This piece contains spoilers for Ico.
Why is it so rare for games to replicate emerging relationships in any meaningful way? We enjoy seeing friendships develop with great nuance in books, for example, yet it’s an interesting blind spot in the gaming world. That’s not to say nobody’s tried, however – particularly when it comes to the most simple yet intimate gesture of all: holding hands.
The first game that used hand-holding in a memorable way was probably Fumito Ueda’s 2001 classic Ico. The story follows the titular Ico, a boy who is locked away by guards in a coffin inside an abandoned fortress. He’s been shunned and left far from the rest of the world due to the two horns growing from his head, which are considered a bad omen. After breaking from the shackles of his coffin he meets Yorda, the daughter of the evil queen who rules the castle, and who wants to extend her lifespan by taking over Yorda’s body. Throughout the game, you’re tasked with moving Ico past obstacles, puzzles and shadow-like enemies, all while making sure Yorda is safe and by your side. To do this, you hold her hand for the entire journey.
The use of hand-holding here initially seems to be as much about function as it is about demonstrating any sort of emotional connection between Ico and Yorda. It’s rather disappointing in some ways: through this gesture, the game portrays Ico as the powerful, protective saviour of the two, another video game man saving another video game princess.
And yet, due to the sparse nature of the storytelling, the game quietly forces us to be the ones to create a emerging bond between the duo in our own minds. Because of this, that simple gesture of hand-holding, accompanied by the insistent use of rumble to create a sense of connection, is probably a big part of why I remember Ico and Yorda’s friendship being much deeper and richer than the friendship that the game actually portrays on-screen.
Hand-holding was back seven years later with the generally unloved Prince of Persia reboot of 2008. The game follows a desert-travelling bandit (not your typical prince), escaping from sword-swinging enemies in the search for his donkey. He ends up meeting Elika, the daughter of the god of light, tasked with healing the lands that have been taken over by supernatural dark forces similar to those found in Ico. (As I’ve discussed previously, PoP is influenced heavily by the ancient religion of Zoroastrianism, that is built around a transcendent god and an opposing, evil, spiritual force.)
In PoP, holding hands is just as important as it was in Ico, but in different ways. Any faults you make controlling the prince while carrying out the extraordinary acrobatics required are forgiven thanks to Elika’s supernatural ability to grab your hand mid-air when you’re falling, and take you back to a safe platform. It’s fascinating how female subservience in Ico is all about you being the male protector, yet in PoP, you can always be assured of your safety thanks to the quiet woman by your side.
For some strange reason, Fable 3 had some elements of Ico too, allowing your character, a hero on their way to the throne, to drag other characters around by holding their hand. This is unusual given the nature of role-playing games is meant to be about interacting with lively secondary characters with their own agency and it makes a clumsy game seem a bit clumsier still. However, the most unusual example of hand-holding in games is probably the obscure, Japan-only Gamecube title Homeland. It’s also a role-playing game, like Fable 3, but with some online multiplayer elements.
In Homeland, you’re able to form a chain with other players by holding hands, increasing everybody’s stats and special abilities. The game’s bright and goofy colour palette only adds to the way hand-holding becomes a strange, cult-like initiation process. But it’s still an interesting thing to build a game around.
Hand-holding in games is often confusing and strange then, and I think that’s because the gesture has meaning by itself, but it’s then used as a mechanic, and the mechanic has its own meaning too. It can make it tricky to unmuddle what is actually being said.
Compare any of these games to something like The Sims and this comes sharply into focus. Here we’re able to receive hugs and offer gifts and make every interaction grounded with human meaning. That’s not because of magical storytelling or even particularly refined mechanics. It’s because that’s what these games are actually about in the first place.