A screenshot of Sissy’s Magical Ponycorn Adventure, where Sissy battles an evil lemon.
Cassie is your typical five-year-old child. She is constantly in motion, an unfathomable ball of energy, and flips on a whim from shyness to exhibitionism, from joy to sadness. During our visit to Cassie and her family for this story, she barked like a dog at her younger sister, played as the Riddler in the Batman Lego video game, and showed off the game that she and her father—independent game developer Ryan Henson Creighton—made, which is unexpectedly on its way to becoming nothing short of a sensation.
Sissy’s Magical Ponycorn Adventure is a browser-based Flash game that puts you in the role of the titular character journeying through rainbow portals, battling evil lemons, and transforming dragons to collect five Ponycorns—imaginary pony and unicorn hybrids. The game is drawn and mostly voiced by Cassie, while her father took care of the programming and voiced non-playable characters like the aforementioned evil lemon. (Full disclosure: Creighton has also spoken at Gamercamp, a festival I co-founded.) The game is brief, lasting no more than five minutes, and yet it captures childhood innocence, playfulness, and creativity with stunning acuity.
Surprisingly, the game is the product of only a weekend’s work, during the recent Toronto Independent Game Jam. (Creighton, a seasoned veteran at creating children’s games, has chronicled the origins of Ponycorns on his blog.) After a quick polish, the game was released on May 24, 2011, and momentum grew on Twitter with mentions from the independent games community, including developers local (Michael Todd, Miguel Sternberg) and abroad (Anna Anthropy, Erin Robinson), journalist (and former Torontoist contributor) Mathew Kumar, and International Games Festival chair Brandon Boyer. Media coverage soon followed: in addition to gaining attention in video game blogs, Ponycorns has landed on the websites of Time, Wired UK, AfterEllen, and the IFC.
Cassie plays her game on the BlackBerry PlayBook while her father Ryan looks on. Photo by Jaime Woo/Torontoist.
Creighton hopes the coverage will make people reconsider games: “I know it’s going to hit the mainstream and people who have never played games before are really going to enjoy it.” For Creighton, who has two daughters, the game is an alternative to the cynicism in the video game industry. “I don’t want to make games for kids that just like guns, just like boobs—that that’s all they want in a game,” he says. “I want to make games for a broad range of people.”
Part of the refreshing charm of Ponycorns is not only that Cassie is still in junior kindergarten, but also that she is a girl, a demographic often underserved and poorly represented in video games. While making a game is easier when your father does it professionally, there’s also something to be said about the playful environment the Creightons have fostered at home.
When asked if he’s afraid of any backlash to the popularity of the game—video game culture can often be critical, dismissive, and negative, and a game with rainbows and mythical creatures by a five year old could be easy fodder—Creighton says the thought hadn’t even dawned on him. “I’m staying positive. It’s a pure, non-cynical game. People can see the place where it’s coming from.” As proof, because of the game Cassie now has over $1,800 deposited in an education fund. (Revenue from ads running before the game also go to the fund.)
Cassie may not end up being a game developer—she wants to be a firefighter or a doctor, for now—but to her father it’s a leg-up to help his daughter reach her dreams. “It’ll help her to be anything she wants to be,” he says, making Ponycorns magical in real life as well.