Modern open world experiences are often designed with the mindset of quantity over quality. Games like Horizon Forbidden West, Ghost of Tsushima, and Days Gone all present sprawling landmasses filled with things to do, but so many of these tasks can be narrowed down to completionist busywork that seldom have fascinating stories to tell. As a result many players skip over them, while others on the opposite side of the spectrum seek them all out to really get their money’s worth.
I understand both these perspectives, but for me it’s only in masterful games like Red Dead Redemption 2 and Breath of the Wild where stopping to smell the roses and take in the majesty of these respective worlds justifies itself. Virtual environments and the immersion they are capable of shouldn’t be undervalued, even if developers themselves throw such brilliance away in favour of gamifying the whole affair in order to keep our attention no matter what. Expecting us to analyse these places and find value in them without a helping hand isn’t easy, all but requiring an element of roleplay on behalf of the player to become the protagonists they virtually inhabit.
It’s a hard thing to do, even more so in Horizon Forbidden West. Guerilla’s Zero Dawn follow up exists within a stale open formula despite its otherwise brilliant ideas, but one stipulation has allowed me to fall in love with this vision of the apocalypse more than I ever could have expected to. I said goodbye to mounts and taking control of machines, abandoning a core mechanic so I could navigate this world with nothing but my own two feet. This decision was initially made because the horseback controls are awful and exploration with them just doesn’t feel good, especially with the frequency you’ll be dismounting to pick up collectibles and do battle with enemies anyway. So I ignored them entirely, killing my first trusty mount and never once looking back. 15 hours in and it’s the best decision I could have made.
Worlds like this become so much smaller when you’re galloping past major towns and settlements like they’re nothing just to reach the next objective marker, avoiding the more natural route of discovery because you’re constantly climbing Tallnecks and upping that completion percentage without ever once stopping to consider your place in anything. I recently wrote about how Horizon’s continued approach to tribal cosplay undermines its worldbuilding, but despite that criticism this remains a beautiful place with so many distinct places and nuggets of lore worth uncovering. I play with a reduced user interface to avoid having instructions thrown at me constantly, so a greater sense of awareness when it comes to my surroundings is almost necessary. Forbidden West is an actively worse game when you allow it to constantly dictate your actions, so I fought back against it.
By ditching a glorified vehicle I made each discovery feel like its own reward, whether I stumbled across an underwater cavern filled with treasure or abandoned ruins housing disparate audio logs and fractured dossiers. I didn’t sprint past it and leap off my horse in fear of missing it entirely, I stumbled across it in a slow, almost meditative way and savoured the moment. This whole process probably makes me sound like a pedantic asshole, but part of me now believes this is the best way to experience games like this. Modern blockbusters often feel like we need to be railroaded along, but it’s possible to subvert games like this into our own procedural journeys with just a tiny bit of curation. I said goodbye to mounts and brought this world to life, even if it meant a longer journey to reach my next objective or a bit of frustration when I was forced back to a checkpoint upon death. It was worth it, and if I ran out of patience I could just fast travel anyway. Mounts are overrated, you heard it here first.
Horizon Forbidden West isn’t the first game where I’ve adopted a similar strategy either. Breath of the Wild has an entire system of taming horses and upgrading them in the field before storing them in stables. You are actively encouraged to participate, but after putting hundreds of hours into the Nintendo classic I’ve probably spent less than 30 minutes riding animals. Unless we’re talking about Link riding Sidon, but I’ll save that for another article. My point is, a mixture of bad controls and a lack of ownership over my own discovery has resulted in me abandoning mounts time and time again because it actively makes games worse. It happened with Horizon, Breath of the Wild, Tsushima, and Days Gone. I know the latter has a motorcycle, but that’s basically a horse that eats petrol instead of grains.
Red Dead Redemption 2 is the only exception, and even then I jump off my horse whenever I enter a town or settlement purely so I can talk to every character and build a rapport that made Arthur Morgan feel like a real presence in this world. Sometimes I would indulge myself with a playful trot through Valentine or Saint Denis out of pure cuteness, but that’s only because Rockstar designed a world so vast that it felt realistic to navigate it through horseback. Towns and cities aren’t weirdly bunched together or deliberately gamified, and thus reaching them with a mount often feels like the right course of action. I can’t say the same for Horizon, Zelda, or Days Gone – which is both a testament to their shortcomings and an admittance that perhaps I’m just a bit weird. Definitely the first one.
The next time you boot up a big open world blockbuster why not take my advice and throw your mount into the nearest river or shoot it in the head. Embrace the freedom, abandon tradition, and learn to love these virtual landscapes in a way you might have never realised before.
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