Friday, 1 June 2012

Ico: Castle in the Mist by Miyuki Miyabe

Last year's release of Ico & Shadow of the Colossus HD on PlayStation 3 turned the spotlight back on to Fumito Ueda's classic titles, illuminating them in glorious high definition and banishing the shadowy rough edges which marred the games upon their original release.

Around the same time as the double pack edged its way on to store shelves, Miyuki Miyabe's long-awaited book based on Ico finally arrived on Western shores. Although released in Japan seven years previously, the novel was translated into English by author Alexander O. Smith, giving Western readers their first opportunity to delve into this wonderful tale of rejection, hope, bravery and triumph.

Miyabe was given free reign by Ico's creators to interpret the story in her own way and she's done a fabulous job, making Castle in the Mist an essential companion to young Ico's heroic adventure.

The story focuses on Ico, a boy born with horns who is destined to be sacrificed to a dark queen who resides in a haunting castle as soon as he turns 13 years of age. Within moments of his imprisonment, Ico finds himself free of his shackles and soon discovers Yorda - a mysterious girl who has also been locked up in the castle.

Constantly stalked by shadowy creatures - who are intent on snatching Yorda and taking her back to their nocturnal world - the two make their way through stone-lined corridors, expansive courtyards and sun-drenched plateaus in the hope of eventually escaping the hulking stone citadel and its powerful queen.

Rather than solely focus on Ico and Yorda's plight from the game - which could have turned into a rather repetitive and stale yarn in novel form - Miyabe has given much of the book over to the pair's background stories, which manages to fit snuggly with the digital product.

Ico's young life in Toksa village makes up the opening segment of the book, with family and his best friend Toto playing important parts in his life before he is carted off to the castle by a masked priest.

Incidental details from the game - such as the tunic Ico wears - are given special meaning, with Miyabe delving deep into her imagination to bring to light fresh ideas and twists which will delight fans of Fumito Ueda's debut offering.

The book gets a little dry when explaining Ico's initial journey and subsequent imprisonment but just when you think Miyabe is playing it safe by sticking too closely to the familiar confines of the game, she allows her creativity to shine in the book's spellbinding third chapter.

Taking up almost a third of the 370 page novel, we get a wonderful insight into Yorda's troubled past, the tempestuous relationship with her mother, joyful memories of her father and details of the castle, its people and its landmarks. Brave knights come and go, handmaidens toil with daily duties, great warriors mysteriously disappear and an ever inquisitive Yorda begins to wonder why no one ever seems to leave the castle.

The queen plays a central part to the story and we see the devastating results of her fearsome power, which is only ever hinted at in the game. Whisps of darkness build and swirl out of control with tumultuous results as the queen’s hideous persona is unleashed. Just why she has done this and what she hopes to gain are detailed within the pages and her brooding evil intentions add another remarkable layer to what is already a gripping novel.

All of these experiences culminate and explain why Yorda - who was once a bright girl with a zest for life - becomes the melancholic waif-like figure young Ico finds on his travels.

It's beautifully written with Miyabe making delightful connections with the game which encourages the player to grab a controller and explore Ico with renewed curiosity.

Miyabe successfully manages to keep the game's haunting atmosphere intact, despite meandering away from the core subject matter, while Smith's translation is meticulous making for a real page turner.

Miyabe's passion for the videogame is clear but aside from the foundations laid out by Fumito Ueda and his team, it would appear she has taken influences from other sources to weave her fascinating tale. Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast trilogy springs to mind in the way she describes the stronghold's grandiose architecture, the rituals, and bustling life in the castle before the terrible events which left the citadel empty, save for Yorda, the queen and its shadowy inhabitants.

There are also nods to the work of C.S. Lewis here, particularly the Narnia novel The Magician's Nephew. There are direct parallels here with the desolate city of Charn from that book, where a malevolent queen has laid waste to a city and its people by turning them to stone.

Although the novel doesn't follow the game exactly, there are some minor spoilers woven into the text, so it's best to read Castle in the Mist after completing the game, while those looking for a link between Ico and Shadow of the Colossus might be disappointed to learn that a connection never materialises.

Ico: Castle in the Mist is a wonderful novel which avoids the traps that so many games-related books usually fall into. It's well written, entertaining, detailed and actually enhances the game by fleshing out the characters and the world they inhabit.

After tearing through the novel, you'll look upon Ico from a fresh new angle and gaze at the castle in the mist with new found wonder.

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