Spoilers for Horizon: Zero Dawn (game).
I had been planning this week to begin a diary detailing my experience of The Longing, but so far, not much has happened to my little cave-gnome, so instead I am going to cover a game which came out a little while ago but which, mostly because I do not have a Playstation, I only played recently when it came out on PC.
Horizon: Merida’s Creed over Mordor is the first AAA game I have played in a while that I actually enjoyed. So let me get my general gripes out of the way first.
I did find some of the scripted encounters tedious, in that my build and play-style (cravenly lurking in the bushes and taking apparently unreasonable and unsporting pot-shots at the four-ton, laser-toting murder-bots with my sharp sticks) were not really geared towards being thrust into the Thunderdome without warning. I also have terrible reflexes, so gitting gud was simply never an option. There were few of my perennial grammatical bugbears; certainly few enough that I cannot recall anything for this article, and the writing was generally solid, weaving themes and characters together well, with only the occasional moment of insufferable smugness, but we will come to that presently.
It is a shame that so much of the story is told through collectibles tucked away in menus, not unlike Death Stranding. This undermines immersion, not only because of the convenient order in which the logs are found (did Ted Faro just scatter his diaries all over the world after sealing himself away for giggles? How did the crucial log end up just outside the Room of Significant Plot Revelations?), but because of the sheer volume of them. Had more been audio logs that play during exploration, or can be set to run whilst performing other tasks, I might have felt somewhat more inclined to find them all. Still, the quality of the immersion is not necessarily reflective of the quality of the world-building.
That said, Horizon: Zero Dawn is unusual in that, in many ways, it is not really doing any world-building at all. The world is ours, but changed. Consequently, it is most easily explained by playing the game rather than here in a blog. Fundamentally, however, it revolves around a big question. The question, in this case, is How will the world end, and what will we do when it does?
Putting to one side the obviously contrived (but very fun) excuse to have robot dinosaurs duking it out with cavemen – the game’s attempt to explain this is so token that it can safely be ignored – the world-building, or world-speculation, in Horizon: Zero Dawn (H:ZD) is really very solid, and, like the best science-fiction, is timely and thought-provoking. Although the story is, on one level, Aloy’s story, on another it is the story of the humanity of her day, and its relationship to the humanity of ours.
Very fittingly, therefore, Aloy’s story is an attempt to rebuild from the catastrophes caused by problems of our day: the ills of automation; the uncertain place of emerging AI; the concentration of power in corporations; ultimate responsibility for decisions being by turns assumed and abrogated by those unqualified to make them; the preservation of human cultures; and the preservation of the planet which those cultures share.
The face put on these evils is white, middle-class (presumably “cis-het”) male Ted Faro, which is perhaps a bit on the nose, but also entirely apposite, and I actually find the contrivance of his name (and Elizabeth Sobeck’s) more insulting to my intelligence than the rest, so whatever. Faro, perpetually entitled salesman in the Edison mold, accidentally ushers in the end of all things because he decided to make unhackable, self-replicating “peacekeeping” robots, which goes about as well as can be expected. Sobeck, the Tesla to Faro’s Edison, realizes that survival is impossible, and so proposes throwing wave after wave of soldiers and militia at the robots to slow them down and buy her and a team of scientists enough time to sequester the sum of human knowledge and all terrestrial biological material, so that even if life on Earth comes to an end, it may yet some day start again.
Of course, Ted, being who he is and representing what he does, ruins it all by deleting (or, at least, making unreadable) the store of human knowledge and murdering all remaining scientists at Zero Dawn HQ, in what is both conceptually and in execution a stunning narrative realization of hubris and selfishness.
Whilst Faro is represented as absolutely the worst, both Sobeck and Aloy are treated as nigh-infallible, and certainly too good for this sinful world. In what the writers probably thought was some subtle Messianic symbolism, Sobeck not only sacrifices herself for the world (and then to save the lives of her co-workers), but is remembered in Christological and Mariological terms by the people she leaves behind. Then, of course, she dies and returns from the dead when the door of the cave (ELEUTHIA-9) rolls back and a servitor-angel allows her to be discovered by a holy woman. If Sobeck’s co-workers had not harped on about it so much, it probably would have worked, but the result is perilously Kojima-esque.
In such a context, it is no wonder that Aloy can also be insufferable at times: she continually proves herself in the eyes of her peers, despite the social stigma under which she labours, but seems remarkably well adjusted nevertheless, easily taking to using strange technology and rejecting the cultural beliefs of pretty much everyone around her, asking classic gotcha! questions beloved by a certain kind of atheist, and receiving precisely the sort of mealy-mouthed response said atheists no doubt expect. If she had not been raised by an overtly spiritual man, this could easily be seen as a natural rejection of a belief system which has only ever dogmatically denied her a place in society, but Rost clearly taught her his beliefs, and the beliefs of the matriarchs and priests clearly mirror real-world religions, so it rather strains my sense of credulity.* About the only time that this is handled well is when she goes, without warning, from being reviled to being worshipped, and her distress and inner turmoil over the circumstances are handled very well.
That said, as is often the case, almost all the sympathetic characters are, in some sense, vehicles for a contemporary liberal secularism: the “good” priests are the humanist ones, not the theological ones; the “good” king expresses republican sentiments to Aloy shortly after meeting her, and so on. The characters are well-written, but not especially deep, complex, or realistic.
*Doubly so when characters comment on the ways in which Aloy is like Sobeck, as though the writers also think our genes determine our character and mental aptitudes, which is not exactly the most encouraging message to find in a game.
Despite the narrative strain, and occasional author tracts, under which the concept labours, the concept is still very good indeed: the ways in which human societies have rebuilt correlate directly to the circumstances of the extinction and rebirth of humanity. The gloss on religion is as feeble as it usually is in games, but other aspects of the societies are more-or-less up to the task: the advanced technology of the ancients is considered an object of spiritual reverence but also academic enquiry, and sometimes both at the same time; mining is rather less important than scavenging from robots, and so on. Even the science behind how all this would actually work does not really need to be explained because to Aloy it is as inexplicable as it is to us and, crucially, it is not a story about scientific mechanics (fnar!), but a story about the scale of good and evil made possible by science, about asking the right questions, about accountability, about the dangers of excusing oneself from responsibility.
In short, it is about the care of our whole planet, and the people who live there, in a time when a small proportion of the planet actually does have the power to make irreversible and catastrophic decisions. Horizon: Zero Dawn is a decent game, but where it really shines is its poignant reflection of the times in which we live, and a terrifying look at what the cost might be for the future unless we act soon. To do world-building in science-fiction writing, we do not need to start from scratch, but we might perhaps need to think about what it might look like, not for art, but for our society.