, it likely isn't. Rather, she calls Yorda her daughter to claim some right to her, or simply to deceive Ico. The option that seems most plausible to me is that Yorda was given to the Queen at some point, likely as a demand.

By the time Ico is brought to the island castle, Mono's body has likely been alive for centuries. Dormin's life-giving power has sustained it this long, but being fragmented, it is not eternal. Her body has deteriorated to the point that it has little physical matter left at all, and so she has created, been awarded, or abducted Yorda to become her new vessel.

The Queen's plans for restoration line up perfectly with Dormin's situation at the end of Shadow of the Colossus. He is divided, but has managed to put himself into a position where he can reunite himself.

Anyway, as expressed before, Ico has, by a stroke of luck, broken the pattern established over the preceding centuries. He escapes the confines of his stone sarcophagus but immediately falls unconscious after his head hits the ground.

Ico has a premonition, finding himself in a vertical room, a path spiraling upwards along the wall. At the top, he finds a shadowy being in a cage, and her black essence drips down into a dirt-filled circular recess at the bottom of the room. Ico is soon apprehended by a similar shadowy creature who pulls him into a dark pit through the wall. The boy awakens in the sacrificial hall where he fell, noticing dozens of coffins like his own lining the wall. Are they also filled with horned boys? He doesn't yet know.

What could this premonition mean? The only decent idea I've come up with is that this dream reveals the fates of both children: perhaps we're seeing that Yorda will become an agent of Dormin's shadow -- his future vessel -- and that Ico will be pulled into -- or reunited with -- Dormin's dark immortal realm, against his own will. To wit: these are their fates unless they fight to change them.

After Ico wakes up and subsequently frees Yorda from the very place he dreamed about, they both set out to help each other escape from their own cursed fates, braving the dangers of the crumbling castle and resisting the Queen's efforts to stop them.

Let's jump to the end. I'm going to summarize it, pointing out key details.

Yorda has been captured, and Ico miraculously escapes death for the second time. He uses this opportunity to make his way back into the castle and face the Queen in order to free Yorda and to escape. After climbing through the underworks of the castle and acquiring a magical sword, Ico finally returns to the sacrificial chamber in which his escape began. Now, however, he finds the stone-turned body of Yorda surrounded by the shadowy souls of horned children. Like a game of tag, they playfully pester Ico, who swings the powerful sword at them, which seems to destroy or banish them. This action activates the inscriptions on their coffins, though what function this serves is unclear.

Having done away with each horned child, Ico uses the sword to enter the Queen's throneroom. Here, he confronts her, and she sends him flying against a wall, snapping off one of his horns. Gathering himself, Ico wages war on her, assaulting her magical barrier until it goes away, and then finally plunging the sword into her heart. Her body disappears with an explosive force, sending Ico flying back against the wall, unconscious, his other horn snapping off in the process.

As the castle begins to crumble, Yorda's stone body awakens, covered in shadow. She enters the throneroom and carries Ico's body back the way he was originally brought in. In the underground harbor, she sets him into a boat and pushes it away to safety, staying there to sink with the castle.

As Ico floats away, the castle collapses -- even the very islands on which it is built. After some unspecified time, he awakens in the boat, beached on some shore. He hops clumsily out of the boat, possibly in pain from his two broken horns. He stands and walks down the beach until he comes across the peaceful body of Yorda. She stirs slightly, and we've reached the end.

What exactly happened here?


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