Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Horse Riding in Video Games

I've never been into horses (they are not as cool as spaceships), but last night it struck me that I really, really like horse riding in video games.

Shadow of the Colossus' Agro rears up

In practical terms, horses are just in-game vehicles, albeit a rather small subcategory. But there's just something about a video game horse that really demonstrates the quality of a game's physics in a way that no other mythical beast (I'm looking at you, Chocobos) seems to do.

The difficulty of getting horse physics right is best demonstrated by a quick look at the otherwise excellent The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion.

To be entirely fair to Oblivion, physics is not the game's strong point. Besides, the graphics and draw distance were so impressive at the time of release that it seems churlish to pick on its loose interpretation of gravity. I completely understand Bethesda's decision to focus processing power on graphics rather than animation when the game ended up looking as lovely as it did.

However. As a video game horse riding junkie (a rather niche area of interest, I grant you), I found the horse riding in Oblivion to be lacking. Although the static horses looked nice enough, riding one felt like you were sitting atop a carousel horse. Whilst the horse's legs and body certainly looked as though they walking, trotting or galloping, its centre of gravity remained static to the point where it always looked as though it was on rails.

Overall, horse riding contributed very little to the overall narrative of Oblivion. There are only a few segments of plot where a compulsory ride is called for, and making your way to a city you haven't visited before can take an age on foot.

But still, traversing Oblivion's beautiful landscape would have been even more spectacular atop a stallion who looked like he was actually engaging with it.

Compare, if you will, with this (mediocre quality) video from the spectacular Shadow of the Colossus, released on an older system, the Playstation 2, a year earlier.

Admittedly, Shadow of the Colossus's Agro (I can't help thinking there was a Japanese/English context issue with the naming of the horse, but never mind) forms one half of the entire game mechanic, but he's still a wonderful example of how horse riding in games can be done.

Agro reacts to his environment, neighing in fear and tearing away when he encounters a Colossus, and tossing his head when Wanda (and again. "Wanda" is supposed to be the game's dashing hero, but his name sounds like that of a tarot card reader with too many cats) rides him too close to a precipice. If you're as interested in horse riding video game physics as me (i.e. marginally), a full collection of Agro's various animations can be found here.

Unlike the horses in Oblivion, Agro is central to Shadow of the Colossus' story and gameplay. He is not only Wanda's only means of traversing the game's vast landscape, but he is also the only thing in the world that either Wanda or the player can trust. With a dead girlfriend who may or may not wake up, a hoarde of colossi to dispense with and a mysterious power to appease, Wanda has to play everything by ear. Agro is the only being who Wanda can trust, and yet to complete his terrible quest he must ride Agro for hours across unforgiving terrain and risk the horse's life in several horrifying battles.

Under such circumstances, Agro's nuanced animations are given greater weight.

It's worth remembering, of course, that Shadow of the Colossus takes place in a fantasy universe, so Agro's slightly stylised proportions make perfect sense.

But perhaps the best example of in-game horse-riding to date is in the magnificent Red Dead Redemption, which takes glossy-flanked perfection to a new level.

Although the "gallop" controls (tap "Y", forever) eventually gave me RSI in my thumb, riding a horse through Rock Star's beautifully rendered depiction of the Old West is one of the most viscerally haunting experiences in video game history.

Given that horse-riding now is a pursuit limited (in this country at least) to the wealthy, it seems strange to think of horses as a mode of transport as opposed to a leisure pursuit. I felt genuinely guilty when I ran Agro into a rock or allowed a cougar to injure one of my hourses in Red Dead Redemption, and there were so many points in the game where I was forced to put my poor steed in danger or discomfort in order to suvive. The fact that they were so beautifully animated made the experience all the more evocative

Of course, all these games use horse riding as a part of gameplay, as a way to set the scene. They all have strong narratives, so the horses act more as a piece of a larger tapestry than as the focus for our attention.

Due to the niche appeal of horse-riding to gamers (as opposed to mainstream interests such as shooting and beating people up), games which focus solely on horse-riding tend to be low budget affairs for hobbyists.

Or worse.

I don't think the person who made the video really needed to add a voiceover because the game speaks for itself, but anyway.

Barbie Horse Adventures everyone!


  1. very interesting article! I found it, when I googled horse riding in shadow of the colossus.

    I still think, that SotC is the best example when it comes to horse-riding in games. The small - but for me major - difference to all the other games is, that you don't control Agro. You control Wander and his movements commands the horse! It feels so real and natural and I really missed that feeling in all subsequent games. It really made the riding itself an unique experience.

    You had to wait for the horse, to respond to your instructions and couldn't rely, that it does exactly what you want to do. Of course it follows your orders, but only after a slight time delay, which made it feel completely different.

    Furthermore it put you in the situation, that you are dependent on your horse, since you can only control your own movements, which added a whole new level to the roleplaying aspect of the game.

    I'm still waiting for a worthy successor.

  2. The small - but for me major - difference to all the other games is, that you don't control Agro. You control Wander and his movements commands the horse! It feels so real and natural and I really missed that feeling in all subsequent games. It really made the riding itself an unique experience.

    You're so right! I never actually thought of it that way! Certainly I thought there was something more organic about it but I never realised until you said it that that's the reason why. I'm going to have to go back and play it again now.

    That's a really good example of the way gamplay design (in this case control mechanics) really makes a difference in how you perceive and interact with a gameworld, and, as you say, how you roleplay.

    Thanks so much for the comment, heidl.