There’s a scene in Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man that goes on for far too long. It kind of has to, though. The novel’s hero, Stephen Dedalus, is spending his youth trapped at a Catholic boarding school, and there’s this pivotal moment where he is forced to sit through a sermon full of fire, brimstone, and hyperbole. Stephen is so terrified by the drastic consequences of non-believing that his impulses to reject religion are temporarily waylaid.
I love Joyce. I spent the better part of my higher education studying him. Academic careers have been built on the back of this one passage. But I found it achingly dull. Don’t get me wrong – It’s smartly written, and one of the most important bits. You get put in the character’s shoes in a way that had never been achieved in the English language. So that’s cool. But, as it turns out, had I been in Stephen’s shoes, I would probably have fallen asleep. The speech goes on for dozens of pages, even though you get the gist of it within the first few sentences. I ended up flipping through those pages without remorse.
Pony Island finds itself in a similar situation, but with the videogamiest, dweebiest of differences. Let me explain.
Pony Island is a teeny, tiny indie game, in which the game you are playing – a pretty rote, endless, runner-style affair – is not really the game you are playing. As with the infamous Frog Fractions, Pony Island (the arcade game) is simply the setting of Pony Island (The Game You Are Actually Playing On Steam). A malevolent, Satanic force is intent on keeping you trapped inside the endless runner, and it’s up to you to break the confines of the game in all kinds of weird and wonderful ways. Don’t worry, I’m not spoiling the fun. There are plenty of silly, surprising, metatextual things the game throws at you throughout which you really ought to experience for yourself. It’s a cool game that looks and sounds fantastic. It costs less than half a pint in London, and you’ll get through it in a few hours.
The problem for me was the whole Pony Island part of Pony Island. You spend a lot of time in Pony Island playing Pony Island, and for Pony Island’s entire conceit to work, this has to be an unpleasant experience. There are a few twists and turns, but the arcade game itself is fundamentally about doing timed jumps over fences. I found these sections clunky, fiddly, and bothersome, which is clearly the exact emotional response the game was aiming for.
Look – I spent most of my time in Pony Island with a huge, stupid smile on my face. It’s a clever little thing, a metatextual foray into video game modernism. It’s exciting to see the continuing trend of games turning their own language, rules and conventions in on themselves. And in that respect, it’s a worthy successor to games like Frog Fractions or The Stanley Parable. But it also made me painfully aware that no other media forces you to wade through bullshit so regularly. I couldn’t fast forward through the shit bits, even once I’d gotten the joke that the game knows they’re shit bits. Worse, if I didn’t pay attention during the shit bits, I’d be dragged back to the start of the shit bit, because the game requires you to perfectly complete a series of timed jumps. Fail once and be sent the start.
This often meant Pony Island committed the cardinal sin of a ‘game with jokes in it’: it became repetitive. I found myself wishing that there was not only some way to fast forward, but also some way to do so and not miss out on the context of how long these levels were supposed to be, because their length was so obviously important to the narrative.
Since playing Pony Island, and persevering with it, I’ve done nothing but recommend it to everyone I know who enjoys games that break the fourthwall.exe. But every one of them has given up, due to the fiddly controls and fussy nature of the game’s central conceit. I originally started writing this piece in early January, but it was very different. You see that paragraph, up there? The one where I gush about how the game exemplifies the literary potential of games as an artform? That was going to be my central point. But kick me up the CTRL+X and call me CTRL+V, because the longer the game lingered, the more I couldn’t help but think that in actuality, Pony Island embodies one of gaming’s worst vices: it ditches ambitious artistic expression in favor of elitist, dumb, skinner-box high-scoreism – the twitch-based fail-state.
Maybe that’s a vice that has its place, in your competitive experiences, your Dark Souls and your DOTAs and your Super Meat Boys. This isn’t a game about beating the odds, or another player. At it’s best, it’s about working shit out. When this game made me solve puzzles requiring thinking outside the box (and outside the outside of the box), it felt harmonious, holistic, even. It’s a pity, then, this was so marred when, on occasion, I was made to prove my ‘gamer credentials’ to the game, as if there were a bouncer at the door, demanding to see my collection of Threadless T-shirts, weighted mice and Xbox Live achievements before letting me in to see the next chapter.