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.