There is a good setting, and indeed a good story, hiding in the back third of Horizon Zero Dawn. The first two-thirds make reaching that excellent payoff perhaps a little too frustrating, but at the same time I am not entirely sure how I would have presented it differently. The game spends hours presenting a hostile, superstitious and often annoying world which genuinely feels like the sort of tribalistic society that would emerge in a post-apocalyptic world, but at the same time it plays so heavily on how regressive the world is it becomes difficult – from perspective of the protagonist, and by extension the player – to forgive them enough to save them.
Note: This review also talks about the plot of Turn-A Gundam, as well as discussing details of the story of Horizon: Zero Dawn.
This sounds something of an asinine statement, for surely basic humanity should make anyone want to turn the other cheek and help others that do not want to be helped, but consider this in the light of, for example, post-apocalyptic fiction such as The Walking Dead. There comes a point in such fiction where the absurdity of tribalism becomes incredible; if society is so regressive and hypocritical and, indeed, mob-minded (as Horizon’s tribesmen and especially authority figures often prove to be) the logical questions feel to me to be how did they survive so long and what would really motivate the protagonist to take this nonsense? It became frustrating, rather than cathartic, to have so many scenarios be a procession of “I told you so” moments as the protagonist, apparently the only free-thinker in the society, proved traditionalists wrong time and again. All of this was heavily front-loaded to create a mechanical and narrative justification for the main body of the story; a reason was needed for the protagonist to be given the freedom of movement across nations in a state of cold war in pursuit of a major threat. Thus the protagonist was presented as too iconoclastic to be allowed to stay in her home nation, and made a free agent. Good for the player, but it was used often as a source of narrative frustration.
The game itself even highlighted this in the story’s climax, when the elders of the tribe seek Aloy’s forgiveness and grant her her true position as leader and she rejects it, calling them out on their hypocrisy. That was welcome; but that came at hour forty of the game. Hour forty, the eve of the grand finale, feels far too long a time to get catharsis. And, indeed, this frustration with a stupid, superstitious world was reflected in how I played the game; my dialogue choices became less and less pleasant because it was all I felt the game’s world deserved. I still bloody-mindedly helped people, not because it was profitable to do so but because many of the side-quests involved helping people not as actively terrible as the leaders you were taking orders from and generally involved trying to sort out problems of the society’s creation, but the game invited you, I felt, to be as resentful as you could of the societies depicted.
Doubly so once the far more interesting story – of the apocalypse itself – was revealed. The apocalypse was a fairly standard AI rampancy one, but the game went the extra mile in making it feel horrifying. The audio logs did not shy away from the collapse of civilisation and the efforts of a few to hold back the tide, and the ultimate payoff was that the new hope for society rising from the ashes had been squandered by the tribalism you had been frustrated with throughout. Thus the ending felt as much giving a wake-up call to the broken status quo as the completion of the smaller narrative arc, and was absolutely earned. I personally, still, felt the apocalypse was the more interesting story, but yet would not have wanted to have seen it played out or played a game set during it. It worked best told in fragments, because what would it have been otherwise? A war story with no winner.
The apocalypse records reminded me more than anything of the tone of something like Fafner; as a fan of mecha stories, it is perhaps expected I would compare a story of the world being destroyed by unstoppable, inscrutable giant robots to other stories of incomprehensible monsters being fought off with heroic last stands. Usually there is a heroic robot coming from the secret base to sort things out, people die, and so on. Horizon leaves out the heroes’ robot and just has the monsters win and win and win and more and more people die as the authorities first cannot comprehend what is happening, then think they might win, and then realise things are worse than ever expected. Seeing this shift – and the mysterious plan to save the day gradually being revealed to be acceptance of the destruction of Earth in the hope that one day a new benevolent AI god can rebuild it – was incredibly powerful and convinced me, in one mission, that this game had good writing and had, genuinely, been very good. Perhaps it had played the long game a little too well; the nature of the apocalypse is kept until about the halfway point, but in real time terms that could be a long way in as the world is vast, the core gameplay loop fun and the side-quests enjoyable and often more desirable than the A-plot thus far.
I will say something; the revelation that all the characters in the audio logs, likeable and dislikeable, heroic or not, were irrevocably doomed from the start, that the world had had to get used to its impending death and the whole war narrative had been for a secret plan not to win but to possibly revive humanity centuries later worked in a way very little post-apocalyptic stuff does for me. It was an enormous revelation, and genuinely sold me on the game’s story because it genuinely made me stop and think and realise I would not be OK with that at all. A lot of post-apocalyptic stuff focuses on the survivors of the apocalypse. Zombie stories focus on people who are not zombies fighting or evading zombies. Stories like Mad Max assume some people survived whatever happened and life continued uninterrupted, albeit changed. Horizon revealed no, everyone died. Nobody deserved to die, the apocalypse was caused by a technical oversight in the machinations of an unaccountable company, and nevertheless people died, people fought so that others might die in service to a higher cause. Put like that the difference in tone is like night and day. It is nihilistic, doubly so when the A-plot of the game is about how the second chance survived sabotage from the “villain” of the piece and ended up almost squandering itself in superstition and primitivism, but it is a true apocalypse story. The second chance is not the survivors rebuilding in the aftermath. It is a whole new world built over one that destroyed itself.
There is another mecha story about the revival of ancient technology, and the shift from advancement to primitivism at the hands of a rogue superweapon. That is Turn-A Gundam, which is possibly the best Gundam series ever made and in my mind one of my favourite TV anime ever made. The revelation in that of the Black History, the emergence of the Turn-A from the Mountain Cycle and the excavation of nuclear weapons are all powerful scenes, and as I played Horizon I was put in mind of them. Thematically there are similarities despite difference in execution; Turn-A presents a WW1-era society quite oblivious to the idea it is built on the ruins of an advanced civilisation’s armies until that advanced civilisation comes back for its legacy, and then presents a technologically backward society learning how to rejoin the future and learning of the mistakes of the past – often in hard fashion, as the nuclear bomb episode shows. It ends hopefully with unification between past and future, with the Moon and Earth people in a form of peace and both sides sharing their knowledge to improve their nations. Someone messing with the Black History – similarly to the Eclipse faction messing with the HADES supercomputer in Horizon – forces a rapid unification and an outsider to be reintegrated. Put so bluntly, Aloy is not so different to Loran. But Loran’s I am a Moonrace moment comes very early in Turn-A, and while it is a difficult reconciliation, it is allowed to mature through the series. Aloy is not proved right and apologised to until the end of the game, and I think it is deferred slightly too late.
Assessing Horizon is difficult; I enjoyed playing it, I enjoyed fighting its monstrous robots, and I thought the setting and how that setting was communicated were unsettling. The machine swarm evoked a “bad ending” for the mecha series I love, a world where the Festum or Mu or Angels could not be stopped and mankind resigned itself to death. But at the same time there were swathes of it – mostly early-game, when it was repeatedly impressing upon me how regressive the society Aloy observed was and how logical and sensible Aloy was – that frustrated me, and made me not want to help the world. Much as I stopped watching The Walking Dead because its nihilistic insistence on the worst of humanity became wearing, the crushing pettiness of the different tribes was a hard pill to swallow.