If I had to sell the central conceit of Horizon Zero Dawn to someone in two words, it would be "robot dinosaurs." There is obviously a lot more to Guerrilla Games' latest PlayStation 4 title than that, but the mechanical dinos have nevertheless remained in the spotlight throughout the various demos and trailers released in the lead up to the game's launch this month.
With that in mind, I thought it would be interesting to hear what the paleontology community had to say about the animal kingdom of Horizon Zero Dawn, especially since Guerrilla has taken such clear inspiration from the likes of brachiosaurus, velociraptors, saber-toothed tigers, and many more beasties from the prehistoric era. I politely reached out to a number of very clever people within the academic field and, to my delight, actually received some answers.
I'm not sure what I was expecting from this venture, but I was nevertheless surprised by the number of respondents who wanted to first emphatically stress their total lack of interest in video games. The spectrum of paleontological opinion on gaming ranged from mild apathy to genuine distaste, with even those who provided extensive comments on Horizon Zero Dawn, preambling their remarks with disclaimers about their indifference to the medium. If you've ever wondered how much of an overlap there is between those who enjoy games as a hobby and senior peers in paleontology academia, then, the answer appears to be "very little."
In spite of this general disinterest, the first thing that several scholars noted was the magnificence of Horizon Zero Dawn's visual fidelity. "The graphics are pretty slick!" noted Kenneth Carpenter, director of the Utah State University Eastern Prehistoric Museum, admitting that his first impressions of Horizon Zero Dawn were nothing to do with the dinosaurs, but merely the fact that it looked like "a great game to play." Bruce Lieberman, a senior professor and curator at the University of Kansas, was also "very impressed with the graphics."
On a purely cosmetic level, all of the paleontologists I spoke to seemed to agree that Guerrilla did a great job in capturing the behavioral mannerisms of the creatures they're loosely based upon. Dr. David Button, a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Birmingham, explained that the "mechanistic critters look like they behave much like animals do, and, by the same token, dinosaurs would have done."
"That in itself is refreshing," he continued, "since dinosaurs are so often depicted as behaving like monsters."
At this point, maybe I should've pointed him to the trailer featuring an aggressive, hulking, and thoroughly monstrous Thunderjaw, but I thought it best to refrain from such pedantry when in conversation with a respected and knowledgeable scholar.
On a more worrisome note, Stephen Brusatte, a vertebrate paleontology expert at the University of Edinburgh, urged caution. "It's very clear they're not real dinosaurs and are quite stylized, which is fine for a video game, of course, but I hope nobody expects for them to be accurate portrayals of dinosaurs."
I certainly share Brusatte's sentiments, but the idea of a class of students playing through Horizon Zero Dawn to brush up on their knowledge of pre-history remains nevertheless amusing to consider.
Beyond talk of the game's aesthetics, my inbox was chock-full of questions from paleontologists about the ecology of Horizon Zero Dawn's dinosaurs. "Why do they interact with humans, and vice versa?" asked Mathew Wedel, an associate professor at the Western University of Health Sciences in California. "Any mechanical power plant that can turn a human into fuel can probably do the same with plants, or even dirt, so why risk combat? If the answers to these questions are, 'So we can have cool fights,' I'm fine with that. Like lots of forms of entertainment, video games are a chance to explore a world other than our own, and it's okay if those worlds have mysteries."
Indeed, the creative liberties taken in the construction of Horizon Zero Dawn's future dystopia are hardly subtle, but it's still strangely comforting to know that the experts in the inspired subject matter are willing to recognize the value of poetic license, even if it comes at the expense of scientific accuracy.
In a spot of fortune, I also received some observations on Horizon Zero Dawn from the great John Horner; one of the most famed minds in the world of paleontology. Not only was Horner chosen by Steven Spielberg to serve as technical advisor on Jurassic Park (and has since retained this role on all future sequels), but he even acted in part as the inspiration for that movie's character of Dr. Alan Grant. If anybody would know about the intersection between paleontology and blockbuster entertainment, it was him.
"It's funny that the mechanical beasts have been built like dinosaurs rather than having been given more efficient ways moving or having extra appendages," remarked Horne. "It seems their makers limited the creatures to some evolutionary designs that were not particularly efficient even in dinosaurs… ironic." Like all inquisitive paleontologists, he also had a ton of questions; "Why create a mechanical creature with a tail? Why limit its power? Why put its eyes on a small head like structure with a neck? In other words why copy evolution when it had so many limitations?"
With the answers to so many of these inquiries potentially lying at the heart of Horizon Zero Dawn's central story, I suggested that Professor Horner might perhaps consider picking up and playing through the game if he was genuinely interested in learning more about the dinosaurs' background. I never received a reply, but part of me is really hoping that I might have just paved the way for a fully mechanized T-Rex to show up midway through Jurassic World II.