Remembering A Red Dead Horse

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.

No way.

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 realisation 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 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 memorialise 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 recognised 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.


Comments

    RDR achieved with its horses what Fable 2 tried to achieve with the dog.

    FABLE 2 SPOILERS:
    In Fable 2, when the dog was killed at the end and you are then presented with 3 choices: save your family, save your dog or make a ridiculously large sum of cash. I went straight for the dog because I was already richer than I needed to be and my family was nothing more than something done for achievements. It wasn't that I had much of an attachment to the dog, I just had more attachment to it than to anything else offered.
    /FABLE 2 SPOILERS

    In RDR though, Cookie was one of the things to truly draw me into the game. Yes, I named my cream coloured Kentucky Saddler "Cookie". Unfortunately, I accidentally shot Cookie when trying to defend her from a cougar in Dead Eye mode before entering Mexico for the first time, so I went out of my way to find a Hungarian Half-Bred that I named Binky.

    Binky was a good and loyal horse until towards the end of the game where she was callously killed by another damned cougar.

    At that point I gave up trying to form an attachment to the horses, bought horse deeds for the three fastest horses and just rotated through them as needed.

    But I almost always chose the Kentucky Saddler, just because they were as close as I could come to having Cookie back.

    It's the little things like this that made RDR a great game.

      Just want to point out that you got the three choices at the end of Fable 2 wrong. The choices were:
      1. Save all the people killed at the Spire
      2. Save your Family & Your dog
      3. Make a heap of Money.

      I have to agree though. I certainly had an attachment to the Dog in Fable 2- I even saved my dog and family at the end. But it was nothing like the attachment to my horse/s in RDR.

    yes i know what you mean. i kept my horse throughout the entire game (the golden one u get at the start). I would even load previous saves incase he was killed by cougars or stray rounds. he finally succumbed to my wild west lifestyle near the end of the game, struck down by a cougar in the great plains down by the river. I seriously mourned him for a few minutes he was my bestest friend. I then rangled a black beast right on the same plains that my friend died on, i thought it was fitting.

    Well I was attached to my horse, which I named "Doggy". But I was off picking up flowers and I saw a grizzly bear. I called for my doggy, but he/she/it wouldn't come so I pulled out the gun and started shooting like mad, only for doggy to get in the way and die. And I was sad.

    I felt bad. Here was this horse that had been with me for a very long time, and it turns out I was nearly close to the end of the game as well, and it died. :(

    But then I needed a new horse and tamed a grizzly bear (if only. I think if you could tame a bear in RDR, it would've been my favourite game of all time. Well probably not, but still, it would've been awesome.)

    Anyway, I got another horse which I appropriately named "Horsey". I think this is one of the reasons I enjoy RDR, it's the way you get to interact with everything and everyone. Now I feel like playing RDR. Hmm.

    My favourite horse memory was attempting to chase down the American Standardbred. I've done a lot of various kinds of hunting in a videogame over the years, but this was the only time that the hunt really seemed like a fair fight, and a challenge I began to warm to as it progressed.

    Now, I'm not sure if I was doing something wrong, because other than asking someone where I could find these beautiful black horses, I didn't look up strategies or tips or whatever to capture this thing. I had already gotten myself a Kentucky Saddler, so I had a pretty quick horse with which to chase. However, it wasn't easy. In fact, it was probably hardest thing I ended up doing in the game.

    I went in pursuit of the horse around the Wreck of the Serendipity, a place I knew was dangerous. I finally caught sight of a pair of black stallions, and gave chase. On top of creating this wonderful creature in the horse, Rockstar have actually created a new way to interact that rivals the ubiquitous gun: the lasso. And lassoing a horse is a hell of a lot harder than shouldering a rifle and picking off a headshot.

    I might develop this into a proper narrative at some point, but here are some highlights. My Saddler was killed by a cougar at one point, so I was frantically switching back and forth from lasso to gun--and ended up on foot. At one point I managed to get on the back of the horse, but screwed up and was bucked off, only to roll down the steep cliff to the water's edge. I picked myself back up and resumed the hunt. I called a horse and set off looking. The best part of the whole adventure was the feeling I had that there really was 'one' horse I was chasing across New Austin, as opposed to the 'spawn camping' that I did in WoW. There really was one lone beast with the desire to remain free, using his strength and speed to out run me, and I with my great, useless firepower, had to simply CHASE.

    It was a fantastic feeling when I finally managed to capture that thing. A real sense of accomplishment that no Achievement trophy can emulate. And I haven't ridden another horse since.

    I may or may not have shed a tear when my beloved horse got murdered by a cougar. YOUR MY BOY BLUE!

    The only horse I really liked met with an unfortunate end...I was trying to get the "Dastardly" achievement, and I was standing next to the railway ready to watch my victim get hit by a train, but just as the train approached the stupid horse wandered onto the tracks. Needless to say, it was brutal...I've never been the same since.

    Mine was called Murray.

    I had the pleasure of the 'War Horse' from the start of the game. I was a few hours into my adventuring the first time my trusty steed died. I was wandering around near Hennigan's Stead and got attacked by a pack of wolves. I switched to Dead Eye and began popping each one with my revolver. One of the sneaky bastards ran under my horse. I was a little overly enthusiastic and accidentally targeted and shot my horse in the head. Down we went...I recall I felt my heart in my mouth. Quite a surreal experience.

    My horse is the best. He is called WarHorse, he is a jetblack shiny beast. He is the fastest and longrunning and whenever I accidentally shoot him, or jump off a too-high cliff, or he gets torn to shreds by a cougar/bear, I renew my deed on him and he is back in 30 seconds.

    Thats how much he loves me. Death is not the end with a bond such as ours.

    I never really formed any attachment to my horse. Horses, I should say, since I went through plenty of them. The problem (although I don't really see it as a problem) is that they were just so easy to replace. Horse gets killed? Just wait a few minutes and whistle up another one, or capture a wild one of which there are plenty.

    I don't consider that a failing in any way, as it saves you getting stranded out in the middle of nowhere and having to spend ages trudging back to civilization on foot (which is one thing I hated in GTA: San Andreas). But I found it hard to forge much of a bond with my horse when they could die so often without any real consequences.

    My favourite in-game horse remains Agro from Shadow of the Colossus - having the one horse by my side for the entire game (obviously it helps that the game was designed so he was the only horse you ever had) meant I was a lot more attached to him than I was to the cougar-fodder in RDR.

    I did, however, make a fair bit of cash selling horse skins :)

    Those damn cougars!

    My father caught this wonderful black stallion and rode it on many adventures. After he died I took it as my own and years later set out on my own adventure on a descendant of that same horse.

    After I hunted down my fathers killer I lost this horse in a surprise attack by cougars. I was numb by the loss. With no other way to express my loss I whistled but nobody came. I stood alone in the dark next to my companion's corpse, the last remaining legacy of my father, surrounded by the remains of several cougars. There was only one thing to do, I pulled out my knife...

      ummm, tried to write RDR Spoiler in < brackets before that, but I guess it was treated as HTML and ignored. ooops sorry.

    I think the reason that the horses are so great in RDR is because they are very personal. In a game, when an NPC dies as part of the plot it's something that everyone who plays the game goes through. The roaming around you do with your horse is something unique to your experience. You also rely on your horse a lot to get you out of sticky situations. The fact that they come when you whistle and can have varying degrees of loyalty to you depending on how well you treat them helps to create a bond. The fact that they can die due to a random misadventure and all of the above are the reasons why players can have a real attachment to their horses.

    lol think i'm the odd one out, I treated my horse like crap. If it annoyed me in the slightest, i'd shoot it and call for another, but I think it was fitting with my Despardo character :P

    Do agree though, the horse's in RDR were done perfectly.

    I was an more attached to Agro personally, namely due to how the story played out in the end. But playing it recently his control has unfortunately aged poorly and as such he now handles like a shopping trolly.

    My horse - good old Bullet In The Head - was a great friend in RDR. When I lost Bullet In The Head XXXIV that last time I felt a true loss. Possibly just of ammunition though.

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