The word ico, イコ, doesn’t mean anything. It does, however, bear a striking resemblance to iiko, 良い子, “good child.”
Be a good boy, Ico; let the castle devour you so that we may be safe.
Be a good girl, Yorda; let mother hollow you out so that she may live forever.
Be a good child, and let the adults use you.
Ico is not about saving a princess from a castle.
We know precious little about Ico himself, only that he was left as a sacrifice to appease the castle’s wrath.
And we know that Yorda, daughter of the Queen, was made to be a vessel for her mother’s soul.
The first thing Ico does is ask her, “Were they trying to sacrifice you too?”
The second thing he does is offer her his hand.
Ico is a child, scared and alone and abandoned, and he sees Yorda not as something to be rescued, but as someone in the same position as him. A child who has been used by the adults around her.
Yorda is often seen as a burden by players who grow frustrated with her tendency to wander off, the need to lead her everywhere, her perceived uselessness. And to be fair, from a purely gameplay perspective, her sole mechanical function of opening doors is later fulfilled by a sword, which does not need to be led or defended.
I find it frustrating that Yorda is thought of purely in terms of utility.
One of the great hallmarks of mental illness — particularly that stemming from abuse — is the ways in which it makes those afflicted “burdensome.” We have a hard time caring for ourselves, let alone holding down regular work. It can be difficult and stressful to be around us. That sense of uselessness eats away at us, until all we can think is that everyone would be better off if we just weren’t here.
Yorda is an abused girl, locked up for unimaginably long by a mother who sees her only as something to be used. For the player to demand her to be useful ignores her humanity in favor of their own convenience, just the way the Queen did.
There is no indication that Ico himself sees Yorda as a burden, at least not outside of the way he’s played. You can drag her behind you, or you can call for her, take her hand and walk patiently, because you understand that she’s been hurt in the same ways that you have, and you empathize with that hurt. Ico fights shadows. Yorda opens doors. They doze on stone couches together, side by side, and their relationship has the wordless intimacy of solidarity.
At the end of the game, Yorda, drowning in shadows, places the unconscious Ico in a boat and sends him away from the collapsing castle. She saves him, every bit as much as he has saved her.
They wake up on a distant sunlit shore, far from those who wanted to use them, together.
The word ico also bears a striking resemblance to ikou, 行こう, “let’s go.”