As 2017 rolled around, I partook in the great yearly tradition of reading end-of-year lists to work out which games from the year before I’d missed and should catch up on over summer. Pony Island, by one-man-team Daniel Mullins, came out the previous January, which is a fittingly strange time for any game to come out. It largely escaped my attention until I saw it mentioned briefly by a couple of writers in their end-of-year wrap-ups: one lauded it, the other unloaded upon it, yet neither seemed willing to describe what it actually was. I didn’t know what to expect, but I was nevertheless interested enough by its apparent divisiveness to give it a go.
It turns out Pony Island is pretty difficult to describe, which perhaps partially explains why I hadn’t come across descriptions of it during my casual perusal. You’ll see what I mean. Pony Island is an adventure game about playing a game called Pony Island (but mostly it is not about playing Pony Island). The game that it most closely resembles from my experience is Nina Freeman’s Cibele, which is a game about playing a game called Cibele (but mostly it is not really about playing Cibele), although the differences in tone between these two games make them feel like very strange companions indeed.
We play as a person who has found an old arcade machine housing this game, Pony Island, which, of course, we want to play. At first, Pony Island is unplayable, but after a bit of tinkering it works – alas, it turns out to have been built (or at least possessed) by the devil/satan/lucifer, who in any case now seems to own our soul. Subsequently, we must free ourselves from playing Pony Island forever (at least I think this is implication), by following the instructions of another mysterious conspiratorial user present on the machine in order to find and delete 3 core files from the system, while the devil/satan/lucifer continually attempts to hinder our progress and revises the game-within-game, Pony Island, on the fly.
This sounds wonky, I know, but bear with me. Sometimes progress involves playing through various iterations and levels of game-within-game Pony Island, which is largely a bad side-scrolling endless runner game. At other times Pony Island (both the meta-game, Pony Island, and a final iteration of the game-within-the-game, Pony Island) have long sets of archaic sequence puzzles using symbols and corrupted code equations (and at one point, colourful butterflies and houses), and elsewhere it has the player clicking through the simulated interface of the UI of the archaic PC that game-within-a-game, Pony Island, is hosted upon, and doing things like having IM conversations with the devil and the mysterious conspirator, looking for files, rejigging options to make things work, and that sort of typically fun and exciting thing. So to that end, it’s an adventure game, but with an action-platformer aspect and a puzzle game aspect, wrapped in what has to be one of the strangest plots to come out of any game, indie or otherwise.
This turns out to be Pony Island’s main strength. It is bizarre and weird, it is largely unlike anything I have ever played, and it always felt one step ahead of me, resulting in some particularly good meta-jokes and some cynically hilarious moments. It has a couple of tricks up its sleeve that caused me to laugh out loud despite playing this game alone and having no-one to actually share these jokes with. And despite being so weird and providing very few explicit instructions about what the player should be doing, Pony Island is commendably good at subtly funnelling the player through its quagmire of seemingly open-ended non-sequiturs and apparent roadblocks. I never felt particularly stuck or lost for direction, and this is coming from someone who still makes a habit of getting stuck in adventure games of all difficulties.
On the flip side, it’s hard to ignore the feeling that Pony Island (the whole product, not just the game-within-game), is at its core somewhat joyless and mean-spirited. It is often willfully unpleasant to be in. The soundtrack, for example, is 95% of the time a dissonant, ominous hum, which is supplemented at other times by loud, clunky error noises. The actual gameplay elements are equally irksome, either by being needlessly difficult for the sake of it, having the player repeat certain long sections for tiny mistakes or simply by being vacuously awful and unrewarding in the first place.
The game fully understands that all we actually care about is advancing the weird plot – the only part of the game which is particularly of interest to us – but it makes us want to be aware not only that we are having a bad time to fulfill this contract, but that the game implicitly knows that we know that it knows that this is the case. This makes sense on multiple levels – we are after all playing as a character who is trapped in some kind of hell, playing a game made by the devil. It isn’t meant to be fun. However, it’s also supposed to be a reflection upon us, as is clearly the case when the lines between the product, Pony Island, and the game-within-the-game, Pony Island, are increasingly blurred by the games’ meta-humour.
It’s a tough-to-navigate contradiction that reminds me of other recent games about playing games (hello The Beginner’s Guide), and I don’t know if I can 100% get behind it. If we follow this thread to its logical conclusion, Pony Island is a nihilistic joke, and we the player/s are the punchline. How should we feel about something which is being difficult and unpleasant for the sake of it, which is telling us openly that it is being difficult and unpleasant for the sake of it, just so it can cement the feeling that we are being laughed at? Like, it’s an interesting experience, sure, but it makes me cautious to give it too much praise. It is unsettling to be glad to have played a game and been done with it, only for the game to wink at you and say, “aren’t you glad you’re done with that?”
Pony Island is short, genre-traversing game about playing bad games made by the devil and trying to rescue lost souls from a possessed arcade machine. In some respects I like Pony Island very much – it is smart, funny and has some ideas I’ve never seen anywhere else. However, I also feel inescapably slighted by it because it makes fun of me just for participating. It holds up a mirror that I do not particularly enjoy seeing, and shows me something that I’m not sure has a point. It is full of good jokes that are tinged by the sense that they come at the player’s expense. On the other hand, it is only a couple of hours long (so while it gives the appearance of unpleasantness, it fails to stay so for very long), and it’s a memorable enough experience that it would be a lie to say it isn’t worthwhile – it is, but probably only if you’re predisposed to like the sorts of jokes that games about playing games can throw at you.