Much like how French filmmakers in the late 1950s and early 1960s sought to radically redefine the cinema with self-reflexive works that examined the very nature of movies, a recent movement of creators have sought to move the video game medium forward with a new genre of meta-games. The two most prominent have been Andrew Hussie’s Homestuck, an online webcomic with playable minigames about a video game that creates universes which can only be won if the players deliberately break the “programming” and cheat, and Toby Fox’s Undertale (2015), an overnight indie cause célèbre that reveled in metacommentary concerning the player’s ability to save, load and restart whenever they want. These ideas are hardly new—see Nintendo’s Mr. Resetti and Eternal Darkness (2002) deleting its players save files—but as a new generation of creators who grew up playing video games begin to make their own, such exercises have come into vogue.
Daniel Mullins’ Pony Island, released this past January, is the latest of these meta-games. Ostensibly a sickeningly twee arcade machine about a pink pony who must jump gates and race for end-level flags, Pony Island slowly reveals a darker, more twisted side as it literally breaks down and crashes. When the player tries to restart the game, they find that it has somehow become rigged so that they automatically get killed by monsters after a set period of time. What’s worse, the player can’t stop playing. After a bit of exploring the in-game menus the player discovers that the arcade machine is possessed by demons who have trapped thousands of souls inside itself over the years. Faced with an unbeatable game, the player has one option: dive into the coding, break the game, and save their immortal soul from damnation.
Pony Island is really three games—a puzzle game, a platformer, and a mystery graphic novel. The in-game hacking is managed via mini-games which are essentially a recycled version of the hacking minigames in Bioshock (2007) which were in turn a recycled version of The Pipe Game where the player must rearrange a sequence of tubes within a time limit so that a slow-moving liquid traveling through them doesn’t spill out. But the hacking pays off when the player manages to unlock new, unexpected powerups for the game such as deadly lasers and the ability to fly. The ensuing platforming sections where the player’s pony must jump, dodge, and blow up enemies can be particularly hectic for idiots like myself who played the game with a trackpad instead of the recommended mouse. The mystery graphic novel comes in the form of guided sections where one of the trapped souls helps the player navigate the game’s programming, learn its secrets, and delete the monsters inhabiting it.
Pony Island took me two hours to beat which, considering its $5 price on Steam, was quite fair. Much like other meta-games it’s somewhat outdone by its own necessary linearity. I can’t see the game having any replay value unlike Undertale with its memorable characters, eclectic soundtrack and multiple endings. By engaging the real-life player as the protagonist, it forced Mullins to depersonalize the game so that any hypothetical player could have the same uniform experience. The result is a game which, while frequently inventive and bizarre, leaves little to no emotional impact. It’s a marvelous two hour distraction, but not much else.