a close examination of fumito ueda's creations

Wednesday, September 10, 2008


"...If it's even possible to continue to exist in these sealed lands...
one day, perhaps you will make atonement for what you've done."

"Wait," echoes a voice. Ico whips around, finding the Queen sitting upon the throne that was empty just a moment before. He approaches her seat.

"What did you do to her?" he questions the Queen.

"Silence, boy. You're too late. My body has become too old and won't last much longer. But Yorda is going to grant me the power to be resurrected," she explains calmly to the boy. "To be my spiritual vessel is the fulfillment of her destiny! The next time her body wakes, Yorda will be no more."

"Now put down the sword and leave," she warns. "That is what she would want you to do." Ico remains silent, lowering his head and considering her words; but mustering a tremendous courage, he steps forward and attacks.

To even begin to form an understanding of ICO's ending, we have to examine every detail closely. The number of possibilities is astounding, and it's impossible to say which details are deliberate and crucial and which ones should be seen as inconsequential. Here, we'll look at two of the possible interpretations of this ending, which drastically differ from each other.

The first one makes use of some excellent symbolism. We watch as both of Ico's horns are snapped off forcefully, the second horn doing so once our enemy, who may be the resentful resurrector, has finally been destroyed after what may be centuries or millennia. Just as the source of this dark power is ended, its curse is ended, too, symbolized by the removal of Ico's horns.

We could easily say that Emon's utterance at the end of Shadow of the Colossus (provided above) is a foreshadowing of the events in ICO. Maybe even a prophecy, if that's how we see Emon's character. If so, that would mean that Wander's actions have been reversed -- atoned for in some manner.

But how can we link Wander's actions to Ico's? Aren't they two different people? It isn't really Wander who is atoning for his sins, but it's his descendant who is forced to do so. One could argue that it's a testament to how much greater Ico's strength of character is compared to his ancestor, that he had the strength to bear the burden of what was right when he was needed, when his heroic ancestor did not. By this idea, it was never Wander who was going to reverse the rise of Dormin -- he had his chance -- and instead the responsibility fell down the long line of horned boys until one finally had the vigor and fortune to shoulder it.

One compelling idea, however, is that each horned boy is a reincarnation of Wander himself, who is cursed to be born again and again until he atones for his sins. Of course, this doesn't necessarily mean he'd look the same each time, or even that he'd remember anything of his previous lives, but perhaps his essence, life force, or spirit (whatever you want to call it) is committed to a new body each time. So every generation, he is given another chance to do what's right, to undo his actions in Shadow of the Colossus, and in ICO he finally does this, despite the odds, and thanks in part to chance.

Under this assumption, we see many similarities between the two stories. We have two heroes tasked with saving a girl, both of whom may become Dormin's future vessel. But where one hero selfishly endangers the world to save the girl to satisfy his own emotions, the other saves her because it is right.

Another interesting thought that arises from this approach is that the Queen deliberately had the boys sacrificed before they were seemingly old enough to muster the courage to battle her and end the curse. This method seems to work, killing the boys before their righteousness could be tested, until by a stroke of chance, the rumbling of the castle sets one of the boys free.

The value of the reincarnation idea is that it helps us link Wander's actions to Ico's, to fulfill the theme of atonement a little more wholly. But let's set this aside for a moment.

Let us look at the final moments through this general interpretation. If Dormin is indeed finally undone, then we are looking at the finality of this story arch. Whatever the nature of the beach sequence, whether it's heaven, a dream, or reality, doesn't really matter much in itself. Mistakes have been corrected, balance has been restored to the natural order, and our characters are free from the tyrannous rule of Dormin and the fates that have been imposed upon them.

It could be that fortune has favored Ico and Yorda one more time and brought them to safety. It could be that Ico is dreaming of a beach he knew from his childhood (possibly on the western coast of the Forbidden Lands). It could be that neither child survived, but at least they died on their own terms: helping one another. And it could be that these children have reached some sort of heaven -- a reward for, or a natural consequence of, their selfless actions for each other -- for simple human decency. The point is that someone has paid penance for the mistakes of so many years before.

That is one interpretation, but it also disregards some details that may take us in a different direction.

The second major interpretation is not so optimistic as the first, and we may not even want to see it. It could dramatically change our opinions of some characters.

Watching as Yorda carries Ico out of the castle, we may take for granted that she has awakened, and instead may find ourselves more interested in the immediate danger than the seemingly irrelevant circumstances of how Yorda is revived.

Let's look at Yorda in this moment and scrutinize her appearance. Her stone body is suddenly shrouded in that familiar black essence, and she stands. Where have we seen a similar transformation before? We've seen it at the end of Shadow of the Colossus, as Wander dies and is finally possessed by Dormin; his body is covered in shadow, and possessed, he comes to life again. If these parallels mean anything, this could be an indication of something frightening.

Has Dormin won again?

Let's ask ourselves: was Ico's escape from his tomb possibly contrived? Was he maybe meant to use the sword to slay the spirits of the horned boys? Was it Dormin's plan to have Ico destroy the Queen's body, so that he'd be free to seize the body of Yorda? Has Yorda's white skin and dead-gray hair been an indication that she's been dead this entire time, possessed by a small fragment of Dormin that allowed her to be reanimated and to open the doors of the castle? What if this was all one big ritual?

Indeed, these can be scary thoughts, because they reject all of our previous assumptions, and may mean that our beloved Yorda was actually a device of Dormin's, used to guide Ico to the sword, then to the sacrificial chamber, and then finally to the throneroom, where the ritual was completed. Perhaps this is the reason the Queen does little to stop Ico and Yorda from proceeding to the castle's exit, until at an opportune moment, where she easily impedes their progress. Maybe even the shadow creatures were merely sent to strengthen Ico's bond to Yorda.

Looking at the things the Queen says to Ico before their battle, perhaps we can see that she doesn't say them in arrogance, but in confidence. When she says, "The next time her body wakes, Yorda will be no more," maybe she says it, knowing that in a moment she will allow Ico to slay her.

It's possible that Dormin awakens again, renewed inside Yorda. Judging by the trends we've observed in Shadow of the Colossus, it may even be likely. But why does she carry Ico to safety? Well, it may not be the benevolence offered in the previous interpretation. It may be assuring Dormin's future, once again, just as he orchestrated the survival of Wander centuries before. Once Yorda's body decays, he may need another collection of horned boys to repeat the process. In truth, this might not even be the first time this ritual has taken place.

Perhaps she sends Ico to safety so that there's a living witness who will testify to the supposed fate of the Queen, just as Dormin wanted Emon to believe he was destroyed in Shadow of the Colossus. Maybe Dormin's reign is inevitably cyclical, as his resources -- his strongholds, his bodies -- tend to crumble after his body temporarily leaves the mortal realm and searches for another body. We see this with the colossi, as they undergo rapid decay and erosion that perhaps they would have experienced normally, without Dormin's enduring presence.

So perhaps Yorda, possessed by Dormin, washes ashore near Ico, all as part of the plan. From here, maybe she plans to re-establish her rule once again, ensuring that more horned boys are born, if even Ico has anything to do with that. Maybe even the shattering of Ico's horns were a deliberate device on Dormin's part to deceive. Has Dormin slipped under the radar twice now?

Difficult to say, but if these things are true, this was all another step in Dormin's plans to persist through his adverse circumstances.


If the first interpretation is true, then it's likely that the third game, if related at all, will take place before ICO at some point, maybe even before Shadow of the Colossus. If Dormin has indeed been destroyed, then all that can really be done is to go back and tell another chapter about his rise or the nature of his existence, or possibly even the story between the two games.

If the second version is true, then there could be another story that takes place chronologically after ICO, because it would seem that Dormin's story has not ended yet.

Of course, there are paths in-between these polar ideas, and we're free to choose which path we'll take. But there is one choice that must be made: has Dormin been destroyed or not?

Perhaps the third game will tell us, or perhaps it will pull us further down into the mystery. Whatever Ueda gives us in the future, I'm sure will be more than simply what we as gamers want, but rather what we need in order to behold a beautiful reality. Already, with but one image, he has created a sense of wonderment for his next game. Regardless, we should hope that these secrets are never truly told to us; because the mystery they hold is what intrigues us and keeps our eyes scouring over for answers. That infinite mystery is what contains all beauty, defies all realities, and is what we must pursue endlessly and tirelessly.



Red, Negativity said...

How are there no comments? This is an incredibly intricate and well thought out work. Congratulations on actually reaching solid conclusions. Fantastic. I cannot wait for part 3.

Jadakra said...

Nice analyssis man.

Geordie said...


Unknown said...

Wow, just... wow. I have recently finished playing SotC and have been searching, partly for fun and partly to gain a better understanding of the story, for an essay that could piece together the fragments left behind by the genius that is Fumito Ueda. Your theories are brilliantly clever, and have an astounding amount of thought and evidence collected from the games to uphold themselves. Like the writings of Shakespeare, one cannot view nor appreciate the true beauty of the writing until one has fully embraced the intricacies, details, and mysteries of the story. Your observations and revelation of both games reflect a similar nature. While many recognize the throne that SotC and Ico sit upon, few will ever come to understand the majesty that silently links the two games in a bond of sheer creativity, wonder, and awe. Thank you for having the eyes to see that. I will be looking forward to your thoughts on the upcoming addition of The Last Guardian (and if you have the time, I highly suggest you read this article on SotC by Nick Fortugno titled "Losing your Grip") http://press.etc.cmu.edu/content/shadow-colossus-nick-fortugno

Unknown said...

With the remake of Shadow for the PS4, I started reading blogs again and discovered this amazing theory. Thanks.

Unknown said...

Looking back at the Queen's lack of serious involvement to get back Yorda it makes sense that she was just humoring those kids. Yorda knew herself she couldn't survive without power.The shadows at the end also didn't put up a resistance and the Queen chose to reveal herself only when Ico turned to leave the throne room. Why wasn't she waiting for him to arrive because I'm sure she knew he wasn't dead. Ico was meant to survive to complete the ritual.