Those who enjoyed "Myst" for its emphasis on exploration and lack of explicit instruction will thrill to "Ico." After a long, wordless introductory movie about a boy taken to a crumbling, empty castle and imprisoned there, you find yourself as the boy, Ico, suddenly escaped from his cell. What to do? You start by looking around. This game rewards observation and logic far more than rapid hand-eye coordination. Unlike "Myst" it is 3-D, giving you a gods-eye view of Ico and his surroundings. Unlike the usual saucer-eyed, cutesy, whey-faced characters of Japanese-created games, Ico has dark skin and Asian features. With a typically luxuriant touch, his clothes sway when he runs or gets caught in a breeze.
You soon find a pale, ghostly young girl who you must shepherd to freedom. Together you search out the escape route while inky minions of a dark queen try to steal the girl away from you. But mostly it's about architecture. Cavernous rooms and wide spaces must be crossed by circuitous routes which reward exploration. To get to the door you must climb the chain to throw the switch to lower the bridge to reach the box you can climb on. Among other things, it's an extremely relaxing game since you can take your time to poke around the richly detailed environment. The soundtrack has no pulsing music, just quiet ambience of twittering birds, wind and water.
The game design likewise leaves little to criticize. The learning curve practically doesn't exist. One thumb-stick controls the boy, the other controls the camera. One button means jump and one means "swing at the inky monster with your stick." "Dying" is rare. It only gets frustrating when you can't figure out what to do next. But only once was I driven to find an Internet "walkthrough" for assistance. Mostly you can figure it out by jumping around and hitting things. At worst the puzzles lack a certain variety in that they all involve moving objects around and traversing space.
Where other games use the power of the new platforms such as Playstation 2 to add more objects and more complicated "moves" for the characters, "Ico" keeps it simple and puts all that extra processing into the details. Look at the way he awkwardly scrambles up a ledge, or how the water ripples around him when he swims. Not too many games encourage you to slow down instead of forcing you to keep moving. Not too many games encourage you to construct something rather than destroy it. These days, both activities come as a great relief.