Wot I Think: Pony Island – The Smartest Game Of 2016

2016 has its first must-see game, already. Pony Island [official site], about which I had heard nothing before seeing it on Steam’s new release list, is something special. A sinister, peculiar game of… well, blimey, even describing the nature of it feels like quite a hefty spoiler. Although it’s fair to say it starts off deeply weirdly before it even tries to bluff innocence. Before you can get past the menu screen, you find yourself faced with a bizarre options screen, falling text, and loading screens that berate you for progress. And happy jumpy ponies!

If you trust me, go buy the game right now. £4, so a London pint. You will have a completely unique and interesting time. If you need more convincing, read on.

The overall idea, at least at first, appears to be that you’re playing a computer game that is intent on capturing your soul. What is ostensibly a cutesy game about jumping a sixteen pixel unicorn over white sticks is in fact a formidable muddle of menus, broken code and threatening messages. In the best possible way. Allusions toward satanic themes hint at the severity of the situation, ludicrously contrasted with the simplicity of the copyright 1992 game you’re playing within the game. And within it all is a repeated puzzle game that at first glance looks like yet another programming code gimmick, but thankfully reveals itself to be far more pragmatic.

So, you’re sort of “hacking” the game, but without the overwhelming feeling that you need to learn C++ before you can enjoy it, as with last year’s pandemic of “how the sausages are made” games. This is much more about exploring the screen, experimenting with the interface itself, and using instant messaging to communicate with unknown others within.

There’s a good dose of Brechtian Estrangement, the fourth wall itself being brought in as a feature of the game, rather than simply being broken. What appears to be the most graphically minimal two-tone computer screen is momentarily glimpsed from slightly farther back, your characters arms flitting in front of your view. There are also walkthrough files that, somehow, seem to be mocking you by listing the steps you’ve already taken to reach this point in the game. There’s something extraordinarily patronising and effective about this, the game not only making it clear that all your moments of what felt like inspiration were the only option you ever had, but also causing you to further question the boundaries of your reality by pre-scripting the enemy’s apparently planned emotional responses to what it already knew you were going to do.

It should be said that there is a stage, later in the game, that is over-protracted and far too comfortable with itself. The puzzle mechanic it has created is smart, but everything about the game until that point is the real reason you’re playing – once it rather smugly (the good side of this) presents too many of those puzzles in a row (the bad side), it begins to feel far too ordinary, no matter how glitchy the screen may look. Fortunately, it then gallops off in another entirely mad direction, until its eventual bonkers ending.

It’s a few hours long, but it crams so many neat ideas into that time. Quite how well the overall concept works, of Satan himself trying to get souls through a videogame, is rather questionable. But suspend disbelief on that. This is a game that had me both laugh out loud, and exclaim to my monitor how smart it was being (the game, not my monitor, although let’s not ignore how clever monitors are). There are moments that I desperately want to tell you about, because I think if you knew it had things like that, you’d be more compelled to play. But it would be awful to spoil any of those few best bits, so I shall instead force people I know to play it so I can then exclaim at them, “WHAT ABOUT THE BIT WHERE IT…!” But trust me when I say there are two in particular that are properly bloody clever.

This is such a treat, and I fear that the (perfect) name will mean too many people look past it. I love that it’s not mocking anything in particular when it apes early 90s arcade games, and yet feels like it’s mocking the entire universe at the same time. I love that it feels cruel, yet I couldn’t make a good argument to justify why, especially when half your time is spent jumping about a magic pony. So trust me, pick this one up.


  1. kud13 says:

    That looks too much like a unicorn.


  2. yogibbear says:

    This is a really silly question, but do you think this game would work well with a Steam controller? Itching for something to try it out on… don’t know what the controls are like for this game but looks like it might be OK.

    • Brackhar says:

      It’s not a silly question, as when I bought the game I wondered the exact same thing. Having beaten it on keyboard and mouse I think it will generally work pretty well with two exceptions: First, a common thing you need to do is do a circular tracking motion on the screen and reasonable speed, which with my still limited experience with the controller I’d probably find a little challenging. Secondly there are a few limited parts of the game where you need to enter text (though not a lot of it). If you are comfortable either with the steam keyboard or have a wireless keyboard handy though it shouldn’t be too much of a challenge.

      • yogibbear says:

        OK I’ve played the game and would recommend not playing with a steam controller. Mouse and Keyboard is where it is at. I think I “beat” the game… so I uninstalled it. Pretty annoyed I didn’t get an achievement for uninstalling…. :D

  3. caff says:

    I skim read to the bit where you said “only £4” and have wandered off to play this for a bit. I’ll read your review and report back in later.

    • caff says:

      Ok I have a Steam key here:

      Let me know if it works?

    • caff says:

      It’s really jolly good. I haven’t completed it yet, but it’s definitely the best laser-shooting pony hacking simulator I’ve played this year. (Yes I’m going to put that review on the Steam store page).

      When playing it suddenly brought to mind a very old game I once played on the Atari ST that I can’t remember for the life of me what it was called. You walked around arcades and played games in this really creepy carnival-type area.

      • RanDomino says:

        (Yes I’m going to put that review on the Steam store page)


      • caff says:

        And… finished. Fantastic little diversion and deserves the praise it gets. Boo sucks to anyone who says this is “nonsense trying to be strange” – this is “strange nonsense” done well.

  4. cpt_freakout says:

    I bit… looks pretty interesting, so I hope I can get into it in the weekend.

  5. Shazbut says:

    This sounds like My Kind Of Thing!

    …I wonder if Undertale was an inspiration…

    • Carbon. says:

      Well, I don’t think it does. Mainly because I remember seeing this game a while back, or at least the concept for it. (I may be wrong but I’m pretty sure the concept version was made during a game jam)
      There was a cool little demo/concept version that was free to play on their website for a while, which I played although it is no where near as clever as this version. Anyway, my point was the concept for this game was floating around a while before Undertale was released, so unless the developers knew each other there probably wasn’t any inspiration.

  6. Rhodokasaurus says:

    Alright. So, look.

    What is going on with you, game industry? Is this the decade that we fellate every game that comes along excreting ironic low-fi graphics, promising to subvert everything you thought you knew about video games and lead us to a deeper, more meaningful existence?

    Already beads of sweat are forming on brow as I imagine hordes of caustic pre-teens screaming their shrill allegiance to Pony Island in every corner of the internet, spam-botting every survey, insisting it’s an irreproachable masterpiece, followed by dozens if not hundreds of articles written by grown men creaming their jeans over pixellated tween philosophy.

    But if you want to know what crawled up my ass and died, why I’m being so unbelievably rude about something I could just ignore, it’s because I know, I KNOW that eventually when I’m beaten down by article after gushing article claiming how brilliant this game is I’ll finally give in, buy it, and sit there baffled at how I was tricked again, while you “journalists” will have moved on to proselytizing a game where 8-bit emojis try to replace an idealized memory of your mother via a platforming/rhythm-based mashup.

    What is going on with you, game industry?

    • draglikepull says:

      Generally when one insults others for “tween philosophy”, it would be better for the comment itself to not read like the screed of an adolescent who just registered for LiveJournal.

      • Rhodokasaurus says:

        Of all the potential retorts (to a personal opinion), ‘nuh uh, you are’ is the weakest I can imagine.

        • Enkidum says:

          But… you are!

        • draglikepull says:

          I would consider a lengthy, hyperbolic, self-important diatribe to be much weaker, but to each their own.

          “To each their own” also being the mature response to not liking a thing as much as other people do.

          • Rhodokasaurus says:

            Fuck, I replied to ‘this guy’ again. I’m a freaking idiot.

          • Premium User Badge

            kfix says:

            Finally something I can agree with.

          • gwathdring says:

            One can respect that other opinions might, in principle, be just as valid without yielding to their correctness explicitly. “To each their own” is a fine sentiment in some contexts, but using it to bludgeon anyone with an opinion strikes me as bizarrely hypocritical and while normally I’m not much for the concept of hypocrisy either, it seems especially apt in this case particularly because we’re talking about how and when it is reasonable to voice an opinion and being snippy at someone while sarcastically pointing out hypocrisy and immaturity …

    • mechabuddha says:

      I’ve thought of a few responses, but am having trouble picking one. Feel free to choose on your own:
      1) I’m glad that the game industry isn’t entirely beholden to people like you.
      2) It’s just a game, chill.
      3) Have you considered that your gaming preferences might be different from others?
      4) GRAPHICS

    • stickler says:

      As a long time lurker I registered just to say I agree with you.

      • Rhodokasaurus says:

        Thanks, I usually lurk myself (surely most wish I lurked more). Games journalism’s a weird thing, though. You got one guy with a pulpit and a bunch of plebes squabbling in the comment sewers below.

        Truth be told though I generally like RPS and I’m surprised they haven’t banned me.

        • hungrycookpot says:

          If you’re after straight up reporting, no prosthelytizing, no jean-creaming, only hard facts about good games with a modern comment system, this may not be the site for you.

          • TwilightVulpine says:

            Reviews are largely subjective. All hard facts can tell is if a particular technical aspect is competent or not compared to other games. But as far as story and entertainment go, the best you can get is an informed opinion.

    • Hillbert says:

      A little harsh perhaps, but after being stung by Undertale I also feel some trepidation about games like this.

      It’s probably going to come down to how “quirky” it is and if there’s a devotion to retro aspects of gameplay that were left behind for a reason.

      • Sarfrin says:

        I wasn’t very keen on Undertale but this was a lot of fun.

    • alms says:

      What is going on with you, game industry?

      And now AssCreed is going to skip a year to go with a refreshed, jolly Witcher feel. The end is near, I’m telling you!!

    • gunny1993 says:

      Well it could be that…. or, it could be the decade where high graphical fidelity games have repeatedly let the public down by focusing on a shiny package with zero worthwhile content; leading to a growth in low fidelity games that actually try to accomplish something, be it emotionally,mechanically or simply being fun, using the small amount of resources available to them to create a game that people enjoy.

      • Rhodokasaurus says:

        The forward-thinking might think that the complaints are an indictment of the gaming press and fanbase more than the game itself. Hell, I haven’t even played it, but a game that looks like it’s already pandering to an Undertale aesthetic with the headline screaming “smartest game of 2016!!” just one week in sets off all kinds of red alarm.

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          Adam Smith says:

          It doesn’t look very much like Undertale at all as it plays out. And, though I don’t like to speak for others, I’m fairly certain that John was the one RPSer entirely unconvinced by Undertale.

          I’ve played this as well and found it much closer to Dr. Langeskov, The Tiger, and The Terribly Cursed Emerald: A Whirlwind Heist or even Frog Fractions, even though it doesn’t imitate either. It’s cheekier and more overtly silly than Undertale, which is very sincere at heart, and this also has a decent puzzle game tucked up its sleeve along with all the trickery and gags.

          I loved it.

          • Rhodokasaurus says:

            This comment had more relevant information than the actual review which reads like a used car salesman. That’s probably the center of my saltiness.

          • LionsPhil says:

            Yeah, this should have been the actual Wot I Think.

          • John Walker says:

            Just to check, you’re arguing that this review should have said that it wasn’t like another game it’s nothing like, and then said that it was good?

            *makes notes*


          “pandering to an Undertale aesthetic” Holy shit how clueless do you have to be to even say something this bullshit? Black and white computer games have existed for a long time, and this aesthetic isn’t even that undertale looking.

          “the headline screaming “smartest game of 2016!!”” You added two exclamation points you lunatic, try joining us in the real world.

          • shevtsov200 says:


            To those who wonder why some people compare pony island and undertale. It’s not because of the graphics but of some particular 4th-wall-breaking-steam-api-using fight in undertale and brilliantly executed one in pony island.

    • GWOP says:

      Do you get this dramatic every time you try a game someone recommends and you don’t like it?

    • horrorgasm says:

      Let’s say that everything you said was true and correct…if you, the “true gamer”, are caving in to empty hype and buying every game you think is behind destroying the industry…then isn’t the problem…you?

    • derbefrier says:

      yeah I feel ya man. sometimes i think journalists like these kind of games because they can play it for a few hours and then write an interesting article about it. like when Dayz first came out and you read all these wonderful diaries about all these adventures and then you buy the game and realize 99% of your time is spent running through the woods with nothing happening or getting killed by some invisible sniper, or getting spawned killed on the bean coast. I am sure you have heard the term “Oscar Bait” I like to refer to these types of games with “journalist bait”. I get it, i do, it sure the hell beats regurgitating PR release #335454 for Call of Duty 9000 and i do enjoy reading this stuff but it gives quite the false impression of moment to moment gameplay. therefore i have learned these type of gimmick driven indie games are fun to read about but hardly ever as much fun to play so i avoid them.

      • Rhodokasaurus says:

        Yeah, survival games have always been like that. They’re wildly popular and then as soon as you try one it’s lord of the flies if everyone called each other racial slurs and you’re like “This is what everyone pours 600 hours into?”.

        At least with something like Ark you don’t have journalists calling it the smartest game of the year and repeating (twice) “Trust me, just buy it!”.

        I mean Mike-Fucking-Fahey wrote a better article about Pony Island. Christ.

        • Babymech says:

          Mike Fahey wrote an article that makes experiencing the game a lot less meaningful, and called the game good, whereas John Walker wrote an article that tried to keep the experience intact for the reader, and called the game good. They’re both recommending that you play the game, but the Kotaku review was the one that actively stole pleasure from your potential experience, because Kotaku has no self-restraint and will shoot its mouth off for clicks any day.

          Keeping spoilers from the reader is not necessary in reviews of most games, but in Pony Island it’s pretty important, because so much of its short pleasure comes from discovering the surprises it holds. I’m glad John understood that.

    • Geebs says:

      Just commenting to say how delighted I am at seeing some good, old fashioned Internet Debate in the style of “I like/don’t like this thing because of (these reasons) and screw you if you don’t like/like it”/”I recognise and respect your right to hold this opinion, which clearly denotes you as a moron for (these reasons), and by the way screw you too”, as opposed to that tiresome “maybe YOU are the problem” schtik which is the domain of passive-agressive bores who would be better off just blocking the entire internet.

      That said, John is usually spot on with his puzzle game recommendations, so I reckon you’re probably wrong and will check this thing out.

      • TwilightVulpine says:

        If there is any matter where “you are the problem” it’s opinions about media. Tastes are different, it isn’t a matter of passive agressiveness. So, you are wrong.

    • John Walker says:

      Bearing in mind I’ve had three bewildered attempts to play Undertale and bounced off it each time, I think your oh-so-topical rage might be somewhat misplaced.

      Imagine if, and just try to hold this thought in your head for a moment, I’m a competent critic and have identified an immediately smart and funny game.

      • Hillbert says:

        To be fair, trusting RPS in the same way is what led to me buying Undertale and spending a frustrating two hours (two buttons to skip dialogue? argh!) wondering just what it was I wasn’t getting about that game.

        That said, this does look more interesting and if it’s being recommended by someone who didn’t get along with Undertale, then consider me sold.

        • John Walker says:

          Well, you clearly shouldn’t trust those other idiots. Just me. I mean, look:

          link to twitter.com

        • Geebs says:

          For what it’s worth, I spent my first two hours with Undertale being annoyed at the highly concentrated archness on display, and wondering grumpily when the “magic” would kick in. I hated the first character you meet (the one who gives you the phone) and I was pretty unimpressed with the two brothers you come across after that. I’m also not a fan of random battles and found they got pretty tiresome.

          Still; a short time after the point you gave up, the game started growing on me more and more, and didn’t stop until it suddenly collapsed into a heap right at the end because of a gameplay decision I’d made.

          I know that “it gets better later” is often a very annoying thing to hear, but Undertale isn’t a long game and the good bits I’m referring to warmed even my blackened old heart.

          (Personally I haven’t yet quite forgiven RPS for encouraging me to buy Kentucky Route zero, which is a protracted piece of nauseatingly affected twaddle)

        • caff says:

          I also bounced off Undertale. Pony Island is not really comparable, but is more approachable and is the type of game I expected Undertale to be. It feels like a collection of the best experiences you get in some freeware games, collected under a dark and brooding hood.

    • alms says:

      I’ll pretend for a minute you’re being honest and point out that 2016 being in its 6th day it wouldn’t take all that much to be bestest best something or other?

      But that would be like saying the game isn’t all the smart, so let’s try another approach: do games generally get smarter as the year goes by? is there like a trend supported by statistical data showing that the smartest game of the year only comes out at the end of the December or something?

      If the answer is “not really, no” (and trust me, it is) then what exactly is the point you’re trying to make?

    • froz says:

      “But if you want to know what crawled up my ass and died, why I’m being so unbelievably rude about something I could just ignore, it’s because I know, I KNOW that eventually when I’m beaten down by article after gushing article claiming how brilliant this game is I’ll finally give in, buy it, and sit there baffled at how I was tricked again, while you “journalists” will have moved on to proselytizing a game where 8-bit emojis try to replace an idealized memory of your mother via a platforming/rhythm-based mashup.”

      Ha, interesting. I had that experience with pillars of eternity. It wasn’t 8-bit game.

      You know, it seems you expect the world to have fun by doing exactly the same things you do. It rarely works that way. One person likes one thing, another something else. It’s ok. If you think you won’t like the game, just ignore it. It really can be done, you don’t have to buy something just because you read an article about it. And ultimately, if you do buy it on steam, you can return it if you don’t like it (just don’t wait too long with that).

      As for the “smartest game of 2016”, if you complain about that, you must have mistook RPS with some place where such titles are taken seriously.

    • Innocent Dave says:

      “…a game where 8-bit emojis try to replace an idealized memory of your mother via a platforming/rhythm-based mashup.”

      I got my hands on a beta build of that one last week, and it’s AWESOME.

    • Carbon. says:

      Sorry, not really noticing that trend you seem to think has defined this decade.

      However I’m really enjoying a game with low-fi graphics that is making me question myself and video games, I think it is called “Final Fantasy VI”

      Oh and Earthbound was good too.

      (And seriously I don’t have a problem with games like Undertale coming along that entertain me the same way FFVI and Earthbound did)


      “excreting ironic low-fi graphics” LOL poor baby can’t handle artistic expression. You are literally saying that people can’t make a certain style, how worthless of a critic can you be?

      “promising to subvert everything you thought you knew about video games and lead us to a deeper, more meaningful existence” Bullshit strawman argument, you must not know much about art.

      “spam-botting every survey” Oh you’re just an Undertale hater how typically histrionic.

      “followed by dozens if not hundreds of articles written by grown men creaming their jeans over pixellated tween philosophy.” Impliying that they are any worse than this hilariously whiny screed about people talking about things that you don’t like. Oh the humanity!

      “when I’m beaten down by article after gushing article claiming how brilliant this game is I’ll finally give in” Special snowflake feels oppressed by many people that like things they don’t.

      ““journalists”” LOL nice scare quotes, “dumbass”.

    • gwathdring says:

      So you want … what? More Call of Duty? More … what? I’m not saying Pony Island is the future of gaming, exactly, but diversity is the future of gaming. Proclaiming that everything that’s weird, quirky, niche and lo-fi is hipster bullshit leaves us to conclude that you think everything should be either standard AAA fare or that it should be highly polished, relatively straightforward, mildly innovative “triple-indie” fare that may or may not do anything particularly interesting.

      It’s cool if you think the game is dull, poorly designed, or uninteresting. But … what would you rather them talk about? Bioshock Infinite? The weather? You realize “smartest game of 2016” is partially tongue-in-cheek because it’s January right?

    • TwilightVulpine says:

      As someone who enjoyed several games recommended by RPS, including this one, I have to say there is nobody “tricking” you. These are recommendations. If your taste doesn’t align with RPS maybe you should go seek different reviewers.

  7. racccoon says:

    This proves just how crazy we really are. nice touch of the going back in time which is like yeah..going back in time. but hey it does look tempting to play..

  8. ggggggggggg says:

    I have to agree with the really angry guy here at least in part. subverting-expectation pseudo-meta indie games have been a sort of fad for at least two years now. It’s incredibly hard to give a shit about another game that looks like a pretend 8 bit indie turd and turns out to be a pretend 8 bit indie turd… with a spooky twist!!! I need more than awful screenshots with mismatched pixel sizes and an article full of superlatives that avoids describing the gameplay to play this.

    • ButteringSundays says:

      Then don’t play it.

      Your whole comment implies that the world owes you a reason to play this video game simply because it exists. If you’re not convinced then maybe, just maybe, it’s not for you? Why do you need someone to convince you otherwise, as if your individual opinion is important?

      • ggggggggggg says:

        what an insanely boring response. I won’t play the game because all I’ve seen of it are insanely generic looking screenshots and this weirdly half assed article, but I’m still allowed to have an opinion about what I’ve seen.

        • Xantonze says:

          Steam refund is your friend.
          Why take the piss when you can simply try the game, and get your money back if you don’t like it?

    • gwathdring says:

      You’re grumpy because games that do interesting and surprising things are considered interesting? Whereas you think this whole interesting and surprising things bollocks is a overdone and everything should be … normal and expected and boring because interesting new ideas that subvert expectation are boring now?

  9. RCoon says:

    I don’t understand how you can give any game “X game of 2016” when we’re only six days in. What if next week a game comes out that’s more wonderful in the “smart” department?

    • Erayos says:

      I think it’s the joke of the title. Being one of the first game of 2016 allows it to be the smartest “for the moment” even if it’s not that smart (not saying it isn’t though, didn’t play it). And if there’s a smarter game in the next weeks, this one just won’t be the “smartest game of 2016” anymore.

    • ButteringSundays says:


  10. rustybroomhandle says:

    I guess I could pony up £4 for this.

  11. aksen says:

    i bought it based on John’s text before the trailer. i’ve only played an hour so far (hi, bed time), but i’m totally satisfied with the money spent. and in case anyone thinks its because i’m an indie 8-bit hipster or whatever it is, the two games that have sucked up 90% of my time in the last couple of months have been pillars of eternity and darks souls 2 dlc.

  12. johnnylongstreet says:

    Pony Island crashed my computer. Took me a while to realize it was for real.

  13. Innocent Dave says:

    Wow, that was fricking great! :)

  14. Harry_Mess says:

    Okay, so can we talk about the ending? After the credits, when Mr. Friend guy says that you need to uninstall the game. Is that the end? If you uninstall and reinstall, is there a new thread to the game? What if you restart the game from the beginning and play all the way through? Is there a secret way of getting more content? I do not trust this game one bit! Is it truly the end??

  15. Tinotoin says:

    Wow, a lot of people sure seem angry at this game’s very existence – never mind it be praised.

    I, for one, am disappointed I stumbled on a complete playthrough of it – and wished I’d experienced it for myself.

    Oh well, the playthrough was still entertaining.

  16. AculAlHazred says:

    What really bugs me about this, is that you actually have to play the horrible pony-jump game within the game.

    If the game makes a joke out of how bad “pony island” is, it shouldn´t force me to play it.

  17. detarame says:

    I’m really glad I missed the review here and on Jimquisition when a friend dropped this in my box. I played it completely blind and – wow. Everything is true: it’s funny, it’s thoughtful, it’s compelling.

    My girlfriend looks in on me from the other room when I’m at about the 80% point. She legitimately thought I was going crazy: staring wild eyed at the screen and occasionally bursting out laughing. Clicking and gesticulating wildly, then she walks in and…. it’s a text adventure game?!?

    I couldn’t begin to explain.

  18. Premium User Badge

    Serrit says:

    I took John’s advice and stopped reading after the first paragraph, and finally now got around to playing this. I like it a lot – definitely benefited from not really knowing anything about it going in, so thank’s for that recommendation John!

    I agree the superficial pony-jumping game is probably used a little too often by the mid-end game, but other than that it had me fully engaged, grinning, laughing, and at one point panicking! Definitely worth 3 hours and 4 quid.

  19. JuergenDurden says:

    this article was awful faff…

    the trailer is awful, confusing and faffy…

    the screenshots are non-descript “this could be anything” faff…

    the game however is surprisingly fun,inventive and clever-ish. and way more accessible than friggin under”thefuckdoseepeopleinthis”tale.

    give it a whirl.

    • JuergenDurden says:

      actually, don’t. there’s nothing here. an annoying puzzle mechanic, a few moments of manipulating option menus in weird ways and a super annoying pony jumping runner game that will just piss you the fuck off. the clever bits?


      it at one point simulates a crash to desktop which you wont buy cuz the resolution of the game won’t match that of your system and at another point it tries to distract you with a bunch of fake steam messages and notification sounds- which really only works if you ploay it through steam. and yeah, that’s it. super clever. almost as clever as when arkham asylum did it almost 8 years ago.

      • Xantonze says:

        … Or MGS 17 years ago.

        This game did’nt work for me either. The “so bad it’s good/fun” got old quickly.

  20. ribby says:

    Of Satan himself trying to get souls through a videogame, is rather questionable.

    Ah, but if you find the secrets, turns out what’s actually happened is Satan is trapped inside a videogame and wants you to delete it to let him out.