The Changing Legacy of Horses in Gaming

The depiction of a horse in video games has evolved over the years, from their very earliest interpretation back in the early eighties to some emotional and captivating characters in modern games.

One of the earliest video game horses arrived in 1981, courtesy of the Atari game Stampede. The subject matter of early games was far more important than the characterization of the individual horse. Primitive games had little processing power to develop personalities properly, but they drew on ideas such as cattle herding.

The earliest video game horses do provide the roots for one of today’s behemoths, Call of Duty, as both came from developer Activision. Design Star Consultants came up with a series of games around four-player interaction, something Call of Duty has thrived upon, but they didn’t last beyond horse title Omni Play Horse Racing. This was one of the earliest titles to play on horse racing as a theme.

Arcade machines catapulted horses from bit-part players into the mainstream. The extra processing power of those machines allowed developers to be more adventurous with their designs, which was later matched with 16-bit machines entering people’s homes. Dynasty Wars, a 1989 release, boasted a horse on the cover artwork for the home machines, but the graphical representation began to match that of the artwork.

The 16-bit machines also brought us Sunset Riders, a typical western romp which once again saw processing power match ambition when it came to including horses in the gameplay. Wild West culture has inspired one of the biggest hits of recent years, with horses playing a central part.

The beauty of the horse in video games is the relationship that you can develop, in a similar way to real life. Once video games reached a point where emotion and character could be included, the depiction of horses exploded. On the N64, The Legend of Zelda Ocarina of Time, we met Epona, a character that has since appeared in several Zelda games. She became a partner of sorts, but with 3D gaming now available in people’s homes it was the first time we could literally ride off into the sunset. The bar had been raised and set, with few games coming close to matching that level of emotional attachment.

Since Zelda, many games and developers have worked with horse themes and improved graphically as well as developing different angles. Gaming portal Cheeky Bingo has two titles dedicated to horses, namely Lightning Horseman and Treasure Horse, with console games such as Skyrim and Assassin’s Creed bringing new and exciting angles to design and graphics.

However, some of the games began to use horses as simply a vehicle to get from place to place, rather than forming an emotional bond. Following on from Sunset Riders on the 16-bit machines, Red Dead Revolver and Red Dead Redemption both boasted horses as a means of travel. However, it wasn’t until Rockstar Games released Red Dead Redemption 2 that the role of a horse in gaming took another giant leap.

They included 19 horse breeds you could choose from and add to your stable, offering customization options and letting you buy different kit too. You had to care for your horse, feed it and treat it right. No longer was it just a method of getting from one place to another, but it became a living creature that you formed an attachment too.

That has left developers facing a huge challenge, elevating horses from mere cast members to a pivotal role within a sprawling and expansive story. From simply featuring as a vehicle for the plot to become a character you care about and want to develop, the role of horses in video games has changed forever.

If you’d like some further reading on the subject of horses, be sure to visit our article looking at owning and developing a relationship with abandoned horses.