Pony Island reflects on the video game with its particular version of the unexpected and experimental game. The (in) expected, come on.
We live in strange times. In 2001 Metal Gear Solid 2 surprised the world with a protagonist that no one expected, no one wanted and was designed to directly oppose the macho style of Solid Snake. Nobody expected the direction that the game takes in its last quarter, when the tone changes abruptly and you receive calls by the codec saying to stop playing, that you cannot be so upset. Buy yourself a life. When I passed by as a child, I remember thinking that my PlayStation 2, that console that was not even connected to the Internet, had a virus. It was disturbing to see those screens dictating “fission mailed”; it really seemed like a broken game. But now with the Internet everything is known. There are calendars specifying the superhero movies planned until 2020. The script for The Hateful Eight was leaked when filming hadn’t even started. Today’s sense of mystery and surprise requires mastery of worrying doublethink. That or cover your ears and scream for months. Even titles like Spec Ops: The Line or Undertale can’t hide their aces without being seen coming. Pony Island doesn’t even seem to try to hide its premise. It’s in the trailer. It’s even on the Steam thumbnail – this isn’t a game about ponies. What we still have to discover.
There is a screen in front of us. There is no fourth wall: we play someone who plays a video game in an unspecified location. It’s supposed to be Pony Island, a lovable title about pink equines jumping and blowing butterflies, but the fiction disappears immediately. We can’t even start the game because the menu doesn’t work as God intended. There is another button below, “options”. It’s the only one that seems to work. In agreement. In addition to the usual, there are new tabs. “Cheerful facade”, “1010011010”. “Fix the start menu”. It is a very abrupt declaration of intentions, as if the game implies that it is going to be a cryptic, mysterious adventure. Facing the unexpected. But beyond first impressions, Pony Island travels relatively conventional paths. There is a clear objective, established mechanics and a challenge with a difficulty curve. That first break with expectations exists to frame the rest of the experience. If you were expecting a text stating how difficult it is to talk about Pony Island because that would ruin the experience, sorry to disappoint you.
And yet this work seems to hide something. It seems to be about something. The first bars of predicted subversion serve to divert attention from his other interest: talking about the video game itself. Pony Island does not hide secrets in its history and is not subtle when it comes to showing what is happening, but that circus of mirrors and bloody ponies hides a reflection on, worth the redundancy, the circus of mirrors. The game has an ending in style because it has to, the plot advances because if not, you would stop playing. There are secrets because it is what you are looking for, and a hidden ending because you are a maniac. But in the end the only thing that matters is that you get to the third act so that what has to happen happens; there are forces greater than yourself, a plot that occurs in spite of you. The separation between player and avatar oscillates between connection and disconnection as the game talks about lost souls and satanic rituals. What difference does it all make, suggests Pony Island. You wanted something strange, right? For example, a video game within a video game that breaks and forces you to play with its code. Well here you go.
We live in strange times. Surprise is no longer enough. Everything will go and talk and the Internet will leave it well defined and well ordered so that you, the reader, can consume the information. You will take care of choosing what attracts you. Pony Island occupies a prominent place amid all that chaos, a strange corner. He knows that his subversive pretensions cannot withstand an assault, and that is because what he really wants is to get your attention, and then whoever has eyes, see. There is the real premise, in seeing the context of the story instead of being limited to what the game can give. Even writing all this to an audience that is probably not even familiar with it, this work maintains its integrity intact, because Pony Island needs to be experienced to really know it. It demands getting into their game, literally and figuratively. A twisted move.
It is difficult to define if this is a good video game or a bad result. It is an experiment, a statement. Is there a challenge? Yes Do you keep interest? Yes Is it varied? Yes. But judging him by those standards would not be doing him justice. The game uses its mechanisms as if they were pieces of a larger puzzle and, although individually entertaining and enjoyable, the real conversation is happening beyond its limits or the fusion of its parts. It occurs in the relationship between work and author, author and player, player and work. Work and industry. In the end you may feel empty, as if everything has been a waste of time. Like you haven’t achieved anything after all this effort. Perhaps it seems to you that you have discovered something new, a work like those that are hardly seen. Pony Island may be a revelation. But what difference does it make. It is a video game. It’s not real. All you want is to be distracted.