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About the Story
The Game of Horse Mastery
Nominee, Best Game; Nominee, Best Story; Nominee, Best Setting; Nominee, Best Individual NPC - 2013 XYZZY Awards
Rock, Paper, Shotgun
HORSE MASTER The Game of Horse Mastery is a horse management sim crossed with body horror. Do you have what it takes to raise a massive, muscular, dripping mega-horse in a dark, dystopian future? Are you a Furioso-Hellfist kind of person, or do you lean towards Carolina Coffinbreath?
HORSE MASTER The Game of Horse Mastery is 100 percent for real. This is no joke. This is ultimate mastery and it has a dexobrimadine fist down your throat, wrapped around your heart, squeezing out every drop of weakness until nothing remains but smoking shards of raw saddle-wisdom. Do you know how many horses die in the larval stage? That ainít masterful, thatís shit.
John Campbell's michaelkeaton.net
Horse Master Class Anxiety Dream Game Review
In Horse Master you can't meet that special someone. You can't move to another country and never hear your native language again. Your character refuses to fix typewriters for a living or play the bass. These are all flaws in Horse Master. You can't live off the grid in a yurt. You can't learn to speak Tagalog. You can do something you don't like to impress people who don't like you. In this deeply flawed game, you can't improve your ability to focus or tell a story. You can't design a video game in private, bring it to its audience, allow them to slaughter the experience, then hope for their approval. In Horse Master you cannot find the approval within yourself, in the horses you love, or in the simple joy of horse riding.**
**CAUTION: NEVER RIDE A HORSE
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Number of Reviews: 10
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Play it if: you want to read a story you can admire, a short, brutal punch of a game that'll stick in your mind for a long time to come.
Don't play it if: you're out of room in your heart for bleak truths.
How sarcastic I must seem, using such grim terms about a game that advertises itself so lightly.
To be honest, it took me about three playthroughs of Horse Master to really grasp what I felt about it. On the one hand it's a tragedy of desperate ambition, but at the same time it's a snigger-inducing parade of the absurd and the grotesque. Half the time I felt like I was being asked to laugh and cry at the same time, so I ended up doing neither and instead just feeling emotionally mangled.
The story is on the surface that of a person rearing and training a horse for a prestigious competition. The immediate twist is that the "horse" in this case is not really a "horse" as we know it, but appears to be some sort of mammoth crustacean grown from a larval stage. Much of the sheer oddness of the game is derived from the contrast between the glowing, admiring terms in which the horses are described and the true details of their appearance, which are left a little vague but sound anything but noble or graceful to the common reader.
Of course the more important twist is that it's not really a fun, quirky horse-raising sim at all. That's just the foot in the door.
Say what you will in its defense, but to the uninitiated it's not so different. To achieve competitive success as a bodybuilder, a person has to exercise, diet, gorge, dehydrate, medicate, and groom themselves obsessively to warp their bodies into extreme forms. They risk and experience poverty, ridicule, and failure in turning themselves into something that is ultimately decorative. They don't perform astounding feats of strength or agility. They pose.
Speaking purely as an outsider, there's something terribly tragic to that sort of lifestyle, or at least to the way it's seen by much of the world. That men and women can invest so much of themselves into an endeavor which is so often thankless.
As odd a decision it might seem to have the horses not be mammalian, I think there was a purpose to it, and that purpose was to emphasize just how un-beautiful this sort of thing can really be. Some types of dog shows maintain frankly arbitrary and ridiculous standards for their competitors. To me, weirdo that I am, breeding creatures for their aesthetic value to humans is something deeply disturbing and abhorrent - but their aesthetic value often inoculates us to the ethical concerns. In Horse Master, we don't have that illusion. The creatures being bred and displayed are not the kinds of things that inspire joy and awe in the minds of My Little Pony fans.
It's a value dissonance of the kind present in the assassination-training scene of howling dogs, though here its purpose is much clearer: to make us reconsider our questionable relationships with the animals who inhabit our lives.
(Spoiler - click to show)I think it's somehow fitting that the ending will always destroy someone in the balance. Either the player loses everything and has no future outside of poverty and obscurity, or the horse dies in an exploitative, orgiastic display. Either the player character is crushed by a world which does not really care about her existence, or the horse is slaughtered by a system and a protagonist who does not really care about its wellbeing. You're a bodybuilder, or you're a dog breeder. The perpetrator or the victim.
It's not very uplifting. But it is compelling in its own way. And it sort of gives you pause for thought, doesn't it?
I don't know whether like is the right verb, but I certainly had a positive response to Horse Master. The game has imagination, especially when describing the central fiction of the horse and the process of mastering it; and it delivers it with good pacing. (Spoiler - click to show)From the very first scene it is obvious that these horses are strange; then the physical details start coming in and our mental image becomes more and more alien; and finally, at the great day, it turns out that all the preconceptions we still had about horse mastering were wrong as well. For it turns out -- and this is of course a brilliant thematic move -- that we are not trying to master any abilities that have to do with horses; we are trying to master the horse itself, to be its master, to dominate it to the point where it wont eat us and will let itself be killed. There is no achievement and no intrinsic worth to the procedure at all. There is only the prize conferred on us by a society that wants to witness a bizarre and gruesome spectacle.
The game poses, at least for a while, as a sort of time management game, although it quickly becomes apparent that the optimal strategy is also the simplest one. This raises the suspicion that the game is not about any kind of player skill. Then, when you get the hang of it, the game kicks you out of your house, and suddenly the time that was your resource becomes your greatest enemy, something to bridge and survive. That too was a neat trick. The fact that you can lose the game during this period does reveal a weakness, though: when one replays, one clicks through all the choices without reading or thinking. There's not enough variation in the game to support the kind of replaying that is demanded.
Other reviewers have pointed out that the piece is, at least on one level, about bodybuilding and/or animal shows, both activities where one is manipulating a body to conform with weird standards in order to gain praise and approvan of spectators. On an even more obvious level, the game is about the pains that someone will go through if they are desperate enough, and how a competitive system can create a kind of race to the bottom. But I guess that I'm actually most intrigued by the game's portrayal of the end goal of the endeavour: a state beyond all wanting, where one has transcended all cares. Horse Master is about people who are willing to give up everything because they believe in a reward that is so big that it equates happiness forever; and of course, some people do think that way about particular kinds of success. But, and the game makes this abundantly clear, that is an illusion. It is unreal. The whole bizarre fiction of Horse Master works, I think, precisely because the game wants to tell us that anything that is worth sacrificing everything for must be unreal.
The game may be a bit simple and repetitive when replayed; and the imagery is certainly a bit heavy-handed, both when describing the icky things happening to your body and the horse's body and, especially, when trying to set a political mood. But Horse Master is nevertheless impressive, because it manages to pack a lot of thematic into what is, after all, quite a small game. A great piece of choice-based fiction.
HORSE MASTER is a game executed to perfection.
Let me explain.
FILM CRIT HULK recently wrote an article talking about the current trend towards narrative convolution in summer blockbuster movies. As a champion of classically-told stories, he keeps bringing up the point that a work of entertainment doesn't have to be mysterious or epiphany-inducing to be successful, even enduring. Rather, it should be well-constructed, or, in his words, "functional." He says:
"YOU MAY LAUGH AT THAT WORD 'FUNCTIONAL,' BUT TO HULK IT'S ONE OF THE BEST WORDS IN ALL OF MOVIEDOM. IT MEANS THE FILM WORKS DAMMIT. IT MEANS IT IS ENGINEERED PROPERLY AND DOES EXACTLY WHAT IT SETS OUT TO DO."
I've come to the conclusion that HORSE MASTER is an excellent example of this concept.
I'm having a hard time expressing this, but here goes: Every aspect of HORSE MASTER is constructed with thoughtfulness and quality. These solidly executed bits then all come together to form a deeply satisfying experience.
For example, take the main display menu: in visual novels, the choice menus are there because you need a place to make your choice. They're well-organized and easy to read, and that's about as far as they go.
In HORSE MASTER, the display menu does some HEAVY narrative lifting. Through this little viewport, you get to see the squalor your character is surrounded by. Seeing it, you *get* why you're making the sacrifices and taking the risks that you are. You GET why this character wants this horse to succeed.
That viewport sits atop a menu that exemplifies the low-grade anxiety that builds when you have too many choices and not enough time to pick them all.
These things are then yoked together by terse narration which clearly defines the character's desires and attitudes even as it spouts bizarre, Porpentinesque jargon.
Before I played HORSE MASTER, I thought I was in for a freakpunky Western CYOA, like if Anna Anthropy's CALAMITY ANNIE and Porpentine's CYBERQUEEN had a baby. The game I got had those flavors, yes, but it's a different beast altogether.
HORSE MASTER is not a deep art game. But I don't want it to be: the deliberate choices of its author let me access the humanity at the core of this story--and as a result I had a really wonderful experience.
I salute the author and look forward to more from him!
* * *
(Fellow players, I must know what ending you got. (Spoiler - click to show)Because my ending crushed me. I was *so* close. And whatever went wrong, I have no idea how I could fix it the next time. IS there even a good ending??)
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