Guerrilla Games' action-RPG Horizon Zero Dawn released on February 28 to a chorus of excellent reviews. It's a very good—and very much not perfect—video game, I've said as much right here, and commented too on its wonderful moments of quiet here. It's nothing revolutionary, but that's okay—not everything can be a genuine game changer, and nor should it try to be. I'm having a lot of fun with the game, and its story has proven compelling.
Amongst the generally positive reception on social media there was a voice of singular dissent, however, raising a valuable point in regard to the game's vocabulary. Horizon Zero Dawn's world is populated by, beside hulking great machines, humans separated into tribes, and these factions can intermix with one another with no little friction. The protagonist, Aloy of the Nora tribe, is very white, very redheaded, and very much not Native American.
Dia Lacina, a Native American writer, highlighted the game's use of terms like "braves"—which is the collective noun used for the Nora's warriors—"savages", "primal" and "tribes" as being, if not disrespectful, then certainly not afforded due consideration given their historical connotations for Native Americans.
She posted an article on Medium, titled What We Talk About, When We Don't Talk About Natives, in which she criticizes reviewers for not picking up on these terms in their pieces, and the studio for using them in the first place, writing:
"Not a single review makes mention of the historical usage of those words, or the tropes reflected in Horizon that caused the writers to use them without hesitancy. And that's a problem.
"Nearly every aspect of_ Horizon_'s world building has been critically praised using terms that explicitly and historically have applied to indigenous peoples often to disparage our ways of life and oppress us, all while ignoring that unique and refreshing world building has been lifted almost entirely from our cultures.
"The uncritical use of words like 'primitive' and 'savage' to describe appropriated cultural signifiers on large media platforms serves to reinforce racist and colonialist ideas about indigenous people."
Having seen Lacina's piece shared into my Twitter timeline by several friends and colleagues, including other Waypoint staffers, I spoke to Horizon's narrative director, John Gonzales, about the issue. What led to Guerrilla using this language, and did they not foresee it being a sensitive issue?
"Our decision was based on 'brave' not being a 'hot button' term." — John Gonzales, Horizon Zero Dawn narrative director
"The vocabulary was certainly discussed during the creative process, in terms of wanting to make sure we were sensitive to the cultural concerns of our audience," he told me. "We weren't looking for inspiration from one particular group, and we cast the net widely to look at cultures, tribal cultures, around the world, and also throughout history. That's why a lot of the people talk about the Nora as being like Vikings, or why there are visual elements reminiscent of Celtic pictographs. So, inspiration came from a lot of different places.
"Talking about the term 'brave'—with that in particular, our research into it was that it was not a term that would seem to be offensive. We were trying to find a term that would combine the capabilities of a warrior and the capabilities of a hunter. It was a term that [we felt] was not derogatory, as we came across some terms that were definitely slurs against Native Americans and other groups throughout history. And so, our decision was based on 'brave' not being a 'hot button' term.
"That said, with the kind of culture of the internet that we have right now, it's impossible to predict what it is that may offend. Certainly we were not intentionally being insensitive, or to offend in any manner."