There was something relatable about finishing the script for chapter 8 and then playing Horizon: Zero Dawn. Guerrilla Game’s post-post-apocalyptic PS4 exclusive about feminism vs. robot dinosaurs (which turned out to be more apt of a description than I thought) was my “vacation”. In the end, I clocked in at 63 ½ hours of video game escapism at its best. Gaming is one of the few mediums that hasn’t yet succumbed to the perilous tone the world has taken on lately, that doesn’t force you to think about the work still needing to be done. We don’t even need to get political; the most recent Unlife script took about 25 mind-numbing revisions to complete, trying to build life on a foundation of death. And I think that’s why Horizon was so soothing to play. Because it’s a world where the worst HAD happened. It had already passed. And now, on the brink of survival, you fight to create that peace again. And there is one super appropriate word to describe how that makes you feel:
I found myself compelled by the subtlety woven into certain relationships of Horizon. The themes of sexism and elitism weren’t spelled out, but were impossible to miss. The bad guys never yell “This is a man thing!”, but most did spend a lot of time praising the sun/son, and they were easy to spot: any man who didn’t have a woman in their party, or expressed a mistrust of women, was either evil or dumb (a commentary notably absent the other way around). But I enjoyed that fairytale level of nuance. It wasn’t perfect; the delivery of a lot of this material was hindered by locked off exposition shots with NPCs that behaved like animatronics at Chuck-E-Cheese. Many dialog trees felt more like homework than lore to be uncovered. But when the game nailed it, it went beyond the words and into the metaphorical emotion the game was setting up.
And that’s where my 63 ½ hours with Horizon were truly dedicated: the world. Though I had issues with the delivery of the story, as a place, it is amazing. I loved its illustration of how the world had grown without humanity, that struggle to survive in the face of awe-inspiring robot dinosaurs (also giant chickens). I felt so weak when first hunting them, only to slowly master the wild, becoming nigh untouchable by the end. And I felt powerful, like I could tame and control this wild world, if not just simply overcome it. I felt empowered, again a very appropriate word for this game and its themes.
If I had one note, I would have enjoyed seeing a demonstration of love succeeding in this world. And I specifically mean Aloy, the main character, finding love. Coming from a matriarchal society, surrounded by this brave new world after decades of isolation, I wanted to see how Aloy responded to something she couldn’t just shoot an arrow at. And given how interesting I found the game’s handling of themes of sex, it’s hard to not wish for a similar treatment towards love. And though sex is not the most important thing, I’d like it if she fell for a man, seeing how that conflicted with the world they have set up, and maybe even giving Aloy a chance to create life herself (though her and Petra would be adorbs. Just a thought…).
I could get into the semantics of the game itself and its imperfections – like, someone please fix the inventory system; changing outfits and weapons in mid fight shouldn’t break the pace like it does – but I loved this game because of what it allowed me to make of it, rather than because of the story I was told. Two moments stand out in my mind as being incredibly powerful. The first was the training montage, the simultaneous display of Aloy’s development into a warrior and, finally, of the gameplay that you’ve been waiting for since booting up the PS4. The other was a moment of reaction. You can choose some reactions in the game, with choices based on using your mind, your heart, or your aggression. These choices don’t change your outcome in terms of items or endings unlocked. But I spent the whole game picking mind and heart… until, just once, when it came to my ultimate triumph over the game’s villain, I chose aggression. And the savage satisfaction of unleashing my rage for that one fleeting second was unbelievable. It was more emotionally effective than anything after it.
I loved the thrill of the hunt. I loved surviving. I loved the feel of the wild and taking pictures (I took so many pictures, more than I do in real life, it’s awful). I loved savoring this world, breathing it in, and discovering its secrets. Knowing the best tools to tackle it and the beasts that roam within its borders. Even when I was lost, I was never afraid of the dangers that I knew might lie ahead. I was only exhilarated for more.
Horizon is a game that makes you feel empowered because it gives you the tools you need, then turns you loose. It presents the worst possible scenario and asks what you’ll do now. And it trusts you to succeed, not through force, but through wisdom – not to conquer the world, but to save it.