If you’ve made it back with your sanity in one piece, or if you’ve already recovered from losing your mind, you’ll probably have noticed the thing those games have in common, which is that they’re not exactly what they appear to be. There’s a simple mechanic at the core of each game, but the real game is more in the meta commentary about what the game actually is. Games about games, like The Magic Circle, are the decidedly postmodern expression of restless developers who aren’t satisfied with the complacent feedback loops and progression curves of modern games, but unless they’re literally making a point about the meaninglessness of control (The Stanley Parable), they’re best when they actually manage to be a game, even as they deconstruct the entire notion.
Enter Pony Island, a self-described “suspense puzzle game in disguise,” which basically establishes the game-within-a-game “Pony Island” as a limbo-like punishment for gamers, a one-trick…well…pony, in which you leap your magical pony/unicorn over gates over and over again until you agree to cede your soul to Lucifer. Pony Island itself, then, which does far more with its retro framing device than You Have to Win the Game or classic Strongbad cartoons, is a game of constant one-upmanship; players “cheat” at the devil’s game, at which point Lucifer changes the code, forcing players to once again hack their way around his conventions. Along the way, the game pulls tricks from Eternal Darkness‘s book, cleverly attempting to convince players that the game is failing so that players will feel smart when they out-think the devil and progress to the next act.
Except, and here’s the really clever part, the heart of the game really is “Pony Island.” Even though you’re aware that this black-and-white wireframe jumping simulator (which eventually gets two upgrades–a laser and wings–that don’t add much to the difficulty) is a repetitive anti-game, there’s so much framework built into Pony Island itself that you can’t help but dive back into the original game. And along the way, you’ll even get to see the various iterations of design, from a minimalist text-adventure rendering to a pathetic 3D version, and even a few different skins, including a cheery, full-color “modern” version. If the goal is simply to not play “Pony Island,” players can simply quit at any point–Mullens doesn’t go so far as to obfuscate your menu options. But because there are hidden “Pony Island” tickets to collect by completing cryptic tasks–along with equally meaningless Steam achievements–players soldier through the banal hopping in order to see what clever trick comes next.
And there’s a lot of content here, from optional tasks like interacting with the desktop’s “Settlers of sAtan” and finding passwords buried in broken option menus, to a series of “hacking” puzzles that involve placing basic operators into holes in faux-code. It’s nothing overly strenuous. Even when loops and splitters are introduced, which calls for a lot of mid-routine micromanagement, the game isn’t actually trying to keep the player from winning; it’s just trying to convince the player that it is. That’s the genius: “Pony Island” represents every repulsively designed bullshit time-suck, and Pony Island redeems them all. This even fits into the whole idea of games-as-limbo, in which players can either uselessly throw away their life/time/soul, or can find something of merit within the limns of all that code and thereby make something more of themselves. (It’s one of the reasons I turned to criticism in the first place, as actively participating in entertainment is far superior to passively observing it.)
Even though there is no part of the final level that I even remotely enjoy, I couldn’t put Pony Island down. It kept wrapping new and surprisingly devious tricks around the same-old-same-old pony express, and the context kept me going. Is there any practical difference between shooting a laser of corrupted binary data at demons or blowing a gust of wind at butterflies that just want to tickle you? No, just as “Pony Island” itself could be just about any game. What matters, then, is what’s around the mechanics, and in that, Pony Island has found gold, and the fact that it doesn’t settle for simply being a series of puzzles (like Please, Don’t Touch Anything), is what elevates it to a Game That Matters–a game that, in finding both structure and absurdity, succeeds more than Frog Fractions. It’s a joke that laughs with you, not at you.