Today I want to do something a little different. We’re going to look at two different quests from Horizon Zero Dawn, and talk about how they function from a writing perspective. No frills, just narrative.
The first quest is part of the main story arc. You’re hunting Olin, a guy that you believe is responsible for an attack on your village. Along the way, you learn that his family was kidnapped, that he was blackmailed into helping the bad guys, and that he wasn’t even aware that they were looking for you specifically. When you eventually track him down, you’re presented with a choice: you can forgive him, or kill him. It’s a moral dilemma. What do you want to do?
This is a pretty typical sort of ‘moral decision’ quest – it’s the sort of thing we see pretty commonly in video games. You’re asked to make a decision that speaks to your character’s moral compass (and maybe yours too). Often, though, when you scratch beyond the surface, these moments maybe aren’t as morally complex as they seem. Olin was technically part of the attack on your people, but it’s not really his fault. He wasn’t sent to find you or attack your people. He didn’t know you were important. The bad guys just happened to spot you through his scanner, and decided to come for you. He didn’t deliberately betray anyone, and he wouldn’t have been working for the bad guys at all if they hadn’t kidnapped his family. So how much culpability does he have?
In some ways, this quest is less a moral dilemma and more a form of self-expression. Olin did literally nothing except work for bad people under coercion. He didn’t dob you in, and he didn’t participate in the attack. There’s not really a moral quandary here – the guy is pretty unambiguously a victim. What’s more important is the way in which you want to express your character. If you want to play a vindictive dumbass, you can kill him. If you want to play a heroic angel, you can forgive him, or even just recognise that the situation is complicated. Either way, it’s arguably less about the morality of the situation and more about the type of person you want your character to be.
Crucially, here, the story recedes in importance in the face of the player’s act of self-determination. The player’s choice isn’t disconnected from the narrative, but it’s given aggressive weight and prominence, so that the rest of the story recedes by comparison. I mean, arguably it’s not as bad as the old Fable games, or BioWare RPGs like Knights of the Old Republic – in those games, the universe warped itself in response to your moral decisions. You articulated this character, making these different moral choices, and the entire fabric of reality shifted in response. The personalities of your companions would change, entire colonies or villages would become happier or sadder, thrown deeper into crime and despair or becoming liberated and developing booming economies – it’s the traditional idea of video game as power fantasy, but where the power stems from the act of self-expression.
That’s BioWare, anyway – in Horizon Zero Dawn, the choice and its consequences are more subtle. Nevertheless, there’s still a sense of reverence for the player’s decision. It sits at the climax of an arc – you hunt this guy down across the world, and at the end of it all, at the highest point of the story, you make a decision. Player choice is put on a pedestal, enshrined as the climactic event in the narrative. And it’s not entirely clear whether it makes for better games. Would it have been more compelling if Aloy (the protagonist) had made her own decision? If she’d gone in and ignored all of Olin’s explanations and just killed him, would that be more or less compelling as a story point? Do we prefer making decisions ourselves, or seeing other people make decisions? What makes for better art? What makes for more diverse art? When all these games allow you to play out your character as either good or bad, are they able to retain a unique identity, or do they start to blend into a homogenous narrative mush, subordinated to the player’s project of self-expression?
Let’s move on to the second quest. In this quest, a man’s house has been robbed. The thieves have stolen his ceremonial sword, which is all studded with gems and shit. You track the thieves, and learn that they’re some Robin Hood assholes, who steal things from rich people, sell them, and use the money to feed and clothe the poor. The robbers, who apparently have no sense of shame, ask you to help them find their buddy, who has a shipment of food for the paupers. You agree on the condition that they return the sword, which they grudgingly agree to do. You save their buddy, the sword gets returned, and everyone’s happy. The buddy even explains the situation to the guy who got robbed, who agrees to chip in and help out the poor anyway – so it all really works out.
Obviously this quest sits to some degree in contrast to the first. When I first met the thieves, I expected another moment of self-expression disguised as moral choice, and was quite happy to see Aloy making her own decisions about how to handle the situation. It’s a way to learn about her as a character, and explore her distinct individuality. However, it does also require the writers to really step into examining her motivation and the context of the fictional world – and that’s not something that happens here. In this sequence, there are so many elements for the writers to explore. We have the theme of class conflict, of poverty and wealth and equal distribution of resources. We have the chaotic good vs lawful evil Robin Hood conflict, where legally the sword owner has been the victim of a crime, but arguably the laws of this tribe are themselves unjust, as they’ve led to inequality. Further, as we discussed when we talked about the opening of Horizon Zero Dawn, Aloy grew up as an outcast, excluded from her tribe. How might her position as an exile influence her attitudes towards social norms around stealing? We’ve seen that she’s a rebel, that she’s a rule-breaker – how does that come into play here? Plus, the people involved here don’t even belong to Aloy’s tribe. Aloy is a Nora, and the victim and the thief are both Carja. How does that inter-tribal dynamic affect Aloy’s actions? Does she care about upholding another tribe’s laws? How might foreigners react to her trying to impose her own values on the situation?
By allowing Aloy, rather than the player, to make this decision, the writers have an opportunity to explore any or all of these fascinating little nuances. Instead, the exchange goes like this. The thief asks Aloy for help, and she says “I’ll consider it – but only if you return the sword to Ravan,” and the thief says “I knew you were going to say that. Fine. I’ll return the damned blade.” If there are any special factors influencing Aloy’s decision, they’re not at all apparent. The thinking seems to stop at ‘stealing is bad’ – which is very simplistic, and totally ignores the theme of class conflict. It’s Aloy’s decision, but it’s boring and unexamined. It’s born out of a failure to engage with the rich fabric of the fictional world. It is, ultimately, a subset of the first type of quest, where good things happen as a consequence of the protagonist being good. The world again starts to warp around the morality of the main character. I mean, the thieves go back to Ravan, the rich guy, and ask him to share his resources, and he’s just like oh yeah sure, like it’s an episode of Sesame Street. The historical and cultural circumstances that led to inequality are wiped away by the vortex of the protagonist, whose morality overrides the character traits and sociological identity of the people around her. The positive outcome is a manifestation of the protagonist’s positive moral judgement (ie stealing is bad), rather than developing organically out of the material specifics of the fictional world. Thus, even though the choice belongs to the protagonist, the structure and implications of that decision are governed by the power fantasy underpinning choices made by the player. It’s not necessarily bad art, but if we want to see characters making organic decisions that grow out of the fabric of the world, we have to disconnect them from the player’s power fantasy. They have to exist as their own people – and the world has to exist for itself too.