“In riding a horse, we borrow freedom.”
~ Helen Thompson
My first, emotional, companionship connection to a mount, certainly in the digital gaming era came through Nintendo’s 1998 seminal title Ocarina of Time and the bond you forge through adversity and perseverance with Epona from captivity to conquest. To conceptualize this moment it wasn’t the first time I remember riding an animal or beast in a video game, that left a lasting impression. Indeed the earliest memories I have go back to Golden Axe and riding one of the dragon mounts captured through combat. Or perhaps earlier as Mario riding Yoshi through the Mushroom Kingdom However, like their modern counterpart there was no sense of companionship, of loyalty from your captured dragon or dinoar. They were but a beast, momentarily tamed but then unleashed should you fall or felled by an orc or ogres weapon. My first, true connection would occur with the progression into the 64 bit 5th Generation era and the launch of the first Zelda title championing the development of three dimensional graphics after Mario had broken the mold of what was possible. Utilizing the games time travelling mechanic you encounter Epona as a child, learning the still familiar Epona’s Song before encountering her again in the future. In retrospect in comparison to its modern day counterparts that would infuse loyalty with the progression of a skill bar, Nintendo, by limitation or design instead forged bonds of loyalty by utilizing the narrative text to build friendship. When you encounter Epona for a second time she is no longer the free spirited mount of your youth, here she is held in captivity at the whims of an opportunistic uncle. Through cunning, deception and a recollection of a song learned in youth you liberate Epona and journey out into the realms of Hyrule with her loyally by your side and responding to your call. There was a bond forged by overcoming false captivity and liberation then built upon exploring the vast open world map now taken for granted but at that moment in time a new experience to behold.
By design the world could be navigated using “Warp Points” that allowed transit to the entrance of the dungeons and by default, the primary areas of the game map. But the joy of Ocarina of Time was the exploration of the open world, at that point an expansive and liberating experience. Having Epona with you made that journey a legacy you carried forward. Or conversely at the points where Epona was unable to enter due to limitations you missed having her at your side. In world of silence and music, Epona with her gentle neigh often broke up the journey to alert you to a potential danger, a skeleton rising in the night you felt prepared to confront as Epona drew to a stop.
As gaming progressed into larger and greater worlds so to did the temptation to provide greater choice and ease of use for the consumer. The tolerance to spend moving from place to place mirrored societies predication for instantaneous gratification and as such developers unsure or adverse to taking risk created more warp points overriding the narrative bond between your stead and character. Games such as Oblivion and Skyrim often lauded as the detailed open world games to their peers, in my opinion at least got the connection between man and beast wrong. When I could select multiple horses to journey with or find an animal in the wild I had no connection to my own. They were an expendable resource to discard at my whim. Even worse they seemed to remove the associated cost of discarding your loyal beast, there was no penalty or consequence.
Extending beyond the animal world to a contemporary open world title where I felt Rockstar games got this ‘consequence’ right in my opinion was the restriction on using the modern equivalent warp portal. Adding the taxi mechanic to Grand Theft Auto allowed you to journey more quickly from point to point however it came at an in game cost using the in game currency. In recollection it wasn’t a great deal of currency but sufficient to plant the seed by ‘cheating’ and avoiding the journey you would pay an associated cost. This worked sufficiently for me to instead opt on most occasion to drive from point to point and explore the open world the developers had created. This, I feel was driven in part by the confidence of the developer of the world and its brand, the mechanism was there but if you chose to break the mechanic of travel you would pay a price. However like its peers I never felt a great connection to a car or vehicle in Grand Theft Auto, again they were a toy to discard when I was bored.
One of my most played games in recent times has been Dragon Age Inquisition but once more this ‘suffered’ from a similar predication to present your loyal steed as a play thing, more repulsive to a degree as immediately there was the availability in game to vary the aesthetic appearance of your mount without any discernible benefit. I’ve spent deal of time as the inquisitor but in that time I have continually used warp points through out the game with minimal time spent on horse back. In fact, I would go further to describe my disappointment where a great deal of time in the first area you venture is spent recruiting the horse master to aid the inquisition. For just a brief moment my hopes were raised as a reward for my efforts I would be presented with a steed I could forge a bond with in the same way Epona had captured my heart some 20 years ago today.
Horses however were treated with the same relevance and cost to the character as a disposable same day one click purchase. By the end of my time as the inquisitor I perhaps had a dozen horses and dragons within my stables but spent little or no time on any of them. Contrast this to the many hours I spent on Epona and I come away feeling that by mirroring societies obsession with instant gratification unfortunately gaming as a platform has discarded narrative connection. Arguably when you are unstoppable hero impervious to the perils of nature who can travel vast distances at a press of a button there is no need for the animal, for the vehicle, for the journey. But call it foolish sentiment I am a traditionalist and do enjoy the journey as much as the destination. The moments I recall from games tend to be those that cause me to stop and take in the view in front. Often cited the moment you exit the vault in Fallout 3, equally exploring the vast terrain in Skyrim whilst a toil as you move between quest points can equally provide lasting memories.
With the release of the upcoming Red Dead Redemption 2 trailer comes a glimmer of hope perhaps Rockstar have rekindled this relationship between man and beast, certainly from a visual perspective there is no continuity in shots or video shown as you traverse the American frontier. This from a marketing perspective I can accept at this stage to show the variety of mounts available to choose from the onset. I don’t begrudge either Bethesda’s or Bioware’s policy to horse selection, a great deal of thought and effort seemingly have gone into their design and presentation in world. It is more the sense of the animal being a disposable object no more relevant or required than a change of outfit. However its the narration during the trailer that piqued my interest as to how Rockstar may utilize build on this relationship.
“The bond with your horse is crucial and changes based on your treatment of the animal”
I am open to this being ‘your horse’ as a character whose loyalty you progress using some form of loyalty meter. Similar to how Bioware had the loyalty mission dynamic to your team members develop over the course of the Mass Effect series. My concern would be the aesthetic appearance and ‘character’ of your horse would be replaceable with the loyalty and characterization linked to a subjective being, you have a loyal ‘horse’ depending how you treat your horses, who and what this takes is interchangeable This theory is built on the different mounts being offered as loyalty or exclusive retail bonuses dependent on where you purchase the title. Indeed the effort to build up exclusive narrative threads for a multitude of horses dependent on whether you brought the game from Amazon or Game could be easily replaced by copying and pasting the same personality type onto the mount you have present. In short, the ‘lazy’ option would to personify the concept of the horse over the individual present. But for the moment my hope remains that should I spend a great deal of time building up that bond with my loyal steed, and Rockstar continue to value the journey to the same extent as the destination, we could be in for something special in October.