Why horses are a big challenge for video game developers

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 rancha horse game that will be released this winter.

Importantly, Ruppert also runs The Mane Quest: Gaming’s only horse-centric website. On The Mane Quest, Alice reviews gaming horses and writes more generally about how horses are used in video games.

Aside from having twice as many legs as the typical video game character, horses have other characteristics 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.”

A close-up of a horse's legs, painted to show all the bones and tendons under the skin. The horse's ankle joints, called the pastern joints, drop when the horse hits the ground and flex at an angle of nearly 90 degrees to the hoof.

A horse’s shackles fall off when it lands a jump.
Horses Inside Out / Across Polygon

Horse moves aren’t the only thing games sometimes fall short on. In many games, horses are treated as simple means of transport rather than individuals. But the narrative potential of horses in games is huge.

Watch our video to learn more about how horses translate into games and why getting them right is so important. And if you haven’t already, subscribe to Polygon on YouTube and now on TikTok!

https://www.polygon.com/videos/23296728/video-game-horses-animation-video-alice-ruppert Why horses are a big challenge for video game developers

Charles Jones

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