Small spoiler warning here, as we'll be discussing plot points for some young adult classics: Northern Lights by Philip Pullman, Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve, and The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. And for Horizon Zero Dawn , too, if you're yet to start that.
Like everyone else who hasn't bought a Switch, I've been playing Horizon Zero Dawn this week. I'm not often one to board an already crowded hype train, but when HZD was first announced, I was positively leaping off the platform to join in. Not simply because of the robot dinosaurs—don't get me wrong, they're great—but mostly because Guerrilla's game looked like the young adult novel I've always wanted to play.
And I was right. It is.
To the uninitiated, young adult novels are books that are, you guessed it, typically aimed at younger audiences. We're talking readers that aren't quite cynical enough to be classified as full-blown adults, but can still handle tougher material than Spot Goes to School can provide.
And, personally, I still can't get enough of YA novels—I've gorged on over the years, but I want more. So the moment I saw HZD shown off in all its splendor, I was hungry to get my hands on it.
In Horizon Zero Dawn, our protagonist is Aloy, a determined young woman who shares traits with many of the best heroines from YA literature. Her identity as an outsider is something we see a lot of in classic YA fiction (more on that here, in our interview with the game's narrative director John Gonzales). For example, Mortal Engines' Hester Shaw is shunned by her society and, much like Aloy, she has this status forcibly thrust upon her—it's not something she inadvertently cultivates for herself.
This outsider status is something that really attracted me to young adult novels in the beginning. As an adolescent, I was excruciating awkward—unnaturally tall, and in serious need of some self-confidence. If social status had a currency, I'd have been as poor as a very poor church mouse. But these young adult protagonists were outsiders, too. Their world and the people around them treated them like social pariahs, so in many ways, we were outcasts together.
Aloy is in that club. The members of her tribe, the Nora, refuse to speak with her, and mock her because of something that's clearly their problem and not hers. Helping her win the Proving—a kind of final test of wannabe warriors, enabling them to show their worth to the tribe—felt like I was having my own little success as well.
Young women like Katniss are characters that I used to really idolize, and I can imagine that lots of girls could look to Aloy as a comparable inspiration.
How Aloy fights is also evocative of characters made famous by YA fiction. For the most part, Horizon Zero Dawn encourages its players to plan their attacks and approach combat strategically. I've had my arse handed to me several times because rushed in, blindly, in an attempt to overpower my foes. Aloy doesn't work like that. She is a hunter, with an arsenal of tools and weaponry that make her resourceful. She thinks before she strikes, and you need to do that, as the player.
One screamingly obvious parallel in young adult novels is one of the genre's biggest breakout stars, Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games. Not only is her weapon of choice also a bow, but like Aloy, most of her fights are won through careful planning and the clever use of traps and tools.
I've always admired this kind of approach to combat in the books I've read and games I've played alike. The ability to outsmart foes and beat overwhelming odds is something that all my favorite young adult protagonists seem to possess. I love how these women are in control of their respective situations, how they always use smarts with subtlety, something I felt I lacked. Young women like Katniss are the kind of characters that I used to really idolize, and I can imagine that lots of girls could look to Aloy as a comparable inspiration.
As a genre, young adult novels have almost always shown a willingness to appeal to all genders. At their best, YA novels have never really been divided into books for boys and books for girls, and the expectation that people of all genders can succeed.
Aloy could have been a boy, just as Lyra Belacqua of Northern Lights might have been. The truth-revealing alethiometer would still have come his or her way. But the choice to make these characters young women makes them stand out in a field—fantasy storytelling—where male characters are often the chosen champions, the victorious heroes. And they're made different still, more unique, by the artifacts they receive.
Above: the launch trailer for Horizon Zero Dawn
Aloy's own alethiometer is the Focus, a strange device from the "old world" that enables her to see otherwise hidden information around her. And these aren't just gadgets—they both serve to drive the narrative and shape the world in which they're set. The Focus is an invaluable aid when it comes to hunting, fighting, surviving. But Aloy's peers can rarely get their heads around it, and treat it with great suspicion, if not outright fear. But we know that it gives her—and in turn us—an essential edge.
Shaping a believable world is the bread and butter of any good young adult novel. This should be the very foundation of its narrative—a place that's strange enough to be exciting, yet still has a comprehensive enough rule-set to follow. There must be logic, or the whole thing collapses under its own premise, and loses its connection with the reader. And Horizon Zero Dawn's world is full of the things that make a YA setting great, beyond the Focus. For example, the game's wild, futuristic environment and robotic wildlife are very reminiscent of the traveling mechanical settlements, the "Traction Cities", of Mortal Engines.
HZD's creative take on a post-apocalyptic scenario is part of what makes the game so appealing. Reading YA novels was and is, above all else, a form of escapism for me. And playing a game like this, exploring this world as a young woman in search of herself, takes me back to those days spent with a book clutched between my hands. I can still remember tucking into a brand new story while waiting for my mum to finish work, or holding my lamp under the covers so I could read late into the night. I don't have to play that way, anymore; but the feelings that stir are remarkably alike.
Young adult fiction isn't just age-appropriate fluff, some of the best stories have gone to some brave, dark places. Northern Lights portrays the church as a corrupt organization, seeking to claim control of people, limiting their awareness of what they see to be sin. In The Hunger Games, poverty is maintained as a form of oppression, the haves refusing to provide for the have-nots, its society's own class system always stacking the odds in favor of the wealthy. And, similarly, Horizon Zero Dawn asks its own questions, addressing religious ignorance and the ethics of technological progression.
Through YA novels, I actively engaged in political and social themes from an early age. The best YA stories make their readers question the world around them, through the lens of fantasy, of escapism. In that tradition, HZD holds up a mirror to the here and now and asks: Are we really going the right way about this? Is this really the best way to treat people who aren't quite like you? I can't help but admire its attempts to engage players in discussion, through its world and characters.
But what really makes the game special for me is the feeling that, for the first time, a significant developer with a sizable budget has properly recognized the young adult audience, my audience. Being able to play as a young woman who's capable and different, and misunderstood yet entirely determined to prove everyone wrong, in world that's exciting and breathtakingly beautiful: that's the experience Horizon Zero Dawn gives me. And it's why Guerrilla Games, whether it was their intention or not, needs be praised for creating a game that genuinely feels like a quality young adult novel.