Diction - Descriptive Language, Word Choice
Authorial Influence - New Content
Ico: Castle in the Mist is a novelization of the 2001 PlayStation 2 cult classic. It was written by Miyuki Miyabe, a popular and celebrated author in Japan. Her crime/mystery novels, including All She Was Worth and Crossfire, have been rather successful; the latter was adapted into a film. Regarding her fantasy works, Brave Story has spawned a small media empire, including a multi-volume manga and an animated movie. She brings a lot of experience to the novelization.
The first question one must address, however, is how does one review a videogame novel? The writers rarely have any influence over the story or dialogue, which originate in the games themselves. Thus, they can’t be held accountable or given credit for significant parts of their work.
Instead, to accurately gauge a writer’s contribution and influence, one must consider the novel in several ways: diction, presentation, and authorial influence. Diction is an author’s use of language; presentation is an author’s skill at engaging readers and keeping their interest; authorial influence is any creative freedom that the author took with the novel that isn’t necessarily present in the game.
Released in 2004 (but only translated into English in 2011), Ico: Castle in the Mist is amazing. Miyabe’s talent in writing juvenile fiction, mystery, and fantasy blend together seamlessly here. Surprisingly, Castle in the Mist has appeal beyond die-hard fans of the game. I have never played the original game, but reading the novel makes me want to do so. By contrast, most videogame novels rely on their games’ respective prestige to drive book sales. While that’s still true with Ico, it’s more of a reciprocal relationship.
The novel is divided into four main ‘chapters’, ranging from 60 to over 120 pages each, with a tiny epilogue as the denouement. Of these segments, only Chapter 2, most of Chapter 4, and the epilogue are canon, which gives a sense of Miyabe’s creative liberties. To go by page numbers, she invented about two thirds of the content (220 out of 370).
The diction in Ico is incredibly descriptive; the liberal use of personification, metaphors, and similes creates a universe that feels alive and sentient, and one has to stop occasionally to bask in the amazing prose:
“The people in the streets around him had been frozen in time. Some pointed toward the sky, others ran, holding their heads in their hands, while still others held their mouths open in soundless screams. Toto wondered how many years they had stood there like this. When he reached out hesitantly to touch one, it crumbled into dust beneath his fingertips.”
Granted, this level of prose isn’t present everywhere, but nowhere is a reader disappointed with Miyabe’s writing. No words lack purpose. Castle in the Mist is replete with foreshadowing, mystery, and emotional interactions. The action itself is thinly spread, but the language used to describe it accentuates personality traits like Ico’s youth and innocence, and Yorda’s physical and emotional fragility.
Readers see a surprising maturity on the part of characters, yet it fits with who each character is. A case in point is when Toto, a friend of Ico, ventures beyond Forbidden Mountains to understand why Ico is so resigned to his fate:
The boy was smiling.
Toto understood instantly. He wasn’t hiding from whatever it was everyone else had been looking at – he was playing hide-and-seek. Whatever happened to the people in this city had happened so quickly, he hadn’t even had time to realize that he was about to die.
Reluctantly, Toto admitted what he had known for some time already. This city was no grand work of sculpture. This was the reason why the mountains in the north were forbidden. This was the curse of the Castle in the Mist.
The master in the castle was capable of dooming an entire walled city in he space of a breath.
This was what Ico had seen. This was what he meant by “trouble”, why he was so determined to sacrifice himself for the village.
The characters all display maturity for their ages, and their experiences wrench sympathy out of the reader.
Miyabe has a gift of keeping her readers’ eyes glued to the page. Having read several of her other works, I can safely say that Ico is the rule, not the exception. Read from cover-to-cover, Ico is incredibly atmospheric, and even when the quality of diction falls below her usual par, the story, the internal thoughts of Ico and Yorda, and the atmosphere of the novel itself can easily carry the reader through to the next kernel of golden prose. The above excerpt is one such example. Before and after it, we have a frantic chase, where a disembodied girl’s head chases Toto through the city, trying to turn him into stone with her breath. It is interesting but not amazing. Yet each time he finds a good hiding place, we are treated to excerpts like the one above.
Miyabe’s creative freedoms are also a huge plus. As previously mentioned, about two-thirds of the book are her own embellishments of Ico’s universe and the game’s backstory and history. Those invented sections – especially Chapter 3, Yorda’s history – are the strongest parts of the novel. Miyabe takes cues from a lot of subtleties in the game that player-readers will undoubtedly pick up on. All Ico fans would serve themselves well by reading this book.
There is one major way that a reader could get turned off by the novel: Chapter 2 is largely a play-through of the game, and it is undoubtedly the weakest part of the story. However, Chapter 2 is instrumental to understanding the close bond between Ico and Yorda, especially for a reader who hasn’t played the game. Moreover, the puzzles in Ico and the castle’s layout are changed in the book, but the explanations make more sense and are easily visualized as a result. As such, their journey through the castle should still feel somewhat fresh, even if the key locations are the same.
Ico: Castle in the Mist isn’t perfect, but it’s the closest to a gold standard that videogame novels have. Its prose is several cuts above others in the genre, and it would still be great as a standalone novel without the videogame tie-in. All emotional investment that a reader puts in pays off great dividends. For anyone who enjoys mystery or fantasy, or anyone who wants to sample the videogame novel genre, Ico is a must-read.