(Note: this was originally published on Gamasutra, but I’ve decided to put it here as well in case that page ever disappears)
Pony Island is a game that treads heavily on metafictional tropes, perhaps so much so that it can get a little too enamored with its own cleverness. But, with that being said, in one particular sequence in Pony Island yielded metafiction caused me panic and anxiety in a way that no other game has before: it made me think I sent an insulting message to a friend.
Sending shitty messages to people over the internet is pretty much a full time job for some people, but being a person who is generally polite and often incredibly self-conscious of how I interact with people socially, Pony Island used some clever sleight-of-hand to tap into the vast well of social anxiety and self-consciousness that has before left me pondering why someone hasn’t responded to my text message, or the gnawing doubt I get about my social standing when I say something that I thought was funny, but was met with dead silence from my friends.
What happened in Pony Island that caused this panic requires some explanation about the game itself. These are spoilers, obviously, as the sequence I’m going to talk about comes up pretty late in the game.
The whole conceit of Pony Island is that you’re playing a soul trapped in a video game (conveniently also called Pony Island) that has been programmed by Satan himself. With the aid of a helpful fellow lost soul, your job in the game is to delete the game’s core files. These core files are protected by malevolent AI that try to keep you from deleting them. The first two AI fall fairly easily, giving you pretty standard puzzle challenges, but the third AI, Asmodeus.exe, tests you in a much more evil way.
The challenge from Asmodeus seems simple at first: he challenges you to just keep looking at him. If you look away, you lose. He then asks you to input a series of statements. The first one is his name, easy enough.
The second challenge, though, is to “Say something disgusting.” Asmodeus assures you there are no wrong answers, so you could feasibly type “Kittens” and pass his test.
But I didn’t write “Kittens”, and I would wager that almost nobody playing Pony Island wrote anything innocuous when prompted, because this prompt, like so many other activities in video games, allows the player to embrace their worst impulses. Embracing those impulses is why Grand Theft Auto Is successful, it’s those impulses that make you not worry about the delicate, desperate social structure and families of the raiders you mow down with impunity in Fallout. Video games give us a safe place to be bad, and those actions are contained and ultimately innocuous to the people around us.
So that’s why, when prompted by Asmodeus to say something disgusting, I typed “Go fuck yourself.”
I smiled, partially because I was venting my frustration with a game that had lead me through some rather tedious platforming and shooting sections that were too hard for their own good. I was telling the game what I felt about it in the moment, as well as maybe roleplaying a little bit as the persona of a character who has been trapped inside an electronic prison by a malevolent force. I was exercising my worst impulses, and the game was going to accept them.
But then I saw something pop up in the corner of my screen.
It was a message from a friend on my Steam friends list. I hadn’t talked to this person in a while but we had shared a few fun games of Team Fortress 2 together and we were friendly.
The message said “Go fuck yourself?”
I looked down at the message and a wave of anxiety rushed over me. What did I just do? What did Pony Island just make me do?
Did the game make me be a bad person in real life?
The messages continued.
“Did someone hack you?”
At this point, I was furiously hitting command+tab to jump out of Pony Island and tell this person sorry for what I had done, that it was the game, not me.
Once I hit command+tab a couple of times, Asmodeus’ face changed from a wry smile to a mask of rage, and the evil AI reached out for me, ending the game. I hadn’t been paying attention to him.
Pony Island got me. I’ve played games that try these kind of meta tricks before, from Eternal Darkness’s save game deletion trick to Metal Gear Solid’s Psycho Mantis battle that forces you to plug your controller into the other port. Those other tricks were interesting and fun, but they were ultimately parlor tricks that told me the game was messing with me, but everything still stayed within the safe confines of the game space.
But Pony Island appeared to reach outside of those confines, out into the real world, into the world of my friends. And through a simple trick of making a pop-up that looks like a real message from Steam, the game scared me in ways that no game has ever scared me before. It made me feel like I had upset a relative stranger, prompting frantic messages and what I thought would have been an awkward explanation. For some people, me included, where social interaction can sometimes be fraught with second guessing and mulling over the implications of an offhand comment, the prospect of having to explain to someone why I just randomly wrote “go fuck yourself” to them out of nowhere was scarier than any hideous beast jumping out at me, more chilling than the threat of a masked killer stalking me through darkened hallways.
It scared me so much because those fears are obviously understood as fictional. The beast isn’t going to physically hurt me, and once the masked killer catches up with me, I get to reload my game at the previous save spot.
But the idea of possibly ruining someone’s day with an offhanded comment, and the need to explain myself for writing that to them, that had the possibility of sticking around, of opening up awkward avenues of conversation that I didn’t want to go down.