Transcript — Horizon Zero Dawn: As Soulless As a Robot Dinosaur

This is the transcript of a Youtube video, which can be viewed here: https://youtu.be/uNwW7jMwsv8

This is a video about why I was disappointed by Horizon Zero Dawn.

Yes I know I am lagging behind the times here, but when this game came out I was neck deep in a PhD, so I hope you’ll cut me a bit of slack for being a tad late to the party.

In this video I will be laying out my case for why Horizon Zero Dawn is an uninspiring, patronizing game that relies on lazy and outdated design choices. If you are one of the many people who loved this game, you’re a bad person. I’m just kidding, obviously there is a lot to like about Horizon and it is very far from a bad game. I just disagree with a lot of the glowing praise the game has received and that’s why I’m making this video. With that disclaimer behind us, let’s dive into my three-years-late hot… well, lukewarm take on Horizon Zero Dawn.

Quick recap time! Horizon Zero Dawn is set in a post-apocalyptic far future, centuries after some unknown catastrophic event plunged humanity all the way back to the stick fighting ages, but there are still remnants of advanced tech and also giant robots. The main character is called Aloy, she’s good at shooting the robots and she goes on an epic quest to find out what happened to humanity.

There is a minor spoiler warning for this video as I will be showing various bits of game footage, especially from the first four or five hours of the game. But I’ve made sure there are no major story spoilers for the later parts of the game, so if by any chance you’re watching this but you haven’t played the game, and you don’t want the mystery spoiled you’ll be right.

Part 1: The Storytelling

Horizon Zero Dawn delivers its story with as much subtelty as a whack on the head with a techno-spear. It constantly breaks the fundamental storytelling rule of “show, don’t tell”. Not only does Aloy never stop talking to herself, she will sometimes just say the solution to a problem before you’ve had a chance to figure it out yourself.

Right at the beginning of the game, there’s this scene in which young Aloy falls into a cave and accidentally discovers a ruin full of dead bodies. It seems like this was supposed to be quite a creepy section and, it really should have been. And yet it feels so…. lame. It’s totally devoid of tension or suspense, because miss jabber-face is constantly talking. To make things worse, almost everything she is saying is already obvious from what is happening on screen.

Boy the writers of this game were just terrified of giving the player one minute of space to breathe and observe and figure things out themselves. This scene would have been so much more effective if dialogue and sound effects were used sparingly and effectively. Instead, we got ….this. (clip of Aloy clunkily announcing the discovery of a dead body)

And this problem is present throughout the entire game. Characters verbally announce things that they are clearly doing.

But here’s the real mystery my friends. This game won an award …for writing. It won an award for… wait, what’s this? (The other nominees were: Madden and Futurama) oh…. well that’s … interesting.

To be clear, I’m not talking about the plot of the game. I actually really like the mystery about what happened to humanity and where Aloy came from, it’s a really compelling and interesting story. And there is a ton of lore and world-building that you can find in data logs scattered throughout the world, and that’s cool, there’s a lot there. I’m not criticizing the story, just the story-telling. Horizon has a great story — it’s just too bad that the way it delivers it is so clunky and patronizing and grating. But that’s not the only thing that’s clunky about this world.

Part 2: The Characters

The world of Horizon Zero Dawn is populated by a diverse cast of weird and wonderful characters. There’s poor man’s Liam Neeson, Kiefer Sutherland with chops, that dude from Spirited Away I think, and Gary Oldman’s great great great great grandson.

And some of them are pretty well acted too. Others….not so much.

But aside from the sometimes iffy voice acting, the people in this world… don’t feel like people. If a character has a quest to give you, they will just stand there and loop the same two lines of dialogue endlessly until you finally give in and talk to them. Characters also tend to loop dialogue lines during fights. This particular fight is tough and lasts a fairly long while and I heard this guy repeat the same line half a dozen times.

Everyone, aside from maybe a few of the main characters, just feels like badly programmed AI. There’s this ability whereby you can “whistle” from some grass and anyone nearby, even hardened killers, will just obligingly stroll over to you, where you can stealth-kill them on the spot. And you can just stay in the same spot and keep whistling and killing dude after dude. Wait a minute… am I getting déjà vu? From like 5–10 years ago? Ah yeah, I remember this from Assassin’s Creed. Even waaaay back in the early 2010s this mechanic was kind of ridiculous. But I can’t believe a game from 2017 is still letting you whistle people to their death.

I half expected there to be a story reveal at some point that everyone in this world is actually a robot. Like, we thought the huge metallic dinosaurs were the robots, but, no, even the people are androids. And they don’t know it, they think they’re human. That would have been a great plot twist AND an actual in-game explanation for why everyone in this world is so robotic and lifeless. Major missed opportunity if you ask me. But, it can’t be helped now. Idea for Horizon Zero dawn 2?

Part 3: The Environment Design

The success of an immersive sandbox game like Horizon Zero Dawn hinges on how well it can create a world that feels … real and lived in. Horizon’s world feels like…you remember when that bot wrote a Game of Thrones episode? And it sort of resembled the real thing from a distance but then on closer inspection it just didn’t make any sense? The world design of this game is a bit like that; it vaguely resembles an actual world, but only if you don’t look too closely.

So, this is my favourite part of the game. In this scene, there’s a locked trapdoor on the ground floor and the way that Aloy breaks into it is to push a pallet of ore from the floor above, bringing it crashing down. I guess nobody on the dev team thought to ask why there would a pallet of extremely heavy smithing materials being kept on the second floor of a residence…? But, considering that the guy who lives here obviously wanted…for some reason… to keep a ton of ore on the top floor of his house, it’s a good thing there just happens to be a huge gaping hole in the second storey of his house through which he could lift said ore. Seriously there’s just a hole in the floor here. And then we find out…. this guy has kids! There are children running around this place… this is a child endangerment lawsuit waiting to happen, someone call the police!

There are so many things that don’t make any sense in this game. There are supply boxes full of stuff just lying around in the street. Whose is this stuff for heaven’s sake? It’s mine now!

The most ridiculous place I discovered a supply box, was on top of a roof… Who put this here? I mean, who climbed up here and put this random box of stuff HERE? Now, I know this game didn’t invent the trope of “supply boxes full of stuff randomly lying around on the street for you to conveniently pillage” but in a modern open-world game that’s trying to be immersive, it’s just inexcusably lazy game design.

The baffling thing is that not all aspects of the game are this careless. The artistic design is painfully good. The costumes are absolutely bonkers, I really feel like this is what hunter gatherers would wear if they cobbled together their clothing from weird salvaged ancient tech. I mean, I don’t know EXACTLY what these white pieces of trash are that they’re wearing, but it looks better than a necklace made of Coke cans I guess, so that was a good design decision. And the graphical detail in every inch of this world is stunning. Mmm, this mosaic wall thing is nice! Look at this lamp. It’s got a little whirly bit on the top! So cool! Nice little potion rack. Ooh, that’s a nice couch. The detail on those cushions! Eugh!

But all of these thousands of gorgeous little touches exist as part of an environment that feels weirdly cobbled together. There’s beauty but no logic. And it makes me wonder — what is all this for? What greater purpose is all this beauty serving? Yes the game has whirly dirly lamps and bright colours and gorgeous sunsets but… is that it? What is the point of this game? Does it do anything new, does it push the medium of video games forward? Aside from having…nice looking mountains….What does it achieve?

Part 4: The Mechanics

It’s difficult to say what Horizon does that hasn’t already been done many times before. The game splices together the action-y bits of Uncharted, the sneaky bits of Assassin’s Creed, the detective-y bits of Batman, the dialogue choices of a Telltale game, but way less interesting, and the same old hunting and flower-picking and crafting and “oh please help me find my favourite banana, I lost it somewhere” side quests that we see in every open world game.

The side quests in particular are so formulaic, I’d call it a “cookie cutter” approach to quest design but that would be an insult to cookies. Most of the quests are some version of “I’ve lost my person, please help me find them” or “I’ve lost a thing, please help me get it back”.

These side quests, and even some of the main quests, require exactly the same thing of you every time. Go to the quest marker, turn on your bat-vision — err, Eagle vision — sorry, Witcher sense — AHH, FOCUS — turn on your focus, follow the magic purple bubbles to a place, trigger the cut scene, receive some XP for your trouble. These quests are woefully unengaging and don’t require anything from the player in terms of ingenuity or problem-solving skills, other than “follow the purple path”. You don’t even have to bear the burden of deciding when you might need to turn on your focus to look for clues, because Aloy, or the mission log, just tells you when you need to.

The process of obtaining missions is just as dull and uninventive. As you’re running around here and there, quest givers will appear with big cartoony green exclamation points above their heads, so all you need to do is run straight up to them and press “talk”. There is absolutely no reason to talk to or engage with anyone, anywhere, who doesn’t have an icon hovering over their head. And, for that matter, there’s no reason to be clever, or observant, or really much of anything else while you’re playing this game. The game’s mechanics seem to actively discourage the player from thinking too hard. The over-explanatory dialogue doesn’t let you work anything out yourself, the exclamation points and magic bubbles point you everywhere you need to go…. It all adds up to an experience that could be summed up as joylessly going through the motions. Speaking of joyless, this next part is not gonna be fun.

Part 5: Aloy

Let me start here by saying that Aloy is, objectively speaking, amazing. Kings want to recruit her. Dudes want to date her. Armies want to fight for her. Everybody wants to thank her for solving all of their life problems. And oh boy does the internet love her too.

Well, not everyone loves her. The most common criticisms of Aloy’s character seem to be that she is derivative, a shallow trope, kind of generic and one-dimensional, and, the big one, boring. These criticisms usually lead into a reasoned, constructive discussion about the merits of tropes and gender representation in fiction. Just kidding, they instantly devolve into a pile-on about what the word “derivative” means and, well, the usual.

But really, what is there not to love about Aloy? Aside from the fact that her name is Aloy. I mean, she’s a strong, independent, quick-witted, kind-hearted warrior with great hair.

But.

Look, I was seriously conflicted about how to write this next bit. I mean, at this point in time it’s just stating the obvious to say that even mentioning gender in games is a quick road to -

[ALERT — DISCUSSION VEERING DANGEROUSLY CLOSE TO FEMINIST ANALYSIS, ABORT FOR OWN SAFETY]

Yeah, yeah I know, I know…. How do I turn this bloody alarm off….

As I was saying, it’s stating the obvious to say that talking about … the G word in games is a quick road to getting eaten alive by the internet. So, here’s a statement I’ve prepared.

[Text: I, the maker of this video, am happy about how far female characters in games have come. Aloy is a great female protagonist and much better than what we had a mere decade ago. I am grateful for how far female characters in gaming have come and appreciate how much worse it could be. With that understanding, I now humbly ask permission to acknowledge that video games have not yet reached the point of “utter shining perfection” and yes we are allowed to love games and also hope that they’ll be better in the future. So don’t come at me. ]

With that out of the way, here’s the problem with Aloy. She’s too perfect. Guerilla Games set a very noble goal of creating a Strong Female Woman™ to …protagonise their game, and they should be applauded for that. But, in doing so, they forgot to write her as a real human being. Real people have flaws, they’re messy, they make mistakes that they have to fix. Aloy doesn’t make mistakes, she doesn’t struggle against her own worst impulses, she doesn’t harm anyone. She seems to be driven by a genuine motivation to help everybody and do the right thing all of the time. That’s why so many people love her — she’s great. And that’s why a lot of people find her boring — she’s great. What are Aloy’s negative traits? The worst thing one can say about her is that she keeps stealing other people’s stuff.

And aside from making her unrelatable, there’s another unfortunate consequence to Aloy’s perfection. Because she has no flaws, she has no flaws to overcome. She has no character arc. Aloy is pretty much the same person at the beginning of the journey as she is at the end. All of the obstacles she comes up against on her quest are purely external — the restrictive superstitions of the tribe, untrustworthy strangers, the dangerous killer robots. Her journey to gain knowledge about her birth mother and the downfall of the human race is very interesting … but it‘s not accompanied by an internal journey in which Aloy has to confront her own failings and change as a person. What she needed to be a truly compelling character was some negative personality traits which would seriously threaten the success of her mission if she didn’t grow and overcome them.

And let me point out that all my criticisms until now have been gender-neutral. Male heroes and protagonists who are entirely good and wonderful are just as boring as female ones.

But now I have to turn to the subject of GENDER EQUALITY. Because this game has been praised for achieving it. And, let me be clear, there are worse things than female video game protagonists who are strong, kind, smart and always do the right thing. But what we need for gender equality isn’t bland, idealized female characters with no flaws. What we need is more female protagonists who are dicks. Characters who are drunks, misanthropes, and criminals, who are reckless and have dodgy motivations. When games are willing to give us a range of female protagonists who are just as messy, complicated and even downright sociopathic as their male counterparts — well, that’ll be a bit more like gender equality. But I’ve slagged off the messiah enough already, so I’ll leave it at that.

Part 6: The End

I keep coming back to this question — why does this game exist? Just to be a vehicle for pretty graphics and robot battles? I mean the devs had something they wanted to achieve here and it can’t have been a hodge-podge of bland narrative design and samey open-world mechanics. So, I listened to every audio log — sorry, developer interview — that I could get my hands on. And I think I managed to find a few clues as to what the design philosophy of this game was. I think that this game was designed, first and foremost, around combat, and the design philosophy seems to have been something like, “even if things don’t really make sense, it doesn’t matter because it’s silly and it’s fun.

This design philosophy of “fun and nonsense” makes sense to me — Guerilla Games is known for the Killzone franchise, which — as the name suggests — is about shooting a bunch of creepy-looking fascists in space. Guerilla Games have always specialized in games that are heavy on combat and light on story. And they should be given a ton of credit for taking a risk and leaving the comfortable embrace of linear first-person shooters and going on a scary, epic adventure into the unfamiliar territory of creating an open-world game based around a cinematic story. But they didn’t make it as far out of their comfort zone as perhaps they could have. Because the most glorious aspect of Horizon Zero Dawn is still its combat, and everything else is just lackluster in comparison.

At the end of the day, Horizon Zero Dawn feels like what it is — a narrative-heavy game, made by a development team with scant narrative-writing experience.

So, I think I figured out what the devs were trying to say with Horizon Zero Dawn. Nothing. This game seems to have no purpose, other than to look gorgeous and let players kill, ride and climb dinosaur robots and have some silly fun. It has nothing meaningful to say about technology, or the abuse of power or knowledge, or human relationships … there are half-hearted story beats around these things, but they fall into cliché more often than not. Unfortunately, this game IS just a vehicle for cool robot fights. There’s something empty and hollow at the core of this game, like… well, like a robot. Created for a very simple purpose, and beautiful enough on the outside to help disguise the fact that it actually has no soul.

Maybe you think I’m nitpicking. Maybe you’re one of those people who plays games to just unwind after a long day and all you want to do is shoot guys in the head with flaming arrows and ride robot dinosaurs and you don’t give a toss whether any of it makes that much sense. And that’s fine! This is your game and heck, judging by the reviews, this is a lot of people’s game.

But is this all games can be? Cool fights and pretty landscapes populated with lifeless badly written characters, outdated mechanics and lazy environmental design? Horizon Zero Dawn is by no means a bad game. But it’s the kind of game I want to see much less of in the future. A game that prioritises graphics and combat and cuts corners everywhere else, that takes a patronizing attitude towards the player, and that has nothing of importance to say or add to the video game landscape.

And that’s about it from me. What did you think of Horizon Zero Dawn? Am I being too harsh? Do you agree with me? And, most importantly, does this guy remind you of Gary Oldman or am I just imagining things?

Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCRmZM0WpKzSu_27unPuyEZA

Patreon: patreon.com/pixeladay

Twitter: @pixel_a_day

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Kat (Pixel a Day)

I make video essays on Youtube (Pixel a Day) where I critically analyse games and how they make me feel. I also write blog posts and articles.