Pony Island is a game that defies categorisation. More of a short experiment in game design; Pony Island follows the player character trying to escape the limbo between the land of the living and eternal damnation, by breaking the code of an arcade machine created by Satan. Sounds weird right? Well it is, but that’s not all bad. The game uses this wild, meta, satanic concept to delicious effect at times and it leads to some incredibly creative moments. Tonally and gameplay wise, the game is an admirable fusion of so many genres and ideas that even if Pony Island doesn’t execute all of these ideas perfectly, the game is definitely fascinating.
Pony Island’s narrative is by far its most endearing quality. Being trapped and forced to play Satan’s crappy arcade game for all eternity is already a delightfully absurd set-up and Pony Island just gets more and more quirky, meta and racy for two hours. Being harassed by Satan is equally hilarious and threatening as he pops up unexpectedly to either warn you against breaking his game or encouraging you to play it. There’s always an ethereal presence in the game which drives the central mystery of how you died and how to get out. But the setting of an arcade cabinet is what leads to the best moments in the game and a lot of the darkly funny commentary on game design.
Similar to Undertale, Pony Island doesn’t put too much emphasis on its looks. The peripheries of Satan’s arcade cabinet are visible from the get-go, making it clear to the player that the game takes place from a first-person view, rather than a 2D one. This perspective is occasionally used in the story in an eery context that I won’t spoil, but the fact that the game takes place in an empty arcade game room is reminiscent of the Polybius urban legend of a cursed arcade cabinet that elevates the game’s horror elements. Other satanic imagery in the game also reinforces the psychologically disturbing aspects of the game: eyes, triangles, devil horns and sixes are littered all across the screen of the arcade cabinet in unsettling ways.
The UI of the arcade cabinet itself is equally distressing. Lines of codes, buttons and menus that flicker and disappear and an intimidating interface exudes a feeling of claustrophobia. The screen never gets so cluttered that you won’t be able to navigate it, however. Sometimes there are multiple anonymous message boxes that pop up with threatening, mysterious texts. Sometimes clicking certain icons will take you to an entirely unexpected screen with no way back. The lack of control you have over the cabinet plays with anxieties that people have with malfunctioning technology a lot of the time.
While it might not be totally obvious at a first glance, Pony Island deploys a symphony of perturbing sights and sounds. Pony Island is a type of psychological horror that’s rare in the video game industry. There’s an inescapable threat present in almost every screen of the game, but this atmosphere never gets too overwhelming: Pony Island’s off-beat, crude humour stops the game from ever becoming tough to get through.
As impressively eery as Pony Island’s mood is, its gameplay is often meandering. Trying to break Satan’s arcade machine consists of finding and destroying different parts of the game, three times. The repetition wouldn’t be a problem if there were enough interesting mechanics thrown into the mix in the meantime. The game usually switches between playing through the titular 2D, endless-runner, “Pony Island”, and navigating the internal code of the game by solving puzzles. The endless-runner portion of the game is by far the more dull part. Playing as an admittedly cute pony, you need to jump over gates that look like sticks for two minutes until you reach the end. The game tries to mix things up by throwing enemies at you, giving you a cool looking beam to defend yourself with and introducing a gliding ability but it doesn’t help much. Most of the cannon-fodder thrown at you can usually be defeated in one hit but if you do happen to make a small mistake by getting hit once, you need to restart the section from the very beginning. Bland backgrounds and design in general only make these sections even more dull. Over-utilised and uninspired, the game would’ve fared a lot better if it had stripped back this mini-game and not had it shoulder half of the entire playtime.
The other—more interesting—half of Pony Island’s gameplay experience comprises of solving puzzles in intimidating looking lines of pseudocode. Don’t worry, you won’t actually have to do any coding just rearrange a bunch of symbols to get to the end point. At first, this is simple enough. All you need to do is move around arrows that act as visual instructions to move down, left, right or retry. When the game starts to introduce portals and more obstacles, the challenge is also significantly upped as well as timing and planning is a major consideration too.
Pony Island doesn’t excel in everything it does but that’s fine. The game’s relatively short length means you won’t need to slug through some of its dull gameplay sections for too long. Its surreal, nightmarish setting and story are more than enough to make up for its flaws. While Pony Island won’t be for everyone, if you’re interested in game design and enjoy devilishly witty, experimental games, Pony Island is for you.
You can probably find Kaan hibernating until the next episode of Game of Thrones.