It was recently revealed that Rockstar Games’ upcoming Red Dead Redemption 2 would feature a mechanic that caused the testicles of a horse to expand and contract depending on the in-game temperature. To some, this may seem funny, odd, or possibly even defunct of any meaning at all. However, Red Dead Redemption 2 horse balls highlight something that is quintessential to the progression of contemporary games development.
For the horse’s testicles to change size depending on the weather, the game must know to invoke that response at the appropriate time. The response must be immediate, even if the consequence is almost negligible. The most minor shift in temperature will instigate a similarly minor change in horse ball size. In this way, the game world becomes one that is sporadically influenced by the forces of nature contained within it, making it emphatically a world.
This is an affordance that video games alone hold. On page 173 of Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens writes:
The rain came down, thick and fast; and pattered, noisily, among the leafless bushes.
In this book, it will always rain on page 173—at least in this edition. The ink used to write Oliver Twist is dry, and the text’s weather is forever set in stone. There is no possibility for anything contained in the text to ever change or even respond to the fact that on page 173, “the rain came down, thick and fast.”
The degree of immersion in a video game is of great importance due to the fact that the game world only comes into being by being played. Whereas one reads books, watches film, listens to music, they must play a game. Although the word holds juvenile implications etymologically speaking, it must be asserted that it has garnered new meaning in recent years as a result of video games becoming more and more ambitious in scope and scale. As Gerard mentioned in his article on the oddities of our beloved games, Geralt of Rivia is quite the talented weatherman; when it rains, you can safely bet that Geralt will say, “Looks like rain.” Although many attribute this rather on-the-nose one-liner to the humor imbued in Geralt’s bluntness, it is in fact a spectacle of design. The weather in the world of The Witcher 3 is dynamic, meaning that Geralt’s response is set to consistently answer to arbitrary shifts in the randomly generated weather of the game world. It may seem silly or funny, but it’s really a subliminal method of heightening immersion by reinforcing the appearance of reality. Geralt recognizes what is happening in his world at the moment in time at which he comments on the weather—his world therefore becomes a little more tangible, because the resonance between his line of thought and the player’s line of though align in perfect parallel. This parallel invokes an extra layer to the vicarious experience of playing as a character, because for a moment, your thoughts were theirs, and vice versa.
So what has this got to do with a horse’s balls? Well, quite a lot, actually. If a game is able to make the smallest of its contents react to the shifts within their container, the game world becomes a functional world on its own. So long as it is played into being, its parts will work interdependently. In Skyrim, for instance, the player can arrive in a town to see that it is already under attack by vampires. Whether the player intervenes or not, the vampires will continue to attack the local townspeople, possibly killing some of them in the process. While the vampires are stock enemies set to radiant spawning systems, the NPCs in the town will die once and for all if they are bested by the beasts. However, this is still a rather largesse mechanical feature—for a game’s single-digit temperature shifts to affect the size of an unseen-unless-you’re-looking-for-them horse’s testicles is unprecedented in terms of immediate response to dynamic shifts. This is a step towards making a game contain actual ecosystems.
Hypothetically speaking, this could imply that games will soon reach a stage where an arbitrarily cold Thursday in October could see shallow ponds wear a thin sheet of ice. Small creatures traverse the sheet with ease, yet a single step from the player shatters the surface, dampening their boots in the process. Their trousers and boots become soaking wet, which makes their movement slower and more exhaustive of stamina. If they don’t dry off soon, they’ll become ill, lowering their damage resistance. It’s a good thing that they have a frozen-balled horse to get them to safety.
However, weather is just one element of a game that holds the potential to affect the game world. In the same vein, random shifts in the game’s society, economy, and culture could influence the shaping and reshaping of the game world. Imagine returning to Velen after a stint in Skellige to find that the peasants living on the outskirts of Crow’s Perch were in open revolt. Although games can employ radiance mechanics to make questlines non-exhaustive, affording tangible aspects of the game world the ability to influence its inhabitants makes a genuinely infinite game. The world is emphatically a world. If horse balls are the latest object in a game to be experimented upon, it won’t be long before games go a step further. Assassin‘s Creed Odyssey‘s bears have a fairly standardized ball size, but Red Dead 2 is bringing it up a notch. No game will ever have an excuse for using polygonal genitalia again.