The other day I finished reading Miyabe Miyuki’s novelization of Ico, the game everyone loves to use as a basis for poorly defined arguments about whether or not their hobby can be considered art. It was difficult to mentally justify wasting the amount of time it would take to read a 500-plus-page pulp novel based on a videogame about a boy pulling levers, but I somehow managed to do it for a couple reasons. First, I’ve had friends sincerely recommend Miyabe books to me. Granted, these particular friends are not people I would usually go to for literary advice, but nonetheless I thought it would be worthwhile to check out whys she’s so popular. Second, I’d never read anything this deliciously trashy in Japanese before outside of games and manga, and I thought it would be a worthwhile cultural experience to read a junk novel. Third, and most importantly, I freaking love Ico.
[[image:cg_icocover.jpg:The desire to have a version of this awesome cover art printed on fancy paper was also a motivating factor in getting this book.:center:0]]
While the book did not convert me into a raging Miyabe Miyuki fan, I must admit that it was, for the most part, not as terrible as I expected it to be. Miyabe used the game as the basis for an inoffensive and occasionally even enjoyable fantasy novel based on the setting of Ico. At the very least, it is clear that Miyabe sincerely likes the game. In the Afterward she notes that the book is more or less fan fiction, her own personal variation on the story of Ico. Knowing that it’s not official cannon makes the story easier to digest, and it is interesting to see an author flesh out her own imagined history of Ico’s fascinating game world. Part of the beauty of the game Ico is the minimalistic way it suggests a larger story, leaving it up to individual players to fill in the details, and this book is best read as one gamer’s taken on that story.
If anything, the sections where Miyabe is most faithful to the game without adding her own interpretation are the least successful parts of the book. It is simply not interesting to read about Ico pulling levers to open doors, pulling levers to lower cages, and pulling even more levers to move a cart down a track. Luckily, these segments are punctuated with intriguing glimpses into the past via a new interpretation of the game’s memorable handholding dynamic. In the novel, this physical contact causes Ico to see phantom visions of Yorda’s memories, hinting at the history of the castle and creating a bond between the two characters. The presence of overbearing cut scenes along these lines would have obviously been disastrously for the pace of the game, but in the book they keep the story moving and provide a refreshing break from reading about all that lever pulling.
Thankfully, the majority of the book is not composed of descriptions of Ico pulling levers. It opens with about 100 pages depicting Ico’s life before he is sent to the castle. Then, when Ico and Yorda first encounter the Queen, the retelling of the game’s events are interrupted for about 200 pages with an extended flashback to Yorda’s upbringing. These sections, where Miyabe is not just adapting video game puzzles to prose, are much more successful and make for enjoyable, albeit uninspired, light fantasy reading. For the most part, these takes on Ico and Yorda’s origins seem to fit in well with the game world, with the exception of one bizarre scene in Yorda’s flashback where she fights her dead father’s skull to retrieve a sacred MacGuffin.
On the whole, I don’t think non-Japanese speakers are missing out for not being able to read this, and I don’t think I could recommend it to even the biggest Ico fans, unless they are desperate to see their favorite minimalist puzzle game transformed into what is more or less an extended JRPG cut scene, full of all the standard genre conventions. For example, in a plot twist that should surprise no one who has played a JRPG in the last 10 years, it turns out the practice of sacrificing horned boys was started not by the Queen herself, but by the Holy Empire fighting the Queen in order to seal her in the castle. In typical JRPG fashion, this leads to a shallow and poorly thought out scene where Ico doubts himself and seriously considers the Queen’s hilariously Darth Vader-esque offer to rule the world together with him, despite Ico knowing she is serving a demon god bent on destroying the earth. While reading this, my main reaction was to hope that Ico was keeping multiple save files just in case he accidentally took the wrong fork in a dialogue tree and stumbled into the bad ending.
Despite this criticism, Miyabe’s Ico is serviceable light fantasy reading, and it would be a lie to say that I didn’t enjoy it. Sometimes, mindless fluff is exactly what you need. I was aware of the kind of ridiculousness I was subjecting myself to when I decided to read the novelization of a video game known for its sparse storytelling, and it definitely exceeded my extremely low expectations. Best of all, it motivated me to play Ico again. It’s a lot more fun to just pull those levers myself, honestly.