In prior editions of Metagames, I've talked about how games have the artistic potential to put players through entirely different emotional experiences than non-interactive media. This isn't really a review column, but for once, I'd like to break precedent and discuss a single game at length, from multiple angles. This game is proof that the tools all exist already to make layered and powerful narratives native to digital media—artistic works that can scarcely be compared to anything that's come before.
That game is Horizon Zero Dawn. This game casts you as Aloy, a young hunter from the matriarchal Nora tribe. The world she lives in is a lush, almost primordial paradise—that humans share with dangerous, animal-like robots of mysterious origin.
On a surface, purely mechanical level, Horizon Zero Dawn (HZD) is an unremarkable game. It uses devices found widely in other modern PC and console games. There is a health bar; experience points and levels; combat via shooting, melee, or laying traps; dialogue trees; inventory. As in many RPGs, there are collectible items to find and sell. There's a unit of currency to collect, with which to gradually purchase better gear. There are flora and fauna to hunt for resources, and a crafting system. There is a parkour-like mechanic for climbing, and, as in an Assassin's Creed game, there are vantage points to climb that reveal new areas of the map.
None of this is particularly new, or even terribly interesting.
The genius of HZD is in how it relentlessly adds depth, meaning, or adventure to elements of the game that are familiar unto tedious. Hunting is a great example. In many games you can hunt and kill the wildlife. And in many games, you can craft new items with the meat, bones, and leather you obtain in this way. But I've always found that mechanic distasteful, emotionally too much like hunting for sport (even if the animals are pretend).
In HZD, though, hunting is the only way to obtain the scarce materials you need to advance and improve. And for once, it's in keeping with your character Aloy's origin as a hunter-gatherer. So hunting is transformed in HZD into a necessary reality, and it became something I didn't mind doing as a result. In the dozens of RPGs I've played over dozens of years, that's never once happened before.
Going Through the Motions
There is one interesting mechanical change in HZD, and it's in how you shoot the bad guys. Typical games are basically all "press the button to fire," and have been since the days when there was only one round red button to press. Modern controllers have triggers as well as buttons, and increasingly these are used as the button to press to shoot, in order to create a motion that feels more resonant with firing a gun.
It doesn't have that same gestural resonance for firing arrows or casting fireball spells, but hey, you work with what you've got.
In HZD, though, the model for shooting an arrow is different enough that it took me a while to figure out how to do it even while the instructions were written on the screen, because it was so different from what I expected. Here's how it works: you pull one trigger to nock an arrow, and then the other to draw the bow. You line up your shot, and then release the second trigger to let the arrow fly.
It's complicated, but the upshot is a system that feels viscerally like actually firing an arrow. The visual clues on screen as this takes place all help reinforce this sense of verisimilitude, too, from the way your focus gets narrower when you nock the bow to the trembling you see in Aloy's forearm from the strain of keeping the bow drawn if you're lining a shot up slowly and carefully, or patiently waiting for prey to come into view.
Delivery Systems Matter
HZD is one of the most narratively complex works I've ever seen in a video game. There are three distinct stories being told here: one is about the apocalypse and how it came to pass; one is about the events of twenty years before the game, that set the immediate story in motion; and then there is the "contemporary" story of Aloy of the Nora tribe, who has a mysterious origin that connects her intimately to the distant past.
In many RPGs, you find epistolary evidence that fills you in on exposition or colorful detail. These are the diaries where an enterprising farmer tells where they've buried a treasure or hidden a key; news articles about the crimes of the villain you're about to confront; wizards or scientists describing just the key details of an experiment gone wrong that you'll need to know to survive the area before you. (Some games are self-aware about this tendency, too. Witcher 3's expansion Blood and Wine lampshades this trope and features a journal from a bandit leader complaining about how all of his underlings are constantly scribbling in diaries, rather than conducting proper banditry.)
In HZD, the landscape is likewise littered with pieces of media that expand the narrative universe and fill you in on important facts that help you to navigate the world more effectively. But for the most part, these are digital artifacts from a time that is their ancient history (and our future to come). There are advertisements for futuristic dating services and luxury apartments, an obituary for the leader of a cult, news reports on the construction of a spacecraft.
And there is a wealth of multimedia content, too. Aloy doesn't just find text—she finds audio and video recordings, as disparate as a long-dead soldier's message to his family, private therapy sessions, recordings of what went down in a conference room long, long ago.
You learn about the past and the wider world in the same ways and at the same time as the character you're playing. There's no as-you-know-Bob here.
And everywhere you go, the past is there under your feet, inescapable. Here is a thing that can happen in HZD: you are climbing across a large stretch of rusted metal, overgrown with lichen and vines. Slowly you come to realize that you're walking along the wing of a downed aircraft. Or you venture down a straight, wide road and see the unmistakable silhouette of broken parking meters running along the side. Or you climb high into the mountains, and discover that the way is dotted with long-abandoned tanks, rusted and dormant but somehow still menacing.
These signs of the past-yet-to-come are everywhere in HZD, and they tell a story just as compelling as the story of Aloy and her struggle to find the truth of her heritage.
When you play a lot of video games, you get used to excusing elements of the game as necessary artifacts of the fact that it's a video game. There are always places where the fiction breaks down. Think about all of the fantasy RPGs whose entire economies seem to rely upon the exchange of tremendous volumes of rusty swords from adventurers, and where no food production seems to take place. Or the perplexing way that an enemy will steam forward to try to kill you even after you've easily dispatched its nine buddies. Or the implausible costuming choices made by anyone you could reasonably call a "boss."
In HZD, there were numerous elements that at first seemed like that—places where the game was using creative license to be cool, or conserve development resources, but that instead wound up being pivotal clues about the deeper narrative. The game rewards you for trusting it to know what it's doing.
Here's an example: there are enormous squid-like robots, each seemingly the size of a city, located in a few spots on the world-view map. They're half-buried in the earth, their metal tentacles motionless. I won't lie, it looks really cool. But I never expected an explanation. It just seemed like a neat piece of world-building.
And yet explanations were forthcoming—layers and layers of them. One of these squid-titans is clutching your tribe's holy place, All-Mother Mountain. There's a myth among the Nora people about the All-Mother saving them from a Metal Devil. Later, you learn exactly what those dead titans were. Later still, you discover why their husks are precisely where they are. Layers and layers of meaning reveal themselves to you, more the longer you keep searching.
Similarly, the ecosystems of the game seem much too simple. I can name for you all of the kinds of animals that exist in Horizon Zero Dawn: rats, salmon, trout, rabbits, foxes, raccoons, turkeys, geese, boars. That's all. There's nothing so large as a deer in all the world, excepting robots. (Though some of those robots seem very like giant deer, or crocodiles, or ostriches.) But this simplicity isn't just a ploy to limit development resources. It's a pivotal clue about the world Aloy finds herself in—a subtle indicator of the grand truth that underpins the story.
And the racial mix of the populace is broad and non-geographical. People of color are represented widely and often. This would at first seem like social justice in action, a way for a game to sidestep race issues entirely and show representation. And if that were the case, I'd laud that creative decision! But here, again, is another clue. The truth is everywhere. The whole world is telling you the story, once you know how to look for it.
Science Fiction at Its Best
Let's talk about that story, because this is where Horizon Zero Dawn shines brightest. I won't dance around my point here: Horizon Zero Dawn is among the freshest, most moving, most topical works of science fiction I've seen in years.
The Hugos don't have a games category, and works like this are a brilliant example of why there should be one. Games like Horizon Zero Dawn are doing things that have never been done before. If Horizon Zero Dawn isn't on the ballot for Best Dramatic Presentation (Long Form) next year, that will be a crying shame, because it is a stunningly award-worthy work, as intricately woven as past Hugo winners like Hyperion or Rainbows End, and miles more complex or interesting than, yeah, another Star Wars film, or yeah, another Marvel film.
There will be some spoilers from here on out as I describe why.
At its heart, Horizon Zero Dawn is about a post-apocalyptic world that can't quite escape the apocalypse. The societies in it are smart and have adapted well to the only reality they've ever known; where our ancient societies adorned ourselves and houses with vines and flowers, in HZD, ornamentation with circuit boards is par for the course. They aren't high-tech themselves, but they've learned to use the metal and wiring of the machines just like our ancestors learned to use the bones and hide of flesh animals. And everywhere you go there are ruins of skyscrapers, highways, war machines.
The question of what happened here and why hangs over the game like a dark shadow. It's obvious that at some point, our world came to a calamitous halt. But gradually, you and Aloy discover that the apocalypse was even worse than you could have imagined. The ancients—that's us—accidentally set off an unstoppable chain reaction that only ends with the biosphere completely shut down. Robots were going to eat life, completely.
Once you learn this, you also hear about Project Zero Dawn, presumably the reason Aloy is able to ask these questions. Because obviously the world didn't end. She's there, isn't she? But slowly you discover that the answers are bleak. That there was no way to avert the end. That the earth was killed, and billions of lives extinguished.
But the ancients planted a seed in the hopes that after the death of humanity and the death of the earth, new life would come again—and in time, people might be reborn. The story of Horizon Zero Dawn, and the story of Aloy, is the struggle to protect that fragile new ecosystem and those fledgling cultures who have been planted in the dead husk of what came before.
Horizon Zero Dawn speaks to some of the pressing questions of our time. The Swarm that devours the world works both as a metaphor for the risks of autonomous military machines and for climate change. This game deals with questions of responsibility, and how the present is always inescapably shaped by the past, no matter how hard we try to escape our legacy. It's a game about whether knowledge is dangerous, whether faith is dangerous, whether humanity can become less savage than our predecessors, and stay that way.
It's a good question, isn't it?
Let's Wrap This Up
I could rhapsodize at much further length, because this is a game that rewards scrutiny. There are characters in Horizon Zero Dawn you don't see every day; most notably, there is a twist on the wizard-like mentor, who is uncommunicative and completely lacking in empathy. There is the touching story of a man mourning his mother and his misspent youth at the end of the world. I cannot overstate the emotional punch of imagining what it was like to be on Project Zero Dawn, knowing the world was dying, and knowing that you couldn't stop it. The beauty of the trees and sky, the way the wind ripples over fields of grass.
This is a game that makes you laugh, and weep, and think big thoughts.
I confess I don't genuinely expect it to be on the Hugo ballot, the voting body being what it is, and the barrier to entry on console games being what it is. But this is truly an important contribution to the body of games and to the body of science fiction. If you can play it, do so.
This is what we can do right now. This is art.