Monday, December 5, 2011

ICO: Castle in the Mist by Miyuki Miyabe

ICO: Castle in the Mist is a novelization of the PS2 game ICO, a game largely renowned for being a highly abstract, stripped-down platform-puzzle game. The book and game both center around Ico, a child born with horns offered up as a sacrifice to a mysterious, shambling Gothic castle. Once left alone, Ico quickly discovers another captive of the castle, a girl in a cage who does not speak his language, and who is pursued by shadow creatures who emerge from the castle floors and attempt to pull her down into the castle with them. In the game, Ico must then solve a number of puzzles, fend off the shadow creatures and guide the girl—Yorda—by the hand through the labyrinthine castle.

There's a bit of dialogue that explains some basic story—primarily that Yorda is the daughter of the Shadow Queen, the castle's ruler—but the game is largely left open to each player's interpretation of the events. This reliance on interpretive storytelling makes novelization particularly challenging—you're competing with everyone's interpretation, rather than expanding already established story. So I was a little skeptical when I noticed that Haikasoru would be translating ICO: Castle in the Mist—and then I noticed that the novelization was by Miyuki Miyabe, author of the 800-page RPG-as-coming-of-age epic Brave Story. I figured it would be a good book, if not necessarily a particularly good adaptation. Plus LOOK AT THE PRETTY COVER. (yes I know it's just the original game cover, but we didn't get the original game cover here in the US, so there.)*

For the most part, Miyabe does an excellent job bringing the abstract story of the game to the more concrete world of the novel. She does this by retaining only the most basic elements of the game—there are very few places in the story where the game's elements and mechanics feel as though they intruded into Miyabe's original material—and focuses on expanding the world the game takes place in. Miyabe recasts the story into a battle between Good and Evil, and Ico and the previous horned child sacrifices as warriors of the Light God, with Ico finally in a position to make an honest attempt to defeat the Shadow Queen.

More interesting is the background to the castle itself, revealed through Yorda's past. Here, her mother uses the powers she has gained through a pact with the Dark God to gain a measure of control over her imperial neighbors by turning their most powerful warriors to stone after stealing them away through a high-profile tournament of arms held every three years. It's not a particularly elaborate expansion to the game world, but it's definitely interesting, and the story takes a few turns that still felt unexpected even as they matched events in the game.

The only real downside to the novelization (taken as a novelization, anyway) is that Miyabe lost the ethereal, quasi-surreal feeling the game had. Most of this is likely attributable to the process of fleshing out the world ICO takes place in—it's hard for something to feel ethereal when there's concrete information about the world—but even the castle loses something in print.

It's for this reason that ICO: Castle in the Mist almost seems better suited for readers who haven't played ICO, rather than readers who have: those who have played the game are as likely to be interested in the alternative take as put off by an alternative take, whereas readers with no experience with the game will find the novel an interesting and quite different read—especially given the small success that similar Japanese fantasy novels such as Noriko Ogiwara's Dragon Sword and Wind Child and Naoko Uehashi's Moribito have found outside Japan.

* Also, I've just found the 2008 Japanese re-issue cover, and it is also pretty. A different pretty, but still pretty. At least if you are me. I am 95% certain you are not.

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