Is one of the most advanced things created in video games this year a virtual horse?
Several months ago, a man who works for Rockstar Games was setting my expectations high. He was being reckless, I thought, because he was telling me nothing less than that the horse in Rockstar's then-upcoming game Red Dead Redemption could — would? — be the greatest horse in video game history.
I had saddled some great horses in video games: Agro in Shadow of the Colossus, Epona in The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time. Red Dead could have the third best horse in video game history and I would be impressed.
Earlier this month, twice while I was in Texas for QuakeCon 2010, I learned that the Rockstar man might not have been confident enough. There is something special about Red Dead's horses: stellar game designers think they are great.
The first time I heard the Red Dead horse praised without prompting in Texas was on a Friday morning chat by the lead creators of Fallout 3, Rage and Modern Warfare. These men were discussing storytelling or great moments or something else lofty. Vince Zampella, former co-chief of Modern Warfare studio Infinity Ward and now at Respawn Entertainment, ensnared the audience for this chat with a brief tale about his Red Dead horse. It involved the bond of his cowboy and the cowboy's beast, the many adventures shared, the casual whistling issued by the cowboy one day — prompted by a button press by Zampella — for the horse to trot over to waiting cowboy, the unfortunate late realization that horse was about to cross a railroad track soon to be occupied by a steaming locomotive and, finally, a bloom of smashed horse. Zampella recalled his shock and his understanding that something random, something emotional, and something great had just occurred.
Later that day, Deus Ex co-creator and Arkane Studios co-creative director Harvey Smith was on a panel I hosted and was meeting my challenge to describe a great story told in a video game. He talked about his Red Dead horse, about its life and death and his loyalty to the virtual creature. He recalled that he had to stop playing the game briefly when the horse died, so he could snap its picture and memorialize it in that most modern of ways to publicly express grief: he Tweeted the photo of it.
I too became attached to my horse while playing through Red Dead Redemption. I recognized the animal as a mighty conveyance but as a dumb beast vulnerable to death by wild cougar.
In Texas I recalled no other element of a recent video game that was praised even twice. Maybe nothing other than the death of a Red Dead horse is worth remembering and worth re-telling.
What's the appeal? What's special about the horse? I think it is because the horse made people care. Perhaps it is the combination of a horse's might and frailty. Perhaps it is the known loyalty of real horses and the knowledge that the death of the virtual one is due only to the person the horse seemed to trust.
Some of gaming top people have been trying to get us gamers to care about something that virtually lives in video games. They try with human beings, and when that doesn't work, they try with dogs.It is the horse, this year, the seems to be the triumph.
It let at least three Red Dead Redemption players believe in the fantasy of the game they were playing - if just for a moment — so that they could feel the uncommon affection and inefficient guilt for something not real.