Horizon Zero Dawn: Two Worlds in One Game

Horizon Zero Dawn Aloy

Today I want to look at the world of one of my favorite recent games. And, yes, I am using the word recent rather loosely here. But seeing as I only got it late last year and have played it twice since then, I’m going to count it as recent. And since it has been out for more than a year, I’m going to spoil a few things during this review, though not too much.

I love Horizon‘s world building. It sneaks up on you in ways you’re not expecting. When I first started playing I had no expectations that we’d ever learn why there were robot animals we went around shooting for spare parts or why my character got a machine that helps you see enemies. Those were gameplay functions, and lately I haven’t seen many games that went into depth to give substantial reasons for gameplay. Since the game starts in a pre-industrial tribal society, and follows Aloy as she tries to gain admittance to the tribe, I set those aside as questions that wouldn’t be answered.

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And then all of a sudden the story isn’t just about Aloy and the Nora tribe or even the Nora tribe and the Carja. It becomes about seeing how and why all this technology exists, why so much of it no longer exists, how their very world came to be, and how to save it from falling again.

Essentially, there are two completely separate cases of world building going on throughout the game, and both are done beautifully. There are the tribal cultures of the Nora, the Carja, the Shadow Carja, the Oseram, and the Banuk, each of which have their own distinct beliefs, religions, taboos, and governments. Happening at the same time is the development of our own future and its final grasping hope that humanity won’t die forever because of our mistakes.

The way the game interweaves your discovery of both the present world and the world of the Old Ones is marvelously done. As you move through Aloy’s world to meet all these different cultures, tidbits and hints of the Old Ones are scattered around. These offer a glimpse not only of major events that lead to the Old Ones’ downfall, but of how normal everyday people dealt with the end of the world.

Major story missions go back and forth between helping people Aloy has met on her journey and her search for the truth of the past. As Aloy learns about her own connection to the Old Ones, you see that the two stories are inexorably bound together. Understanding the end of the Old Ones is the only way to prevent their mistakes from destroying Aloy’s world.

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Perhaps what I love most about the world building in Horizon is that nothing is simply there. There is an explanation for everything that feels wrong in the world. The machines have a design beyond visual appeal. They had a purpose within their world. New violent machines are corruptions of that purpose. Aloy’s Focus, the lack of technology, the lost knowledge of the Old Ones, all of it is explained and presented as integral parts of the story.

It’s wonderful when games give little tidbits of world building as extras to enhance the story for those willing to go out and find them, but to have it all so seamlessly interwoven into the story telling—and the story telling is top notch in Horizon—is the mark of an excellent writer. The entire writing team deserves a good slow clap.

Perhaps the only thing not explained is where the virus that infected Gaia came from. I hope that that mystery will be solved in further games as Aloy works to reboot Gaia. This world is too rich to leave as only one game. Besides, they definitely hint at more to come in the ending.

The Frozen Wilds DLC

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I’m very sad that we aren’t getting more DLC for Horizon, and I usually hate that DLC exist and aren’t just included as part of the game. But Horizon could easily have a DLC like The Frozen Wilds for every tribe in the world. The Banuk were perhaps the least developed of all the tribes in the main game, but their culture is so marvelously developed in the DLC that I want one for the Oseram and the Carja and the Nora. Sure we get a lot more development of the Carja and the Nora in the main game, but the Oseram could use more love.

Playing through the Frozen Wilds you can really see how much care went into thinking about how the location of the cradles influenced the development of the resulting culture. The Banuk living in the harshest of climates became the ultimate survivalists. The Nora brought out in lush greenery and wildlife, surrounded by desert and mountains, became isolationists. The Carja brought out into the desert came to worship the sun. And since I’m having trouble pinning down the Oseram, obviously they need to get on and make another DLC so I can talk about them better.

If you haven’t bought Horizon, which is a Playstation exclusive, you should. If own it but don’t have The Frozen Wilds, get it. The story is excellent and the effort that went into building this world makes me smile. The world would be a better place with more games like Horizon Zero Dawn.

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