The creativity in gaming excites me an enormous amount. Television has also been allowed to stretch from the limitations of sitcoms and reality-style sagas. I celebrate the freedom to tell more complex and challenging stories whole-heartedly. The resulting tales are richer and more influential.
There is one video game in particular that has reminded me of what the medium can achieve: Horizon Zero Dawn (HZD). Its tropes and themes are typical of an open-world adventure genre, yet the intense beauty of its backdrop, dedication to realistic character interactions and depth of narrative make it a shining example of game storytelling. From the moment you enter the post-post-apocalytpic world where humans live in primitive tribal societies and animal-like machines roam the land, you're embroiled in questions. Given that description, the most prominent one is how did this world come to be?
The protagonist is sympathetic yet empowered. Aloy, an outcast from birth, is raised by a man outcast by choice. At first, her driving motivation stems from the desire to know who her mother is. That aim quickly becomes entwined with the secrets of the larger world, Aloy delving farther into the past for answers. I watched this story unfold through the Let's Play by Christopher Odd. While uncovering the narrative's mysteries was always my primary interest, I have to say that the combat with machines was always interesting to watch, each battle unique and sometimes truly suspenseful. In contrast, fights with human aggressors were not as engaging but their repetitive nature was eased by interesting backdrops and subtle world-building tidbits.
The following paragraphs will enter spoiler territory so if you intend to watch or play the game (which is, sadly, only available on PS4) you can stop reading. Otherwise, I shall continue to describe why I have the utmost respect for the team behind this game's creation.
HZD does many things expertly, not least of which is how it paces the narrative, giving its audience clues to the answers they're seeking but never revealing too much, urging them forward to uncover more. The balance between personal and external reality, established with Aloy's initial motivation, carries through the entirely of the game. The data files and sound clips Aloy discovers reveal the building and subsequent destruction of a world told from the perspectives of those in charge as well as those who are ultimately casualties.
Aloy learns that the Earth's climate crisis is overcome through technology, leading to a period of prosperity and advancement. Humanity then makes its machines too powerful, the imminent destruction of life as we know it resulting in a race against time to implement measures that will make Earth habitable once the machines have consumed it. Religious, moral, scientific, philosophical and all other perspectives are brought to bear on the implications of this initiative. Some think the event is natural, that extinction should be embraced. Others see it as just punishment for humanity's arrogance. Most are driven to save life but the methods they use to achieve that objective come with monumental sacrifices. The vast majority of people are deceived about the project's true cause, giving up their lives without any idea of the final outcome.
As you may gather, this is an incredibly complex set-up that no one would expect a game to handle, particularly with the depth and thoughtfulness HZD provides. The personal accounts of those involved in the project to protect Earthly life show just how much is sacrificed to give life a chance in the future. Even knowing that their efforts pay off – after all, Aloy would not exist to learn about them otherwise – the loss and suffering that went into achieving this success makes it bittersweet.
Beyond the expert storytelling in the game I find the subject it tackles particularly inspiring. Outside the game reality, humanity is at the beginning of this narrative, facing a climate crisis and expecting technology to help us overcome it. Avoiding the dangers of thoughtless action and progress for the sake of profit are central lessons in HZD. No one wants the planet to become a lifeless rock thanks to our actions and they certainly don't want to be torn apart and consumed by machines converting biomass into fuel.
I would highly recommend this game. Whatever the media, a good story is timeless and I commend those willing to challenge our current societal trajectory. Horizon Zero Dawn does this with beauty, intrigue and diversity. Give it a try – you might find yourself as entranced as I am.
Below is a fantastic piece of artwork titled 'Horizon Zero Dawn' by ryanswnanick.