As a self-confessed horse girl, I’ve always appreciated when video games give me the opportunity to ride horses. But what’s behind it to get mankind’s most beloved, majestic, fingernail-strutting natural wonders into video games?
It’s a lot harder than it sounds. Horses, like all quadrupeds, are much more difficult to animate than bipeds like humans.
“Once you have more legs, you have a lot of options. You need to be more concerned about when which leg does what,” Alice Ruppert told me. Ruppert is a Creative Producer at Aesir Interactive working on the work Horse Tales – Emerald Valley
It is important that Ruppert also runs The Mane Search: The only horse-centric gaming site. On The Mane Quest, Alice reviews gaming horses and writes more generally about how horses are used in video games.
Aside from having twice the legs of the typical video game character, horses have other qualities that can make their animation challenging.
“A horse’s legs have very, very little muscle, or like their lower legs, no muscle,” Ruppert said. Horses are very heavy creatures that move on deceptively slender legs. They can do this because of their incredible tendons.
The tendons in a horse’s legs work like rubber bands, absorbing half a ton of weight and then suddenly releasing it. That’s why thoroughbred racehorses run so damn fast, even though their legs are disproportionately slender compared to their massive weight.
(If you want to learn more about how horses move, there’s a fantastic episode of Inside the giants of nature about it, but fair warning: you’re dissecting a horse in it, and no pictures are spared! I will never be the same again.)
Because their movement relies on contraction and relaxation and the flexing of some very odd joints, horses have a springy gait that doesn’t always translate into play.
“You know, if you do a simple humanoid animation, you can get away with holding a joint,” Ruppert told me. “But for a horse, for the movement to look good, you have to account for each of those joints, because otherwise you’ve got something weird in there.”
horse movement isn’t the only thing games sometimes fall short of. In many games, horses are treated as simple means of transport rather than individuals. But the narrative potential of horses in games is huge.