The Amazing Opening of Horizon Zero Dawn

So imagine you’re a game designer, right, and you write the stories for these things. One of your key jobs is sorting out the main character’s motivation. You want to establish their investment, and in turn the player’s investment, in the events of the game. And there are some really obvious staples – just your basic entry-level options, right. For instance, you’ve got the revenge quest: someone close to the protagonist dies, and there’s some mission of revenge or justice. That’s the premise of Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood, where Ezio’s uncle Mario is murdered by the Borgias. It’s in Wolfenstein New Colossus, with Caroline’s death at the hands of Irene Engel. It’s even the plot of Ghost Recon Wildlands, which we discussed the other week – that starts with the murder of a CIA agent, prompting the insertion of the player and their team into Bolivia.

Maybe you want something a little deeper, though, a little less cowboy. The revenge thing is all well and good, but it doesn’t have a lot of depth. Maybe you want one of the classics – a coming of age story, for instance, like in Horizon Zero Dawn. Horizon Zero Dawn is a 2017 title from Guerrilla Games, a Dutch company known for the Killzone series. It’s an open-world forests-and-wilderness hunting game – you know, with nocked arrows and sneaking up on animals – except it’s set after the apocalypse and the animals are mostly machines. It features a matriarchal tribe that’s centered around Mother Earth – which is a great way to center women, but maybe also sends the wrong messages, as the tribe are a bunch of superstitious numpties. In the post-apocalypse, there’s definitely a bit of a science vs religion thing going on – with the end of civilization, humans have reverted back into these primitive structures, and the matriarchal tribe are presented as part of that. They’re at the center of the story, but they’re also presented as fearful and insular, misinterpreting technological relics as gods and demons. As a player, you always feel like you know better than the tribe, as you have the context that they’re lacking. When you see a rusted motel sign in the middle of your tribal lands, you know what it means – or what it meant, rather. You understand its significance better than any of the characters in the game. Their insularity and close-mindedness is communicated by the fear and ignorance that they show towards things that are very much pedestrian parts of our lives. You find a recording of one character saying a Hail Mary, and become instantly alienated from the protagonist, because you realise that it means absolutely nothing to her. You realise how disconnected her world is from your own. In that sense, you as the player are best positioned to understand the scale of loss and global trauma, not only because you remember what everything meant in its original context, but because you can observe the catastrophic forgetting that’s taken place. Horizon Zero Dawn makes the player into a ghost, forcing you to watch characters pick through the detritus of your life and times without understanding any of it.

Anyway, sheesh, we got distracted there. What were we talking about? Oh, the coming-of-age thing. So the main character, Aloy, is raised as an outcast from the tribe, living out in the wilds with her father figure Rost – also an outcast. She’s referred to as “motherless”, and nobody will speak to her, and she doesn’t really understand why. That’s her motivation. Throughout the game’s extended tutorial, Aloy trains for the Proving, her tribe’s coming-of-age ritual. If she comes first in the competition element, she will be accepted back into the tribe and granted a boon – which she can use to ask about her mother or why she was cast out as a baby. That’s a pretty solid premise. She exists in a specific social situation, she wants to know why, and that knowledge is paired with her coming of age. Knowledge marks the border between childhood and adulthood, between innocence and experience. It’s classic.

Some of these other themes and tensions enter the picture too – for example, Aloy doesn’t care about the laws of the tribe. She’s banned from talking to people, but she does it anyway. She talks to a boy who she saves from the machines, and she talks to a trader, who’s part of the tribe but doesn’t mind breaking the rules in order to sell her stuff. It’s that clear tension between science and religion, or maybe between knowledge and superstition – Aloy is a rugged individualist who does what she wants, and devil take the rules. She goes into the ruins, which are forbidden, and picks up this bit of technology that lets her analyse her surroundings, and it makes her great at hunting – again, she chooses the path of knowledge, and the game shows how it makes her better than her fearful, superstitious tribe. This tension heightens the stakes on Aloy’s impending integration – will she be able to fit into a community that’s excluded her? Will she be able to accept her place in the hierarchy, even though she knows better than everyone around her?

And then, the perfect stinger, right before she enters the trials – Rost, her father figure, reveals he won’t be able to see her again after she becomes part of the tribe. He’ll still be an outcast, and she’ll be forbidden to talk to him. She offers to break the rules – insists on it – and he turns her down flat. Even outside of the tribe, he’s still part of it, and it part of him. He won’t have her break the rules on his account. He says goodbye, and turns to go – he the outcast, still part of the tribe, and her, about to become a tribe member, but never more alone. It’s crushing, and symmetrical, and beautifully poised. It’s probably one of the better openings in video games. Anyway, during the trials there’s an attack by a foreign tribe, and Rost comes tearing back in and gets killed by one of the raiders, and then the whole revenge plot kicks off, and – but you know, aside from that, it was really well constructed. Character, theme, complex multi-faceted societies – it’s all in there. I’m probably in for the long haul with this game. It’s yet to be seen whether it can maintain or develop that strong cluster of themes from the introduction – but even if it doesn’t, that’s a great opening.

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