It wouldn’t be difficult to offer only the merest cursory glance at Tom McHenry’s Horse Master. On the surface it appears to be nothing more than another one of the many rudimentary Choose Your Own Adventure style webgames that dust the internet like salt on a pretzel. But to ignore it would be a massive mistake–and perhaps that opportunity for underestimation is what makes Horse Master‘s impact so visceral.
Part CYOA, part rudimentary strategy, Horse Master is a tremendously creepy sci-fi horrorshow in the vein of 1984 and the work of Octavia Butler. In it, you play a down-and-out hopeful attempting to raise a gene-spliced “Horse” for a vague and mysterious show. A simple enough task for a strategy game. However, this rudimentary goal is undercut with something foreboding and sometimes crushingly sad. Something about McHenry’s writing is both bleak and engaging, very similar to the effect of games like Papers, Please. This is all the more impressive when you consider that Horse Master is played entirely through text. There is often a pixelated rectangle meant to represent your dustbin home, but with one notable exception, it plays little part in the creation of Horse Master‘s world.
The overall feature that makes Horse Master so special is McHenry’s writing. The story slides on languidly, introducing themes of desperation, addiction, cruelty, and the notion of human exceptionalism. Just when you think you’ve got a handle on the story, another knife twists. It makes for a story that is marvelous to be a part of. Like many other amazing works of genre fiction, the horror of what McHenry brings forth has more to do with what he doesn’t tell you. There are hints of a bizarre, dystopic world. You spend the majority of the game unraveling just what it is you’re actually accomplishing. In fact, it seems almost as much of a mystery to your protagonist as it is to you. “What good is a horse?” your character wonders, after several brief glimpses that make you question just what a horse is supposed to be. Because it isn’t what you’re expecting.
In the span of an hour I’d raised several horses and achieved multiple endings. Horse Master can be played in around fifteen to twenty minutes, but the writing is compelling enough to warrant several playthroughs in a row. Tom McHenry has created something that I’d recommend to anyone who loves games with a meaningful, thought-provoking story. And the fact that Horse Master can be played online for free leaves you with zero excuses.