We’ve all experienced that moment when we were sure that our computer is part of a demonic plot to drive us insane. It must be the ghost in the machine, the inexplicable life of a computer that is dead-set to be our enemy. Even in a cease-fire, this devil can be menacing; we stare at it for hours at a time during work and play, not knowing what it wants and barely speaking its language.
Beneath the brittle and colourful façade of Daniel Mullins' Pony Island hides arguably the biggest antagonist of them all – Satan in the flesh (in the bytes?). His ways are arcane, but his goal is clear: he wants the player’s soul. To that end, he designed and programmed the treacherous game Pony Island, within which player and devil fight for the ultimate prize: “Insert your soul to continue”
Satan’s game is a simple and mundane jump’n’run style game in which the player guides a pony over (for some reason) deadly fences. Its graphics and sound appear to be straight out of the 80s, and all of it plays out on an old, smeared computer screen. But the devil is a hack and a cheat, and his game is a corrupted, glitchy mess; time and again, it crashes and reveals glimpses of its technological infrastructure. To beat the devil at his own game, the player exploits these bugs, hacking and navigating his/her way through broken option menus, archaic desktop screens and the system’s code itself. In the depths of this ruinous machine-cadaver, the player meets lost souls and demons who help or hinder.
Despite sections that require some dexterity and precise timing, Pony Island is best described as a puzzle game. However, it is less concerned with challenge and logic than with lateral thinking and disorientation. Many of the puzzles are cleverly designed in such a fashion that they subvert expectations and conventions concerning games in general.
The game is at its weakest when the surprises become fewer and the player becomes more concerned with the challenge of the puzzles than the way they reveal how we think about games. Thankfully, this happens only rarely.
If it hasn’t been clear by now: Pony Island isn’t a game about Satan or techno-occultism, and much less about ponies. The devil can be seen as metaphorical for the strange and alien within the machine. Extending this allegory, the ponies and the (very occasionally) “cheerful façade” are the friendly yet only skin-deep user interfaces of games or operating systems through which people interact with the strangeness of the machine proper.
Pony Island is a game about games – and their technology – and therefore invites comparison to the handful of other games that point to a meta level. At their best, games such as these cast a light on the way we perceive and interact with games and technology. By estranging the banal and the self-evident, they prevent the disappearance of the eye on the screen, the hand on the mouse – the body in front of the machine – behind a screen of frictionless usability and immersion. In my opinion, Pony Island is more successful in this endeavour than other recent meta games such as The Magic Circle or The Beginner’s Guide – despite its humbler production values.
Pony Island may be very meta, but its tone is menacing rather than intellectual (or, God forbid, pretentious). The apparent silliness of a pony game designed by Lucifer only serves to underline the sadistic playfulness of it all.
At a second glance, the devil’s plan seems almost plausible; folklore, art and literature are rife with supernatural beings that engage humans in twisted games for their possessions, life, or soul. Max von Sydow plays chess with Death in The Seventh Seal, and Gollum and Bilbo pose riddles in The Hobbit. In the computer age, the devil – never one to get stuck in his ways – proves himself to be flexible and resourceful, trapping his souls in the hidden recesses of the digital.
If we accept this premise, it makes perfect sense that demons guard executables, while lost souls use live chat and the devil’s power corrupts code and files. This satanic subtext, chaotic unpredictability and an audio-visual aesthetics of archaic, crumbling technology produce a disturbing atmosphere despite the game’s playfulness.
Its anarchic whimsy alone would be reason enough to wholeheartedly recommend Pony Island to anyone interested in games or computers. Yet impressively, the game also manages to concentrate its cacophony of ideas into a coherent and meaningful whole. You certainly don’t need a fascination for the occult or miniature horses to appreciate this off-beat harrowing of hell.