Rikumo Book Club: Miyuki Miyabe's "Ico"


Every so often we’ll share a few thoughts on the books we’re reading outside the office. For the first time in the history of Rikumo Book Club, we bring you one story in two forms: a cult video game and its novelization by one of the most important contemporary Japanese writers.

In 2001, a new kind of video game entered the market. Set in a stark, Dali-esque castle, its protagonists spent most of their time running around various halls, holding hands and solving puzzles. It wasn’t a commercial success, nor did it change the landscape of gaming significantly at the time. Today, however, Ico is considered a work of art, critically acclaimed among gamers and designers for its art and story elements. Over the years Ico has been called “a masterpiece” by filmmaker Guillermo del Toro and become a personal favorite of Johnny Greenwood’s, before catching the attention of author Miyuki Miyabe.

Miyabe was already well known as a talented writer before she began working on the novelization of Ico. Her mystery novel “All She Was Worth” and children’s book “Brave Story” had made her a household name in Japan, and as she turned towards her latest project, her biggest challenge was “finding my own path through the tale.” Ico: Castle in the Mist follows the story of Ico, a horned boy selected by fate to be a sacrifice to the Castle in the Mist. On the eve of his fourteenth birthday, Ico is taken to the castle by a delegation of warriors from his village, locked into a sarcophagus and abandoned to the mercy of the master. When the sarcophagus unexpectedly collapses, Ico sees a chance to break free and return home- something no Sacrifice has ever done before. As he explores the castle, Ico meets a girl named Yorna, who is trapped inside a large cage. After setting her free, they resolve to escape the terrible place together- but first they must defeat the master of the castle and learn some terrible secrets about his village and Yorda’s past.

Flying humanoid faces, captive princesses, and the triumph of good over evil- Ico: Castle in the Mist has all the elements of a fantastical story set within a world that demands to be explored. For Miyabe, the biggest challenge is translating that choose-your-own-adventure game model of into a static, immutable story.  In the game, the player controls Ico as he explores the castle, solves puzzles and assists Yorda across obstacles. In the novel, readers can’t do much more  than sit and enjoy the ride, though we are rewarded with a rich and intricate backstory for our patience. We learn that Ico had a family once, that Yorda had a life before the cage, and that the master of the Castle may not be as what they seem. These details add richness to the quest model, showing us that a quest is not the adventure but the meaning behind it.

Ico was designed and directed by creator Fumito Ueda, who wanted to create a minimalist game around the concept of “boy meets girl”. During the game’s developing stages, Ueda created Ico by “subtracting design”, removing elements from the game which were unrealistic or distracting from the main quest of the game. This is why there are no other foes aside from the castle’s master to defeat throughout the game. Ico is an example of a minimalist game, where there is one goal to accomplish, limited interruptions, and total focus on the task ahead. Even the language is powerfully minimalist: instead of speaking, Ico and Yorda hold hands, forming an emotional bond beyond words. Likewise, Miyabe’s writing is cinematic in its simplicity, telling you exactly what is going on without embellishment. Though some subplots do come up- a friend of Ico’s runs away to the Castle in the Mist in the first few chapters- the plot is squarely centered on Ico’s mission, and any subplots are carefully picked to advance Ico’s plot forward. Instead, a large is placed on the architecture of the Castle in the Mist- so much so that the castle almost becomes a character itself. These choices let the important parts of the story shine, adding dimension and depth to an adventure-driven story.

There’s one last detail to cover, and, like all details within this story, it’s an important one. The cover of the game, painted by Ueda himself, was inspired by Giorgio de Chirico’s “The Nostalgia of the Infinite.” De Chirico was an Italian painter known for his stark, dreamlike landscapes, whose “surrealist work, according to Ueda, “matched the allegorical world of "Ico". It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that Ico’s name corresponds to the last three letters of de Chirico’s.