One of my favorite narrative devices is that of a constructed work being aware of itself. I constantly find myself drawn to the idea of the fabricated thing becoming aware of the implications of its fabrication, and doing something cheeky about it. Whether it be a cleverly done work of a meta-narrative, biting commentary on a genre the piece is operating in, or even the plot element of a robot trying to figure out what it means to be self-aware, I really can’t resist this stuff. Undertale is probably the most successful example of this in a video game, because not only did it masterfully explore this narrative theme, but hides that as its ultimate nature in plain sight quite brilliantly.
Pony Island certainly plays with this very specific thematic tool, exposing itself quite plainly with the tagline: “This is not a game about ponies.” To put it in more honest terms, Pony Island is attempting to be a game about subverting your expectations about what kind of game it actually is. Daniel Mullins Games wants to surprise you at every corner, pulling you here and there until you don’t even know what a pony is anymore. Indeed, when Pony Island surprises and turns the world upside down is when it’s at its best, and simultaneously it’s at its most droll when it runs out of clever surprises, which was far sooner than I was hoping for.
Pony Island begins as an auto-run game where you control a pony that has to jump over barrier-after-barrier until you reach the end of the level. Sometimes the game breaks, so you have to hack the code using an in-game tool to fix it. This manifests as a logic puzzle game where you have to get the game to make it past whatever point is causing it to crash on its track, using different software programs to try and force it forward. When you fix it, you get to play more Pony Island! But then the game completely crashes on you, and that’s when Pony Island reveals its true intentions.
Just as Pony Island is presented as a broken game, it surprisingly becomes an experience about exploring the mind of the broken soul that created this sad, simple piece of entertainment. And then it surprises again: this is also the story of the broken soul that is playing this dark, twisted pony game. I know I’m being vague, but Pony Island is all about its surprises, so just about anything I describe in explicit detail will be major spoilers. All I can do is skirt the edges and talk about what Pony Island wants to do.
But that’s the rub, as Pony Islands fails to pull what it goes for by the end. About halfway through the game as you're traversing this nightmare of broken code and cryptically disturbing messages hidden in-between the lines, Pony Island runs out of surprises and then becomes an actual video game. Those two gameplay systems I mentioned above become iterated ad nauseum becoming quite boring despite introducing upgrades and new visual tweaks, which while are neat in the context of Pony Island: The Video Game, are not engaging in the ways Pony Island: The Experience was engaging with me before this point.
That’s not to say that Pony Island is beyond redemption. Up until the very end, Pony Island threw a twist or two that reminded me how much I was enjoying the game before. But like a tombstone, they only reminded and made me mourn what wasn’t anymore. Even the story collapses before the finish line, feeling either underdeveloped or tied to you gathering its brand of collectibles which I always not interested in pursuing. Repeatedly as I was playing through Pony Island, I felt like the game itself practically gave-up on everything it set-out to do in the first place, leaving not much behind in the process.
What does hold-up to some degree is Pony Island's production values. But that's most likely because I'm a sucker for faux operating systems, weird but designed glitches and the distorted virtual reality all of that brings with it. As things become more corrupt and horrible, the visual look of the game begins to crumble along with it and looks awesome while doing so. This degradation of the visual style also affects the fairly simple electronic soundtrack which attempts to invoke the musical styling of PC games of yore, which is accomplished, if unremarkable in its execution.
Pony Island is a fine auto-run game about conquering obstacles, and is a fine hacking game about fixing broken software code. But the game simply can’t sustain and maintain the breakneck pace of its packed first half, rationing out its final moments of surprise and wonder at a crippling, limping pace until I hit the lackluster finishing line. It’s a game that promises not to be what you expect, but then becomes exactly the game you experience very early on. That doesn’t take away its brilliantly clever set piece moments of self-awareness and biting criticism on the video game industry – and I’m quite grateful for having experienced these potent moments – but it does put into context the kind of game Pony Island ultimately ends up being. Pony Island is a game about ponies.
THREE OUT OF FIVE
(A balanced game that has a mixture of strengths and weaknesses, meaning that it alternates between being good and bad in mostly equal measure.)