Pony Island has utter contempt for games that use mechanical bells and whistles to extort something from their players. It is a seething letter to the CEOs, profiteers, and grubby business practices that work against their patrons: games that were created without the player’s best interests at heart. Like last year’s The Magic Circle, Pony Island is an extremely cynical —and decidedly ‘meta’— game about the relationship between author and audience in our beloved medium: video games.
It should come as no surprise that Pony Island takes place with you standing in front of a traditional quarter-poppin’ arcade machine, with the words “Pony Island” plastered across the screen in screaming bright colours. After just a few short minutes the ruse drops: Pony Island isn’t the lackadaisical adventure you’d been so keen to take part in. As it turns out, Pony Island is a game designed by Satan to steal the souls of its players, locking them in a prison of tedium for all eternity — and you’ve fallen into his ironic trap.
The story takes place over three distinct modes of play: a stripped down version of an endless runner, the investigative process of poking at a faux-computer UI (think Cibele or Her Story), and a series of hacking mini-games that asks players to rearrange a program’s flow to reach an exit. Don’t worry, the computer programming aspect isn’t overbearing in the slightest —it’s actually quite easy— and even at its toughest it feels more like playing the board-game Labyrinth than actually coding. There are also a number of meaningful discoveries to be found during desktop sections ranging from adorable shortcut-icon names like “Settlers of sAtan” to entire secret cutscenes. Each of these is sufficiently engaging, but the real meat of Pony Island is seeing how it uses each of these bits of gameplay to subvert your expectations — and I wouldn’t dare rob you of discovering the bulk of it for yourself.
In a modern context Pony Island’s motifs are abundantly clear — open just about any game store client and you’re bound to see a product with ulterior motives on the front page. The amount of games purporting to be something they aren’t, from Call of Duty knockoffs to gambling sims cloaked as children’s amusements, has reached a critical mass. In a world where Sonic the Hedgehog has his own endless runner, Silent Hill has moved to pachinko, and Bandai Namco has released an idler version of Katamari in lieu of a property entry in the stagnant franchise, it’s easy to feel like some games only exist to swindle unsuspecting customers.
Pony Island has a lot of fun poking at these disconcerting trends. There are moments where the game literally takes control away from the player (reminiscent of the original Bioshock’s iconic scene), it occasionally suggests ‘grinding’ is an option, and it fills the level-up screens with language that equates fun with watching EXP bars rise. In one scene, the game gets referred to as “challenging but fair,” which is actually really cute given the rest of its fourth-wall-breaking references. These playful elements are a big part about what makes Pony Island work. For as pessimistic as the subject matter is, and how aggressive its electric black and white visual style can be, Pony Island is also quite funny; it’s good satire.
Later in the game, a new element is introduced called, “Adventure Mode” (which I have to imagine is a goof at Diablo 3’s expense — the most slot-machine-y of big budget slot-machine games). Right around the time ‘Adventure Mode’ shows up, the game starts to drift away from being an eclectic series of narrative moments, and begins to feel like a proper video game. This is a meaningful realization because the changes are almost exclusively to aesthetic components of a quality product, not any of the core gameplay mechanics. For the people who drift into the treadmill of Pony Island (as I did), perking up after realizing you’d checked out will really hit home.
If you’re willing to believe its designers are cognizant of it, Pony Island makes some pretty interesting attempts to woo players with the same design tactics it’s criticizing. The game is littered with 24 hidden ‘Pony Island’ tickets, which earn you an achievement for collecting them all. Some are insidiously difficult to find, but one or two linger in plain sight, effectively begging you to reroute your path to reach them. It also likes to show off how easily it can transform the mindless runner mechanic into something difficult and legitimately engaging by adding new layers of play. Left-click jump and right-click to shoot are simple enough on their own, but toss in “hold left-click to fly” and hold right-click to continuously shoot, and suddenly there’s real dexterity involved. Pony Island makes a strong case that rulesets in and of themselves create fun where there is none; it’s a stirring example of watching a bad game get ‘gamified’ in slow-motion before your eyes, and it’s compelling to see through.
Pony Island is certainly made for the inside-baseball crowd, the gang of us who have as much fun talking about games as we do playing them. With that in mind, for most players it will be a more academically interesting game than an anything else. The novelty is in watching the game unfold its many opinions and critiques using the medium in unexpected ways. And it is cool! There are moments I’ve neglected to mention here that are startlingly impressive — it’s a very, very clever game. It is by no means the last word on exploitative game mechanics —or the most comprehensive in-game analysis of them— but the idea that a game out there might very well have been made by the devil to trap players in an endless loop of meaningless fun is charming enough to be worthwhile.
Raphael Bennett just wants to talk about games. Be a friend. Talk to him on Twitter @raphbennett.