In this series about game design, I’m going to be looking at some of the less obvious details and mechanics of different games, and exploring how and why they are effective.
One of the more obscure things I love about Ico is the way you save your game by sitting on a bench. When you continue the game, you’re still sat on that bench, and with a nudge of the controller you can hop off and continue on your way. But wonderfully, you don’t have to. If you leave the controller alone, you can remain seated, Yorda alongside, as the two of you soak in the sunlight and the gentle rhythms of nature around you. It can only ever be a temporary moment – you’ll never escape the castle and its shadow creatures without getting up and pressing on, but even so, by not forcing you to your feet, it’s almost as if Team Ico are willing you to steal a precious few moments of peace.
Games are always so keen to harry us onwards to our next destination, prodding and pushing us ever forwards, that it’s vanishingly rare to have a moment like this. As in the real world, it always feels like there’s something more important to do than just taking a moment to sit and contemplate things, which is a loss when there’s so much around us to appreciate.
Life is Strange certainly has its fair share of pushing and prodding, with a rather overbearing approach to hinting to the player where they might go next. And although main protagonist Max can rewind time at will, the game is constantly reminding us that time marches on regardless – Max can put things off, but she can’t escape them. And nowhere is this better illustrated than during the third episode when Max wakes up in bed. The game reminds us that it’s time to get up, and a helpful button prompt appears on-screen. And then… nothing. Blissfully, you can just ignore it, letting Max continue to lie there, pondering her life as the sun fills the room with a gentle orange glow.
It’s an elegant moment, not only making us sympathise with Max’s reluctance to take on the mantle of a hero but making us complicit in it too. And like those moments in Ico, just as in our real lives, it’s an illusion. Such moments are inescapably fleeting – even if we stay still, the rest of the world does not. Here is Max, a girl with the ability to rewind time at will, but even she has to get out of bed sometime. Our experiences with games are almost always defined by the things we do, but sometimes being able to do nothing can be meaningful too, even if just for a moment.