Worlds Beyond Tomorrow: The future of mankind in Horizon Zero Dawn

Chris Underwood takes an in-depth look at the world that Guerrilla created …

Please note that this article contains spoilers for Horizon Zero Dawn

Think back to the earliest years of your education, and you’ll probably remember that at some point you were asked to either draw or write about what form you thought the future might take. 

If you’re anything like me then that future involved skyscrapers, robots and flying cars; or at least juvenile approximations of those things. Drag your mind out from the sepia-tinted mists of memory back to now and you’ll find that this vision has remained more or less unchanged and that, given the way the world is going, it doesn’t seem like anyone else has changed their minds either.

Buildings keep getting taller and shinier, machines grow smarter every day, and whilst cars can’t fly yet, they are almost on the verge of being able to drive themselves. Regardless of nationality, ethnicity, religion, or political persuasion there seem to be fundamental commonalities that run through our collective imagination, if not in how we see the world at large today then at least when it comes to how we envision the future.

If there’s one thing that mankind likes to fantasise about more than the past, it’s the future. From tribe to village, town to city; Nations to empires to global society our will to improve ourselves, community, and world around us have driven us ever onward even when perhaps we should have chosen a different path.

Where exactly that path may or may not take us has been a conundrum that countless writers, artists, musicians, directors, philosophers and scientists have taken upon themselves to attempt to solve. Video games, as we recognise them today, have only been an extant form of cultural output for a few decades. Yet their contribution to that attempted solution has been no less dynamic, varied or prolific, which is hardly surprising given our endless need to find new ways of expressing ourselves. What is surprising, however, is that as a result of cultural integration (or as some would call it: appropriation) we as a species seem to have developed a relatively coherent shared vision of the future.

Perhaps it would be more accurate to say, visions, seeing as how all forms of science fiction from cyberpunk sagas to space operas, generally imagine the future as one of two things: a Roddenberry-esque utopia or a post-apocalyptic nightmare. This somewhat reductive binary dichotomy has been neatly exemplified with the recent release of Guerilla’s Horizon Zero Dawn and Bioware’s Mass Effect Andromeda.

Horizon Zero Dawn has rightfully earned both public and critical acclaim for its self-evident quality as a work of interactive digital entertainment. The astounding level of environmental verisimilitude on display enabled by Guerilla’s proprietary Decima engine supported by composer Joris de Man’s humble yet evocative soundscape and the unobtrusive use of well-established game mechanics has resulted in a deftly impressionist open world masterpiece. It would be disingenuous to deny the magnitude of the achievement that this game represents.

Despite everything that makes this game a truly great work of art – and make no mistake that it is – there’s something about it that feels a little bit off. At first, I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was as I was so enamoured with the game during my playthrough; After finishing the game and spending some time considering my perspective on it, I think I’ve arrived at a reasonably cogent explanation.

What struck me the most about it is that whilst the story is ostensibly egalitarian in nature, in so far as it attempts to redress the glaring imbalance when it comes to the core concept of virtually all stories in modern gaming (i.e. a white male protagonist saving the world yet again), it also hints at a profoundly conservative perspective that belies the apparently liberal intent behind it.

The story, which begins with Aloy setting out on a quest to save her tribe that ultimately results in her saving the world from a genocidal artificial intelligence, is one that strikes the typical notes of hope and heroism that you would expect from a rousing adventure. As we travel across the rugged wilderness of Aloy’s world we are introduced to a fledgeling civilisation that has managed to achieve relatively successful co-existence between a matriarchal theocracy (the Nora) and patriarchal autocracies (the Carja/Shadow Carja). The inclusion of women being able to adopt male professional and behavioural norms without much fanfare is a triumph of very deliberate and very considerate plot design which casts a wry eye over some of the increasingly arbitrary restrictions in place of what we consider to be our civilised society. That’s all very laudable and paints a picture of a welcoming and inclusive future, but the positivity inspired by that deconstruction of narrow gender norms has only served to obscure a couple of very dark and unsettling elements to the game.

During a pivotol mission in the main story arc, ‘The Heart of the Nora’, Aloy discovers that she is an exact clone of the scientist, Doctor Elisabet Sobeck, that created the Gaia A.I and that she is the only one that can save the world. On the surface of it, that isn’t much different from the ‘chosen one’ origin of protagonists in most other games of this kind, but by being so brazenly open about it, this game unintentionally raises the troubling spectres of genetic determinism and social Dawinism. Essentially, this plot twist boils down to saying that the personality traits and individual qualities required for greatness are the result of your genes and that only those with specific inherited traits are capable of directing the course of human events.

At a time when a multiple-time bankrupt American businessman of questionable integrity can stumble into the highest political office in the world, and one young man in Britain can dodge enough inheritance tax to cover the budget deficit of the entire National Health Service, this seems a very dangerous message to send about the future. It lends silent credence to the view that a very select few people are naturally better than others by virtue of their birth alone, and that by contrast everyone else is of no real consequence. These alphas, as it were, constantly present themselves as the best and the brightest and yet we as a species, in reality, are repeatedly left to suffer the consequences of their greatness.

As much as Horizon Zero Dawn succeeds in creating a compelling central character whose presence and role in the plot embody the essence of personal agency, this aspect of the narrative, albeit entirely implicit, also removes said personal agency from all of its other characters. Nothing they do matters even in the slightest to the outcome of their struggle against Hades, the corrupted subordinate function of Gaia, and his mechanical minions because without Aloy and her genetic inheritance, defeat and extinction are once again inevitable.

The prevalence of monarchical and theocratic social hierarchies that are based on the assumption that some are born better than others is just another modern failing that projects itself into the game’s techno-prelapsarian setting. For every moment of freedom that Aloy, and the player, experiences there is a counterpoint created by the presence of such outmoded concepts that makes it clear that the narrative at work here is one that can’t countenance the idea of a society that functions without the presence of gods and kings, and of some having more than others for no reason beyond rank and title. A pity that a story that has been praised for its inclusivity and openness would be given a free pass when it comes to how it just glosses over the acceptance of such unearned power, wealth and privilege as being inherent to the human condition. Such an oversight is understandable if you consider that technology with its associated benefits and pitfalls is the primary focus of the story arc.

Technology is often literally idolised, in that fetishes, totems and even entire monuments are variably sized fragments of machinery, with Aloy’s tribe actually worshiping a gigantic doorway in the heart of a mountain. The lands around them are ruled by terrifying technological monstrosities whose very existence is at odds with the hunter-gatherer nature of the communities that have grown up in an otherwise unequivocally post-human environment. They destroy the machines and dismember them for parts or currency, tinkering with their components even though they have only a fraction of the knowledge necessary to comprehend them.

Aloy’s world is one where technology is something to be afraid of as much as it is respected. It speaks of a traditionally Luddite point of view that has always been there to sound a note of caution in times, like ours, where scientific and technological progress start to outpace our level of social development.

A case in point here would be the character of Ted Faro. As the man responsible for the creation of the mechanical plague that obliterated all life on the planet, he is no doubt emblematic of the single-minded profit mongering that continues to prove itself irksome in the modern world. There is undoubtedly a counter-corporate undercurrent to Horizon Zero Dawn’s narrative, which is perfectly in keeping for the genre. Science fiction has so often given voice to concerns about the reckless pursuit of financial gain that it could be considered a form of protest art. Although, when it is made known to the player that Faro is also responsible for the deletion of the sum of human knowledge stored in the Apollo archives (the subordinate function of Gaia designed to preserve human culture) our perspective of him shifts.

Naturally, it would be all-too-easy to consider this act of cultural philistinism as a logical extension of his hubris, and at first, that’s how I thought of it too. It just seemed to serve the purpose of further enhancing his villainy. When I took a step back though, I realised that the decision to erase the sum of our accomplishments was, in some ways, also an act of astonishing bravery. Kudos to the writers for including a character that has the clarity of thought to accept that all the understanding and learning acquired by humanity over the course of the millennia couldn’t save the world from a man like himself, so what sense would it make to think that a new race of human beings would benefit from what could be considered as colossal list of failures?

Even now it can’t be denied that past experience and the lessons of history are casually ignored because the right thing to do is usually the most difficult. The most obvious example is the First World War and how it was hailed to be the war to end all wars. Two decades on, not even a generation later, we plunged ourselves into a conflict that made holocaust a household term and ushered in the nuclear age at the immediate cost of millions of lives and the world forever scarred by the shadow of death camps and the mushroom cloud. To this day we continue to provoke wars between ourselves over petty matters of resources and territory that do nothing but swell the coffers of arms manufacturers and leave already unstable countries in ruins.

In Aloy’s world, even with the lingering dregs of our knowledge that the Eclipse organisation were able to piece together from the ruins of the old world, they immediately began to repeat the same mistakes. If the sequel bait ending with Sylen’s capturing of Hades’ disembodied code construct is anything to go by, then Aloy’s victory over the machine menace may have only delayed her world falling victim to the same idiocy as our own. The recording of a hopeful dialogue between Dr Sobeck and Gaia, that plays as a voice-over during the end sequence, is in some ways a telling acknowledgement of the understanding that the follies of humanity may never truly be confined to history.

Look out for Part 2 of Worlds Beyond Tomorrow which focuses on Mass Effect Andromeda and the world that Bioware tried to create.