by Matthew Welch
Guerilla Game’s 2017 action-adventure game Horizon Zero Dawn tells a dual narrative. Story A is set in the game’s past, the later half of the 21st century, while Story B shows the events that happen to the player character, Aloy, in 3040. The two stories parallel each other: in each, a remarkable woman rallies disparate people to defeat some great threat to humanity. HZD‘s gameplay and narrative create a cohesive thematic experience that communicates how stoic perseverance is a worthy response to overwhelming danger.
The gameplay has an aesthetic ethos of hopeful perseverance. Even the simplest enemy can pose a great threat. Small machines with minimal means to defend themselves can deal nearly half the player’s health. The game also introduces larger and more dangerous combat machines that can kill Aloy in a single blow. And although the game mechanics allow Aloy to continue to grow and eventually outclass these smaller machines, the game’s pacing quickly introduces newer and larger machines that are six times as powerful as those you previously encountered. This changing difficulty increases the game’s sense of overwhelming danger.
But the game gives the player the tools to overcome this danger through planning and strategy. They learn to use traps and careful planning to overcome the vast gap between Aloy and these larger machines. The player can identify machine weaknesses and exploit those for benefits like greater damage or disabling a key component like a machine’s cannon. By sneaking up close to an enemy, Aloy can perform a stealth strike that deals large amounts of damage, making the subsequent fight easier. Through this structure, the game reinforces the idea that with great effort and planning, Aloy and the player can overcome the great danger posed by these machines. The machines and the danger they pose can be overcome through stoic perseverance and careful thought.
This theme, that perseverance and thought are the vehicles which overcome danger, continues in Horizon’s narrative. Shortly after the game opens, the audience discovers that Aloy apparently has no mother because she showed up one day outside an old world bunker. When Aloy discovers a hologram of a woman who looks nearly identical to herself at the entrance of the same bunker, she goes on a quest to discover who this woman is. Throughout this quest to discover her identity, Aloy and the player uncover the story of the old world. Robot war machines, due to an error in their programming, were destroying all life on earth. The system was self-perpetuating. The factories designing these robots were completely automated, created faster than humanity could destroy them. The central character of story A, Elisabet Sobeck, was the head of a last ditch effort to save humanity from this imminent destruction. Her project, titled Zero Dawn, is an incredible example of stoic perseverance amidst great danger. The options for her and her team were limited. The robots had been designed with the ability to fuel themselves by destroying life around them. Even if humanity hunkered down in bunkers to wait out the threat, there would be no animals, no plant life, and no atmosphere when they returned to the surface. In addition, some kind of computer deactivation code to immediately shut down the whole swarm was not an option. Aloy finds an old video explaining the problem which says, “If we had their deactivation codes, we could shut them all down… [but] cracking a code set would take half a century. At best, we’ve got 16 months. Not exactly what you’d call a survival option.” The solution designed was the creation of an Artificial intelligence, combined with the same automated technology that created the robots, to repopulate the earth with plant and animal life after the earth had been entirely consumed by the robot menace—reintroducing life after the robots had run out of fuel. Elisabet Sobeck and her team would never see their project come to fruition. They simply built the structures that would allow their Artificial Intelligence, called Gaia, to eventually crack these deactivation codes and then repopulate the earth. Recovered messages between the various project members show the great effort that it took Sobeck and her team to complete this trial. In the end, they even sacrificed the one great pleasure that they have left in life to complete the project. Elysium was the promised safety bunker where scientists who helped complete Zero Dawn would be allowed to live with two guests of their choosing—safe from the robots until the day of their deaths. On the day that the robots finally overran the last bastion of human resistance, effectively conquering the earth and driving all surviving humanity underground. They would spend the rest of their lives living in what amounts to a giant server farm, testing and iterating to hopefully ensure a future for humanity that they would never see. Elisabet and her team knew what needed to be done to ensure the future survival of the biosphere and sacrificed Elysium for Earth’s future generations. Through this heroic perseverance and sacrifice, the Gaia project was completed, ensuring the survival of humanity.
The other timeline continues on this idea of perseverance in the face of great danger. Aloy faces great challenges of her own beyond just the gameplay. One of the most spectacular moments in the game is a sequence where an enemy priest disarms Aloy and drops her into a combat pit with a fairly difficult machine. Aloy’s gear is suspended on a platform above her head, but she realizes that by having the machine slam into pillars, she can destroy the platform and recover her weapons. Throughout the game Aloy overcomes the prejudices of the various factions against both her and one another to unite peoples from all the various tribes of the game in order to defeat the rogue sub function of Gaia named Hades who is seeking to once more destroy life on earth by reactivating Faro’s dormant machines. All of Aloy’s life she has been shunned by her tribe, and the game gives this prejudice a face: Lansara, one of the tribe’s matriarchs. After Aloy exits the vault from where she was born, after discovering that she was a genetic clone of Sobeck created by Gaia, Lansara begs for forgiveness and the people of the Nora finally champion Aloy as one of their own, anointed by their goddess. Aloy responds by telling them that she is not their anointed and that “There’s a whole world beyond your borders, Whole tribes of people just as good as you, And it is all in danger! It’s a world worth fighting for not just here, everywhere.” Aloy’s sentiments in this cutscene echo those of Elisabet, who gave her life and happiness to ensure the survival of humanity. And just like Sobeck and her team, Aloy and her team of assembled tribesmen will ensure the future of humanity by destroying the Hades cult, preventing them from restarting the Faro plague that destroyed humanity in the first place. So the dual narrative comes to an end. Aloy and Sobeck both relied on others and persevered in the face of great danger. And by continuing to fight even when the odds were against them, they overcame the robotic man-made plague that threatened to end all life on earth.
Together, the gameplay and narrative arcs feed into one another and provide an aesthetic unity—which teaches that perseverance and cleverness can overcome great danger. The gameplay drives this message home through its difficulty. Mastery of the gameplay comes through using tools and technique, and the player is never truly removed from danger. And Aloy, through her tenacious exploration of the old world, comes to acquire the knowledge to do exactly as her predecessor did, and prevent the complete collapse of human society at the hands of the Faro Plague. Sobeck’s team in particular overcomes the odds, managing to persevere in the face of great danger.
Matthew Welch is a senior English and Theatre major who has an interest in all things with characters and narrative.