When I was a kid, I had Barbie: Race and Ride (1999) for the PC. I despised Barbie. I wasn’t a kid who played with Barbies. But I was a kid who hoarded horse figurines, read books on horse care, studied tack magazines, and asked for a horse every birthday and Christmas. I was also a kid who couldn’t afford riding lessons, let alone an actual horse of her own. So to satisfy my wish for a horse, I had to content myself with my toys and my books and my daydreams—and occasionally a game like Barbie: Race and Ride.
Barbie: Race and Ride is neither a particularly good nor memorable game. Even as a child I knew this. Still, the game offered a specific type of experience that I deeply coveted and that I was desperate enough to seek out even in a Barbie context: horseback riding from a first-person perspective.
The graphics were poor. There wasn’t much to do. There were few horses to choose from and few places to ride. But it was something, and something was better than nothing. I could pick a horse, tack up, head out onto a trail—and I could fill in the gaps with my necessarily well-developed imagination (since that was all I had otherwise). I saw the game as kind of a supplement to that imaginary world of horse companionship that I had already built up in my head.
I had occasionally been able to ride horses as a child, maybe once a year on an hour-long trail ride during family camping trips. These were always strictly-regulated situations that were almost entirely out of my control. They were always someone else’s horses with someone else’s rules. I could never really learn to ride in these moments, short of sometimes having to steer my mount back into the single-file line if it tried to pause to swipe some grass off the trail. We were never allowed to move above a walk. Trotting would get you reprimanded, cantering was forbidden, a full-on gallop unimaginable. But Barbie: Race and Ride offered me some—albeit extremely limited—measure of freedom and control. The horses in the game, though few, were my horses to bond with and care for and ride as much as I wished and how I wished. I could take them where I wanted—though these places were also very few and very, very linear. And in the game, I was a fully competent rider who could be left on her own to ride on her own, who could make her own decisions, and who needed no supervision, direction, or command from someone else.
I could spend hours riding the game’s trails, watching the rhythmic movement of my steed, listening to the cadence of hooves on the path, all while fantasizing about what it would be like to actually have my own horse. It’s a habit I’ve never lost.
I didn’t have many chances for in-game horseback riding until about six years later, with the release of Shadow of the Colossus (2005). While I won’t dwell on it for long—as many, many others have written on this game already—it is a moment that I can’t simply bypass. Everyone has their own accounts Shadow of the Colossus and what it meant for them. For me, the game was mostly silent, solitary, ruminative exploration. I rode.
What is most interesting about the horse companion of Shadow of the Colossus is his status as an individual character. He is the player-character’s sole and faithful friend in a world simultaneously devoid and rich. Frederic Fourcade has already written about Agro’s significance as a character, and points out that “the player only controls Wander, even when he is on his horse’s back. We can only make Agro move by spurring him, or pulling on the reins to one side or another.” Further, Fourcade observes that this means that Agro has his own personality, as he can refuse to follow the player’s guidance. Agro is no mindless mechanism to be fully assumed and controlled by the player. He asserts himself as a willful individual. What results is the formation of a relationship between Wander and Agro, between the player and Agro.
I cherished this feature of Shadow of the Colossus. I loved that I was in the role of rider, not assuming complete command of the horse (unlike in other games, like Oblivion). I tugged on the reins and gave a tap with my heels and off we went. Together, we soared across sprawling deserts, found hidden ponds tucked between sheer cliff walls, cautiously edged down rocky paths, stopped to stare into the sea at the end of the world. I felt that I must take care of him; and I trusted that he would take care of me.
Next up was Oblivion (2006), with endless horses to be bought and a much different mechanism in place. These horses were not friends in the way that Agro had been. They were expendable, intended to be transportation. In these games, I was in full command of my mounts, to the point that I could even ride them off a mountain and kill the both of us. Still I was very, very careful not to do this. I tried desperately (and often in vain) not to get them tangled up in combat, where their lives would be at risk. Even when I had been awarded with the virtually invincible Shadowmere, I ensured that all of my horses (I naturally had one of every color) were safely in their stables whenever I was visiting their respective towns.
Relatedly, but more importantly, was Skyrim (2011). In Skyrim, I had a self-imposed rule: no fast-travel unless it was by carriage, and even this would only happen when I had lost my mount and had too far to travel to get a new one. Consequently, I spent most of my time—of the nearly 200 hours that I devoted to the game—traveling on horseback. I did very little in the main storyline, but I did a lot of riding. More often than not, my rides were not conducted with the goal of getting from point A to point B as quickly as I could. I often went at a steady, unhurried trot. Without the availability of a first-person perspective, I would orient the camera so that I could watch the movement of both horse and rider from the side. (Horse animation is, admittedly, a feature that I tend to judge harshly, but appreciatively, in games). The daydreams of my childhood would resurface; the questions that have always been left unanswered would reappear. What would it be like to ride a horse this way? Where would we go if we had such freedom of movement? What would we find? Would I maintain my posture, post and sit the trot, keep my heels down, mount and dismount with such practiced ease? Would I be a good rider, a competent and caring companion to a horse?
I’ve been thinking about my history with games offering horseback riding because I recently found a horse in Dragon Age: Inquisition (2014). Admittedly, I’ve been antsy and impatient with DA:I. It’s my first Dragon Age game, and I’ve been lost and not just a little bored. I tend to rush through dialogue, I don’t read the endless texts I found when I’m scouring the world, I don’t pay much attention to my objectives, I’m not attached to any of the characters, and I’m generally pretty disengaged.
But my experience changed when I was offered a steed. After that, the Hinterlands weren’t quite so bad or so bland. I took off—and I took it slow. Suddenly I wanted to see what I could find, where I could explore. I wanted to take it easy. Suddenly I noticed shadows and sun, heard sounds of running water and hooves against packed dirt.
Horses have the power to radically alter my approach to a game. For me, they are not vehicles that hurry me along until I gain the ability to fast-travel. They prompt me to take a step back, to slow down, to appreciate and notice and find. They are companions. They reframe my interactions with the game worlds I inhabit, turning these worlds into deep, immense, detailed landscapes to be discovered and cherished. They are also wish-fulfillment and fantasy, allowing me to shape and live out a liberating scenario that I have never been allowed to achieve and probably never will.
It’s a selfish wish of mine that there be more horses in games with more nuances and details and complexity. I want more horses like Agro, to be befriended and bonded with as partners in my journeys. Truth be told, if there were a game that were nothing more than a huge, open world and a horse to ride, I would probably spend an eternity playing it and love every moment of it.
(In other news, the Journal of Games Criticism recently released its latest issue and I have an article in it on subjectivity in games criticism. You should take a look at the journal if you haven’t already!)