A reader explains why Epona is still his favourite video game horse but wonders whether Red Dead Redemption II might finally replace her.
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 Nintendos seminal 1998 title Zelda: Ocarina Of Time and the bond you forge, through adversity and perseverance, with Epona from captivity to conquest. This wasnt the first time riding an animal or beast in a video game 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, unlike their modern counterparts there was no sense of companionship, of loyalty, from your captured dragon or dinosaur. They were but a beast, momentarily tamed but then unleashed should you fall or be felled by an orc or ogres weapon. My first, true connection would occur with the progression into the 64-bit era and the launch of the first Zelda title championing the development of three dimensional graphics, after Mario had broken the mould of what was possible.
Utilising the games time-travelling mechanic you encounter Epona as a child, learning the still familiar Eponas Song before encountering her again in the future. 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 utilising 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. This was a bond forged by overcoming captivity and then built upon exploring the vast open world map.
By design the world could be navigated using warp points that allowed transit to the entrance of the dungeons and 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 a world of silence and music, Epona with her gentle neigh often broke up the journey to alert you to a potential danger.
As gaming progressed into larger and greater worlds so too did the temptation to provide greater choice and ease of use for the consumer. The tolerance for spending time moving from place to place mirrored societys predilection for instant 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 are often lauded for their detailed open worlds but, 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.
Where I felt Rockstar games got this consequence right was the restriction on using the modern equivalent of the warp portal. Adding the taxi mechanic to Grand Theft Auto allowed you to journey more quickly from point to point, however it came at a cost using in-game currency. 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. However, 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 predilection to present your loyal steed as a plaything. 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. Ive spent a great deal of time as the inquisitor but in that time I have continually used warp points throughout the game, with minimal time spent on horseback.
Horses 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 societys 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 but 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.
With the release of the new Red Dead Redemption II trailer comes a glimmer of hope that perhaps Rockstar have rekindled this relationship between man and beast. I dont begrudge either Bethesdas or BioWares policy towards horse selection, as a great deal of thought and effort has seemingly gone into their design and presentation. 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 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 missions over the course of the Mass Effect series. My concern would be that the aesthetic appearance and character of your horse would be too easily replaceable.
This theory is built on the different mounts being offered as loyalty or exclusive retail bonuses depending on where you purchase the title. 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.
By reader Charlesfwh (PSN ID)/around.the.bonfire (Instagram)/ATBonfire (Facebook)
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