Arts

Game On

A strange trip to ‘Pony Island’

One interesting way to conceptualize the universe of all video games is to put them on a set of axes labeled “weird” and “fun.” The horizontal axis is “weird,” with straightforward games like, say, the “Madden” series at the far right, and stuff that’s more offbeat, like Jason Rohrer’s 2007 impressionistic “Flash,” a game in which players experience a whole (pixelated) lifespan in five minutes, at the far left. As for “fun,” “Half-Life” would be at the tippy top (it also has a bit of weirdness), and the bottom would have . . . well, let’s be charitable and not name names.

“Pony Island,” new from Daniel Mullins Games for Windows, Mac, and Linux PCs, is both very fun and very weird. You play as a person sitting at an arcade console of some sort. An arcade console running on a very old computer. Oh, and the computer may be haunted.

Some of the game involves navigating interfaces that look like very old versions of Windows, opening programs and text files, and so on. Other parts involve puzzles in which you need to rearrange little symbols to get a key to click into a lock. Sometimes you’re in the game “Pony Island” itself — the game within the computer within the game — which entails helping a unicorn (a pony, of course, would be too straightforward) jump over obstacles and get to the end of a level. Throughout all this, some dark force is taunting you, sometimes slapping threatening messages on the screen, while a friendly force is repeatedly reaching out via old-school AOL Instant-Messenger-style chat boxes, telling you how to defeat it.

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As is probably clear right now, it’s very, very tough to figure out what the heck is going on in “Pony Island.” But the game dances delicately right on the edge of collapsing under its own bizarreness, and there’s always just enough guidance to nudge you toward the next goal. In other words: “Pony Island” is all the way to the far end of the weird axis. But it also makes you want to find out what happens next.

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Part of why the game works is the wonderful way it dangles a sense of control in front of the player’s face — amidst the chaotic environments, it’s never clear exactly how much influence you have over the outcomes. Only through experimentation can you figure out which options to select, why certain areas of the in-game computer seem to be locked away, and so on. (At one point “Free Will” comes up as an option in a menu, with a box next to it. You can’t check it, of course.)

It must be hard to make a game this weird and fun and open to interpretation, with the game-y elements so nicely balancing the artsy elements. Playing “Pony Island” is a really memorable experience, and I wouldn’t be shocked if it ended up being one of the weirdest games of 2016.

Jesse Singal can be reached at jesse.r.singal@gmail.com.