Is The Witcher 3's horse the best character in the game? She may be...
The Curious Case of Roach
Geralt whistles. He looks around, but there’s no sign of Roach. He whistles again.
Suddenly the loyal - though often disoriented - horse trots shamelessly through the open door of a nearby house. What were you doing in there? Geralt and I both wonder as Roach approaches, passers-by apparently unfazed by her brief attempt at home-ownership.
Roach was designed to be a convenient game mechanic in The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, but accidentally became an endearing and infuriating character packed full of personality. In a game overflowing with little, intricate details, Roach was granted her share of idle movement and personalisation, but these deliberate details mostly feel arbitrary. I appreciate seeing Roach go in search of water or friends when Geralt has dismounted as it adds to the realism of an amazing open world, but these actions say little about Roach other than the obvious: she’s a horse. The aesthetic options for Roach - including equipping a saddle, saddlebags, and blinders - aren’t truly about personalisation, with selections chosen based on their benefit to Geralt more than what they contribute to Roach’s unique character. Even the name ‘Roach’ offers little individualism, as Geralt says it’s the name he’s given every horse he’s owned.
It’s clear from these surface attempts to add to Roach’s personality that her character was designed to be little more than a mechanic, spawning near the player at Geralt’s command. Although Geralt obviously sees Roach as a companion and speaks to her a little - though she rarely replies, which Geralt considers an admirable trait - Roach still exists primarily as a way for Geralt to explore the countryside more quickly than on foot (and to help with those unavoidable instances of being overburdened).
However, Roach often isn’t as convenient as Geralt - and the player - would like. Being a game with hundreds of hours of gameplay and content, Wild Hunt is riddled with peculiar bugs, and Roach seems to be affected by more than is fair. Although many of the game’s issues - like the inability to fast travel out of Skellige after completing a particular quest - caused rage-quit-inducing frustration in me, I’ve found Roach’s bugs seek only to contribute to her neglected personality.
I’ve spent many, many hours with Geralt and Roach, traversing the graphically overwhelming world of Wild Hunt, and like any good adventurer, I have many tales to tell of my travels. I have stories of Roach getting stuck behind boxes or in trees, performing magic tricks that involve her cutting herself in half with a door or another horse, flying around the mountain tops like an impressive Pegasus, doing a hand stand against a small embankment, and sauntering out of a cave I’d just left while suddenly wearing absolutely nothing. Roach struggles to walk through the smallest puddle, has spawned across rivers and refused to cross them, and yet on other occasions has channelled her inner seahorse and emerged from the ocean when called. Wild Hunt is brimming with narrative complexity, but these hilarious, unexpected tales have significance and have positively influenced my gameplay experience.
As I’ve watched Roach soar around mountain tops and crawl out of the sea, I have grown to love her. I feel genuine concern when I take Geralt into battle, leaving her far from the action even though I know she can’t be harmed. When her fear metre begins to rise, it bothers me, not because I’m worried she will run away and inconvenience me, but because I don’t like to hear her distraught. When one of the horse races didn’t allow me to ride Roach - the narrative forcing me to choose from a handful of other impressive horses - I felt genuine disappointment that I would not be astride my loyal steed. I have been known to speak aloud to Roach while galloping along the winding paths, calmly correcting her when she unintentionally - but inevitably - takes a wrong turn.
But are Roach’s unusual quirks truly unintentional? Though I am not as well-versed in Witcher lore as I would like, it’s been hypothesised that at least some of Roach’s more frustrating or endearing qualities were included deliberately. In the Witcher books, Roach - though likely not the same Roach - frustrates Geralt by scaring easily, being frightened of water, and never coming when called; there are clear parallels between this Roach and the one that walks in the wrong direction when Geralt whistles in Wild Hunt. Though I doubt flying-Roach is a deliberate inclusion, part of me hopes that her quirks are features - not bugs - because it makes them less likely to be stripped away in a future patch. I’m sure I’m not the only player who would be devastated if Roach lost all of her personality and became simply a game mechanic after all.