2015 was the year meta-games peaked. After years of playing with genre conventions and tropes, last year’s top indie games abandoned all pretenses of subtlety in their nostalgic lip-service and fully embraced it. Much like the film-school generation redefined American cinema by transforming the director into auteur, indie gaming has entered into its own renaissance, birthing games that place the developer directly in front of—and sometimes in opposition to—the player. But if 2015 was the year of the meta-game, Pony Island is out to prove that 2016 will be the year of the meta-meta-game.
At a glance, it’s easy to assume Pony Island is yet another quick-and-cheap game spat out by an amateur developer trying too hard to be cute with his homage to retro graphics. Launching the game, the player is presented with a cheerfully saccharine menu of pixellated pink ponies frolicking through verdant green fields. Selecting “New Game” takes the player back in time and replaces those nostalgic graphics with black and white pixels even more primitive, presenting another main menu. It’s here that the game offers its first hints that something’s not quite right.
Try to start a new game from here. Pony Island won’t allow it. The screen glitches, the audio tears, and the menu option is eventually replaced by an error. It’s an easy fix, requiring some simple tweaking in the game’s settings—a process familiar to anyone who’s ever had to adjust their graphics to get a game to run. When the game finally agrees to play nice, the player is greeted with a basic jumping game, controlling a pony and clicking the mouse to make it jump over unchallenging hurdles. Yet this cheerful little game gives off an uncertain sense of foreboding, the rudimentary black and grey graphics underscored with an eerie electronic approximation of music.
Before making much progress, the game becomes trapped in its own bug-ridden loops, eventually crashing and forcing the virtual system to reboot itself. Attempting to fix the game only seems to make it “angrier,” and it soon becomes apparent that there’s more to this creepy little game: what begins as a minute-long obstacle course will quickly suck the player into a haunting virtual world that tries to thwart every attempt made to exorcise its demons.
Veterans of the indie scene will be no strangers to developers playing with expectations. Last year’s runaway hit Undertale transported us to the 8-bit RPGs of our youth, but challenged us to consider the morality of mindless slaughter so common to the genre. Davey Wreden’s The Beginner’s Guide poked holes in our grasp of reality to tell the story of an emotionally tortured game developer who just wanted his audiences to accept his work. These games started to peel back the veil between their game worlds and the spaces beyond—our desktops. Outside the game, we cease to be adventurers in fantasy realms, so when the game begins to toy with our understandings of this divide, it’s impossible to know who’s being played.
Pony Island goes even further with this mechanic to create moments that are truly haunting. While Undertale gives a voice to the typically nameless monsters, and The Beginner’s Guide allows its creator to step into the starring role, Pony Island uses the computer itself as the game’s key character, and primary antagonist. The less said about these moments, the better—they need to be experienced firsthand to deliver their most gut-wrenching blows—but Pony Island will leave you wondering whether you’re ever truly out of a game once you’ve chosen to quit.
By Daniel Mullins Games