The Art of Hacking 'Pony Island'

We’re not really coding or writing software, but the puzzles play with a similar kind of logic, which only seems appropriate for a game that heavily revolves around hacking.

Pony Island

Platforms: PC
Price: $4.99
Developer: Daniel Mullins Games
Release Date: 2016-01-04

There are quite a few hacking minigames in Pony Island, so many that I’m not sure if this is best described as a hacking/puzzle game or a platformer/parody game or something in-between or encompassing all of those things. But for the purposes of this post, all I care about is the hacking gameplay. Thanks to some surprisingly clever uses of art, Pony Island makes the same puzzle mechanics feel like actual software coding and also like a children’s educational game.

The gist of the game is that our soul has been trapped in an old arcade machine by Lucifer himself, and we have to hack the game to escape. There are few kinds of hacking puzzles, but the central one involves a key falling from the top of the screen.

It falls from above, and we have to guide it to a lock below. In between it and the lock are obstacles that block the path of the key, requiring us to place directional arrows around the screen to keep the key on track. Soon these obstacles get more complicated, and we have to set up warp points to move the key across greater distances. The puzzles start to get really good when we have to use those warp points to create loops, even better when we use those loops to define a variable and increment it. For example, at one point we’re stripped of our power by Lucifer, and we have to make ourselves strong again to play his game by creating a loop to increase the variable “LASER_POWER+1” over and over again. We’re not really coding or writing software, but we’re playing with a similar kind of logic, which seems quite appropriate for a game that heavily revolves around hacking.

The art emphasizes this idea. During these hacking puzzles the screen is littered with text that evokes the foreignness of software code. There are just enough letters to make the text look legible, but then the words that the text form also contains numbers, underscores, asterisks, pound signs, brackets, parenthesis, and more that give this "coding" that good ol’ indecipherable look. Again, it’s not an exact replication of real code, but it manages to look indecipherable in the same way that software code does without actually being software code and without actually being indecipherable.

What makes this art so impressive is that a layperson can still interpret it, and once interpreted, this text gives us hints and clues to help solve the puzzle. In that same “laser power” puzzle, the text “[email protected]_H#RE” appears in between the points where we have to set the warps. The game is flat out telling us what we have to do, but it’s surprisingly easy for our eyes to gloss over this blatant clue because of the use of symbols and numbers in the text. Now, it may be easier to read that message when it’s typed out in this post, but you’ll just have to trust me that it feels far more subtle in-game, in which the font is heavily stylized and our focus is drawn to the moving key. It’s the kind of clue that you’ll notice a few puzzles in and then wonder how you ever missed it, but everyone misses it at first.

But even though this puzzle logic is similar to software coding logic, we likely wouldn't even make that connection if not for the art. Without stylizing it in this way to get us thinking about software, the puzzle logic could represent anything.

This is proven later in the game when the art changes into something saccharine and cutesy, something that looks like it would actually be called “Pony Island.” We’re still solving the same kind of puzzle, but instead of guiding a key to a lock while surrounded by text, we’re guiding a butterfly to its house while surrounded by a pretty lawn and rivers. Any indication or idea of hacking is gone, so the puzzle has an entirely different tone. The mix of complex puzzle logic with cute art makes it feel like a children’s educational game, though it’s not clear what it’s supposed to be educating people about. There are just warp points, arrows, and multiplying butterflies -- "gamey" puzzle systems that may or may not relate to any real-world logic problems. The puzzle thus becomes meaningless, nothing more than a logic system that only makes sense within its own context. It’s still a fun puzzle to solve, but it’s nothing more than a fun puzzle to solve.

The art only remains this way for a few puzzles, and then, we’re back in hacking mode. Pony Island is a fun puzzle game, but it also reaches for something more. It wants its puzzles to evoke a very specific feeling that reinforces the core conflict of the narrative. Ijn other words, we’re meant to feel like hackers because we’re stuck in a game and have to hack our way out of it. The gameplay and story reinforce each other so that no element feels out of place. It’s an impressively cohesive game, and the developer is well aware of this, purposefully taking time out to show us how disjointed the puzzles and art could have been.

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