Developer: Daniel Mullins Games
Publisher: Daniel Mullins Games
Platforms: Microsoft Windows (reviewed), OS X, Linux
Available on: Steam
I’m just breezing through games recently. Well, that happens when none of them are longer than maybe 3 hours. Before playing it, I’ve heard a few things about Pony Island that intrigued me and I absolutely chose to not get spoiled about what might await me when I played it, so if you haven’t heard of this game and haven’t played it and are interested in a game that subverts your expectations and offers damn good writing and lasts for an afternoon without outstaying its welcome, just buy it. Don’t watch trailers about it, don’t read reviews or even the game’s description, just go ahead and buy this one. It’s 5 dollars on Steam and I feel like it completely earns that price. Consider everything ahead and all of the marketing for this game a spoiler.
I love metafiction in all its forms. So when I heard that Pony Island wasn’t what the name would suggest and that it holds a few secrets that mess with the player, that certainly piqued my interest. But as so often is the case with metafiction, this isn’t about driving a point home, this is just a game that wants to fuck with the players and get into their heads. And I feel like it does that quite nicely. It constantly changes what types of content it throws at you and it’s really interesting how it mostly keeps its very basic control scheme of pointing and clicking. Only a few times are you required to actually use the keyboard and I find there’s an elegance to presenting the player with so much to do while retaining very basic and simple controls.
As is usual with games that try to subvert the player’s expectations, there are secrets to be found in Pony Island as well, in the form of tickets. See, you’re not actually just playing Pony Island. You’re playing as a dude standing in an arcade playing the arcade cabinet of Pony Island, and you can get tickets for what I assume are more lives for the game. That doesn’t mean that there’s a lives system in the game, just that these tickets are a way to track the amount of secrets you’ve found. And there are quite a few in there, hidden very cleverly. During my initial playthrough I managed to find only half of the tickets, so there is some definite replay value to be found.
But I think the best thing about the game is its length. Metanarratives loose something after the feeling of unease and unfamiliarity wears off and the fantastical becomes mundane. See also Stephen King’s The Dark Tower book series for something that was good enough to sustain a trilogy but drew itself out to 7 novels for some inexplicable reason. So saying that beating Pony Island takes less than 3 hours is a good thing, since it never outstays its welcome and manages to keep up a very good pace throughout its runtime.
There are however a few faults that I’d like to address. I liked the presentation, I loved the music and I felt the story it told made great use of the unfamiliar as well as the constant 4th wall breaks. Having your nemesis be Satan himself and you being on a quest to save the thousands of souls he took who played his game was a brilliant way of using blasphemous imagery and using it in a subversive way that doesn’t end up making it tacky. You know, unlike almost everything else that uses satanic imagery. Because just the idea of having Satan sitting at his infernal desk, coding an arcade game is hilarious. But this is just one half of the game.
The actual Pony Island arcade game inside the game is a side-scrolling endless runner with shot ‘em up elements and it’s just boring and after the initial introduction to the game it gets frustrating, having to play so many stages of this game that doesn’t actually have anything to do with the Pony Island meta-game. Which is a shame since I would’ve loved more densely layered meta-game content to figure out.
Outside of the overused Pony Island endless runner game, there isn’t much wrong here. Except the marketing. I get that when you’re creating a subversive meta-game, you desperately want people to notice it and not mistake it for something different. I mean you could go the Spec Ops: The Line route and just play the whole thing straight, but as that game proved, this can also hurt sales, since you’re not properly advertising yourself. But if you do properly advertise yourself, as this game does, it takes away the mystery and that’s already a minor spoiler to the game itself. The fact that there’s a mystery. Even my introduction to this review somewhat spoils what expectations you should have when going into this game, but I honestly don’t know what else to say? I mean I could just put a TL;DR at the start and tell you to just blindly buy it, but that goes against every fiber of my being, because I’d never tell someone to blindly buy anything.
However, this also highlights a problem I see arising in the near future of these subversive meta-games: There have been so many in recent times that I fear oversaturation is going to kick in eventually. I’ve already seen people complain about this particular game coming out and being another one of those games that are cute on the surface but hide more sinister stuff behind the veil. And I guess I can see where people are coming from with this, but I enjoyed myself with this game, since I managed to not get too spoiled by either the marketing or people who’ve played it. But I understand that this is a difficult position to get into and remain. Games with secrets attract followings and word-of-mouth attracts further players who are already spoiled somewhat since they know that what they’re presented with isn’t to be taken at face value.
Not to mention that YouTubers and Twitch streamers are to blame for an influx of games like these that set up a particular expectation and only thinly disguise the real content of the game to hook influencers and thus get more eyes onto their games. It’s a weird discussion that would be worth having, about game developers exploiting gamers to gain free marketing and how an entire industry has sprung up around it.
And yet in the face of all of that, I still can’t say I haven’t enjoyed Pony Island for what it is, but I only did because I refused to know anything about it. And that’s a dangerous position to be in.