Life is simple, right? You sit down to play a game where a pony jumps over gates, what can possibly go wrong? It’s not like some otherworldly force thirsts for your soul, or anything. Wait. What was that? That flicker? Is the game talking to you? How can that pony be so happy? Why is the game talking to you? The existential dread sets in.
How do you review a game which hinges so completely on the surprising delivery of its content? A game where you can look at a screenshot, but not begin to understand what this mass of blocky pixels and counter-intuitive ideas even means? Something that frightens you without offering physical harm, and terrifies you with its banality?
Excellent question. Let’s give it a go.
Pony Island sees players cast as… someone. Maybe themselves? The game engages the player directly, so it feels like it is you personally being addressed. But then again, you see memories of someone who obviously isn’t you. Although, maybe it is me? It could be that these memories I have now are the fake ones, and those in the game are real? Would you want to play as me? What if I am not real, and I just exist as a voice inside your head? And what if you only exist inside someone else?
Game play is very simple, primarily involving pointing and clicking with either the left or right mouse buttons. Some typing or arrow key movement is involved, but this is infrequent, though very clever in its use.
In most games the controls are a means to an end. You manipulate the controls to engineer a desired action. Pony Island turns the controls themselves into the game, and makes players question the very act of interacting with computers. Fundamental lessons that they have been learning since the first time they sat down at a PC are challenged. You will never look at your desktop the same way again.
There is a very obvious, though devious, game play loop throughout Pony Island. Players are presented with four different types of interactions, basically mini-games. These recur throughout Pony Island, gradually getting more complex, convoluted or downright bizarre.
This build up of mechanics and ideas is masterfully handled. As players come across them they look nonsensical or impossible. But after trying and failing a couple of times the answers begin to present themselves. It is the task of finding the order in the chaos, and it is extremely rewarding when you make it through a sequence. You feel smart and empowered, but the game is structured in such a way that each success also feeds into a mounting sense of dread.
The sound is also used to great effect. A consistent, low hum constantly bores its way into your being. This is offset with eerie 8-bit sound effects and a ludicrously catchy chiptunes soundtrack. There are no recorded vocals, though the few character that you do communicate with are given voices which are suitably garbled and electronic.
Also of note are the graphics, which are deliberately terrible in a haunting and loveable way. Even though the vast majority of Pony Island is spent staring at a mock-retro console screen, great effort has been put into creating a world which seems to stretch beyond this cathode ray window.
The monitor appears dirty and smudged, with cobwebs and dirt around the frame. In game Pony Island graphics are chunky and bold, and effortlessly move from drab monotones to rainbow kaleidoscope and back again, all without losing a sense of menace and otherworldly lineage.
What really makes Pony Island stand out, though, is the phenomenal writing. Games often have to trade off humour for scares, or vice versa. Pony Island is written in a way which constantly exudes evil, while at the same time being quite tongue in cheek and self-referential. Whoever is responsible for the narrative core of Pony Island, as well as the character creation and scripting, should be extremely proud of themselves.
At its most basic level, Pony Island is a well written game. It is an atmospheric piece of art which uses traditional writing coupled with game play segments to build a set of characters. These characters have unique goals, beliefs and personalities, but they feed into a central story which almost oozes from the screen onto the keyboard.
It’s an excellent mesh of story and game play. Replayability is high, too. All through the game are scattered little secrets, things which don’t impact the players ability to finish, but do contribute another layer to the story. These can be as simple as clicking something to activate it, to more complex tasks like answering questions from a mysterious observer to discover what it knows. There are also a number of tickets scattered throughout the game, the collection of all providing the player with access to the ‘true’ ending.
Due to the way Pony Island is executed, there is very little about it which can be viewed as negative. The game is built around flaws and bugs. In fact, the only piece of critical feedback I can provide is that the game didn’t remember my sound settings. Each time I came back in to play I had to reset the main volume. Annoying, but hardly any kind of imposition on myself.
SUMMARY: If you are someone who is into thought-provoking games, likes their perceptions challenged, enjoys a dense and layered story, or just has a high threshold for the bizarre then this game is definitely for you. You will lose yourself in unravelling the mystery that Pony Island presents. But if none of these qualities sound like you, stay away. Pony Island is more likely to confuse and infuriate you then provide the avant-garde experience it is aiming for.
Pony Island is developed and published by Daniel Mullins Games, and is available now on Steam.