Why horses are a huge challenge for video game developers

As a self-professed horse girl, I’ve always appreciated when video games gives me the chance to ride. But what goes into getting humankind’s favorite, majestic, finger-nail strutting freaks of nature into video games?

It’s a lot harder than it sounds. Horses, like all quadrupeds, are much more challenging to animate than bipeds like humans.

“As soon as you have more legs, you have a lot of options. You need to put more thought into ‘when does which leg does what,’” Alice Ruppert told me. Ruppert is a creative producer at Aesir Interactive, which is working on Horse Tales – Emerald Valley rancha horse game that will come out this winter.

Importantly, Ruppert also runs The Mane Quest: gaming’s only horse-focused website. On The Mane Quest, Alice reviews gaming’s 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 qualities that can make animating them a challenge.

“A horse’s legs has very, very few muscles on it, or like their lower legs do not have muscles on them,” Ruppert said. Horses are very heavy creatures that move on deceptively slender legs. They can do so because of their incredible tendons.

The tendons in a horse’s legs work like rubber bands, absorbing half a ton of weight and then releasing it in a burst. That’s how Thoroughbred racehorses run so damn fast, even though their legs are disproportionately slender compared to their massive weight.

(If you’d like to learn more about how horses move, there is a fantastic episode of Inside Nature’s Giants about it, but fair warning: they dissect a horse in it, and there is no imagery spared! I will never be the same.)

Because their movement relies on tension and release, and the bending of some very curious joints, horses have a bouncy gait that doesn’t always translate into games.

“You know, when you make a simple humanoid animation, you can get away with like, having one joint in the hand,” Ruppert told me. “But for a horse, for the movement to look good, you’ll have to consider every one of these joints, because otherwise you’re gonna have some weirdness in it.”

A horse's legs in close-up, painted to show all the bones and tendons beneath the skin.  The horse's “ankle” joints, called fetlocks, drop when the horse hits the ground, bending at a near 90 degree angle to the hoof.

A horse’s fetlocks dropping as it lands a jump.
Horses Inside Out/via Polygon

Horse movement isn’t the only thing that games sometimes give short shrift to. In many games, horses are treated as simple transportation, rather than individuals. But the narrative potential of horses in games is huge.

Check out our video to learn more about how horses get translated into games, and why it’s so important to get them right. And if you haven’t already, make sure you subscribe to Polygon on YouTube and now on TikTok!

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