Horizon Zero Dawn is hands down one of the most interesting and well-crafted gaming experiences of the last decade, an accolade few would disagree with. In glowing review after glowing review praise is heaped on the game for its varied world, interesting and complex gameplay, and general story. One of the things that feels virtually ignored since released however is the most crucial.
Behind this metal dino killing game is one of the most thought-provoking pieces of media released in the 21st Century.
Film is traditionally seen as the most arty-farty of the visual media, the only place where new concepts and ideas can truly be given justice for the intelligentsia to fan themselves over, while gaming still has a reputation as something only teenage and young-adult men with nothing better to do spend all their time playing and what is presented is mediocre at best. Horizon however oozes new ideas and presentation of them in every nook and cranny of the world.
To start with let’s talk about that main story. For those who still haven’t played the game the main thread of the narrative follows the young woman Aloy as she ventures to discover the secret of her origins, eventually culminating in the revelation she’s the clone of the woman who “saved the world” in a manner of speaking. Turns out however, she didn’t save the world so much as find a way to create a new one when the “Faro Plague” that will wipe out mankind wins. And this is where we get the first of the major explorations of the game that focus on two items, misuse of technology and AI.
The looming Faro Plague itself best embodies the former of the two, in that this apocalypse wasn’t some madman with their hand on the nuclear button but a corporation who, putting profit ahead of all else, build the “Chariot Line” of automated weapons platforms that can use biomass to refuel and can replicate itself and other units to thereby avoid the need for costly and tactically impractical fuel and spares deliveries. This all goes a bit Pete Tong however when, as with any programme ever made, an unforeseen “glitch” sees it no longer respond to commands from its owners and instead fall back on automated failsafes with no real intelligence of what it’s doing, leading to a fatal catastrophe of easting and replicating while killing all that gets in its way. With no way to reassert control the planet is inevitably doomed as the company, rather than attempting to act while still having a hope of stopping this, hides the truth until it’s far too late and the planet is doomed.
This leads us to the second of the two themes, AI, best articulated through the “solution” to this problem in the form of Project Zero Dawn, the project to build an AI that can terraform planets to make the planet liveable once the threat subsides. The resulting AI, GAIA, is the complete opposite of the Faro Plague in not only its mission to create rather than destroy but it explores how technology can benefit when it is given a heart and soul in the form of real intelligence. Unlike a crude set of human-written procedures GAIA instead has the ability to dream all it needs to complete its tasks while also radically alter its programming to do so.
Of course this idea of a benevolent AI is juxtaposed against the real foe of the game, HADES, a part of GAIA that breaks free and instead focuses on its goal of rendering the planet sterile once more as it was initially designed to do as a failsafe if GAIA cocked it up, an AI that is unable to truly think outside its core programming and instead all its creativity is still aimed at that one human-coded procedure.
These two themes are also wrapped in more human politics that sees, from Aloy’s “mother” Elisabet Sobeck heading the project to General Herres buying time on the battlefield to Samina Ebadji archiving all human knowledge, a very diverse and multicultural group of people building GAIA to save the world and humankind while Faro himself, the archetypal White Male CEO of our current world who can’t see outside his own little box, in the end murders them all to hide his crimes and his destruction of an entire planet and all who lived on it.
Just this and other concepts highlighted in the main story alone, like oblivious ignorance versus the pursuit of knowledge as threats to society, could fill a whole series of articles just by themselves but beyond this one section of the experience there’s still so much to learn and see, and one of the best examples of this is Aloy’s tribe the Nora.
The tribe, likely named after the NORAD facility hidden in the same mountain they call home, are entirely built around a matriarchy as a society, with female elders leading their collective decision making. The truly interesting thing though is the game bases this development around a corruption of 21st century patriarchal attitudes, with the original founders of the tribe being raised by two AIs, a warm and nurturing “mother” alongside a cold and disciplinarian “father”. This was warped over the years and generations to the point that they worship the “All-Mother” as a protector and life-giving figure while the Father has become linked to the “Metal Devil”, a corpse of a Chariot Line machine that has lane dead on the slopes of the mountain for centuries.
Despite this corruption of our own societal make-up its influences live on in the tribe’s customs, with the tribe’s “Matriarchs” still judged based on their ability to bear children with those with the longest line of descendants judged as the most influential. Even in a world where it’s women who are dominant it’s still childbirth that their worth is centred around.
The previously mentioned dilemma between ignorance and knowledge is displayed more in the world-building that surrounds another of the tribe, the Carja. These are a group who started as outcasts of the Nora whose founder had discovered half-burned books from the “Old Ones” (21st century humans) that discussed how the movements of the sun worked. With this basic knowledge they founded a society but this tattered information went from being a science to the basis of a religion that would eventually fall into human sacrifice.
Despite all the focus on the world of the in-game now there are then also small snippets of data that refer back to our real-world scenario now. Much of this focuses on the present-day issue of Climate Change and the eradication of biodiversity, with news reports of low-lying nations first disappearing and then their resources being fought over as new Green tech reverses the damage done (which leads to the Faro Plague in the end) and various people’s opinions as species after species disappear forever, while others take a shot at xenophobia and a letting down of refugees that includes a barely-hidden rebuttal to politicians like Nigel Farage and their views that we shouldn’t help refugees and the few we do should be grateful we did anything at all.
Beyond that we also see stories about automation making mass unemployment of a depression a reality and the resulting societal decay and the inevitable downfall of the Nation State along with it, with very close to home stories of RAF personnel being made redundant due to drones taking off in the forces and NHS cuts growing more savage with each year. These are topics you frankly would never expect to be raised in a game that also features taking down a rocket carrying robot T-Rex with a bow and arrow.
Horizon Zero Dawn is a game, a very fun one. Its development and the team behind it however have within that also managed to create one of the most varied and interesting collections of political and philosophical discourse ever put inside one.