In television adverts for Horizon Zero Dawn, when player-controlled character Aloy says that the Earth has been reclaimed by nature, but for machines rather than ourselves, she's not entirely on the money—or the shards, I suppose, to use the game's "post-post-apocalyptic" currency. Yes, the world of some 1,000 years from now is much changed, and inhabited by mechanical creatures of curious design and mysterious origins. But Horizon Zero Dawn isn't a game built around its clanking, stomping goliaths. Its origins are of a more human nature.
"Looking back at the concept art for the game, there's an early image where there's this young, female, tribal hunter with red hair, sitting on the side of a valley, looking out over this extraordinary vista," Horizon's narrative director, John Gonzales, recalls. "So, Aloy showed up there, in the initial world concept conceived by the studio's art director, Jan-Bart van Beek, which dates back something like six years. That was before I came on board, about three and a half years ago."
"One of the big challenges that the writing team had to dig into was finding that personal, emotional story arc for our hero." — John Gonzales
Once committed to Guerrilla Games' maiden voyage into role-playing territories, the Amsterdam-based company having built its name on the Killzone shooter series, Gonzales set about bringing this then-nameless warrior, this hero in waiting, to life. Initial inspirations included Ellen Ripley (Alien), Sarah Connor (The Terminator) and San from Princess Mononoke, "but as we dug into her story, she transcended any particular starting reference".
"Aloy didn't yet have a story, or a defined personality, or psychology," he continues. "And that was one of the big challenges that the writing team had to dig into—finding that personal, emotional story arc for our hero."
And, in doing so, he and a team of writers began to realize the wider world of Horizon's futuristic setting, answering "all the big mysteries that the concept art suggested." The result is a landscape of gorgeous views muddled with shattered reminders of humanity's past—a past that happens to be our present.
"The date of humanity's collapse is around 2060, which might be optimistic looking at the state of the world today," Gonzales laughs. "Fingers crossed, though, that the apocalypse holds off a while."
To dive too deeply into the events that precede those that the player experiences first hand in Horizon is to spoil some of the game's greatest, most impactful narrative revelations. Much is told through logs, "holo" videos, audio and text documents recorded in this very century. And much of it is very dark.
Aloy's adventure takes place in a North America that's oftentimes beautiful to gaze upon, even while it bears the mournful scars of awful memories. But the further she gets into her journey, the more apparent it is that humanity astoundingly messed up in computerizing things that should have retained a skin-and-bones safety net. No reliable failsafe: no realistic future.
"This definitely isn't a game that says, 'Technology is bad'. If you take a look at its world, it calls into question a lot of the usual, simple dichotomies." — John Gonzales
And the more the player learns, the more apparent it becomes that Aloy is an essential bridge between these worlds, with a foot in both a present-day where mankind struggles to exist in lands roamed by aggressive machines, and in history's own horrific battle with an enemy that never needs to sleep.
"This definitely isn't a game that says, 'Technology is bad'," says Gonzales. "If you take a look at the world of Horizon, it calls into question a lot of the usual, simple dichotomies, of how we understand, for example, technology versus nature. This is a world in which nature is, to a great degree, technological. So there are images here not just of opposition, but integration. And those may be images that represent a more hopeful vision of our future, in comparison to the bleak, dire visions of our future that's told in the logs, in the archaeological data from the old world."
Players first meet Aloy when she's six years old, cast out by her tribe, the matriarchal Nora, on account of having no mother. Seems cruel, but Horizon's story, slow though it is to get to there, does ultimately make itself clear as to why these people cherish motherhood so much, why it's a pillar of their beliefs. The Nora, one of the game's five distinct factions—some of whom mix nicely, others not so much—worships a deity they call the All-Mother, which resides in, or emanates from, a sacred mountain. And it was at this mountain where the infant Aloy was discovered by the tribe, before being taken into care beyond the walls of their basic settlements by an adoptive father, Rost.
"Aloy is uniquely pained," Gonzales explains. "It makes sense that she'd be an outcast of her tribe—and also that her origin would itself be related to the lore that gives rise to the Nora culture."
That's all revealed very early on in the game—what's not is just how Aloy came to be there, within rock and metal. All we know is that she has no obvious mother, which becomes a compelling constituent of her character that arouses both curiosity in herself, in her lineage, and sympathy for others who've found themselves rejected, or in some other way hurt by societal norms that Aloy can't square away. Not that the other tribes she encounters are entirely black or white, good or evil.
"We wanted each tribe to be a blend of admirable traits, and also ones that are concerning, or troubling. Because that's how all societies are." — John Gonzales
"We wanted all of the tribes to feel distinctive," Gonzales explains. "We wanted them to represent different ways of seeing the world, or the cosmos even, and humanity's place in the grand scheme of creation. So, the Nora are matriarchal, and close to nature. The Carja, meanwhile, are intensely patriarchal, and embrace technology.
"But we're not saying that one is good, and one isn't. We wanted each tribe to be a blend of admirable traits, and also ones that are concerning, or troubling. Because that's how we are, and how all societies are, and I hope we made them all interesting."
In my time with the game I've met both ostensible bad guys, affiliated to the Shadow Carja, who've proven anything but my enemy, and fellow Nora with nothing for Aloy but pure anger. There is a clear antagonistic force, but even with them there's the implication that not every member's blood runs black with a lust for destruction. As with most cults, they've an enigmatic leader driving them onwards, whether or not it's the right direction. (Given the body count Aloy racks up, for most of them, it's really not.)
In RPG tradition, Horizon features a wealth of side-quests. Some are meaningful deviations from the main plotline, while others represent welcome breaks from the consistently serious tone of proceedings. Which is to say: a couple of bickering merchants made me chuckle, after a particularly despairing narrative beat. Some are more than worthwhile, some inevitably aren't—but you won't know until you speak to the right NPC and trigger them. (Hint: go to the mountains when it's requested of you in Meridian, that's a great one.)
"This is a rare game, in as much as all of the side-quests began as narrative concepts," Gonzales says. "They're all, essentially, self-contained stories. But with each of them, we asked ourselves: Where's the hook here for Aloy? Why does she want to get involved? Of course, she was raised an outcast, and treated horribly. But her own suffering, and the example Rost set her growing up, means that she has compassion for others experiencing injustice.
"The side-quests allowed us to explore different tones. And that reflects life—we all go through serious moments, and sorrow, but also a lot of times that are ridiculous, or hilarious. The game's core narrative is fairly serious stuff, and reveals an epic tragedy. But we felt that Aloy could have fun, too, and that her view of the world as an outsider, and the commentary that affords her on the customs of other people, can allow for notes of irony or sarcasm, and moments of a more comedic note."
"Now we see that people are excited about the game, we do feel there's potential to explore more about Aloy." — John Gonzales
Everything in the game effectively begins and ends with Aloy, then—in terms of its development, how it all came together around this singular protagonist that the studio just had to press forward with, and the actual story that the player will experience. And Gonzales, who previously worked on Tom Clancy's EndWar, Fallout: New Vegas, and Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor (insert your own joke about what game names should and shouldn't have colons, here), reflects on a job well done with no little pride in his voice.
"The amazing thing about my experience on this game is that we really left nothing out," he says. "There wasn't really anything that got left on the proverbial cutting room floor. I've worked on other games where we had huge ambitions, but we only achieved half of it. That really didn't happen with Horizon Zero Dawn. It really is a full realization of our vision."
Nevertheless, he admits that the team's learned things from this creative process that they can take into the next, and improve results accordingly—not least of all, you suspect, some of the sensitive terminology used in Horizon, as we previously reported on here. There's nothing explicit, but Gonzales drops hints that this isn't the first and only game Aloy will star in.
"This game is all we've been focusing on for some years—just finishing this one game, to the highest possible standard. Now we've done that, and birthed this baby into the world, and we see that people are excited about it, we do feel there's potential to explore more about Aloy, and the world. But, that's something we're yet to get our own heads around. We see huge potential for it, but where exactly it'll go is still an open question."
I'll tell you what I want, after really getting into the lore here: the Horizon Zero Dawn prequel. Menacing, morose, its world muddied with blood and machine parts—I want to play through this fiction's own fall of man, knowing that there's no happy ending. In a real-time strategy style would be cool, if its makers fancy stretching their creative muscles into new areas again. I think that'd be a fascinating second installment for what Guerrilla no doubt hopes is to become a series. But I doubt the studio's getting ahead of itself quite as much as I am.