Horizon Zero Dawn

Horizon Zero Dawn, released February 28 by developer Guerrilla Games (of Killzone fame, a series of first person shooters), is an unspeakably beautiful and staggeringly epic third person action RPG.

I’ve had the pleasure of being able to play Horizon extensively this past weekend and I have enjoyed it immensely. If you are simply wondering if this game is worth the money, check it out friend. You won’t be disappointed. Some further considerations below.

Although I’ve heard less than flattering things about the story and characterization in the game, I have been quite happy with it. It avoids cliche — although narrowly — by giving protagonist Aloy agency, flaws and personality. In important dialogues, players have the option of choosing one of three personalities for Aloy, when engaged she can respond from the brain, fist or heart. Although it seems as though the choice doesn’t matter to the story in the long run, it does help customize the protagonist and some of Aloys responses are flat out salty. Have fun with the dialogue, just like ‘purple hawke‘ of Dragon Age 2, a fight focused Aloy can be the most fun.

Outside of the first act, the story is stretched pretty thin across a large world of discovery and exploration. Even though I tend to be a story focused gamer, I don’t mind this system. I thoroughly enjoyed every second of exploring this massive world, and every machine creature encountered. I never grew bored of the fighting or mechanics and the lore is so interesting I *actually* read the codex. Piecing together the mystery of the apocalypse is the most interesting part of the lore, I can’t wait to see what is revealed next.

I found myself impressed with the character building with even minor characters. Although the protagonist, Aloy, and the man who raised her, Rost, are both white — there are many diverse NPC’s including those with Asian and African features. War-chief Sona and her children Varl and Vala are NPC’s I loved interacting with, they never seemed two dimensional and I found myself hoping they would return. Adding diverse characters to games who are not simply background dressing is very important, and I felt like the game had a well diversified cast of secondary characters (at least during our time with the Nora, I haven’t seen as much diversity among the Carja so far).

I remember when I first saw the teaser at E3 in 2015. A female led action game, without romance and with a female protagonist wearing practical clothing. It meant something to me then and Aloy continues to mean something very important to me now. I found myself progressing through the game thinking of elements like romance that I missed from Bioware’s fare, but seeing the fans react to Aloy as though she may be ACE or Aromantic and LOVING her for it — its making me so excited about the possibilities in gaming representation.

All that said — there are some obvious deficiencies, most notably in the appropriation of past cultures.

The game is set in the far distant future, after a technological peak and a rapid apocalyptic decline. The people who are left have no understanding of technology and live in ‘primitive tribes’. Dev’s have admitted that they picked characteristics from all kinds of past cultures, but they’re meshed together with no identification of what’s from where. Aloy is white with red hair, braided in a Celtic fashion. There are many Norse and Viking-like cultural elements. Other members of her tribe wear natural black hair styles. There is set dressing, costuming, dancers and singers in the settlements who are evoking indigenous culture. Using cultures in this way seems like a lazy kind of shorthand. Instead of projecting into the future and creating a more original society, Guerrilla relied on our understanding of tropes, cliches and visual stereotypes to communicate the state of the world.

Some of the Nora tribe reminded me of Chakotay from Star Trek Voyager. Instead of choosing an authentic backstory for Star Treks first Indigenous character, Trek writers (aided by an Indigenous consultant who ended up being a fraud) simply meshed a bunch of existing indigenous cultures together to create something new. The result was a character who fed into stereotypes and felt disrespectful to those who where supposed to be represented. When my sister, watching my play Horizon, saw Rost she said, “oh, it’s Chakotay all over again.”

When asked about terms in the game such as “Braves” “Tribes” etc. John Gonzales, Horizon Zero Dawn narrative director, indicated research into “inoffensive” words had been done saying, “with the kind of culture of the internet that we have right now, it’s impossible to predict what it is that may offend.” 

If you are borrowing from different cultures, the most important thing is consulting with members of that culture. It goes so much further than making sure that people “aren’t offended”. What makes it positive representation, or simply not appropriation — is making sure that the voice that comes through is authentic to the culture. Seek out those voices. As consumers of this work, we have our own responsibility to seek out and listen to other voices. I absolutely don’t think Horizon is a bad game, but be critical of the media you love and ask yourself how it could be done better. Here’s an article I recommend. 

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