Welcome to I’m Still Talking About… My 2016 end of the year feature where I find ten games that defined the indie game scene for me this year.  These aren’t the best games of 2016, they’re not the must-plays, they are the games that have refused to leave my thoughts, the games that got under my skin.  For better or worse, these are the games I’m still talking about.

I don’t really like games that are about games or games within games, or however deep down the masterbatory rabbit hole these things tend to go.  I don’t believe that games have evolved enough as a medium to criticize each other, mostly because when games tend to be about games they actually don’t have a much of a solution to the problems they’re critiquing.  Instead, they tend to either woefully climb up their own butt and lament the artistic process, or snarkily poke at other games and think they deserve a gold star for high-level dickishness.

And yet, I can’t seem to hold Pony Island’s shtick against it – largely because, unlike other games-about-games, Pony Island is able to take its premise and hammer it out into something that is largely compelling on its own.  The whole metanarrative in Pony Island isn’t obtrusive because you’re spending so much time engaged with the material, making the whole experience fun even without its commentary on the medium.  Also, when I think back on Pony Island, I don’t remember much finger pointing or snarky comments (well, there’s one, but it really struck a chord with me).  What I truly remember about Pony Island is the demon inside of the computer and the strange RPG-like land that I had to traverse.

Pony Island has no right to be as good as it is.  It subverts video game tropes and constantly surprised me as a player.  But it largely succeeds because the developers sought to build an interesting world and fill it with interesting characters. Pony Island manages to stand on its own as a fun and crazy ride.

Is it really THAT good?

The characters and plot of Pony Island are excellent.  As I’ve already said, it takes a premise that should be laughable and makes it into something that memorable, with real stakes and characters you’re invested in.  That’s pretty damn impressive since, once the dust has settled, you realize the stakes were the fate of a computer game and the characters were constructs within said game.  Pony Island is one of those games that are designed to be played in one sitting and work because they are compelling enough to keep a player rooted for their entire playtime

Then we come to the tricky question of the gameplay.  Since Pony Island is commenting on gameplay it often jumps between its own puzzle mechanics and doing bad imitations of other mechanics.  It still works.  The puzzles are mostly interesting and the mocked gameplay makes its point even though it’s barely passable.  Though one can’t help but think of how impressive something like Pony Island could be with deeper and more robust gameplay.  The idea of working out some coded puzzle to fix a game is fine, but often it feels perfunctory.

Okay, that sounds alright.  But what is the real reason I should play this game?

There was an interesting discussion when we first discussed Pony Island about its use of a gimmick and whether that disqualified it from being art.  I think it’s difficult not to acknowledge that Pony Island certainly leans on a central theme that is (to me) off-putting, I’ve said as much.  But a gimmick is reductive when describing what the game has done.  Pony Island actually has ideas and interesting ways to express them.  While it might not present a solution for the future of games, it certainly knows how to make a good one and that’s almost enough to excuse its thematic flaws.

But the real reason that I don’t think of Pony Island as a “gimmick” is because that’s not what I remember about the game.  The moments that stood out to me had little to do with the framework of the themes and more to do with how they were presented.  Great art can be made from anything, even something that is reductive and goofy.  It’s not in the subject matter that art is judged, but in how that subject matter is explored and presented.  Say what you will about Pony Island’s Steam description, but when it comes to the pacing, the game-feel, the way it brings all of its tangible qualities into a comprehensive whole, the game clearly stands out as a high point this year.

So, to contradict myself, in some ways Pony Island is showing us how games can be better.  In striking a tone that is singular and coherent, it already stands apart from many of the games released this year, heck, it stands apart from some of the games covered in  I’m Still Talking About.  Pony Island is taking a tried and true idea and finding the right way to explore it, because it doesn’t focus on the idea but rather the presentation.

 

So you’d recommend it to anyone?

Not really.  Pony Island is a good game, but it almost certainly is going to be considered too bizarre for many players.  To pick up on the metanarrative and even some of the regular plot, you’d have to be fairly conscious of game mechanics and the trends in modern games.  I kind of wish this wasn’t an issue, because as weird as Pony Island is, I’d love to see people react to it.  So often the perception of video games is incredibly narrow, but Pony Island is a game that certainly can’t be accused of being rote.

About The Author

The Glorious Predecessor

As I write this, I am listening to Striking Matches and eating a blueberry muffin. The music is good, the muffin is even better. I dance when I drink and have been known to occasionally free-style rap, none of which benefits society.

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