The Bossy Camera in Ico
In film, you see through the camera’s eye. You’re influenced by how the camera moves, how it’s positioned, and how it transitions between scenes. It tells you what to focus on, how to focus on it, and how long to focus on it.
As with many games, the same is true of the camera in Ico.
The camera is fixed, following the player as it pleases. For instance, as you travel down one bridge, the camera may see fit to back off and give a wide view; on another bridge, the camera may follow closely from the side. For any given scenario, the camera only provides one way of seeing it.
The camera uses this to show you solutions to puzzles.
For instance, here, the camera focuses on windmill blades as they pass.
It may seem impossible to continue from here, as the only way to progress is further up the windmill. Until this point, you’ve had ledges to climb up the windmill, but it looks like there’s nothing else you can climb here.
The camera takes this opportunity to show you one last thing you can use to ascend: the windmill blades. From here, you’ve got to make a brave leap onto the wooden beam of a blade and ride it up to the top.
Standing in the position depicted above, you might ask where to go next. The camera answers silently by pointing itself at the windmill’s blades.
Once you realize the camera always highlights your next move, Ico is a cinch. It’s almost as if the camera is a divine force, giving the main character, Ico, some nameless inspiration to look this way or that.
Interestingly enough, if you go off the beaten path, there are sometimes tons of ledges you can climb, but there’s never any reason to do so. Without the camera’s direction, you might end up exploring a number of possibilities that lead nowhere.
For instance, behind the windmill is a wall with ledges that you can climb over a deep pit. The ledges don’t reach the other side, making them dead ends. The camera never draws your attention to those ledges, though, instead favoring the windmill.
When compared to film, the relationship between Ico and his camera is striking. In film, characters act independently of the camera. No one is aware of being watched, and no one is aware of how the camera portrays him or her.
In Ico, the character Ico is your avatar. He’s your method for interacting with the game’s world. The camera, on the other hand, is more or less out of your control. You’re given an opportunity that film characters don’t have: you can react to the camera that views you.
In theory, this might sound like a gesture of freedom. Film characters don’t truly know what’s going on, while Ico has the opportunity to adapt to the fact that he’s being watched.
In practice, it’s a gesture of fatalism. There’s only one way through the game, and the camera knows it. It won’t change its position for anything. You can do whatever you want, but eventually, you’ll have to listen to the camera if you want to move forward. Whenever you do progress, you’re just following the camera.
If the game Ico had a freely controllable camera, there might be a larger sense of independence and exploration.
Taking the camera out of the player’s control not only gives Ico the ability to help out by keeping the player’s focus on a puzzle’s solution, it also takes away a certain amount of power from the player.
On a side note: Shadow of the Colossus is the counterpoint to Ico in many ways, and the camera is no exception. You can rotate the camera freely around Wander at any point, and while the camera can focus on a colossus, it’s entirely under your control—a function mapped to the L1 button.
Greg Livingston claims that Ico and Shadow of the Colossus have cameras with opposite styles; the former is fixed while the latter is free. What significance does this have for their stories?