Game * Guerrilla Games * Post-Machine Apocalypse * 2017
I’m glad I don’t have to worry about what constitutes a “game of the year.” I don’t have a Switch, which means that I’m not even distracted by the likes of Mario or Zelda and between Prey, Wolfenstein II, Nier: Automata, What Remains of Edith Finch (because I care about indies, dammit!) and this game, I couldn’t tell you which is best. It’s a good problem to have, I suppose. Horizon: Zero Dawn has a terrible title, but an excellent everything-else, not the least of which is the setting and the story. The easy pitch is fairly straightforward: you’re a teen girl with a bow and spear and you spend a lot of time hunting robot animals in a post-post-apocalypse situation. If that sounds ridiculous, it totally is. Yet one of the best things about this game is the narrative, because the writers have not only created a convincing world to run around in, they have also created a handful of excellent characters and have written a great story to go with it. I don’t mean “good for a video game,” I mean it’s an excellent story on its own, right straight up. Guerrilla manages to pull off a narrative that remains intriguing and engaging for as long as you play the game – and for me that was around 50 hours or so. Very few games have managed to do this.
The protagonist of Horizon is, admittedly, something of a well-worn cliché, in that Aloy is an exceptionally talented teen girl who is also the singular savior of humanity from the forces of evil. However, the secret about clichés is this: if you do it well, nobody will care. Aloy is rad. I want every protagonist in a young adult dystopia to be more like her. Unlike, say, Katniss Everdeen, Aloy spends very little time feeling sorry for herself or mooning over some boy. She ain’t got time for that nonsense, she’s got shit to do. That said, Aloy is human. The game begins with you controlling Aloy as a little girl, maybe nine years old. Aloy and her father-figure, Rost, are outcasts from the tribe which controls the land where they live. Rost teaches her how to hunt and to survive, and also the seemingly arbitrary and cruel laws of the tribe they are outcast form. Aloy, being the scrappy, plucky young hunter with a heart of gold, chafes under these rules. Especially when people are dicks to her despite doing good works for her neighbors. We get a sick training montage and then Aloy is a teenager who’s about to undergo a tribal ritual that will allow her to join the tribe and she can stop being an outcast. During this trial, something unexpected happens and from there the game opens up.
During this introduction, Aloy’s character is developed quickly but carefully, and brought to life by the talents of Ashly Burch, who is excellent (and not just because of my heavy Adventure Time bias). There are occasions where you’re given dialogue options to guide various events, but it seems like those mostly set the tone for particular conversations and don’t have much (if anything) to do with changing plot points. Many terrible things happen to Aloy, but despite having an honest and heartfelt reaction to those events, she doesn’t become embittered, and doesn’t succumb to ennui and moodiness like pretty much every teen protagonist ever. Maybe that’s not realistic since we all know that teenagers are awful, but the story and world are constructed in such a way that Aloy’s character seems legit. She has flaws, she has doubts, she has blind spots and vulnerabilities, but at the same time she doesn’t spend a lot of time worrying about it. Also she’s blunt and sarcastic, which I appreciate. Aloy has spent her entire childhood as an outcast – the game does an excellent job introducing characters who are extremely mean to you in order to really put you in the role – and she makes it clear how she feels about that. Plus, she’s smart enough to be constantly annoyed by the religious trappings of her society and eventually that of the wider world, and will also let you know about that. Yet despite her disdain for, well, most of the people in the world of Horizon, Aloy repeatedly risks her life to help out.
Horizon: Zero Dawn is an open-world action game, so most of the time you’re running around and exploring and completing quests and errands for people you come across in your travels. The structure of the game isn’t new, it’s just well done. I still like open-world games quite a bit, but even I’m starting to get fatigued by the Ubisoftification of these games. Horizon does some of the same things as a Far Cry or an Assassin’s Creed game, but they make subtle changes to the formula which helps the minute-to-minute gameplay from feeling stale. Combat is down to your spear, which is eventually capable of overriding machines, your bow, which is customizable and capable of shooting a variety of arrows, a sling which lobs a variety of bombs, and devices which set traps, such as ropes and tripwires. I used the bow probably 80% of the time, supplemented with a few explosives here and there. Maybe a whack with the spear when things got desperate. I enjoyed myself, although after I had maxed out most of my equipment I was more than happy to skip encounters. That said, despite the size of the world, those machines are densely populated. Sometimes I just want to check out this weird rock formation without being chased by an invisible robot mountain lion, you know?
The nature of the post-apocalypse in Horizon: Zero Dawn is purposefully mysterious, and probably the greatest triumph of the game’s story is the ability to properly pace the narrative so that the player doesn’t get bored and never feels cheated. That’s incredibly difficult to pull off, especially when you’re crafting an experience that takes 30-50 hours to complete. Aloy initially takes the world at face value. Of course you have to learn how to avoid the mechanical murder bots that look like horses and coyotes, that’s just the way it is. But Aloy is special, of course, and is intrigued by the “Metal World,” the decayed ruins of The Old Ones. The structure of the game is rich in dramatic irony, because obviously we’re familiar with the trappings of our own world, and it’s always fun to watch people who have no idea what they’re looking at trying to figure it out. Once Aloy gets out of her homeland and begins to explore, it become a little more clear what kind of world she’s dealing with. It doesn’t take long for Aloy to find the corroded ruins of a major city, and if you’re particularly observant, you’ll notice that it’s Denver.
Horizon’s narrative is actually two closely related stories. There’s the story of Aloy finding her place in the world as well as the larger question of just what the hell happened to create the world. The game is careful to keep these stories balanced and engaging, another impressive feat, and we’ve already seen that Aloy’s characterization is strong enough to make her story engaging on its own. She’s already disillusioned with the constraints of her tribe, and as she meets and engages with other cultures, she’s in a place to look past the deeply held prejudices and biases of most everyone else. There’s way too much background information to get into here, but the ripple effects of Aloy’s actions on human society at large is a big part of the game, and is well told. One of my favorite things about the game is watching people try and fit Aloy into their worldview, especially dudes who are into her. There is no tiresome romantic subplot here, and everything Aloy does is in service to either her own growth or that of society at large. Nothing she does is in the service of a man’s story, which shouldn’t be noticeable and refreshing but for now it is.
Aloy may be setting the world right, and she may be saving her tribe, and she may overthrow a dark challenge to the world’s major power in Meridian, but she does all of this in service to learn just where she came from, and what happened to the world. Throughout the game, you explore the ruins of a variety of sites where the world’s doom was orchestrated. The apocalypse in questions turns out to be a variation on the “grey goo” scenario. In the mid-21st century a major tech company revolutionizes the robot industry. Soon they’re making all sorts of military-grade robots, which we all know by now is a terrible idea. Now, instead of becoming self-aware and going all Skynet, there’s just a simple glitch. These murder-bots are capable of self-replication, which allows them to carry on the fight without having to leave the battlefield for repairs. In order to do this, they harvest available biomass for the energy and resources to create more killbots. The glitch removes the killbots’ ability to stop this process of self-replication. The more the robots self-replicate, the more biomass they use, which becomes an exponential problem to the point where eventually there will be no more biomass to fuel the process, when the replication finally stops. The world ended because there was literally nothing left alive.
That’s a fascinating scenario, but it’s also kind of terminal, so obviously something else had to happen otherwise there wouldn’t be all this life all over the place. Humanity survived, and that’s due to the last-ditch effort to save life by Aloy’s ancient ancestor Elizabet Sobeck. This story, which is told in a series of journal entries and holograms and audio files, is excellent in its own right. Elizabet’s battle with the amoral Ted Faro (the CEO of the killbot company) is compelling, and there are also well-chosen details which supplement the entire experience. Anyway, the savior of life turns out to be an AI, known as GAIA. This AI is given all the resources necessary to reseed life with the help of a bunch of robot animals. It’s made clear how precarious this solution is. Such minor issues as a door not closing (or opening) have dramatic consequences. GAIA is supplemented by a variety of other systems intended to facilitate the restoration of the biosphere, but also with the reeducation of humanity. The repository of knowledge is called APOLLO, and it’s intended to be there to install the entirety of human knowledge and experience into those who come after. Needless to say, considering everyone is living in various tribes, that knowledge didn’t trickle all the way down.
There is one issue I have with this game, which is going to come up when you’re dealing with fictional tribes of humans, and that’s pretty clear problem of cultural appropriation. If you’re rolling your eyes and muttering “why can’t I be allowed to like things” then relax, you should still absolutely play the game. It’s still great. But also fuck you because it still sucks to see obvious tribal referents used all willy-nilly in media. In the interest of full disclosure, I’m a quarter Quileute Indian, and even though I’m not officially affiliated with the tribe I can still see white people running around calling themselves “braves” and be annoyed by it. Look, it’s not a deal-breaker but it’s also lazy. In a game where so much care was taken with the details of the world and the story, it’s disappointing that the same care wasn’t taken with the tribal symbolism. It’s one of the few negatives in an otherwise outstanding experience, and frankly in a world where I can hear the phrase “and he somehow made the catch while surrounded by Redskins” on any given Sunday, it’s not that bad. Still, it’s a thing. Do better, creators.
Other than that bit of unpleasantness, Horizon is clearly one of the best games released in this horrible year full of wonderful video games. I’m weirdly disappointed that this game probably did well enough to spawn a franchise, though. I know this is sacrilege in an era of endless spin-offs and sequels and unending franchises, but not everything I like needs to be a series, you know? Horizon tells a fantastic story. Aloy and the other ancillary characters have a satisfying arc. I was feeling real good about the whole thing but of course there’s a post-credits sting because the MCU has ruined everything. Anyway, there’s a hundred other things to talk about here, because this game is dense with quality, but at some point I have to close down the rambling. If you have a PS4, play the thing. If you don’t, consider getting one. I don’t know if Horizon: Zero Dawn is the best game of 2017 but I also don’t actually care. It’s great regardless.