Sometimes it can feel like everything’s already been done in entertainment. Every modern movie is an adaptation of a book that’s been written a thousand times by authors that have been influenced by the stories their heroes have penned years before. Video games are no different. For every Call of Duty, there’s a Battlefield; for every Gran Turismo, there’s a Forza; for every Super Mario, there’s a Sonic the Hedgehog. But every now and again a game comes along that completely throws you off and makes you appreciate how brilliant this medium can be. And, sadly, chances are you didn’t play it.
At the start of this year a little game that sounds like it has a Hasbro tie-in was released on Steam and captured my heart while fucking with my head. Pony Island is one of those games that you’re better off knowing as little as possible about before jumping in – its main aim is to demolish every single one of your preconceived notions on what a video game can and should do, and it does so wrapped up in a simplistic endless runner.
Leaping over hurdles and shooting laser beams from your face is only a portion of what Pony Island has to offer. These stages are a serviceable slice of interactivity but not the main ingredient that sees you through ’till the end because Pony Island is effectively two games: the aforementioned okay endless runner and the meta game that occurs via manipulating the OS of the in-game arcade cabinet. It’s beautifully peculiar.
Seeing as you haven’t played Pony Island this year, here’s a little breakdown: you’re in front of a cab of this game called “Pony Island” that’s basically a retro looking Super Mario Run, but it quickly turns out that The Devil uses this classic title to claim the souls of those that play it. By fiddling with the game’s code through an easy-to-learn-hard-to-master satisfying tile puzzler, and interactions you have with dodgy unknowns in chat boxes of the OS, you must stop Lucifer’s evil doings. Usually we know Satan as this evil beast that wants to watch the world burn, and while Pony Island’s Prince of Darkness is no different he’s also a big fan of Stewart Lee.
The constant jibes and sarky quips that spew from the being at the gates of Hell through a few bits of text on screen are a genuine delight. It’s well documented that comedy isn’t something that video games excel at, but the writing of The Devil had me belly laughing at points. To know more without playing it would be doing yourself a disservice, though, because one of the best things about Pony Island is how different it is to almost everything else that came out in 2016.
As the years have passed, “cinematic” has become a dirty word in games. AAA titles like Uncharted are vilified for having elaborate cutscenes where you can put down your controller and pick up your cup of tea for ten minutes. I don’t fully back this notion – I love the Hollywood-like bombast of a Rise of the Tomb Raider, or a poignant moment between father and son in Gears of War 4, but there’s nothing in these scenes that you wouldn’t or couldn’t see in Michael Bay’s latest flick. On occasion, we need to be reminded of what makes video games special, or what makes them unique to other art forms.
Titles like Her Story, The Stanley Parable and Device 6 exemplify what’s special about this pastime of ours and now we can add Pony Island to that list. Developer Daniel Mullins’ dark and twisted effort is a glorious example of the type of wonder that can be found by trudging through the dregs of Steam. Maybe I’m an old romantic, or just an artsy fartsy bollocks, but it’s nice to be surprised when we see a lot of cookie cutter releases in a calendar year. If you’re one of those that did play Pony Island, you probably know this already. If you haven’t, then you know what you need to do.