Pony Island [Review]

Is there a limit to how self-aware video games can get? After Undertale and The Stanley Parable brought this trend into the mainstream will it only end after someone makes a faux Steam store simulator, in which you are a developer hopelessly trying to get your ingeniously witty indie game greenlit, which incidentally is also a Steam store simulator? Or is a game that demands you to uninstall it in order to finish the story, sends you fake messages from your friends’ Steam accounts and tries to trick you into thinking it crashed satisfactory enough in that regard?

To be clear, I’m not complaining, it’s just that all of this meta is starting to get to me.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Pony Island is a game in which you play as someone who is seemingly stuck in hell, bound to forever play on this arcade machine designed by the devil himself (yes, the devil is a game developer). His game is pretty simple – you control a pony and need to jump over fences until you make it to the end of each level. Being obedient won’t get you anywhere and your real task is to somehow find a way to hack out of this nightmare. You are accompanied by another trapped soul who acts as your guide on this journey through the bowels of the devil’s code.

The gameplay consists of two modes: pony sidescroller levels in which you directly confront the malevolent game developer and puzzle stages which represent you digging through code behind his back, trying to destroy the machine from the inside. You’re also tasked with finding weak spots in game menus and secret admin desktops, and confronting demons that guard ‘core files’, all of which involve really creative boss encounters.

With respect to style Pony Island does a great job of presenting itself as some ancient, mid-breakdown arcade machine with an analog screen that’s eerily out-of-focus. Glitching out is peppered in very carefully and you quickly start to appreciate the great effort that went into making aesthetic choices look like bugs.

In terms of ideas Pony Island seems to mostly muse about the repetitiveness in video games and how that seems extremely pointless if looked at from a certain point of view. The grind which players go through only to be rewarded with more grind in another level (boars vs. boars with wings) has been fodder for snide remarks about gaming culture ever since Pac Man and the central message of Pony Island seems to adhere to that line of attack. It’s not that hard to make fun of how easy it is to manipulate our pleasure centers by simply including a score at the left hand corner of the screen.

On the surface games might be about ponies and butterflies, but underneath they can have a life-sucking element to them, hinted at in this game by the fact that in order to ‘CONTINUE’ you are asked not to feed the arcade machine quarters, but to insert your very soul. This idea is pretty relevant today, especially in the discussion surrounding freemium mobile games.

Pony Island began as a Ludum Dare entry in 2014 and is the first major release by indie dev Daniel Mullins, who has been pretty prolific on itch.io and has another genre-bending game called Hex coming out in early 2017.

4 out of 5

+ Laser Shooting Ponies With Bat Wings
+ Laser Shooting Ponies With Bat Wings
+ Laser Shooting Ponies With Bat Wings
- Makes You Question Your Life Choices