The use of multiple, interchangeable horses is becoming increasingly common in games, and while it is more difficult and costly in terms of processing power to make multiple animals interesting and unique, it is still possible.
Horses can be bought at random stables throughout The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, and for the most part the animals differ only in color. Much like Epona, the horses in Skyrim have few independent actions. With the exception of stomping the crap out of bandits, the Skyrim horses tend to hold in one place, and don't react to much around them. In terms of cinematics and animations they might be more sophisticated then Epona, but all in all, they have approximately the same function to both gameplay and the player.
In many ways, horses are among the most intimate and valued NPCs. They travel with the player through the world, carry them into battle, and accompany them throughout the course of events.
In contrast, look at the horses in Rockstar's Red Dead Redemption. Much like in Skyrim, most of the horses have similar stats and differ only in colour. The big contrast with Skyrim, however, is that the horses act independently. As in Shadow of the Colossus, the horses wander away, graze, and explore of their own volition. Interestingly, however, each horse also seems to have its own characteristics. Both my husband and I are horse people, and we both began using different animals for different jobs. That horse is bolder about going into canyons and down slopes. This horse is fast, but nervous around gunshots. This was not simply a feature of the different breeds; on my first playthrough, my American standardbred was fast, but very nervous. On my second playthrough, however, the standardbred I caught was charging without fear into any situation.
Most impressively, like Agro, the horses will react while Marston is riding them. They will stop and rear if they hear gunshots, snort and shy if they see a snake. This might seem like little more than a gimmick, but I believe that it goes to the core of why this whole issue matters. I watched a non-horsey friend of mine playing Red Dead Redemption. At one point, his horse started and reared up. Under his breath, my friend muttered, "Uh-oh. Something's going on."
My friend has never been on a horse in his life, but within a few hours of playing this game and with no one telling him so, he knew to watch his horse and trust its instincts. For those few hours, he was a rider. Now, I'm not saying that playing Red Dead Redemption will teach one how to ride (any more than playing Guitar Hero will teach one how to play guitar), but a good game, a truly immersive game, will put the player right in the mindset of the character he's playing. John Marston is a horseman, and by causing the horses to react to the environment, Red Dead Redemption allows the player to become a horseman, too.
The reactions of the horses in Red Dead Redemption help to draw the player into the saddle and the chaps of John Marston. Agro's independent actions and devoted following of Wander helps you to bond with both protagonist and horse. Agro followed Wander like a puppy. Agro took joy in his surroundings. Agro aided and could be injured in battle, and still came limping desperately at Wander's call. And was there anyone whose heart didn't break a little when Agro tumbled down that cliffside and out of sight? Would it have been possible to bond with Agro if he'd had the same reactions actions as Epona? I don't think so.
The fact that horses are living beings elevates them immediately beyond the level of vehicles to that of NPC. A non-speaking, non-human NPC, but an NPC nonetheless. Think of how the player would relate to an NPC that not only did not speak, but who stood like a statue, did not react to the environment, and only followed the player character around. In contrast, think of Yorda in Ico. She and Ico couldn't communicate vocally, but she still managed to be a strong, interesting, and valued character, because of her interactions with the world around her and with Ico himself, making the game infinitely richer and more interesting.
We are now in an age where NPCs can communicate in ways beyond text and/or voice. With the new advances in graphical quality and processing power, NPCs can communicate through gestures, facial expressions, and their reactions to the world around them. This last is particularly important, because NPCs serve as guide and gateway into that world. Whether they're accompanying you into battle, gathering flowers, casting a spell, or demonstrating a dance, NPCs are one of the best and most valuable ways to draw a player into the world of the game. In many ways, horses are among the most intimate and valued NPCs. They travel with the player through the world, carry them into battle, and accompany them throughout the course of events. They are an instant connection and mode of interaction with the game world. They warn of danger. They follow us into battle. They defend us. Most of all, they are a familiar and trusted figure in what might be a hostile and brutal landscape. They are much more than simple transportation, and they should be treated as such.
Rachel Verkade is a 31 year-old gamer and horsewoman living in Montreal with 3 cats, a multitude of reptiles, and 1 husband. Her background is in literature and wildlife biology.