Pony Island is just the sort of game I was expecting for 2016. After the massive underground success of the 4th wall breaking darling that is Undertale, I was prepared for the onslaught of indie titles that pushed the button of being self aware. But what tickles me about Pony Island in particular is that it’s clear that its developer, Daniel Mullens, wasn’t making an attempt to ride any meta coattails. Pony Island was released in January of this year—just a fistful of months after Undertale arrived to the delight of gamers and DeviantArt account holders alike—far from enough time to take the derivative route.
Which means that as an artform, video games are taking a turn around the bend, here. We’ve gotten past what graphics and clever plot twists can teach us, and developers are responding to that by questioning the position of the player within the game’s universe. Which is sort of amazing. Of course there were isolated incidents: Psycho Mantis reading your memory card is fondly remembered for a reason. But we’ve reached the point where the meta role of a player within the game is being examined far more closely. And that’s exciting as hell.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Pony Island is an endless runner, except for when it isn’t. When it isn’t an endless runner, it’s a hacking/horror game of existential dread. And if that’s a vague description, then it doesn’t stop it from being an apt one. Because Pony Island is vague. Your purpose in the world around you isn’t entirely clear: you just know that your motivation is to escape. You’re trapped inside an old-fashioned arcade game by demonic forces that you cannot fight head on: so you must hack code and wiggle your way through several puzzles in order to hamstring the dark forces that keep you held down.
Who are you? How did you get here? Are you dead? Are you alive?
These are all completely fair questions. And you’re not going to get a straight answer to a single one of them. Your only option is to analyze the screens in front of you. Take chances, experiment, pay close attention, and you might come away with something of a satisfying answer.
A single playthrough of Pony Island might last you a couple of hours, but that is far from where the game ends. Multiple sessions of Pony Island and a close attention to detail are what’s required to get the most out of it. And I think it’s absolutely worth it.
Pony Island left me with the sort of vague dread that an evening of reading CreepyPastas can give you. That flawless stitching together of modern internet mythology with good ole fashioned 1980’s Satanic Panic fear of the devil. But even past those tropes: it’s fear of the unknown that kept me glued to the keyboard.
If I had any complaints about Pony Island it would be the endless runner segments. Which I realize is fairly ironic given the fact that the outward trappings of this game is that of an endless runner. But any time I was in those sections and I lost, I was massively frustrated beyond the usual feeling that video game losses normally give me.
“I’m dealing with demons, dark forces, and lost souls here,” I’d think to myself. “What the fuck does it matter if I run into the occasional hurdle?”
But, then again: maybe there’s an overarching significance to that. The massive problems of the world around us paralleled with the pitiful struggles that we deal with on an individual, day-to-day basis: it’s a strange and sour universe that we all live in. There isn’t a one among us who hasn’t grumbled as we were forced to make room for an ambulance screaming past us on the freeway.
And perhaps I’m giving Pony Island too much credit. Perhaps it’s just a lightly spooky game about a hellbound heart that’s trapped in an old arcade cabinet. Perhaps. But I think there’s something strong about the theme and the method of this game: even if it takes a little bit of digging to find it.