Written By: Erika Haase
This portion of the article serves as a lite gameplay review. The next break will give you fair warning, but is a plot analysis and WILL contain spoilers. Do not read the second part unless you have either already beaten the main campaign, or aren’t planning on playing Horizon: Zero Dawn.
Horizon: Zero Dawn is nothing short of a masterwork. Already technically hailed as a sales success for both PS4 original IPs and developer Guerrilla Games, it’s also a success when viewed as a creative whole. It took me a few days to recover from my reaction to the ending and overall message. So much so, that I landed up purchasing the OST and diving back in to take on Hunter Trials to wean myself off the in-game world. When I tried to play games otherwise, I couldn’t quite detach myself from Aloy.
Aloy – Despite The Nora.
Is this a perfect open-world game? No. However, as Salvador Dali once said: “Have no fear of perfection – you’ll never reach it.” That being said, Horizon: Zero Dawn comes pretty damn close and makes for one of the most well-paced, well-written, and well-thought out games I’ve ever played. If you are looking for an open world game that will challenge you, give you a fantastic story to drive you forward, and send you on absolutely zero pointless side-missions, then this is it. The fact this was accomplished in a game with no multiplayer, no M rating, and zero sex makes it something of a unicorn in an age where a game is nothing without a Season Pass, romanceable partners, and questionable “pushing the boundary” moments that make headlines. So how did Horizon: Zero Dawn do it? Simple – they executed already available gameplay concepts from games like The Witcher 3, Rise Of The Tomb Raider, Far Cry, Fallout, and Assassin’s Creed with precision and near perfection and, here’s the clincher, they wrote an airtight story to back it all up.
Much like our previous article about Resident Evil mentioned that the survival horror genre has faltered because of a lack of attention to the “survival” aspect of horror, open-world RPGs often suffer from poor plot pacing in favor of “look at what a big world we made.” All of the perfect blades of grass and snowcapped mountains won’t impress you if you’re running around collecting 10 wolf pelts for a guy you don’t care about so you can get a few more gold – and it’s the 100th time you’re doing it. Big worlds need purpose, and to play upon the balance of giving you freedom – but fairly. By crafting a story that worked within the bounds of the rate you levelled up and gained ability to take down bigger bad-guys, Horizon: Zero Dawn managed to keep you from ever noticing that you were being “held back” until your level matched your opponents.
Combat is smooth and smart. AI reacts in a surprising variety of ways to the equal amounts of variety you have to interact right back. Fighting a giant robot bird? Tie down the wings and watch it struggle, while simultaneously shooting gusts of air at you from propellant tanks you can pick off with concussive blast arrows. Don’t feel like running through a field of easily startled bull-machines? Startle them with a fire bomb from afar and watch them scatter to a new field so you can sneak by with ease. As your level increases, so do the number of machines you can face.
This happens organically, paced in time with the plot progression as well as map expansion. Certain machines serve as waypoints and “living” GPS units that will allow you to expand your world even more. Side quests teach you about this strange new world you find yourself in, everything from tribal ways of life to why there has been such a devastatingly complete loss of knowledge of events that created these incredibly advanced robotic creations that share your planet. Our planet. Yes, this is Earth. In the end, doing all these side quests nets you allies you’ll need for the final encounter as well as hope for the future of humanity.
By taking the best aspects from so many open world champions that have come before it, Horizon: Zero Dawn doesn’t necessarily create anything new when it comes to gameplay (although, robot dinosaurs are always a plus in my book). However, sometimes you don’t need to re-invent the wheel. You just have to make a really, really good wheel.
The rest of this article will function as a plot analysis and WILL contain spoilers. If you haven’t beaten the main campaign of Horizon: Zero Dawn, then read on at your own risk.
The main character, Aloy is introduced to the players as an infant being carried by her adoptive father, Rost, who has been thrust into the role by her tribe’s matriarchs. He is hurrying her up to sacred grounds to name her in the tradition of his people, the Nora. In what should be a touching moment, we quickly realize is being done in exile. Rost is a tribal outcast, and so is the helpless infant left at his doorstep for reasons unknown. The Nora function with a sort of Spartan coldness in that “outcasts” of the tribe are left to survive in the wilds without support or shelter of the villages, or the matriarchs, of the Tribe. And what a wild it is. This is Earth – but not the Earth you and I know. This is an Earth mysteriously lacking in large wildlife, but abundant in machines that seem to replicate them. Mechanical monsters the size of dinosaurs, or as small as deer, walk amongst us. The petrified remains of “The Old Ones” lie in vaults underground as the forbidden resting places of “Ancients.” What Guerrilla Games has done is take us to an Earth that ended, and rebuilt itself from scratch nearly 1,000 years after its extinction.
We waste no time in seeing how Aloy becomes the way she is. Rost is a man of few words, and as a curious child she is often on the receiving end of a few blunt words of either praise or reproach. Rost has accepted his position of an outsider, but Aloy, who has committed no crime of her own to be outcast for, has yet to reach the same kind of acceptance. All of Aloy’s motivations that turn her into the woman she becomes are built up by letting us see her as a six-year-old, shunned by even adults when she attempts to interact with other Nora children gathering food. Nora children pelt her with rocks and this is, indeed, the first time you can make a decision of how to react to a conflict. Similar to many Bioware conversation decisions, you can choose to go with an aggressive response, a crafty one, or one that plays on people’s emotions. Unlike Bioware games, however, this doesn’t imply good or bad. In the face of a bully, playing on their emotions is likely to get you laughed at. Trying to be too aggressive if you’re out-numbered is also not smart. For my first decision, I chose to use my smarts. Aloy chooses to pick up a rock that has landed at her feet after striking her head and throw it to hit the tormentor’s hand instead of attacking him directly. This causes the other children to be more in fear of her accuracy and ability and ultimately back off. No matter what you pick, however, Aloy is still an outcast, and it’s still her fault.
You spend a bit of time with six-year-old Aloy, which is the first example of being limited via story progression, simply by means of your ability to get places. Running away from Rost who yells at her for interacting with children of the Nora tribe, Aloy falls into a hole leading to the ruins of the Ancient Ones. The so-called “ruins,” you very quickly realize are from our future. It’s smart the game lets you play this moment as a child, because you are as confused as one when you first see it. Why is futuristic technology in the dirt while you’re living in a primitive tribal lifestyle on the surface, terrified of robot dinosaurs? Picking your way through the wreckage nets you the reward of something called a Focus: a futuristic earbud that acts as a computer interface, interpreter, data storage, communication device, and far more. Aloy is fascinated by her find, but more-so by the world of holographic displays it opens up to her youthful eyes. Exposed to technology for the first time in her life, she reacts first with fear, and then curiosity. You realize then, that the machines that stalk the wilds outside are not really viewed as “technology.” They are simply viewed as resources and threats. It makes sense if you’re living as a primitive tribal community that you wouldn’t take time to analyze that a machine you hunt for building materials is actually made up of a bio-organic technological hybrid of AI and robotics. You wouldn’t even know what that is.
Aloy becomes militarily trained by Rost upon learning that on your 18th birthday, any outcast child has the ability to run a trial known as the “Brave Trails” and upon completion gain acceptance into the tribe and live as an outcast no longer. If you manage to win, however, you are granted one favor from the matriarchs themselves. For Aloy, the only favor she wants is to know why she was outcast. Rost has no information on what her mother may have done to leave her as an outcast child, and so she has to get these answers for herself. In the famous words of South Park – get ready for a montage.
Finally, we are able to meet the mighty Aloy of the E3 trailers. And she isn’t nice.
The Aloy who arrives to run the trials has to leave behind her own father-figure, Rost, by law of the Nora tribe. If she is accepted as one of them, it means he can no longer speak to her. She has a plan devised to sneak past this, but Rost refuses to let her entertain breaking the laws. The Aloy who walks through the gates into a town for the first time in her life is socially overwhelmed. Someone who has lived in the wilderness their entire life is an extremely guarded and quiet individual. While she has her own way of speaking, you can hear the brusqueness she acquired from Rost in her tone with people. She’s carrying her own sense of loss and resentment towards the very people she needs to request a favor from.
When Aloy is placed into the lodge for the Braves the night before the trials, she’s goaded and taunted by the same group of children, save for one, who threw rocks at her as a six-year-old. When she runs the trials the next day, the other Brave candidates sabotage her hunting victories, making her have to work twice as hard by taking an abandoned trail to reach the end to catch up. Aloy is fighting with the concept of becoming part of this tribe – a tribe she hates, but needs. When she ultimately wins the trial, she’s berated for cheating by having taken the abandoned trail to reach the finish line. However, before she can stick up for herself, the introduction of the plot’s main villain takes place in the form of a horrific massacre by an extremist group known as The Eclipse.
Defenses down and in celebration at the end of a physical trial, The Eclipse sneak in by way of a traitor and, using “Old Ones” tech (aka a minigun), mow down hopelessly defenseless teenagers who represent most of the tribe’s defensive force. Aloy and the rest of the most elite group of Braves to have run the trials that day, fight long enough for her to scratch out a victory, but not against bullets. When The Eclipse’s leader, Helis, shows his face, the rest are quickly slaughtered and Aloy is pushed to the ground. She realizes at that moment that Helis is also wearing a Focus like herself and he makes it quite clear that he is there to kill her specifically. The rest were just collateral damage, really. In the grips of his hands at her throat, with his knife pressed into her chin, he tells her to “turn and face the sun,” the astrological body his people worship as a deity. Helis would have succeeded in assassinating her, if not for Rost descending on him like an angry bear. In the fight, Rost detonates flammable materials to give Aloy just enough space to fall away – barely conscious. His last word as Aloy watches him go up in flames while she plummets into the snow below the ledge is simply “Survive.”
And so, that’s what you do for the rest of the game. Survive. Saving the world is just what happens along the way in the life of the hero that becomes Aloy.
Something I realized while playing as Aloy is that I was watching a character be born that could potentially hold the same meaning, and weight, that Lara Croft did back in the early Tomb Raider days. No, this isn’t about her gender, although that is obviously a factor when it comes to someone for young girl gamers to identify with. Aloy is a game character who is allowed to be true to herself as the creators have written her. Although you can level her up, build skill trees, craft weapons, and collect resources, Aloy is Aloy. This was a risk on the part of the writing team – if your main character has too much of a disconnect with the player, you can feel they don’t truly represent you and therefore lose interest in the game. The solution is, of course, making sure you stay on the same page. Unlike the pitfall of many games which is “too many things happening too quickly,” everything in the game lets you get attached to it before it snatches it away. If you are meant to feel loss, this game will make you feel it. If you are meant to resent someone, this game won’t just throw a few disparaging remarks your way. It will make you have to grin and bear criticism, deal with it until the point you can overcome it – and then, even then, resent it because it didn’t want you in the first place. When Aloy becomes accepted, truly accepted, by her own people, she’s learned so many other truths about the world that she realizes that their acceptance is nearly meaningless. Their rules will never be her rules. The world is bigger than anyone sheltered by the tribe could have imagined, it has a history that people stayed ignorant of from fear and superstition, and humanity is once again about to be almost eradicated because of the radicals who chose to worship the thing that everyone else chose to ignore – the truth.
Aloy’s “compatibility” with other characters at the end isn’t affected by her dialogue choices. Their friendliness and willingness to pal around might be different, but you can still make things happen in your favor by choosing to be a hard ass most of the time. Sometimes, when there are no dialogue options, you’ll notice Aloy not understand things in conversation like intimacy or relationship constraints simply because she has yet to have any of those for herself. She makes comments when looking out on the vistas of her world such as “I can almost see the Sacred Lands from here. Home. I don’t miss it.” Aloy is not nice, and she doesn’t have to become nice to save the world. She is, however, kind. It’s this reason that she is such an important hero figure, and by staying true to herself she saves the world. Not by becoming a doormat, or by giving up her own core principles. She’s respected more by others by staying who she is – even the matriarchs who viewed her very birth as being a curse.
Furthermore, Aloy’s not above being rebuked by people who know more than she does – and there are plenty who do. She isn’t perfect, because no hero should be. Her uncertain alliance with Sylens, for example, casts her into another relationship like she had with her father-figure, Rost. Except instead of being a literal child, this time she is a figurative one when compared to Sylens’ breadth of knowledge about a world she knows so little about.
There’s also an underlying cynicism in an ultimate moment of acceptance where Aloy is literally worshipped by the people who used to hate her. Aloy runs to each person bowing before her, yelling at them in fury to get up, stand up, get up! The hypocrisy of going from hated to worshiped runs so deep in her its palpable.
The contrast between the egos that destroyed humanity in the past and the egos that almost destroy it again in this rebuilt future are perfectly written. Between the power-hungry and eventually insane scientist and inventor Ted Faro of the “Ancients”, to the knowledge-hungry and mercenary Sylens who assists you later in the game to help prevent the end of the world from taking place, Guerrilla saves itself from only looking like it’s targeting religion as a focus of their ire. This is a game about people indulging in the worst vice – pride. Even Aloy is at first purely motivated by her own personal search for knowledge and restoration of pride. She’s just able to rise above it, but she is her weakest and most juvenile when she gives into it. Watching the old recordings of people bickering over which software or military protocol to use in the face of global extinction leaves a dull pang for the player at the realism of it all.
Reading the recordings about the end of the world isn’t depressing only because it’s detailing all the angles of how we would go about the massive lies, the sacrifice of military units, the euthanasia of people who don’t want to die of starvation. No, it’s also depressing because it’s so damn believable. When you finally get to your answer of why all knowledge of this incident was lost to the people of Aloy’s world, the cost of pride is shown even harder. When faced with the end of days, in the final moments, Ted Faro chooses to destroy the subroutine that contained all of human history – including his mistakes – so that the humans who come after, in a distant future, wouldn’t have the tools necessary to repeat their mistakes. He acts under the sadly misguided concept that we could ever possibly be without malice, or that we could save ourselves from …. Ourselves. It’s painful to admit while watching, that even with all of that knowledge lost, the humanity that was re-created from test tubes, cloning, and artificial rearing, still wars with each other. Separated into tribes, enslaving others, and being blatantly racist towards others even when facing the final enemy. Even when united on the same battlefield, each tribe is in its encampment, whispering about what they don’t trust about the other.
Horizon: Zero Dawn is an incredibly powerful statement on the human condition. If it is pushing any “agenda,” it’s that we are our own worst enemies. The in fighting that has occurred on certain forums about whether or not this game is a “beacon” for Social Justice Warriors or raging Feminist armies is just proof of it’s bigger point. Humans can so easily miss the forest for the dying trees in it by simply never ceasing their screaming at each other. It’s also a statement that even though we all fight it, and fear it, in the end we can be forgotten in the blink of an eye. Death is inevitable, but the way we choose to live our life isn’t. Even when your fight is for good, it will be tested by every single person – even your allies. In the end, you may very well be alone. Just like the scientist who saves humanity the first time, Elizabet Sobeck, ultimately dies alone, she does so knowing that she did her best. While Aloy has a far brighter future in store for her at the game’s ending, and has grown considerably as a person in getting there, she will in a way never cease being an “outcast” because that is what a hero really is at the end of it all. The one still voice in the chaos. Because even in knowing that your entire existence can disappear in a moment, you still have to care. You have to be better than your pride. If it’s in your power to fix something, or help someone, you have to step up.
Turn, and face the sun.
Disclaimer: I did not receive a promotional copy of Horizon: Zero Dawn. My opinions are my own and are not endorsed by Sony or Guerrilla Games. I don’t make any money if you click the links in this article.