“Horizon Zero Dawn” Is a Surprisingly Beautiful Apocalypse

Horizon Zero Dawn was announced at E3 in 2015, along with every other game I have been excited about ever since then, up to and including the new Mass Effect which comes out later this month. As such, I kind of lost track of it in the chaos, which was nice because I never felt like I was waiting for it to come out. It just sort of appeared, fully formed, like a herd of robot horses, which is a thing from this game and not a nonsense thing I just made up. I read some early reviews and the consensus seemed to be Surprised By How Good This Game Is. Even going into it with that expectation, I am really surprised by how good it is.

The setting is a post-post-apocalypse, which seems to be the same as a regular post-apocalypse except prettier. In it, we find a man with a sweet dad-bod and an equally sweet baby. He climbs a mountain and does kind of a Lion King thing, and now the baby has a name: Aloy. We are also told, for the first of many times, that Aloy is an “outcast”, even though she is just a baby and can’t possibly have done anything wrong, and no, nobody will tell us why just yet.

The game then skips ahead to Aloy as a toddler, and honestly this scene was pretty heartbreaking. Aloy sees some children gathering berries and bringing them adults and getting praised, so of course she tries to do the same thing and is shunned and it’s awful. I cried. I mean I was very PMS-ing when I started this game and I spent the first hour or so crying, and I’m not sure how much was over how sad this part was and how much was about how beautiful the lighting is.

But anyway, upset about being SHUNNED at like 5 years old, Aloy runs away and falls down a hole into a ruin of The Metal World, which is basically our real life world except a little more awful. (Another thing I was crying about actually is Young Aloy’s running animation, which is so fucking cute.) In the hole she finds a relic on a dead body. It’s called a Focus. It connects Aloy to the old world, and it’s the macguffin that sets the plot in motion, but we don’t know that yet exactly.

This is no place for children.

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Eventually Aloy makes it out of the pit and is bullied even more and decides she wants to grow up to become a warrior so she can find out why she was cast out, and Not-Dad is a sweet supportive gentle viking who walks us through a tutorial of hunting robot dinosaurs, which are things that exist but nobody knows how or why. There’s a classic training montage, and then Aloy is all grown up and kinda hot and suddenly very ready to face the world. She has to prove herself capable to become a member of the “tribe”, but of course nothing ever goes as planned and adventures are always bigger than adventurers expect them to be.

The plot that opens up from there is about revenge and the hunt for knowledge and eventually about saving the world. The story never exactly surprised me, but the way it unfolds made it seem more inevitable than predictable. To stop the new world from ending, you need to find out how the old one ended, and the answer is: horribly, avoidably, and sadly. Really really sadly. And infuriatingly. This is a really beautiful apocalypse you guys.

A really REALLY beautiful apocalypse.

The game-play is a little bit of a mess, but in a good way? Sometimes it’s a stealth game, luring small machines or bandits close while you hide in the tall grass for a sneak attack. It’s also a giant action game, pitting you against machines 10 times your size while you dodge-roll out of their way and try to pick them apart with a bow and arrow. There’s climbing/parkour, which means there is falling to your death off derelict skyscrapers and Tallneck dinosaur robots. (The first time you make it to the top of a Tallneck is a beautiful moment, and the first time you rappel back down to the ground instead of jumping off and dying like a dummy is maybe even better.) There’s also a crafting system that’s mostly just a pain in the butt since resources are so plentiful it feels like busy work, but it can add some tension to epic fights when you have to craft more ammo in the middle of combat. My favorite parts, though, were delving into the old places, where there isn’t much action at all, and finding pieces of the puzzle of the end of the world. Aloy doesn’t always understand what she’s finding, but we do, and it’s rough watching her catch up to us.

Screenshotting during fights is actually really hard.

It’s a big weird mess, but I mean, they even manage to make the existence of robot horse herds make sense. It all comes together in the end. It’s a pretty beautiful story.

As a protagonist, Aloy is likable enough if not fully realized. There’s a Mass Effect-style dialogue choice system that can sort of shape her personality, but it doesn’t show up very often and feels a little half baked. She also suffers from the solo nature of her mission; her relationships with other characters never have a chance to get too deep, and she was raised alone, so she isn’t really a part of the larger world. Without a real home, it’s easy to lose sight of what she’s fighting for.

I think the world is really the main character of the game though anyway. We’re really getting into the first wave of games developed specifically for the current generation of consoles, and this one is gorgeous. The grass ripples when you walk through it, and the light filters through the trees, and the draw distance on the landscapes is endless. I run all over the map instead of fast traveling just because I love looking at everything, and because maybe I want to pick a fight with something huge on the way. The way the machines move is so lifelike you forget they’re not alive a lot of the time, to the point where I felt a little guilty “killing” some of them.

Everything is just a joy to look at. The game knows how pretty it is, too: They included a dedicated Photo Mode, where you can pause the game and rotate and pull the camera back and add filters to get your perfect screenshot. It’s dorky as heck and I am addicted to it. I am also addicted to climbing the tallest things to collect “vantage points” which are beautiful views of the right now world overlaid with sad pictures of the old world. And also with zip-lining or rappelling down from those great heights afterwards, which in 40 hours of game-play has not yet gotten any less exciting.

More thrilling than fighting robot alligators, maybe.

It’s not all positive though. The game has been criticized for appropriation of Indigenous culture and for use of language historically used to denigrate Native peoples. This was something that bothered me throughout the game, though I’m not knowledgeable enough to have pointed out the specific issues. But the aesthetic and cultures of the “tribes” in the game immediately made me uncomfortable. They felt like they were built piecemeal from existing cultures or from a Pinterest board titled “primitive”. The in-game culture doesn’t feel original, or inspired by the events of the very believable world they’ve created. It feels stolen and mismatched. I think this was one of the reasons I was more invested in the historical story than in the actual events of the game.

I believed in the world that was, and in its end, but I just don’t see how this new world sprung up in this shape. There is a lot of diversity in the supporting cast and NPCs, which is refreshing, but then the protagonist is super white and is saving the world with her advanced technology and I don’t know. It’s a lot. These issues aren’t unique to this game or to games at all, but they’re here and they mar what is otherwise a great game. (You can read more about this from Native writer Dia Lacina over at Medium.)

I was interested in this game originally because it had a girl protagonist, but I figured it would wind up being a generic action game. I was way wrong about that. It’s not nearly perfect, but there is a whole lot to do and the potential for a lot more. Based on the ending, it seems likely there will be a sequel, but I’m more interested in a prequel even if we know how it will end. Like a Rogue One to this game’s The Force Awakens. Either way, I want more. Preferably with even bigger robots this time.

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Sarah lives in the Boston area and plays a lot of video games. Her interests are cats, bragging, and foods that can be eaten lying down. She has too many sneakers and not enough pants.

sarah has written 30 articles for us.

16 Comments

  1. -‘The way the machines move is so lifelike you forget they’re not alive a lot of the time, to the point where I felt a little guilty “killing” some of them.’

    Ha. I’m deep into Fallout 4 at the mo, and a few weeks ago when I came across my first big herd of radstags, just peacefully moseying around minding their own business, some even having a little lie down in the afternoon sun, I suffered considerable angst about why exactly I was supposed to be killing them. I mean, they showed up in red for ENEMY; SHOULD DIE and the music changed to TIME TO KILL THINGS and even dear sweet Piper charged straight in screaming and firing at them, but in my heart I felt it was wrong. But since Piper is now my moral compass (in life as well as F4), I ignored the part of me that wanted to let the innocents live and ran around slaughtering six or seven of them to impress her instead. (And she did seem to like it. Incidentally, if I accidentally do anything she dislikes I have to reload the game in horror). ANYWAY, that night I had a dream I was going along with someone instructing me to be cruel to animals, and I woke up in the middle of the night *fully hyperventilating*.

    So I do not think I will do that again.

    But anyway, WOO I am excited about Horizon Zero Dawn and also this review.

    • I think I’m having guilt? Last night i dreamed a deer was trying to kick me in the face and I woke myself up trying to get out of the way of the Dream Deer and somehow messed up my back? Anyway I’m blaming it on this videogame because I can’t explain it otherwise.

      • Your BACK! Amazing. And yes, definitely your subconscious reacting this way is a sign of your deep down moral soundness and virtue, or so I decided of myself. I walk a little taller now.

        I guess, with your back, you will not.

      • Oh no, I feel dirty with shame any time it happens. (Also it took a few weeks to be able to leave her behind once we had professed our undying love to one another. I felt guilty about luring Hancock out of Goodneighbour with the promise of high adventure only to immediately dump him in the castle with awful Preston, but any time I tried to venture out with him out of a sense of obligation I felt a bit heartsick and had to go back and get Piper instead. I only ever lasted ten minutes.)

    • First: My first language isn´t english, so sorry for any typos or missunderstandings.

      Horizon I would also play with pleasure. Unfortunately, I have no PS4. However, I watch Lets Plays. Not a bad game for a console game.
      With regard to Fallout 4: I have also played this recently. And, besides, accidently brought on myself some kind of an unfortunate BYGT-revival moment. I´ve caused -ingame, of course – a stray bullet. Which killed the guard of a trader. The name of said guard, which I could read through the gunsight was L.E.X.A. *scream* I was so furious on myself and disconsolately that I have loaded an old savegame and then avoided the zone extensively. ^^

  2. Issues aside, yeah, this game has me by the short and curlies. I’m very close to the end and while at times the issues (technical and anthropological) have irked me, mostly I’ve been captivated.

    And I agree a thousand times with this: “but the way it unfolds made it seem more inevitable than predictable.” I love sci-fi so I kinda guessed quickly where the story was going and I still got so depressed and so amazingly furious when sure as shit I was right and they fucked everything all up and oh my god how stupid can humanity be?

  3. As someone who didn’t notice the potential for appropriation. (probably because I don’t know enough to recognize anything :/ ) I have to say I’m not surprised at all, it was made by a Dutch developer and to say that we’re blind when it comes to appropriating things and neglecting the feelings of minorities is probably the kindest way to put it. When it comes to being culturally sensitive and socially progressive we’ve basically been coasting on being the first to legalize gay marriage for the past 16 years.

    So what did end up being unexpected for me was how relatively well it handled social issues. One of the factions has patriarchal background and practically gets ridiculed for it and there’s a decent amount of queer representation including an implied trans character.(though you don’t get a definitive answer because they break the arm everyone that badgers them about it)

    And as much as she’s a white savior, Aloy is also rail thin waif with a fairly flat chest and no ass. Which is also novel enough for a AAA action/adventure game protagonist to surprise me.

    So yeah, as someone who went into this expecting them flub on literally everything but art, I’m actually quite pleasantly surprised with how it turned out. Though I’m sure that on some level I’m undervaluing the problems it does have.

    • The article about the appropriation has an interesting point of view.
      Where I see the tale about the loss of knowledge and what it means for future generations, I can understand someone else interpreting it as an uncomfortable allegory about their ancestors deemed savage by technologically advanced intruders.

      On the other hand, the game makes it clear that the popular preconceived notion that Nora tribe is just a bunch of savages is narrowminded and the protagonist – Nora herself – points that out quite frequently. A player doesn’t even have an option to affect how Alloy reacts as far as I remember.

      She also never diminishes other person’s cultural background and is only anxious if she witnesses people facing a similar fate as hers or the clan ignores the need to adapt in order to survive a threat for sake of keeping their conservative religious belief pure and unchallenged.
      The latter is the legacy of her upbringing and the down-to-earth outlook. Her unapologetic, self-aware and stoic stance was the most extraordinary thing about her to me.

      The outfits reflect what resources are available in the area. I was actually quite impressed to see how much details the art designer put into each outfit. The plot takes place in North American, so yeah, it is possible that tribe members discovered remains of some museum or whatever where they could see figures of Native Americans – without any context – and got inspired by it.

      As for the white savior trope, Alloy always identifies as Nora and that clan is a mixture of races having some non-white people among its highest ranks. Everyone outside the clan sees her as “savage” Nora, a color of skin doesn’t change that.
      If we don’t judge the game on its own merits but in the context of real-world events, then yeah, I can see how it rubs some people the wrong way. Just another white girl saving the world while PoC are waiting and watching. If Alloy had had a different origin, it would have dodged a bullet easily.

      Anyway, thanks for the thought. I adore Horizon Zero Dawn for what it is and hope to see more from Guerrilla Games.

  4. The animation/motion capture is so superior, as you say, with all types of characters, young Aloy especially. She’s not Hollywood cute, but real life child. And I believed older Aloy’s movements. At some point you see the muscles in her arm. They aren’t exaggerated, but they look real *stun*.
    But also the older women- I mean how often do you get to see older realistic women in games??? Also, the whole matriarchal background might be a bit tacky by now, but it gives strong 80s feminism vibes, and a little tear to the eye.

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