Pony Island masquerades as the kind of light-hearted auto-running adventure available on any mobile device, but it’s genuine narrative is shrouded in nefarious mystery. Demons have infested the coin-operated arcade game known as Pony Island. Their objective is to trap the souls of players (including your own) in a seemingly harmless, yet never-ending game about a purple pony galloping across rainbow meadows. To escape these coin-op confines, players traverse the inner workings of the game’s code through an array of mini-game challenges weaved together by the meta-narrative of liberating imprisoned souls from the demon-tainted arcade cabinet that the once noble Pony Island has devolved into.
In spite of using a swathe of game genres to complete this narrative (from first person auto-running to text-based adventure circa 1980), Some game types are more common than others. One of the most common is the 2-D autorunner featuring a pony equipped with lasers and demon wings, which challenges players to blast away imps while mounting hurdles. This frantic endless running is complemented by logic puzzles requiring players to put on their thinking caps and change bits of code in the games files to unlock and delete Pony Islands “core files”, and it makes for a good balance of quick-clicking action and cerebral gameplay. For an additional dash of variety, sprinklings of more unusual tasks like hacking into a faux desktop to locate files and chat with the souls that inhabit in the game or playing a text-only version of the auto-runner mentioned above keeps players guessing right to the end.
This gray area between the kind of interactions one expects to have with a video game and the the experiences the game actually delivers is where Pony Island thrives; Mullins creates a self aware meta-narrative between the player and the developer unlike anything I’ve played before. At every turn the game intentionally makes itself more difficult to complete. When you stop and think about it, all games are designed this way. Yet, Daniel Mullins earnest in actively trying to deter players from making progress is simultaneously more challenging and engaging than many more traditionally-designed games. From forthright logic puzzles to cheap deceptions, Pony Island is unabashedly contrary at all times and a better game for it. This antagonistic design philosophy creates organic interaction between the protagonist and the seemingly-omniscient developer attempting to thwart the player’s progress at every turn.
All of this meta-design can be a bit much to wrap your head around; but even from a straightforward technical standpoint Pony Island is great. The variety of environments and their respective UI’s look like a demonic 8-bit title worthy of a Nintendo seal of approval. The music is sickeningly sweet or eerily haunting depending on the narrative the game is pushing at that particular moment. In both cases, I found myself going back to the soundtrack even while away from the game because the enticing mix of dubstep and ghastly beep-booping is the kind of thing one might hear at Simon Belmont’s favorite rave spot.
The mini games themselves aren’t just mind-bending, they are fun in their own right, a difficult thing for puzzlers to pull off. They steadily challenge the player, but never punishingly so, and the annoyances the game puts in front of you remain fair in spite of their dissimulation. At one point in the game, while having a chat with a certain demon (who quizzes you about his dialog because he’s not convinced you’re paying attention) he attempts to distract you with bogus Steam chat notifications. I found myself shift+tabbing into and out of steam for a solid five minutes before I realized his ruse. Later, false popups about the application crashing will force you to quit the game altogether (if you fall for them) only to restart it in the hopes of continuing this delightfully confusing escapade. Anyone who remembers the Psycho Mantis boss fight from Metal Gear Solid or the vicious mockery of Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem will quickly discern what Daniel Mullins is up to here.
Knowing that you’re being fooled doesn’t ruin the fun, though. In fact, it might just heighten it. The times I enjoyed this title most were when I thought I had outsmarted the game’s trickery only to be double duped and fooled once more. Even when the final credits roll, it’s still unclear who the protagonist is or why they were trapped inside the game in the first place. This lack of closure is a bit of a let down, but it in no way detracts from the experience that Pony island delivers when the only real complaint is that there it doesn’t quite reach a conclusion (even after a secret ending). After all, the real test of the meta-narrative is the variety of unorthodox approaches the game uses to create a cohesive brain-tickling adventure.
This is a test that Pony Island passes with flying colors. The last time a game forced me to evaluate my in-game motives in the way Pony Island does was the first time I played the original BioShock way back in 2007. Regardless of the critical acclaim this game amasses (which ought to be a lot) Dan Mullen’s achievement here can’t be understated. Pony Island’s impeccable game design will stick in players minds throughout 2016 and will probably still have them scratching their heads a year from now. However, Daniel Mullen’s real achievement here is setting a new bar for players and developers alike; proving asynchronous organic interaction between player and designer is what video games do better than any other media.
An idea that every studio, large and small, can learn from Pony Island.