Canadian developer Daniel Mullins' new game is deliriously unhinged, and you absolutely need to play it.
Imagine sitting there on a dark and quiet night, the rain pelting against the windows, and a malevolent, synthetic whisper starts crackling at you in Latin through the shell of your old analogue radio.
Or, imagine you wake up in the middle of the night with your television blaring white noise in the lounge, a guttural, robotic demon voice talking in tongues underneath the hissing cacophony. You'd shit your dressing gown in a heartbeat, right?
The infiltration of technology by demonic spirits has always been an inherently terrifying prospect. And ever since Carol Anne reached out for the telly in Spielberg's Poltergeist, the horror genre has been preoccupied with the thought that our radios and phones and screens could be acting as a handy transport system for pissed off demons.
But what if a video game could become possessed? What would happen if you played it? What sort of things would a demonic game do to the player? How would it be exorcised?
'Pony Island', trailer
As pretty much every reviewer under the sun has been required to point out, Daniel Mullins' sublime Steam title Pony Island is not a game about ponies. Or islands. It's a game about a game that has been possessed by Satan for the purpose of stealing players' souls.
Essentially a cross between Her Story and the movie Unfriended, you play a guy who sits down at a chirpy little pink and yellow video game called Pony Island, and discovers that the happy-clappy platformer has been invaded by a demonic virus. The virus turns out to be Lucifer himself, and he's set a series of puzzles and challenges within the interface of the game to prevent you from deleting three core files and finally exorcising him. The majority of the game is either played out through a series of simple tile sliders, where the player guides a key through a maze of obstructions, or through the platforming sequences, where you play the titular pony, jumping over fences and destroying demonic manifestations.
There is so much to love about Pony Island. But let's begin with its simplicity. Despite its wilfully demented content, absolutely anyone can pick up and play this game. All you need is a mouse and levels of dexterity that shouldn't be beyond anyone who's racked up a couple of hundred in Crossy Road or managed more than a few seconds of Super Hexagon. Anyone can sit down at a desk and experience the insanity. Tear your Metro-reading partner away from Making a Murderer and plonk them in front of this for a couple of hours. Trust me, they'll love you for it.
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Menu options collapse, binary code pisses all over the screen, glitches twitch and pixelated imagery is torn, manipulated and contorted in increasingly inventive ways. Visually, Pony Island is an 8bit fireworks display, seamlessly blending BBC Micro techno-horror with mawkishly nauseating Wonder Boy sections, bombastic boss battles and sequences where bits of the screen fall off and collapse in piles around the corners of the experience. The puzzles themselves are numbing mishmashes of flashing tiles, icons and feverish streams of binary, hints whispering through the madness, their inherent simplicity masked by the breath-taking visual chaos. Pony Island's dizzying art direction is never content to just stand gawking and drooling at the past like so many games of this generation.
It sounds amazing too, and it's one of those titles that simply must be experienced through headphones for the full effect. At just £3.99 in the UK, the solo game is an absolute steal; but it's definitely worth shelling out an extra quid for the soundtrack (by Jonah Senzel), a dynamic and bubbling tribute to 8bit melody that stands comfortably alongside the likes of Undertale and Shovel Knight in its inventiveness and listen-without-playing appeal.
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And then there are the moments, the things that happen, the things Pony Island does differently, and the things you'll remember it for. It would be a mortal sin to reveal any of the specific tricks Pony Island pulls on players over the course of its three hour running time, but let me say this: Mullins' game constantly fucks with the fourth wall. It knows you're a player. It's a game that knows it's a game about a game, and knows that you know that it knows that you know. It's a game that knows exactly what you're expecting. It winks at you, messes with you, and laughs both with you and at you. It knows what you're likely to do and pulls the rug from under your feet every single time you try it. It drags you into its world and forces you to play by its own set of deranged rules. It makes you feel smart, like all great puzzlers should; but at times the game also makes you feel like a bumbling, mouth-breathing prick.
Most unforgettably, there is a moment towards the end of the game that rivals even Metal Gear Solid's Psycho Mantis fight for fourth-wall-smashing originality. I was utterly and hopelessly fooled.
You already instinctively know whether you're the sort of person who's likely to enjoy a game like Pony Island, but for those on the fence, here's my advice. Open up Steam. Install the game. Wait until midnight, when the foxes are clattering outside, the January winds are whispering around the windowsill, and the streetlights are humming. Pour yourself a coffee and make a pact with yourself not to leave your desk until the experience is over. Plug in your headphones and press start.
Make your way through every obstacle the game throws at you. Finish with a strange but satisfying sense that you've just been violated. Close your laptop. Crawl into bed. Stare at the back of your eyelids, trying to remember the last time you played a game so surprising and inventive. Fall asleep, feverishly dreaming of Sadako crawling out of the TV, of Swedish demons hijacking radios in never-ending corridors, and of a world where every game was as deliriously unhinged and beautifully berserk as Pony Island.
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