If I could change one thing about my experience with Pony Island, it would be to go in even blinder than I did. Here’s your chance to do just that. Mentally delete any knowledge you may have gleaned and play it now. You won’t regret it.

 

405640_2016-01-09_00006

If you choose not to do that, here’s the longer version of play it now.

Imagine Undertale with all its joy, friendships, and kindness sucked out leaving only its dark, demonic underbelly exposed. Now add ponies. That quite sufficiently summarises the satanic glitchfest that is Pony Island.

The two games may be different in how they’re played, but both are not what they seem on the surface. Looking past the pretense of their genres reveals them to be puzzle games. Undertale’s core mechanic was shrouded in a JRPG facade, while Pony Island’s guise is that of an archaic arcade cabinet which houses a chirpy, seemingly innocuous pony-runner. Pulling the strings in both games is a demon, but unlike Undertale’s world, the demon isn’t us. Pony Island’s antagonist is Lucifer himself.

Darkness beneath a thin veneer of innocence makes for compelling horror. That juxtaposition is clearly what Pony Island set out to achieve, and it does so with unwavering conviction. The bright, child-friendly front of Pony Island doesn’t last long. The sunny backdrop blackens, the vibrant hills turn ashen, and the player is left facing a menacing world. The game crashes and reboots to an occult flavoured computer desktop and the true experience of Pony Island begins. A fellow lost soul tells us that we are captives to the machine, and face an eternity of digital slavery and generic pony themed games. Hacking the system to interfere with the game’s code is the only means of escape. Destroying three core files upon which Pony Island is built will free the condemned souls it hosts. Satan does not approve; he wants us to stay and play his creation, mindlessly leaping fences forever. He made it for us, after all. Investigating glitchy files and broken menus is the game’s early foundation. It evokes the same prying curiosity as Nina Freeman’s Cibele, if Nina had come of age in purgatory.

405640_2016-01-08_00027

Code is altered by completing simplified programming tasks. Icons that perform various actions must be manipulated to initiate commands that weaken Satan’s grip on the game. These range from supercharging your pony’s abilities, to bypassing a devil sanctioned EXP grind. As more icons are introduced, cracking the code becomes more intricate and challenging. Tired and bleary eyed, I fiddled with icons, trying to find the right combination to make the system do what I needed, fretting that any oversight would bring all that I’d built crashing back to zero. These sequences succeed not only as competently designed puzzles, but in simulating the micro management of coding without being overwhelming.

More perplexing is figuring out which unstable menu must be exploited to progress. They’re intentionally opaque and require a lot of experimentation. If you’re really stuck you might be tempted to check out the Pony Island walkthrough right there on the desktop, but it’s sole purpose is to mock, as it details only what you’ve already figured out. 

It only gets weirder and more antagonistic from there as Pony Island digs in its demonic claws and refuses to let go. The twisted and varied paths the game goes down are surprising and continue right up until its compelling conclusion. It’s far more than a weeping, one trick pony.

405640_2016-01-09_00004

Enhancing the oppression is a deliciously grimy soundtrack. The crunchy, distorted tunes are suitably morose, yet ever so catchy.

Pony Island brings forward many ideas. With laser precision it comments on our incessant connection to that other form of video game, social media, and how it often takes precedence over a game that’s right in front of us. At one point it shrewdly subverts its own aesthetic to show that we’re often just playing the same game over and over; it’s just reskinned to skew it towards a particular audience. They all consist of hit boxes and puzzles and obstacles in some form or another. No matter the packaging, it’s all just code. There’s even cues indicating that, to me at least, the whole thing is an annotation on Let’s Play culture and the ever growing trend of consuming off-kilter games through YouTubers rather than trying these experiences first hand. Sure, it gets pretty deep into metanarrative territory, but it’s hard to argue that “games about games” are passe when it’s presented with such clarity.

If you have any lingering doubt about playing Pony Island allow me to diffuse that concern with this; Pony Island delivers the most unnerving mindfuck I’ve experienced in a game. It dishes out a cruel betrayal through the remains of the fourth wall and it’s utterly ingenious.

405640_2016-01-09_00008

We’re in the early days of 2016 so to say that Pony Island is my favourite game of this year doesn’t carry much weight. Instead I’ll say it’s the cleverest, most intriguing game I’ve played in quite some time, and an absolute must play.

I managed to refrain from submitting my soul to Pony Island despite its frequent insistence (it even goes as far as showing you diagram of how to do it), but there may have been a grim instant where I consider that there are less worthy deals you could make. In a sense, I actually have. My thoughts are yet to escape that eternally droning, decrepit machine and the ghosts that live inside it.

Did I mention that there are butterflies?

About The Author

As an Australian, Simon enjoys paying slightly more for games, and occasionally isn't allowed to have the really naughty ones. When he isn't writing about video games, he studies journalism so he can actually one day be good at it. He also experienced an existential crisis after writing in the third person.

Related Posts

  • Okay, the ultimate gimmick game! Now can we declare gimmicks dead, and get on to something that looks like art?

    • Simon Rankin

      While the game might seem to heavily rely on its theme of darkness inside a candy coloured wrapper, it does so many more interesting things that it becomes much more than a gimmick.

      Pony Island, above all else, was created to draw a reaction, to elicit an emotional response, and to generate discussion. Isn’t that a pretty good definition of art?

      • It is, but it’s very niche art… with a gimmick… and apparently a meta-narrative about gimmicks and how gimmicks are ultimately distracting. Perhaps it’s fighting fire with fire, but how about we just try water instead?

        Maybe I misread, but it seems to be saying to beat Satan at its game, just walk away. Walk away from the excitable gimmicks and distraction culture (a lot of this gimmickry is born out of interactive art being too difficult to produce in large quantities, so it’s easy to use gimmicks as filler. You end up with a million and one different ultimately hollow and shallow experiences this way. And nothing truly satisfying. This is why gimmicky fine art and performance art doesn’t generally draw large crowds. Not necessarily because it’s uninteresting, but because we only get so many good decades, each of us.)

        • For the record, I thought the gimmick was not so much the theme, but the part where you take apart the game by pretending to muck about in its innards.

          Almost all games use gimmicks to distinguish themselves. You rarely find two games with identical controls schemes. They mix the inputs and outputs up, if only slightly. Usually just making it more difficult to pick up games. But if they are moving closer to works of art, basically trying to communicate ideas brilliantly, enough so to justify their continued existence, then logically standard control schemes should emerge, so that that much cannot distract from the games’ art, so we can more readily appraise them. So gimmicks on almost all levels/fronts is almost a given, given prevailing thought (not to say such games should not exist, but there is such a thing as too much of the same thing, and this medium is has been in arrested development for a very long time.)