The best tricks are those that deceive beyond the first look. It’s easy to pull off a single bait-and-switch, where something seems innocent enough until the curtain reveals the truth with a grand “a-ha!” The real tricks are the illusions that don’t fade away, that hang around you and color your perception of what’s real to the point where you wonder if it was really an illusion at all.
Pony Island baits you in with that simple first look, as one glance at the game’s Steam Store page will tell you right away that this isn’t a typical game about ponies (not that I have a wealth of experience in pony-based games). It’s clear from the beginning that something is very wrong with this pony game, as you have to manually “hack” your way in just to start it.
What follows is a deep, deep dive into the heart of a diabolical machine. As the game breaks around you, a lost soul appears and informs you of the truth: Pony Island is a snare for souls, built by Lucifer himself—and you’re already in its clutches.
The game’s sinister machinations play out on a dusty, grimy old CRT monitor that flickers and pings like a beat-up Galaga cabinet. It’s a setting that seems perfect for this sort of devilry, similar to an old antique waking up a powerful evil, but in video game form.
As you and your lost soul friend commit to destroying the machine and freeing the thousands locked away inside the cabinet, you begin to peel away Pony Island’s many layers. You’re playing a game about getting a pony to the end of a level, but you’re also trying to bust open the code, hacking into the game’s deepest recesses to find a way to free those whom Lucifer has trapped inside.
THE DEVIL LOVES PONIES TOO
The first layer of the devil’s snare is a simple, unassuming endless runner game that wouldn’t be out of place on your phone next to Temple Run. You click to make the little pony leap over gates and trot across the screen to a flag. Soon, though, Lucifer begins to push back, sending pixelated demons at your pony to hinder your progress and keep you trapped.
To combat his tools, you have to delve into the game’s code and rewrite it, giving your pony upgrades like demon wings and a laser that shoots out of its mouth. The coding and programming has been simplified a great deal for those of us who shy away at the first sign of a command line prompt, but it still creates a difficult and engaging puzzle game that ties into the theme.
And yet as you dive deeper into Pony Island, beating Satan’s levels with a mix of hackneyed code and good ol’ fashioned jumping, there’s never a sense that you know what you’re doing. Who is this lost soul? They’re guiding you somewhere, but where?
There’s a hidden walkthrough you can dig out of the text files, but all it lists inside are the steps to finding it—so who wrote it? Has someone been here before, tried to overcome Pony Island and failed, leaving behind their clues as tools so that someone else might progress further? Or is this just another of Lucifer’s schemes, to pull you deeper and deeper?
Through every coding segment and exploration of files, Pony Island pulls you in further. You’re always trying to find freedom, but that freedom seems to rest at the deepest depths of the game’s systems. The closer you get, the angrier Lucifer gets, sending vicious programs at you to impede your progress and keep you trapped. Yet you soldier on, because that lost soul compels you to. It’s the only way out, they say, yet at some points I was wondering how I would ever finally unravel the box of tangled scarlet Christmas lights that is Pony Island.
It’s a game that makes you think outside of its own box, outside of what you think you should do and what you can do. It forces you to ask questions, to think critically and fool around with different configurations and settings until you break the right thing. Maybe that options menu isn’t just a list of random features like “anti-aliasing,” but contains a seemingly innocent doorway to the next depth of hell—a pixelated, pony-filled hell.
More than anything, Pony Island is a game that toys with your trust. Demons imitate people, puzzles play with your understanding of how the game is supposed to work and prophets tell you different facets of your character’s backstory that seem unimportant yet vaguely ominous. At one point Pony Island fooled me into thinking I had messaged an awful thing to someone on my Steam friends list, and then had me thinking my phone was going off every other second, until I had to consciously will myself to complete a section without looking down or tabbing out to my browser.
By its conclusion I didn’t know what to think. Had I succeeded? Did I free everyone? Or is this just another exercise in the devil’s neverending toying with me? I wiped Pony Island from my computer, but part of me thinks it’s still lurking, waiting for the moment when I least expect it to grab me and drag me back in.
But I shouldn’t worry. It’s just a simple little game about ponies, right?
Eric Van Allen is a Texas boy and freelance writer who can be seen at IGN, Paste, Playboy and other outlets. You can follow his work and ramblings on Twitter at @seamoosi.
RELATED: The Gamers Next Door Beat the Shit Out of One Another in ‘Gang Beasts’