Horizon: Zero Dawn has been taking a chunk out of my productivity as a writer. After four weeks and several dozen hours, I’m finished and I have a few things to say. To begin with, don’t consider this a video game review. Other people have reviewed the game, and my only comment is that ‘yes, it deserves the rating.’ To call HZD a ‘good game’ is like calling Stranger Things a ‘good Netflix show.’ This is a disrupter, a game-changer, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see it achieve neoclassic status as a science fiction story.
What I want to discuss, is why HZD is great science fiction unto itself. Grab one of the wallpaper-sized pictures I’m including in this post, settle in, and hear me out:
Your time is valuable, so let me keep this brief: It’s the story. Horizon: Zero Dawn tells a good story. I am, and have been, an advocate of well-told science fiction. I’ll be the first to tell you when a movie sucks, or if a blockbuster could have done better. I can’t find anything bad to say about this game or it’s story. In fact, the writer in me is quite jealous.
How good is HZD’s story? Let me put it this way: I was on the edge of my seat until the after the credits rolled. It’s that good. Carve out the stunning vistas, ignore the rich universe and bypass the pulse-pounding gameplay. What you have underneath is a great sci-fi yarn about a girl born into a world after the world ends. Why did this happen? How did humanity survive? What will happen next?
Answers come in delicious bite sizes as Aloy, our protagonist, navigates a dangerous world with an ever-increasing arsenal of butt-kicking, post-industrial weapons. Here, in the universe of HZD, humans are no longer the dominant species. Advanced technology comes from the anthropomorphized robots, who are only defeated after battles I can only describe as ‘taking on Optimus Prime with a slingshot.’ The circumstances of each battle suggest you may not escape, but survival demands that you must.
Each encounter allows a little more of the story to dribble out: a plutocratic weapons manufacturer loses control of a self-aware AI fighting system that eventually destroys the planet. Post-collapse humanity escapes destruction by a hairsbreadth and then … many years later, it begins again. The civilization that emerges, half-shamanistic and half-cargo cult, suggests that humanity lacks the benefit of the knowledge of previous civilizations. But why? I found myself compelled to follow Aloy along for the ride as she discovers the truth. When all is revealed, I was left shaken and spellbound.
Aloy’s journey, in fact, is one of the reasons I finished HZD with relish. As a character, she’s everything you want in a video game hero AND in a heroine. Guerrilla Games deserves a lot of credit. Taking a page from other great sci-fi creators, they show (not tell) a story where all current squabbles about gender politics are blissfully and completely out of view. Aloy’s character is strong, brave, self-aware and gentle. In fact, you can choose what type of person she’ll be at specific points throughout the story. She’s a fully-realized person, with hopes, dreams, fears and regrets. I love that about this game.
I know this isn’t a game review, but let me say this: HZD’s multi-layered open-world invites you to spend hours in joyful discovery. Trading and crafting new items was an interesting challenge, creating alliances with different facts, this game addresses all the complaints that PS gamers made about No Man’s Sky. I found myself stopping at different points, for no other reason than to just *look* at everything around me. HZD is an open world, and like all open worlds, it is a pleasure to discover and explore.
All in all, Horizon: Zero Dawn is a riotous, roiling celebration of stories like Princes Mononoke, Robotech, and Transformers. It combines elements of Open World gaming with RPGs, old tech with new, ancient myth with nanotech. If you have a science fiction-loving bone in your body, you will jump for joy at what is happening with Horizon: Zero Dawn. Full disclosure, this isn’t a paid endorsement. I just believe you’re going to complain, you should be able to give credit, too.
Bravo, Guerrilla. Bravo.