Indie Game of the Week 10: Pony Island

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Daniel Mullins's Pony Island sort of defies any cut-and-dry genre descriptor or really much of an explanation that doesn't deprive you, the hypothetical reader who has yet to play the game, of some small fraction of the enjoyment to be derived from the twists and turns it has in store. In the most basic terms possible, it's an endless runner game mixed with a coding puzzle game framed by an adventure game that involves desktop interfaces, glitches, code routines, Satan and frolicking ponies which are clearly unicorns. You've probably seen or heard enough about Pony Island by now to have gathered as much.

Rather than diving into any one of those aspects too deeply - the fact is that they're all kinda threadbare, as the game only takes about an hour or so to conclude - or discuss any of the aforementioned twists and turns and potentially spoil them, I want to give you an idea of the vibe I got from playing it. If you're looking for a persuasive argument for or against purchasing the game (I'm leaning towards the former, by the by), this will hopefully suffice as an alternative.

An example of a coding puzzle. Thankfully, you don't need to know much about coding to get past these sequences. It's more about using that occasionally-intimidating language and format for a type of puzzle that's actually far more benign.
An example of a coding puzzle. Thankfully, you don't need to know much about coding to get past these sequences. It's more about using that occasionally-intimidating language and format for a type of puzzle that's actually far more benign.

Pony Island reminds me vividly, whether that's intentional on the part of the developer or not, of three properties: a cartoon, a webcomic and another video game.

  • The video game is Undertale. Not only does Pony Island share with it a certain, let's say, economical graphical presentation, but it also shares its love of the meta behind video gaming. In this case, the way characters in the game conflate the player with the player character, or the way it explains directly or indirectly through context how the usual conventions of games of its type function so it can go about subverting them. The more "it's all a video game" aspects of Undertale are present here, and I can't help but feel that the two projects probably inspired each other in their development. I wouldn't go so far to say which way around that relationship went, since I'm not privy to the details, but there's a certain strand of knowing meta humor throughout both.
  • The webcomic is Dinosaur Comics: Ryan North's regular explorations of a trio of pop culture fanatic dinosaurs and a few recurring guest characters. One of those guest characters is a curt version of Satan who responds to central character T-Rex exclusively about video games through an ominous red font. If North has some comic idea involving the discussion of video games or the conventions thereof, he'll usually bring the Adversary out for a quick chat with a mostly oblivious (dinosaurs don't play video games, turns out) T-Rex and co..
  • The cartoon is Homestar Runner, the mostly dead creation of the Chapman Brothers who have now moved onto writing and producing shows for Disney. Frequently, back when the site was still active, their breakout character Strong Bad fields emails from his fans entirely through the interface of a dusty old computer that hasn't seen an update since the Reagan administration. A lot of the humor of these "sbemail" skits involve the antiquated technology that Strong Bad is nonetheless enthralled by, and the ways it will regularly futz out or be forced into "early" retirement, just so Strong Bad can triumphantly return with a minimally less archaic system. This also gives the Brothers Chap and their associates the opportunity to program some lo-fi early-DOS-era action games which Strong Bad might feasibly own, which in turn become mini Flash games on the site. The most elaborate of these - Peasant's Quest - is actually a pretty decent King's Quest clone involving Trogdor the Burninator and throwing babies into lakes.
"It goes some places" is definitely an ambiguous cop-out retort I've used far too many times for this feature, but with some Indie games surprise is a significant percentage of what they have to offer. I mean, check out this guy.

Pony Island is not a perfect combination of the three above properties but I hope it's enough to give you an idea of its sensibilities, humor and direction. Beyond that, though, I daren't talk more about where it goes and what it puts the player through for the sake of learning more about the situation they're in and how to escape it. Even if you're familiar with the game, all of that loses something when described in text. Please note that it is not a particularly long, mechanically in-depth or challenging game - though some of the endless runner stages can get a bit hectic - but might be better served if you thought of it as an adventure game with action sequences that aim to serve the story, rather than the usual opposite. That was the case with VA-11 Hall-A a few weeks back too. It's not worth labelling Pony Island as an endless runner or puzzle game, since it won't stack up well next to pure games from either genre, but rather a story-based game that uses those mechanics as a hook and weaves them into its narrative in clever ways. The game's definitely worth checking out, if only to see what it does next.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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