Imagine launching a videogame that satirises games, game development and gamers in 2016. Terrifying! You submit yourself for comparison with The Stanley Parable, Surgeon Simulator and Saints Row 4, and in such company most games deflate like a first-time comedian confronting a crowd of more than their mum. Saints Row’s own DLC—Enter the Dominatrix and the expandalone, Gat Out of Hell—failed to pin down what made the fourth instalment so cathartic and disruptive, complicit in the mundane tasks which they were attempting to skewer. Pony Island is of a different class. Not only does in succeed in having meaning and a point to make, but it remembers to be a decent game while it’s at it—a game, no less, that left me doubting my own grip on reality.It’s maddening that I can’t unpack Pony Island for this review without spoiling it or desensitising you to its many, many tricks. I ought not to share my interpretation of what at times appears to be an ingenious literary conceit and at others pokes fun at the whole idea. In compromise, I’ve pulled out a handful of inspired examples to mull over, but I’m not entirely confident of my own theories. Really I need to play it again, but, well, I made a promise.Pony Island boasts the most asinine introduction most of us will ever endure. It’s an old arcade title by Systemtech, Inc. consisting of a pony, some hurdles and a sickly bucolic background. Left click to jump; unlimited lives. Think you can handle that? The eruption of insincere praise on prancing up to the end flag might elicit and appreciative nod. “Ah”, you may think, “a critical slap to the state of achievements and positive reinforcement in free-to-play. How droll.” This is the least of what Pony Island has to say. To Pony Island, the state of free-to-play is mere small talk, like mentioning the weather or your lunch plans. It wants you to think it’s interested in free-to-play before layering on the meta-commentary.Things don’t take long to escalate, and as you begin to mess with the arcade game’s back end through cracks in the old code, you draw unwanted attention. Pony Island is the devil’s own arcade game, and there are similarly ancient things lurking behind the dusty CRT screen. What begins as monotonous show jumping spins into a war over your mortal soul.Pony Island is not a good game. It’s an awful game, in fact. You gallop from left to right, jumping over gates and blowing gusts of wind at troublesome butterflies. Clear gates for long enough and you’ll reach the end of the level, earn some EXP and get to do it all over again. On the other hand, Pony Island, the game that challenges you to escape from this gate-jumping hell, is superb. It’s a self-aware indie gem with an anarchic sensibility, where anything can happen. The very opposite, then, of the game within this game.You actually wind up playing a lot of Pony Island in various forms over this two hour experience. It’s deliberately repetitive, but also always serves a purpose, especially as the game’s designer is the central figure in the narrative. Pony Island is his domain, where he attempts to exert his influence, whereas the sequences in-between – where you’re exploring and interacting with the computer system – are where you have the most agency. These sections are wonderful: I never knew what to expect, and Pony Island threw a number of ingenious curve balls at me.Pony Island may be chaotic and unpredictable by design, but its visual language is crystal clear where it counts. I quickly learned, for instance, to look for the portals that will take me to a puzzle and progress the game. Each of these puzzles lets you actively hack the system. As such, they’re – for the most part – presented as backend code, where you rearrange a set of symbols to manipulate a program. There’s generally only one solution, so there’s no actual hacking, but the mechanics are sound, and these vignettes fit Pony Island’s aesthetic really well. It’s particularly cool seeing nods to story elements, or hints to solutions lurking in the code.
It’s a pity that these asides begin to verge on repetitious, but a late-game reskin gives them just enough life to carry the puzzles through to the end of Pony Island’s four-hour lifespan. That window is flawlessly judged. Short and incisive, it’s impossible for Pony Island to outstay its welcome, and for the length of its brief run it snowballs, gaining momentum until the conclusion crashes down on you in an avalanche of meta-commentary and ARG elements.Pony Island picks up themes and ideas until it’s large enough to reach past its videogame constraints and start messing with your reality. That’s you, the reader, not ‘you’ a hypothetical Pony Island player—it creates the illusion (oh, please let it be an illusion) of toying with the real world, to the degree that when it ended I stood up, in an office to myself, to mime the splatter from my blown mind hitting the corners of the room.