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.
Is it useful to talk about privilege in the sense of superhero narratives? Is the “us-and-them” fear of the unpowered of an apparently unelected and unaccountable elite a useful thematic line of enquiry? The idea of a majority being forced to recognise the existence of a marginalised group is a strong allegory, and using fear of the unknown and the different to highlight society’s irrational prejudices. Doubly so if the source of the power is random genetic chance. The argument perhaps becomes inverted when one is talking about self-made heroes like Batman or Iron Man; there, there is a very real case to be made for the idea of the superhero as a rich person setting themselves up as an extrajudicial force. Indeed, the arguments behind whether or not superhumans should be regulated and registered drive many narratives in interesting directions; ideas of registration as a means of control and oppression versus the opportunity to create an organisation that can work together to help each other and be supportive.
It is relatively uncommon for a mecha anime to focus too strongly on the process of robot design and testing; test pilots are a common archetype (most iconically, perhaps, Isamu Dyson in Macross Plus), and the process of thrashing a new unit through its paces is usually a good framework for its sudden deployment in combat. This is why it is particularly interesting that 2017 saw two series ostensibly focused on robot designers, rather than professional robot pilots. I have written at some length about Atom the Beginning‘s interesting slow burn to a disarming revelation about society’s relationship with AI from the perspective of two students of engineering who build a sentient machine. It focused, in its own way, on the minutiae of being a research student. The difficulties in getting funding. The importance of always moving forward and iterating.
The ending of Atom: The Beginning is left so that further adaptation of its ongoing source material can be made; this is not the complete conclusion of the story, and knowing this context now rather sets my initial observations about the series in context (that it was taking a very laid-back and almost uninterested approach to its worldbuilding and the ethical questions raised). It is an adaptation of a small part of a longer, ongoing work. Of course it will not provide all the answers. Before moving into the meat of this consideration of the series, it is worth considering something else. I was initially perturbed, or at least surprised, to see that the series was raising and ignoring questions about machine sentience and robot ethics. It felt like a failure of science-fiction to studiously avoid taking a stand while raising allegorical and philosophical questions.
There are no shortage of anime which put a mecha genre spin on the “modern-day character ends up in fantasy/alien world” (isekai) theme. From Aura Battler Dunbine through arguably series like Orguss into ones like Magic Knight Rayearth or The Visions of Escaflowne it has strong precedent, and it is a genre that brings a few additional interesting themes to the traditional science-fiction and fantasy ones. I am personally very interested in stories of culture shock, or outsiders to a society trying to fit in; it is for this reason I was quite disappointed in the TV adaptation of Crest of the Stars because it hinted at being a story of a human living as the ward of aliens and learning their culture, and then did not really deliver so much on that. One could almost consider, actually, a story like Crest of the Stars as the pure science-fiction equivalent to the isekai story – a human living among aliens.
This army has been one of the most fun wargaming projects I have worked on; I have taken the time to personalise and create custom scenic bases for every miniature, bought third-party conversion parts to add to the kits to ensure none are completely stock constructions and come up with a backstory for every unit. I have tied the backstory into my other armies for the game where possible, thus the Three-Ones and the Salamandine Incident turn up…
It is also only eight models, a truly elite force!
Atom The Beginning is a curious series; unlike the precedent it would appear to follow of socially-conscious updates of traditionally simplistic hero series like Gatchaman Crowds (which like it or not explored the obsolescence of superheroes and indeed government in an internet of things-based society) or Yatterman Night (which was an able if occasionally awkward exploration of the nature of villainy in a simple black-and-white morality superhero narrative) it has yet to properly dig into any of the moral issues it would appear to focus on. The precedent is there for something rich. Astro Boy was a universe that within its child-friendly framework played on ideas of the morality of android technology and machine sentience. But Atom the Beginning is set in that era in a time before the events that led to the creation of, arguably, one of the first super robots.
Writing the background for this army took significantly longer than the more comparatively cursory unit descriptions my Northern forces received. I came into possession of the Duellist’s Handbook, Southern Republic Army List and Southern Field Guide before writing this and so decided, as is my way, that if I was going to do this it was going to be done properly.
The immediate problem came from the fact I had just bought two Fer de Lances, and the Southern Republic Army List claimed on page 146 that only “a few dozen” of these Gears were in service, and “it is a capital offence for it to be used by any other Republican unit”. Thus I had to make a few adjustments to the background and came up with the Fer de Lance Beta (which is probably not strictly fluff-accurate, but sidesteps more awkward questions).
The only other major background howler I can think of is the move away from strict 5-Gear Cadres (something that the newest edition of the game rules and my choice of unit loadouts does not make particularly easy to do thematically).
As I mentioned in my previous post, my current miniatures wargaming project is nearing completion but still has several models unfinished. As I finished a key part of the army, the Kodiak Gear pictured above, I decided it was good material for a little longer piece of backstory, detailing exactly how awkward a malfunctioning and uncalibrated mech could be for a unit…
While not all of this army is currently built, I have taken the opportunity of using a new lightbox to get some photographs of what is currently finished, and write a little background for it. As it is a significantly larger force than would ordinarily be fielded, I decided to group the models into sample units and come up with background for the pilots within to try and give a picture of how the army might function as a whole.