The Layered Storytelling of Pony Island

Jake Theriault
Aug 2 · 8 min read
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Pony Island | Daniel Mullins Games (2016)

Pray, for devils have no reason,

Satan waits to curse your ways.

Have you seen it in his eyes in the sunset?

Have you wondered if he’s laughing when you play?

Life is a game and the stakes will remain the same.

Now you’ve gotta choose, is the devil gonna win or lose again?

- David C Hope / Steve Walsh | Kansas Song for America, “The Devil Game” 1975

For two hours in January of 2016, I recorded a “Let’s Play” with a friend of mine of Daniel Mullins’ Pony Island, an indie title about an arcade game designed by the Devil. Unbeknownst to us, the player character was not the only one trapped playing Pony Island. For two hours in January of 2016 we too were trapped playing Pony Island, as Daniel Mullins — thought by us at the time to be just another indie game developer — became the Devil of his own creation, compelling us with each new bit of gameplay or narrative to not just set the game aside and complete it later, but to play it through to the very end. Every point at which we considered stopping and picking it up another time, Daniel Mullins, through the dark magic of his game design, forbade it.

Released on January 4th, 2016, Pony Island is an astounding feat of game development. I had a chance to interview Pony Island creator Daniel Mullins shortly after the release of his 2nd game — The Hex — but until recently I thought the audio had been lost due to a hard drive failure. Thanks to a freshly discovered backup of those files, you’ll be able to read a little bit of that transcribed conversation from Forbes 30 Under 30: Games recipient Daniel Mullins on the making of his mind-bending masterpiece: Pony Island. We’re going to hit some minor story and gameplay spoilers throughout this article, so just bear that in mind before we continue.

Looking back on that “Let’s Play” I noticed that one of the first things I said during the recording was, “I had — like — a list of talking points I wanted to talk about in case the game got dull”. Never has a more ignorant statement ever passed through my lips. Pony Island was not dull. In fact it did something not often accomplished by the media I consume: it surprised me. And not only did it surprise me narratively, but also in its design and gameplay. It was doubly surprising and subsequently doubly satisfying.

Though Daniel spent a few years cutting his teeth programming for larger games companies, his dream was always to go “full indie”. After a handful of mobile games and an unfunded Kickstarter for a darker themed-Pokemon/Magic: The Gathering hybrid, Pony Island was the lightning in a bottle needed to propel his hopes for indie development into high gear.

Like many great indie games, it all started with a game jam. The jam was Ludum Dare 31, and the theme was “Entire Game on One Screen”. Daniel said this of the game’s initial inspirations:

“…my first thought was to do this thing where the entire game is within the options menu of another game — and what is that other game? Oh maybe it’s this — it appears to be this cute thing, but it’s actually created by the Devil.”

Developed in his free time over the next year, Pony Island’s kinetic energy soon became unstoppable.

“I think I was really driven, like I was more driven than I was before and ever was after. Just because I felt like I was just kind of picking up steam - it started as kind of, “Oh well I’ll just put this game jam thing on Steam Greenlight”, and then it just takes a few people saying something nice about it and then that makes you put in more effort and then it kind of builds. And so the more serious it got I more I realized this was actually my real chance to do this as a career. So I definitely put in a lot of hours, but all told it was probably still less than a full time week considering [the responsibilities of] my other job.”

Subconsciously inspired by games like Portal and Motherload — games Mullins says were experiences that have a “certain facade” that falls apart as the game progresses — Pony Island relishes tearing down its many facades. We’re not talking just the general facade of a fun game about ponies that is actually a much darker game coded by the Prince of Darkness himself, we’re talking multiple big narrative twists and multiple immersion shattering fourth wall breaks.

Pony Island is an exquisite exploration of the concepts of both metanarrative and ludonarrative. By way of brief explanation, metanarrative is — as defined by the Oxford Dictionary — a narrative that experiments with or explores the idea of storytelling, often by drawing attention to its own artificiality. In Daniel Mullins’ Pony Island, the in-game Pony Island developed by Satan has little to no bearing on the actual story of Daniel Mullins’ Pony Island, instead acting as a Macguffin for the metanarrative of your attempts to extricate both yourself and the thousands of other souls trapped on the arcadified hamster wheel that is Satan’s in-game version of Pony Island.

Pony Island is so deftly designed, that you don’t even realize it’s guiding you down a set path. As a puzzle game, the function of breaking down Satan’s Pony Island’s many layers is delightfully organic — often so organic that I constantly found myself thinking, “am I playing this the right way?” Pony Island so perfectly replicates the feeling of searching through an old hard drive, that when you finally arrive at the files you’ve been looking for, it creates a genuine feeling of joy. Each discovery and each step down the path toward your own salvation creates a sense of genuine celebration within the player — as though our own soul’s fate were actually tied to that of our protagonist. I was euphoric as I peeled away each layer of Satan’s paranormal anti-virus software in order to free myself and my new companion from the electronic hell of Pony Island. It was the exact same feeling I had when I pulled a dusty thumb drive from a mountain of USB cables and discovered Daniel Mullins’ interview audio within.

As you — the protagonist — weave your way through Satan’s file structure to the three core files you’ll need to delete in order to free yourself, you — the player — will find yourself an unwitting participant in Satan’s shenanigans. I recall quite vividly a moment in our Let’s Play where I genuinely wondered if Pony Island was actually possessed. The moment in question comes at the end of the game’s second act, when you reach the last of the three daemon’s guarding Pony Island’s core files. All this daemon asks of you is that you pay attention, and not divert your gaze. That’s it. He’ll ask you questions to check your attentiveness, but that is — for all intents and purposes — the whole encounter.

So, keeping your eyes on one part of the screen? Sounds easy, right? Wrong. Now, before I talk about this aspect of the game, it is kind of a huge gameplay spoiler, so if you want to savor this moment for yourself during your own playthrough, skip the next few paragraphs. You’ll know when the spoilers are over.

The manner in which this daemon attempts to distract you, genuinely broke my brain. First, the daemon asks you to type something “disgusting”. Jokingly, we typed “fart”. As the daemon continued his monologue, something disturbing happened. An important bit before I continue, I was at this point in time only friends with two people on Steam — my friend Sam, who was sitting beside me during the playthrough; and my brother Sam, who had just returned to school after his summer break. As this daemon rambled on and on, a Steam message appeared in the corner of the screen — a message, seemingly, from my brother’s account. The message read, “lol”. Not thinking much of it, I assumed he might have been making light of the fact that we were both on Steam at the same time, which during his schooling and my full-time employment, was a rare occurrence. But then a second message came, and a much more sinister thought crept into my mind. This message once again had the appearance of coming from my brother, but this time all it said was, “fart?”. This is Pony Island’s Psycho Mantis moment.

It was soon revealed that these messages were not from my brother, but generated by the daemon to distract us. Daniel Mullins had conceived of such a devious and simple distraction, that I was in absolute awe of what he had done. When I had the chance to actually sit down and talk with him, I knew I needed to ask about this moment specifically.

“So any game on Steam has access to the Steam API, which is a set of functions that can provide you with information — one of them is just “Get Friends”, and this is intended I imagine to be used for built-in social functionality, like an in-game menu to invite your friends to the match, but once I realized I could kind of get this information my mind started racing on how I could use it best to freak people out.

I still remember the first person that I watched play that part was my brother, and I was just sitting across the room watching him play — trying not to interfere much — and then that popped up and it was one of his friends and he just looked at me with this look of horror on his face, like “what have you done.” And that was great, that was the payoff enough right there.”

No more big spoilers! Yay!

So what about the ludonarrative? Ludonarrative is, in layman’s terms, how the gameplay and story of a game complement or contradict one another. You may have heard the term used in the context of “ludonarrative dissonance”, which might be used to describe a game with incredibly fun gunplay or combat but whose story attempts to make the player feel guilty about killing. The gameplay and story live in opposition to one another. However, in Pony Island, the gameplay and story live in blissful symbiosis.

Almost immediately after the beginning of the game, two narratives emerge. Firstly, that of the player character, who — residing in a nebulous brick and mortar arcade — stands before the Pony Island cabinet, and attempts to free themselves from the clutches of Satan; and secondly, your own tale, as you the player guide the player character through the dark machine of the Devil in order to free him and every other soul lost to the programming evils of the Dark Lord. Pony Island draws you in, and makes you care about the outcome of the game. This is a game with player choice of eternal consequence. I don’t want to spoil the end of the game, but Pony Island’s last bit of gameplay is not in Pony Island at all, but in the Steam interface, where you’ll have the option to delete Pony Island from your library, or let it sit and occupy a tiny corner of your personal computer. I’ll echo here the sentiment of the Kansas song I quoted at the very top of the video, “Now you’ve got to choose, is the Devil gonna’ win or lose again?”

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