Apocalyptic themes have always played a major role in scifi and fantasy, but the flood of armageddon-related reveries in the 21st century is a whole different beast. We have become so acclimated to envisioning the collapse of civilization that many people are gearing up the possibility that it might really happen (see: preppers), and with the Doomsday clock inching ever closer to midnight, they may be onto something.
Maybe that's why Horizon Zero Dawn, Guerrilla Games' lush open world adventure, feels like such a breath of fresh air in this cluttered market of catastrophic imagings. Set for release on the PS4 on February 28, the game is set in a "post-post apocalyptic" Earth, as described by its creators, and follows a young huntress named Aloy as she searches for her origins in a matriarchal hunter-gatherer society. The vestiges of the techno-society that preceded the main story, presumably by millennia, live on in ruins of massive infrastructure projects, buried and forgotten, or pipelines sprawled in spider-like fashion across mountaintops.
Oh yeah, and also, there are the herds of marauding dinosaur-inspired robots left over from pre-apocalypse times. While not all of them are explicitly dinosaurian—indeed, there is a fantastic amount of robot biodiversity in this world—the game definitely leverages nascent paleontological obsessions to great effect in the game. There are many robot weirdos, with such inventive ways of killing and being killed, or eventually, tamed and ridden.
Horizon Zero Dawn is not the only game to overlay a pastoral fantasy world with remnants of artificial intelligence from an ancient tech-centered culture (never forget the Dwemer, fellow Dragonborn). But the game does present a highly original vision, juxtaposing the historical richness of Aloy's world, which seems loosely based on Iron Age pagan societies, with the futuristic imagery of the machines that she must frequently hunt and kill.
Tossing aside the bleak, dusty hellscape of an immediate post-fallout world, the Guerilla team builds a natural landscape that has mostly rebounded from the demands of human overpopulation. It kind of reminded me of the extraordinary biodiversity recovery observed at Chernobyl since the region's population was forced to permanently evacuate 30 years ago. Catastrophic radiation pollution from that meltdown proved to be less damaging to the environment over the long term than sustained contact with our own species. Horizon Zero Dawn plays with those themes with its indigenous-inspired cultures that emphasize coexistence with nature and warn against the legacy left by the machines.
Indeed, there is an interesting ecofeminist undercurrent to Horizon Zero Dawn. The first tribe you meet in the game are the Nora, who are run by a council of Matriarchs and worship an All-Mother fertility goddess. Their villages have maternal-centric names like Mother's Cradle or Mother's Heart. (Despite this female focus, men do not seem to be actively discriminated against in the broader Nora tribe, just excluded from high leadership positions.)
Interaction with machine dinosaurs is considered taboo for Nora, which highlights the ecofeminist idea that subjugation of women by patriarchal norms and destruction of nature by technological development are interlinked. It's like the prophecy of Ellie Sattler in Jurassic Park came true: Man creates dinosaurs, dinosaurs eat man, woman inherits the Earth. In this case, the dinosaurs just happen to be fully robotic instead of weird froggy hybrids.
Following point, there is also a maternal slant to the central quest: Aloy is an outcast of the Nora tribe, a status that drives her to find her real mother with the blessing of her adoptive father, who dutifully teaches her how to take down machines like a champ. From the very beginnings of Horizon Zero Dawn, motherhood is placed on both a personal and cultural pedestal, and framed as being at odds with the machines.
I admittedly have no idea how this plotline ends up, having invested only about seven hours into the game (the creators estimate it will take most players around 30 hours to complete the central story). As with most open world games, I was also immediately distracted from the main quest by side errands performed for the never-ending parade of helpless individuals in this world. I am such a sucker for those guys.
That said, I picked up some tantalizing clues about Aloy's larger role in the world that hint at what may come. Early on, she finds a wearable chip of old-world technology that gives her powers similar to Batman's detective mode—enhanced sensing and tracking abilities, for instance. This, combined with the fact that her name seems to be a play on "alloy," suggests that her destiny may be as a bridge between the ecofeminist worldview of the future and the technometropolitan civilization of the past. Cool.
The game seems to cast the apocalypse as a natural part of the human experience on Earth, and suggests that a world without most of us would recover and prosper to some extent. Survivalism is part of the story, but it's not the same dog-eat-dog atmosphere that similar fallout stories rely on to build tension and drama. Horizon Zero Dawn has something new to say about the post-Doomsday Earth, which is no small feat in a crowded apocalyptic market that seems to be careening uncomfortably close to reality.
Plus, robot dinosaurs. What more do you need than that?
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