By Joseph Saeli
If you’re familiar with game criticism, you’re also most likely familiar with the concept of “open world fatigue.” If you aren’t, it’s pretty easy to understand; over the last five or so years, big-budget games have been moving further away from shorter, more controlled experiences and towards huge ones with a large world for you to hunt, explore, climb, and ride through. With so many games employing open world models, some people are starting to get a bit sick of them.
I believed that I had open world fatigue, and I think that I probably still do.
I completed open world action RPG Horizon: Zero Dawn (developed by Guerilla Games, creators of the Killzone franchise) in about thirty hours of game time. I did this over the course of five days, in which I had work, school, and other obligations. I desperately wished I could have played it slower, so I could have discovered more. For me, it stands on equal footing and maybe even beats my favorite games of the last five years: Shadow of Mordor, BioShock Infinite, the Last of Us, and The Witcher 3. And despite the fact that I loved it so much, it should never, ever receive a sequel.
My being sick of open world games and my love for this one seems contradictory, and it is. I’ll try to explain what I mean as best I can.
Horizon is, at its core, another open world game. There are weapons and armor to upgrade, animals to hunt, and locations to discover. There are bandit camps on the map that you can decide to take out. There are collectibles to find (“ancient vessels,” aka coffee mugs, among other things). You level up and spend your upgrade points on a simple, Far Cry-esque skill tree that will generally give you extra options in battle. You craft ammunition, potions, traps and items to improve your carry capacity for those things I just mentioned. If you boil Horizon down to these mechanical details, it seems unremarkable, because these things are in many other games.
The combat is fine. Your chief firepower is a variety of bows that shoot different types of arrows (including fire, freeze, normal arrows), which can be used to exploit weak points in enemy armor. You have a device called the “tripcaster,” which will set up tripwires, and a “ropecaster,” which can be used to tie enemies to the ground. Proximity mines are useful. Slingshots can shoot bombs. The combat of Horizon is interesting, serviceable, and it works. However, it certainly isn’t the main thing to stick with me.
Literally everything else about Horizon is so special, however, that this has lingered on my mind for awhile after I finished it.
The setting is unique: Earth, a thousand years in the future. After some catastrophic event (I would describe the setting as post-post-apocalyptic), humanity reforms into tribes. While some smaller animal life remains (I can’t express to you how many boars I killed in this game), most of the creatures are actually machines – robots that are sometimes constructed in the image of real-life animals, who serve some unknown purpose. The strider, for instance, is clearly a horse. The grazer is a gazelle. These constructs were once docile, but in the last twenty years or so, have become “deranged” and attack humans on sight.
Something that must be mentioned in this discussion is graphical fidelity and performance. Horizon is a gorgeous game, with (mostly) good facial animations, great designs, and interesting environments. You travel from forests to icy mountains to jungles to deserts, and everything looks incredible. In addition to this, the frame rate is consistently good. The one thing that occasionally jumps out at you is poor lip syncing. While the main quests and the important side quests are all fine, the further away you get from that stuff, the more that bad lip syncing appears. Even then, it was mostly humorous, if a bit distracting.
The player character is Aloy, a sarcastic red-headed girl belonging to the Nora tribe, who was cast out at her birth for reasons she doesn’t know. She’s raised by Rost, a fellow outcast, who teaches her to hunt and survive in the wild. At the age of six, Aloy stumbles into a ruin of the “Metal World” – the world before the apocalypse – and becomes fascinated with it when she recovers a sort of augmented reality headset that gives her access ancient computers. When she returns to Rost, she demands answers about her origins, why people call her “motherless,” and why she was made an outcast as a baby. Rost tells her that she could learn these answers by participating in a tribal contest known as the Proving.
That is the basic premise for the true beginning of Horizon, and in the interest of not spoiling any of the story beats, I’ll speak more generally about it from here on it.
Aloy is an outstanding character. Many protagonists in open world games feel like blank slates without personalities, which game developers often do on purpose in order to let the player “become” the character. Aloy, however, is not this; she is willful, funny, unswervingly curious, and mocking of everything around her. One of your constant companions in the later parts of the story groans and groans about her immaturity and selfishness in the face of the increasingly higher stakes that she faces. You may be controlling her and occasionally deciding what she says, but she is not a puppet for the player to manipulate. Aloy is the best character in a game, by far, and she is always there with you.
Horizon even manages to flip a popular trope on its head in one memorable moment. A handful of times over the course of the game, you are given a chance to pick an “emotional” response for Aloy to give to a particular statement. The three options are generally something aggressive, something compassionate, and something coldly logical. I generally leaned towards logical throughout the game, but also tried to be compassionate when it made sense.
When an acquaintance of mine learned that his sister died in an attack, I chose the compassionate option, and noted that I had lost someone close to me as well. This acquaintance apologized for my loss and then said something like, “Why is it that whenever you lose someone, everyone else decides to tell you about who they lost, as if that would make you feel better?”
Aloy, looking properly chastised, said “Yeah, why is that?”
Games don’t often punish you for choosing the “good guy” option. This choice had no consequence on my game; this particular character still had my back, and we became good friends. But it was a good scene, and it stuck with me.
Something else that I think Guerilla nailed about Aloy is her relationships with other characters. Throughout Horizon, the theme of motherhood is constant, and I was waiting the entire game for Aloy’s love interest to appear. While a selection of men and women do flirt with Aloy over the course of the game (and one character even obliquely offers her a position “at his side”), she ignores it all, focusing on her own ambitions and goals. I deeply appreciate this decision by Guerilla, and it is one of the reasons why Horizon is a strongly feminist game. Aloy does not need a love interest, someone for her to rely on for support; she can handle it herself, thank you very much.
In this way, among others, the story of Horizon is a masterpiece. There are wheels within wheels within even more complicated wheels. The premise I mentioned at the beginning of this is the most basic layer: the personal story and growth of Aloy. The next layer is how she is connected to the material world around her: the politics of the tribes near her, her place within the Nora people, and the relationship between the tribes as a whole. The third layer – the grandest, most high-stakes component – is the nature of the very world around you, how modern civilization fell, and what that means in the present day. I’ll say this in the vaguest possible way I can: by the end of Horizon, you know everything about the “apocalypse” and why it’s important. It’s an incredible journey and one of better instances of layered storytelling I can think of; the pacing is great, the revelations are immense, and everything feels earned.
On the topic of revelations, I briefly mentioned before that Horizon shouldn’t receive a sequel. More than anything, what stood out in this game was discovery. While you could set this game in another region of the world they’ve created (the Oseram and Banuk territories of the north come to mind), I believe that any sequel would utterly fail to recreate the feeling of discovery. So much of Horizon is uncovering the past and experiencing this fascinating sci-fi story a thousand years after it happened. Because this game has a concrete ending and you learn everything about the world in its course, there doesn’t seem to be any of these revelations left. There is actually a little sequel-baiting after the credits in which you see what Guerilla will probably do if they decide to make Horizon 2 (and given the financial success of this, they almost certainly will), and it doesn’t interest me in the slightest. I would love to be wrong about this, but I suspect any attempt to follow up on the lightning-in-a-bottle that Guerilla has here is doomed to disappoint. Horizon isn’t the first installment of a trilogy; it’s a definitive and finished work.
Rather than quantify Horizon: Zero Dawn with a number, I’m only comfortable with saying this: If you like story-based and narrative experiences set within an open world, you need to play it, because it is perhaps the best game like that I’ve ever beaten. If what I’ve said doesn’t sound interesting to you and you have a serious case of open world fatigue, this isn’t the game for you.
This is easily the best game that Guerilla has made, and it must be played if what I’ve said interests you.