Metafiction has always been a weird genre to me. While I certainly appreciate the appeal of deconstructing the things that have become ubiquitous in our media, too often it feels unearned, as if created under the assumption that self-awareness somehow granted immunity from criticism. I tend to associate this feeling with the works of Grant Morrison, someone who is clearly very intelligent, but tends to go just a bit too far into the self-indulgent. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve grown to appreciate attempts to rebuild conventions in the wake of that deconstruction. After all, it’s so much harder to create something with meaning if you work within a set of guidelines and can’t stop to wink every few minutes.
Games have, for the most part, approached it a bit more gracefully. Part of that is due to the fact that they require us to be at least somewhat of an active participant, so acknowledging that we’re a part of the experience creates less of a disconnect than it would otherwise. Main characters are often painfully transparent analogs of us as players anyway, so it doesn’t feel as drastic to take that extra step, but as the medium gets older, the novelty wears increasingly more thin. After all, most of us are achingly aware that we’re really just controlling a series of numbers in the pursuit of feedback loops and increasingly values. You can only cut so deep until you hit a skeleton composed of ones and zeroes.
Pony Island very easily could have overstepped completely. Often it straddles that line, and there’s one moment in particular where I’d say it flat-out crosses it, but it mostly behaves itself, not overstaying its welcome and giving you just enough freedom to not feel, as with some other meta games, that the whole thing is just some backdrop for the developer to make a clever point. In fact, if anything, the insistence on not delivering some overwrought commentary on the state of gaming as a whole feels like a conscious statement itself. It uses the knowledge we have as gamers to lead us down a narrative spoken entirely in a language that would be foreign to anyone not privy to the conventions of the medium, but at no point does it ask us to ignore that narrative.
Irrelevant to any gags or references, Pony Island never forgets that you are a character in the story and that your battle with the corrupted game and/or the unknown force inside is still the focus. That’s where the game sticks the landing. At the end of it all, you don’t feel lectured or taunted, you simply feel that you’ve reached the end of a story.
It’s a difficult space to work in, for sure. Part of me wishes that Pony Island abandoned the meta aspects completely and doubled down on the ever-present air of uneasiness that exists for the whole of your two hour playthrough, but it’s also possible that you couldn’t have had one without the other. Embracing yourself as the main character makes that feeling of anxiety and dread more personal, the oppressive isolation one has when leaning forward towards the humming of an overly lit monitor in a dark space. There’s a reason the urban legend of the Polybius arcade cabinet has been frequently spoken of in the same breath, because it captures a similar intrigue, that potential for discovering something terrifying and unknown.
My bias towards horror aesthetics aside, it’s still a very worthwhile experience, if nothing else because so few games are likely to ever duplicate it, if they could even attempt to. Sometimes I have to catch myself giving games the critical equivalent of a participation medal for simply daring to be different, but Pony Island is a case where the execution delivers on the promises of that unique presentation, a rare thing given how frequently new oddball titles appear on Steam on a daily basis. It seems unlikely to get lost in that shuffle because it is, if nothing else, a hard game to ignore. That is the basis of Pony Island after all; a game you can’t simply walk away from.
How’s that for being meta?