On Horizon Zero Dawn and the Heroism of Aloy

Every April is Switcheroo Month at The Cultural Gutter. This month Comics Editor Carol writes about Horizon Zero Dawn.


Watch out, everyone, I am going to talk a bit about story elements because I enjoyed Horizon Zero Dawn‘s story. Sometime I’d like to discuss it in greater depth, because it is a good story, but I’m trying to maintain some balance. I am not sure how much I should share because on the one hand, I really want to talk about it, but on the other hand, the game has only been out for a year and only really affordable for less than that. I also want to talk about how awful Ted Faro is, what a bad idea he had, how all his subsequent ideas were especially bad because by then he should have known all his ideas were bad. But while I am rarely bothered by knowing plot elements myself, I am glad that I went into Horizon Zero Dawn blind beyond a sense that this game was really appealing and looks gorgeous. If you don’t want to know anything, play the game before reading my piece.

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In Horizon Zero Dawn, you play Aloy, an outcast from the Nora, a gatherer-hunter people whose material culture looks very much like pre-Roman Northern European/Celtic/Scandanavian stuff, but are living 1,000 years in our future. This means that as well as woven fabrics, fur, leather and their own forged metals, they use metal, plastic, wire and circuitry that they have scavenged from the wreckage of our civilization. Aloy lives with her foster-father and fellow outcast, Rost. Rost refuses explain why either of them were ostracized. They live in a world where the ruins of ours still stand and there are no large animals anymore—the largest appear to be wild pigs—but there are machines that look very much like deer, hyena, large cats, horses (or, more, a horse with a very cat-like skull), and beyond the Nora territory, bulls, bison, alligators, rhinoceroses horrible giant chickens, and, frighteningly, a tyrannosaurus rex with both machine guns and lasers mounted on it. Aloy resists the taboos constraining her. She rescues a boy from machines—saving his life but putting him at risk socially. She talks to people she shouldn’t and she hopes to be accepted by the Nora by completing a trial, “the Proving.” But things go wrong and Aloy discovers some truths about herself, her world and the world the came before it that is so much like our own—threatened with environmental collapse, increasing inequality, privatized war and distasteful tech bros.

A thousand years before Aloy’s proving, Dr. Elisabet Sobeck designed machines to claw the world back from environmental collapse. She teamed up with Faro Industries to produce the machines and it worked. The world was saved. At least it was until Ted Faro, creepy tech venture capitalist and man filled with hubris, decided to use Sobeck’s technology to create “peace-keeping” robots. These robots can operate autonomously. They are self-replicating. And they can consume biomass for fuel if necessary. And so one day, the war machines stopped listening to humans. Seriously who even creates armed robots who are independent, consume biomass and reproduce? A thousand years later, the machines, once largely indifferent to humans, are becoming increasingly aggressive.

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Aloy visits Denver.

Horizon Zero Dawn has an expansive world very thoughtfully mapped onto and from our own—especially if “our own” is the American West. There is a reason for those robo-bison. A lot of times, I am here for games’ world-building, but not so much for the story. I often go along with the story or the quests in order to do something or see what’s going to happen. In The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, in order to encounter and even ride dragons, I put up with proposed dragon genocide, a slut-shaming quest, weird fantasy racism—including a dark elf ghetto and a dark elf island homeland that had been granted to them after a volcano destroyed their original homeland. I still haven’t finished the game because I couldn’t choose sides in the game’s civil war. On one side, there was the empire, diverse, sure, but very much an empire. On the other side, there were the people standing against empire to re-establish control of their traditional homeland Skyrim. But they were the Nords, mostly blond, white people who very strongly felt that Skyrim should be for the Nords. Their capital had a dark elf ghetto. And, predictably, I was a dark elf, because I have a knack for choosing the fantasy race that everyone “distrusts.” It’s that “realism” that isn’t about reality at all, but rather what some players, readers, designers and writers think feels “real.” And I am just not one of them. In Skyrim, my character is still on an island. She spends most of her time there making armor and swords. With the choices between empire, the unpleasantly (and likely not intentionally) resonant “The Nords will rise again!” and dragon-genocide, it’s not a world I really want to affirm. But I will willingly affirm the world of Horizon Zero Dawn. It is intriguing science fiction, an interesting take on the apocalypse when and what it means for it to be the end of the world. I even cared about the world-saving quest. I mean, sure I am not down with the world ending. I follow along like I’m supposed to. But when I play most games, I complete the quests to see what’s going to happen. Even with Dragon Age: Inquisition, another game I enjoyed immensely, I was not altogether down with the titular Inquisition. I accepted the story, but I did not feel like riding with the solution.

And I appreciate that Aloy, like Spider-Man Miles Morales, would always be a hero.**  She always would be one, no matter what happened to her or what motivated her on this particular quest. I don’t feel like the loss of Rost made her a hero. It was the impetus for her quest. Aloy was always concerned with doing the right thing and would be regardless of her circumstances. I like a story where heroism does not need to be explained. That being a hero is not the flipside of tragedies that create villains, as much as I like Batman (1989).*** It is interesting take with Batman, but when we always have a reason for why some people become heroes, it starts to feel like an excuse for why we’re not heroes. Or more, it feels like an excuse to explain or even justify why most of us do not do the right thing, help others, act heroically. It seems better to me to say, do the best you can with what you have when you can.

In a way, Horizon Zero Dawn reminds me of when I played God Of War. I always appreciated that God Of War was honest about who its protagonist Kratos was and what he would do to save his world. He is brutally focused on his task. It was honest about who, really, so many role-playing game heroes often are. Designated heroes kill and loot a lot. Kratos and Aloy may be at opposite ends of any chosen hero continuum, but Horizon Zero Dawn is equally clear about who Aloy is. She makes different choices, but in both games, you play as the character and your choices exist only among things that character might do or say. The decisions you make are in context of character. In God Of War, you make the choices Kratos would make, terrible as they are. In Horizon Zero Dawn, you make the choices Aloy would. Aloy is going to save the world as best she can and she is going to help everyone she can—even people no one else would help. And unlike so many games, where I played to see what would happen next—or ride a dragon or craft some sweet armor—I was there with her. I cared about her quest. And I agreed with her choices.

While Horizon Zero Dawn has so few things that bother me in other games, what it does have stick out more. Maybe it’s just that I expect more from a game I love. The Nora and later the Carja are not current traditional or Indigenous people, but there are influences on outfits, armor, design and lifestyle. The trailers have rubbed me wrong in their embrace of exotifying stereotypes about Indigenous people. I could do without the word, “braves.” And I’m uncomfortable with the portrayal of Banuk shamanism and certain condescending attitudes towards it in the Frozen Wilds expansion, which features pretty prominently in some of the Horizon Zero Dawn trailers. I imagine other people will have different lines.  It would have been nice if in setting their game in a future American West, the Amsterdam-based Guerilla Games had done a little more outreach and research.

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Aloy and Ourea the Shaman.

But it is nice to have a game where so much is good—especially in terms of presenting cultures–that I can say, “This could be better and more carefully thought out,” rather than just fatalistically accepting that Tolkien’s use of “race” has infected nearly every fantasy story and role playing game and unfortunately links culture to biology. And that some players expect “realistic” experiences of prejudice and discrimination. Horizon Zero Dawn has a slightly more sophisticated sense of culture and its effects and, for the most part, delinks biology, ethnicity and culture. Sure, in another game the Oseram would be “dwarves,” but generally Aloy encounters people inflected by their culture but still individuals.

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Sylens is very much an individual.

I suppose I should say something about the game mechanics and such-like. But I am one of those people who plays games to see what happens and what I can do and not so much to beat a game or master controllers. Horizon Zero Dawn is the first game I played through and then turned around and played through again. Unfortunately, it doesn’t have anything really exciting as unlockable content for another playthrough. But you get to keep the armor and weapons and the modifications for them that you have accumulated, which is nice, and the game is enjoyable enough that I played it for its own sake. I would even play it again if I didn’t get to keep the weapons, though I would probably have waited a bit longer. I like all the recordings  and holograms you find during regular game play. I especially like how little most of them have to do with Aloy’s mission because most people’s lives–especially people’s prior lives–are not about helping a hero solve a mystery or a quest. These recordings are traces of other people’s lives that add texture to the game. People’s complaints and songs and even free commercial offers.  And one of the collectibles includes secret poems, which is lovely.

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Aloy in armor she’s crafted. King Avad in his usual.

As a player, you do decide which armor or weapon you would like to use; how you want to modify it or your weapons; whether to sneak past a herd of machines or enemies or to engage; whether to buy materials to improve your kit or scavenge or hunt what you need. Yes, you can avoid hunting bunnies. Do you prefer to be cautious in your fights and take enemies out one by one, turn machines against each other? Do you like just running in and hitting things? You can. You can do any of these things. But if you do take on someone’s quest or decide to rescue people from bandits or clear out compounds, you’re doing it to help free captives and help the people being harassed and killed by bandits or machines. As the game progressed I avoided destroying machines if I could. They were less my enemy than particular human interests.

I am, in the context of the game, a cautious player. I bide my time. I wait for my shot. I snipe entire bandit compounds. I set traps at their gates and lure them to their doom. I worry about the people the bandits have kidnapped. I worry they’ll get killed. I worry I’ll get them killed after I rescue them. I worry when passers-by—soldiers even—try to help me fight a deranged machine, because the soldiers and hunters are never cautious and they do die. You can run at things like a berserker if you prefer. Once I had all the modifications and was fully powered up near the end of the storyline, I could theoretically just hack and slash through, but I learned caution playing Horizon Zero Dawn because, Jesus Christ, is that a robot tyrannosaurus rex? With lasers and machine guns and some kind of exploding drones?

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It is some kind of robot tyrannosaurus rex with lasers and machine guns and some kind of exploding drones.

There is about 20 minutes of cut scenes and tutorial at the beginning. It’s my least favorite part of the game, but does establish the story, Aloys character and ensures a basic competence using a bow, throwing rocks, jumping, hiding and climbing that prevented all my early encounters with machines ending with Aloy dead. In fact, I learned them well-enough that when I took an extended break from the game and played Lego Marvel Superheroes 2, I could come back to Horizon Zero Dawn and do all the things again without much thought. The game also has a “story mode” along side the usual range of difficulty settings. I appreciate the recognition that playing a game means more than one thing. Sometimes it’s “beating” a game. Sometimes playing is pretending and exploring in your own world or someone else’s—seeing what you can do, what happens and what can happen. At least that’s what I like doing in games. And there is a lot to discover in Horizon Zero Dawn.

I have no idea how people who mostly see video games as primarily about accomplishing really hard things with a controller will like Horizon Zero Dawn, but if you are there for a thought-out hero, good characterization, gorgeous visuals and even an interesting take on the apocalypse you might like it. And if you, play The Frozen Wilds expansion, you can learn all about all girl punk band, Concrete Beach Party. I have hopes that in Horizon Zero Dawn 2, the smilodon robots will be rideable.

*Dia Lucina has some good thoughts on appropriation, Horizon Zero Dawn and games in general.

**Horror Editor Angela Englert compares Aloy to Princess Leia.

***Seriously, people, not everyone has to be Batman.


Carol Borden would attend Concrete Beach Party’s reunion tour.

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