The Light At The End of the World
The Brilliance of Horizon Zero Dawn and Horizon Forbidden West (warning: minor spoilers)
A little while ago, after coming off a two year playthrough of Witcher III*, I tried to reset my game-brain by starting up Horizon Zero Dawn.
At first, the game failed to capture my interest mostly because my brain was still on Novigrad time. It’s a very specific, nerdy sort of jet lag. Every press of the ‘X’ button, every dodge, every strike with a weapon caused mental comparisons between Witcher III and Horizon Zero Dawn.
A few months later however, after my Witcher III fixation had worn off, I picked up my controller and restarted Horizon Zero Dawn. And boy am I glad I made that decision.
Horizon Zero Dawn was introduced in 2017.
The world was changing. Twitter was becoming an unlikely hotzone of political dialogue. Harvey Weinstein’s legal troubles exposed an entire dialogue about power imbalance in the workplace. Kim Jong-Nan — the brother of Kim Jong-Un — was publicly assassinated in an airport in South East Asia.
A shadow war instigated by global superpowers sacrificed the lives of innocent Syrians.
In the midst of all this upheaval, Aloy, on her robot mount, galloped quietly into the collection consciousness of almost every PlayStation console gamer.
Let’s take a quick step back.
For years, women had never been comfortable with female characters in video games. The reasons are obvious — most female characters in video games were written solely because…well…because tits and ass.
Easy examples of ridiculously sexualized female protagonists include Lara Croft, or any feminine character from Soul Caliber.
Frankly however, Lara Croft’s character design doesn’t even truly graze the abyss of tawdry feminine representation in video games.
As a larger example, a huge portion of the Nintendo online store comprises of video games which are really interactive pornos. Each game features female anime characters with boobs bigger than their heads (and one has to wonder what’s wrong with just going on PornHub for a quick wank).
Gaming has a problem, and it’s pretty damn clear Guerrilla Games understood that when they flipped that tired script.
From a less obvious perspective, players are introduced to the game’s heroine when she is but a little girl. The careless cruelty by which the child is treated is truly heartbreaking and difficult to watch, though that nastiness is neutralized by a touching father-daughter relationship that transcends death.
By setting the context that early, the writers clearly intended on making problematic, the sexualization of Aloy. Because how do you sexualize a woman who you ‘watched’ grow up and who you watched suffer? How do you sexualize another man’s beloved daughter, a daughter whom he sacrificed everything for just so she can live a fully rounded life?
(I mean — you can but you probably shouldn’t.)
More obviously, Guerrilla Games made the wise decision to actually dress their heroine. Aloy’s clothes actually covered her body. Her clothes weren’t designed simply to highlight feminine curves, to push an ample bosom up, or to expose slender thighs.
I know, I know — none of this sounds radical, but remember, gaming is filled with women who are clad like this:
Regarding the story itself, the plot shifts from a simple tale of personal vengeance, to a tale of apocalyptic proportions. Literally.
Players are initially introduced to an unrecognizable landscape where killer robots roamed about. Then, through the excellent use of ‘show don’t tell’, it becomes apparent that the setting was never an alternate universe — indeed, the Horizon story is a story about our universe. It’s a dark mirror of our world, one ruined by greed, stupidity and brutality.
I apologize for this over-emphasis — but the narrative alone is worth the hundreds of hours a person can easily pour into the game.
Fast forward to 2021, when the sequel to Horizon Zero Dawn was being frenetically discussed on Reddit and other message boards. From the dark corners of the internet, a certain subset of gamer boys decided to broadcast their predictable, rancid opinions.
Apparently, Aloy’s updated appearance was too ‘manly’ owing to the wide jaw the artists had given her. Her eyebrows weren’t feminine enough, and dear god, she had a layer of fuzz on her face.
Let me be clear — hair is literally part of the mammalian experience. Unfortunately, it seems not everyone got that memo when they were in school.
Owing to this basic misunderstanding of human anatomy, one fanboy took it a step further and offered to ‘re-design’ Aloy for Guerrilla Games. Judging from the image he created (see image below, right panel), I will say honestly, this guy is a great artist — if only he wasn’t such a dimwit.
Was this necessary? Was there really a need to make her more ‘feminine’? More importantly, who the heck is this guy to define what’s ‘feminine’?
If only these opinions were the only rubbish the gaming community had to tolerate. Unfortunately, the transphobic community had to make themselves heard too.
According to these morons, Guerrilla Gaming was clearly trying to make Aloy a woke figure representing the Trans community. The fuzz on her face was — wait for it — obviously the hints of a beard.
The mental acrobatics these people performed would have been absolutely stunning to witness had we not just lived through a three year pandemic worsened by dumbasses of the same ilk.
And seriously, who gives a shit if Aloy is trans? The main character is trying to save the motherfucking world.
One of the most poignant moments in Horizon Forbidden West comes when Aloy visits Las Vegas — or at least, what used to be Las Vegas. Without giving the plot away, the setting held a tragic, wistful flavour which isn’t often captured in post-apocalyptic films or movies.
Non-Player-Characters within the game marvel at the relics they’ve found scattered throughout the sunken city of Vegas. They’re amazed by ‘old world’ advertisements inviting them to partake in all-you-can-eat buffets. They’re fascinated by the colourful mirage of a false coral reef.
They’re entranced by a live-size hologram of the entire city of Vegas, without realizing what they’re truly gazing at.
In that moment, the game delivers the true tragedy of the story — that is, in this timeline, humanity has lost absolutely everything.
Lives, cities, technology, creature comforts…you name it. The surviving members of humanity are reduced to eking out an existence on a ruined planet, where the sins of their(our) fathers continue to haunt them.
The ghost of a dead city in an empty world — the sight of it moved my cynical heart in ways I did not think possible. The unspoken context was truly brilliant.
How could I not fall in love with this game?
The sequel isn’t perfect, and I don’t just mean the software bugs littering the environment.
For one thing, some of Aloy’s clothing has become just that little bit less practical, just that little more needlessly sexy. For some reason, the game designers have her wandering around arid deserts and frozen wastes with her belly button exposed.
Then there’s the cultural appropriation.
I’ve never been comfortable with Horizon’s treatment of the different tribal factions. From the (fictional) Nora, to the Banuk, to the Tenakth, it’s pretty clear a huge inspiration for their aesthetic and culture was ripped directly out of North American indigenous history.
There are whole threads dedicated to the subject on different platforms, discussing this dubious design choice.
I would recommend reading some of them, but for the inevitable vitriolic, racist, ignorant content.
At the end of the day nothing can be perfect. No narrative can exist without people finding fault with it, no gameplay can exist without bugs, and nothing can get released without fandom reacting in often unpleasant ways.
All in all, I love the Horizon series of games, and I can’t wait for the third installment. That is, assuming the world doesn’t actually end before that gets released…
…if it does end though — and if some of us do survive, you can bet most women won’t be prancing about in leather bikinis. Sorry guys.
*For anyone still reading, yes, it took me two years to get through Witcher III. Not because I wasn’t playing it all the time, no. No, it took me two years to get through every side quest that wasn’t Gwent-related, to discover 60% of the question marks on the map, and to finish up all the expansions, one of which broke my heart. Don’t judge.