It’s no secret that Horizon Zero Dawn’s time in the spotlight was cut unfortunately short by releasing three days before The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Two exploration-based open world games coming out within three days of each other would be enough of a marketing nightmare on its own, but when one of those games is a critically adored, GOTY-sweeping entry in one gaming’s best-known franchises, I’m amazed Horizon actually broke even. But while torrents of pieces analyzing every facet of Breath of the Wild have been released and continue to get released, Horizon seems to have gone relatively unanalyzed for a game of its scope and creativity. I picked it up hoping to find a hidden gem, but what I found was more of a great blueprint for a hidden gem, that seemed to need a few more redesigns. Still, I think the successes and failures of Horizon make it one of the most interesting games released last year, and the questions it asks about how to make a AAA open world game are especially important in such a static genre. So, how does Horizon shake up the open-world formula? What fundamental assumptions about open world setting and story design does it challenge? And can it turn any of those ideas into engaging systems
Story & Setting
Horizon’s writing is probably its most interesting, back-of-the-box, selling point feature. So it’s a shame that, most of the time the player is actually engaging with it, it’s awkward, bland, or frustrating. “Awkward” is really the best word I can think of to describe the dialog, from Aloy’s teenaged attempts to land a sick burn, to the conversations with Sylens that are basically just them being angry at each other over voice chat, to the strange attempts at stiff, fantasy genre speech that most characters talk
in. It’s telling that I looked up the “Skip Dialog” button about twenty minutes into the game; most of the time when the game is talking at you, you’ll be bored. During the majority of the cutscenes, I found myself groaning with the same frequency I do at most AAA titles, because the characters speak so stiffly. I’m fairly certain that this is a problem with the script, because they’ve hired some fairly talented actors to play the parts. The closest comparison I can find is, appropriately, Dontnod’s 2015 Life is Strange. Voice actor/writer Ashly Burch voices lead characters in both of these games (Aloy in HZD and Chloe in LiS), and appropriately demonstrates the feel of a talented actor with a wooden script, and how that gets translated from page to game. The writing in Horizon feels very similar, with actors struggling to emote around clunky dialog. Part of the awkwardness in Life is Strange’s script comes from it being translated from French, and Guerrilla Games is a Dutch company, so I suppose that could have contributed to a similar feel. However, the game’s lead writer was John Gonzalez, best known for writing for Fallout New Vegas, one of the most fully-realized settings in the history of the medium. So, the cause of the clunky dialog is still a mystery to me.
However, the problems with the script extend beyond the dialog; the major plot points regularly fail to land as well. The game opens with an impeccably directed sequence (like nearly all of its cutscenes) showing Aloy dealing with her outcast status, training, growing up, and preparing to face the world. It introduces Rost, Aloy’s adoptive father (a character so forgettable I just had to Google his name), swiftly kills him off to give Aloy a personal stake in fighting the big bad. Aloy wins membership in the tribe that has treated her as an outcast for her entire life, then goes off on her great adventure. This plot is formulaic enough that it should at least function as an easy setup, but the wooden delivery and awkward structure make each point land less than gracefully. Rost, for example, is barely mentioned for the rest of the game, and because we never really see Aloy enjoying her time with him, he doesn’t work as an effective motivation. And Aloy’s drive to find out who her mother is never quite lines up with the player’s interest in the world (though they did try, and I’ll expand on that later). This results in the player sort of floating from plot event to plot event, not really invested in any of it. The Nora themselves are perhaps the best example of this, because, as an elevator pitch, they work brilliantly. Aloy grows up shunned by them for reasons she cannot understand, and fights for their acceptance not because she actually wants it, but because she wants to know why they treat her so horribly. Once she gains access to the community’s secrets, she discovers that they are misinterpreting the will of a dying AI, treating it as a religious faith, and that Aloy’s exile was a result of this misinterpretation. As Aloy explores the world, she learns more about how mistaken the Nora are, and returns to them with knowledge that makes her an almost mythic figure, all while dealing with the emotional confusion of being revered by the people who once shunned her. Did you get excited reading that? Because I got excited writing it. That sounds like an incredible story! I’d love to play that game! But that does not feel like the game I got to play. Almost everything with the Nora is brought up in a beautifully-rendered cutscene, then forgotten as Aloy goes and fights some boring apocalypse cult. You’ve fought a billion like them in every video game ever made. And given how forgettable that plotline is, most of your direct experience with the story is just hanging out with Aloy. And, umm. Okay, let’s talk about Aloy.
I really wanted to like Aloy. She’s voiced by Ashly Burch, which already gives her a few dozen points in her favor, she’s got a (theoretically) interesting backstory as a social outcast, and is kind of a badass on top of it. But, in execution, her character is just…bland. I can’t really come up with any of her personality traits other than “determined” and “impulsive”, which are the traits of approximately every video game protagonist since like 2004. She doesn’t really seem to enjoy what she’s doing beyond an occasional satisfied smile, and mostly seems kind of annoyed with people, which makes sense for a social outcast, but isn’t expanded upon in a meaningful enough wya to make it a worthwhile tradeoff. But Aloy’s biggest weakness as a character comes from an element that could have easily been her biggest strength: her motivation. I absolutely understand what they were trying to do; Aloy’s journey to find her mother (cloned genetic progenitor, whatever, she’s functionally her mom) gives her a personal stake in exploring the ruins of the old world. In interviews, lead writer John Gonzalez talked about how, without this personal motivation, Horizon is just a detective story, but the best detective stories are “Ones that the detective really needs to solve”. Thus, he gave Aloy a driving personal reason to dig deeper. However, as a player, I found myself thoroughly uninterested in Aloy’s journey of self because of the weak setup, and more interested in the world itself. So, I was interested in finding out more about the world, but Aloy is only interested in the bits that relate specifically to her birth. She doesn’t seem excited about uncovering some bit of world-defining lore, when the player is on the edge of their seat. She’s looting the stories of the dead world looking for scraps about her mother, and tossing aside everything else. And in her approach to the lore of the world, I really began to understand Aloy, because it lead me to ask a seemingly unrelated question that, in actuality, tells us a lot about Aloy: What point does Sylens serve in the story? This one threw me for a loop until I started combing over the plot summary and looking at his actions. He basically does everything interesting in the story. He does the archeological digging, uncovers ancient secrets, pieces together where to go next, and scours the world looking for new dig sites. He even kicks off the primary events of the story by awakening HADES. Basically, he figures everything out so that all Aloy needs to do is kill the people between her and Sylens’ next objective. And this is where I began to understand Aloy. Like so many video game protagonists, she is good at killing, and little else. I get that, by the nature of this being a AAA action-adventure game, she has to be good at killing, but that’s really the only thing she’s good at. But Sylens highlights what she could have been. An archeologist who knows her way around weapons, like Nathan Drake or (more appropriately, given her personality) the rebooted Laura Croft. If Aloy had done everything that Sylens did, there could have been an even tighter connection between setting and story. Sylens’ motivations of curiosity about the old world and a driving desire to explore its mysteries are so much more compatible with what the player wants to do (namely, explore) that it seems like a perfect match, in stark contrast to Aloy’s motivation of “Who’s my mom, who I guess happens to be related to the setting?” So, while playing as a character more like Sylens wouldn’t have had that same personal connection to the mystery, it would have at least made the player feel like their interest in every scrap of the old world wasn’t out of character. Giving Aloy even a bit of that archeological predisposition could have done so much to improve this.
So, the dialogue is bad, the low-level plot is bad, and the main character feels underutilized, which just leaves the setting. Fortunately, the setting is Horizon’s greatest strength, and when executed correctly, is genuinely breathtaking. This is first apparent in the game’s visual design, a strange hybrid of ancient and modern styles. Characters have headdresses made of bullet casings, fur clothes with metal flourishes, and ancient makeup and war paint in the shape of circuit boards. This, coupled with the game’s impressive graphical fidelity, makes it consistently gorgeous to look at, and conveys many of the game’s themes with much more subtlety and effectiveness than any of its story beats. The environments of the world reflect this as well, with sprawling, beautiful landscapes littered with the corpses of derelict machines, and the centuries-old ruins of ancient cities. It delivers on one of my favorite promises of the post-post-apocalypse genre (or whatever it’s called): showing a new world flourish in the carcass of the old, no longer concerned with the squabbles, culture and events of their long-dead ancestors. Similar works in this genre include Nier: Automata, and Enslaved: Odyssey to the West,
the later of which I thoroughly enjoyed. These two games are less backwards-looking than most works in the post-apocalypse genre, and I wish Horizon had committed to that more. Because, by the end of the game, there are really no mysteries left to uncover; the game has already answered everything. The only real question remaining is posted in an after-credits sequel hook where Sylens reveals that someone or something woke HADES up, which wasn’t appropriately set up beforehand (it seemed like HADES had been awake forever and Sylens just stumbled upon him while being an archaeology nerd). And while I think the ending’s lack of mystery does harm the game as a whole, I want to acknowledge the sense of wonder the game does successfully create at its beginning. As Aloy crosses from the safety of her tribe’s sacred land into the outer world at the end of Act 1, the player is burning with so many questions about the nature of the game’s world and presented with a world full of answers. That moment is one of my highlights of the entire game, and even though that mystery is diluted by the ending, it sets up the open world beautifully.While poking around the world, the player will stumble on some of the game’s best bits of world building. These include audio and text logs that describe the workings of the old world without giving away too much, giving the player small anecdotes instead of comprehensive answers. This is reminiscent of Croteam’s The Talos Principle, which never outright states the cause of the apocalypse, and instead describes people living their lives under the shadow of it. As a result, the player feels like an archeologist of their own world, uncovering bits of 21st-century technology and lore that are new and mysterious to Aloy, but not to the player. And this touches on perhaps my favorite theme in the story, that of the tribes of the new world misinterpreting the ideas of the old world. It serves as an interesting twist on Arthur C. Clarke’s famous, often-quoted line, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” This concept is most often used when the audience cannot understand the technology, making it seem magical, but in Horizon, we see this from the opposite perspective. During the first act,
Aloy presents herself to what the tribe calls “The Goddess”, and ancient structure inside the mountain that they built their capital around. This takes the shape of a metal door, which emanates a red light and scans Aloy, saying, “Identity not verified, data corruption”. The player knows that this is obviously a computer, that it’s using some sort of scan to verify her identity, and that there’s a busted hard drive somewhere in the facility that’s making it throw an error. But the leaders of the Nora treat it as a prophecy, speaking of the corruption as a mythical force that Aloy must conquer. The player is given both perspectives, the technological and the magical, and is able to understand both simultaneously. Aloy’s problem of fixing a broken computer is turned into a mythic quest simply because the Nora think its magic. *That* is a brilliant use of Horizon’s genre, and one that feels fairly unique to Horizon itself.
Exploration & Combat
So how does the player uncover these setting details? Outside of the main plot, the setting is primarily communicated through the design of the world itself. While the late game may suffer from the kind of bloat that seems emblematic of post-Assassin’s Creed open world titles, during early-to-mid game, the size and scope feels just right, and allows for measured exploration. While, at the end of the game, I was fast-traveling from campfire to campfire, during the first few zones, I *loved* the open world. I was searching every corner looking for new enemies to fight, hidden areas to poke around in, and loot to find. The game lets you do something that so few contemporary open world games actually do: stumble upon something mysterious. The first Cauldron level I did was one of my favorite experiences in the entire game, because I was just wandering the open world when I found it. No one directed me there, I wasn’t given a quest to “Clear Cauldron 1 of X”, I just found it. While I was exploring it, I was burning with curiosity about what could be behind every new corner, and the game delivered on it. That was the discovery the game should have focused on, because it put you in the headspace of discovering an ancient, abandoned world. Unfortunately, by the late game, that mystery had begun to dissipate, and I was just Clearing Cauldron 6 of X. As the world grew in size, it felt less important to explore all of it. I already knew what I would find because icons for them were plastered all over my map. When I arrived at new zones, it wasn’t introduced with a cutscene or any exposition about what made it unique, I just kind of ran through it while following my objective marker. I tried to turn off as many of those markers as I could, and let myself get distracted as much as possible, but the game was just not built for it past its first two zones. The world was better when it was smaller.
I have one more anecdote that I think highlights the best and worst of Horizon’s open world, as it was almost one of my favorite moments in the game. I was exploring near one of the game’s northern areas, and I saw that I was nearly at the edge of the map. Curious to see what the edge of the world looked like, I headed north until I found a snowy mountain range. I tried to sneak my way past a few enemies, but made a bad call and blew my cover, resulting in enemy attacks barreling down on me from all directions. Instead of running away, I made the split-second decision to charge the mountain, and climbed it while dodging fire and just barely keeping my health bar topped off. With no healing items to spare, I reached the top, only to be greeted by…a cutscene introducing a giant, flying boss. Here, when just exploring the open world, I had stumbled onto a unique boss encounter totally undirected. It took nearly every bit of ropecaster ammo I had, but I was able to take it down, and Aloy dropped a quick voice hint about seeing what it was guarding. I moved past the machine’s corpse, and saw a series of platforming challenges (ladders, ledges, etc.), that seemed to lead to a nearby cave. I climbed about halfway up the ridge, and…I got stuck. I could not, for the life of me, find the next place to climb. I retraced my steps, tried jumping on every bit of environment that looked even remotely climbable, and even turned on the game’s objective hints. Nothing. After about half an hour of trying, I gave up, and googled a video guide. And, this is where my excitement turned to frustration. Right at the point I had stopped, in my world, there was an empty ledge, with no apparent way up, but in the world of the YouTube video I was watching, there was a ladder neatly placed right there. Apparently, that ladder only appears when you have unlocked that area’s relevant quest. Now, I understand that, in an open world game, you need to gate off certain areas that are mission-specific. But to have that gate be an arbitrary ladder halfway up the path to that
objective, with no indication to the player that they can’t reach the area? Not even an “I should come back later” voice line from Aloy? If they had simply forgotten to gate off the area, I would have understood, but the removal of this ladder implies that some designer on the team saw the problem, and deliberately implemented this disappearing ladder as a solution to solve the problem. That, I do not understand. Maybe remove the first stepping stone up the mountain, instead of one in the middle? Gate the area off entirely? I can think of dozens of equally cheap design solutions, none of which would have lead to this problem. And while this is a single issue, I think it’s emblematic of how Horizon only half commits to making its world explorable. It gets far, far closer than most games, but isn’t able to go far enough. Which, I suppose, is a good summary of my opinion on the game as a whole.
Before concluding, I do want to briefly touch on the game’s combat. Again, I enjoyed it much more at the beginning of the game than at the end, and I think that has more to do with encounter design than player skill or numerical advantages. A great deal of the campaign involves fighting human enemies, which features a largely uninteresting opening of shallow stealth that transitions irrevocably into shallow combat as soon as you are spotted. You’ve done this before in most AAA action-adventure titles. Combat against machine enemies, meanwhile is much more interesting, especially because of the various traps the game offers. The game does have one combat setup that works brilliantly, and that is when the game lets the player really step into the shoes of a hunter and plan their attack. While most of the campaign missions don’t allow for this kind of play, those that do demonstrate a style of combat that simply cannot be found in other games. Checking enemy movement patterns, scanning for their weaknesses, dropping tripcaster lines, and setting up the perfect trap is a rich tactical treat, especially on the harder difficulties. However, open combat is less tactically engaging, primarily because of the difficulty of deploying the traps mid-combat. Even with a great deal of handling mods on my tripcaster, I found keeping track of enemies while setting them up is incredibly difficult, and often for little reward, at least on Hard mode. This is made worse by how clunky avoiding enemy attacks is even when not trying to place traps. The player’s primary means of avoiding damage is a dodge roll that never seemed to reliably be able to avoid damage. This is used in the face of enemy attacks that are difficult to predict, because of the visually busy design of the enemies, the raw number of enemies the player will be fighting at any given time, and the fact that the player’s focus is often narrowed on weak points, making them miss subtle movements of the enemies. Additionally, enemies often attack in multi-hit combos that would put a Bloodborne boss to shame. Often times, I would see a telegraph, dodge away from the enemy, and still get him by later attacks in a combo, even if I spammed the upgraded dodge roll. Because this makes trap deployment difficult, I ended up using traps less, turning combat into a fairly standard third-person shooter. The ropecaster can do a lot to alleviate this problem, but if ever a game was calling out for some sort of Shadow of the Colossus-style enemy climbing while searching for weak points, this was it. Still, when the level designers give you a suite of tactical options, Horizon’s combat truly embraces its setting in a way that most other AAA titles simply can’t, and does feel genuinely unique and interesting to engage with. I just wish that same amount of depth could have been applied to open combat as well.
I feel like I came off a lot more negative towards this game than I intended, so I want to open the conclusion with a reframing of my opinion on the game: I think Horizon Zero Dawn is an incremental improvement on the AAA action-adventure game that greatly raises the bar for what we can expect from the admittedly stale genre. The quality of the cinematic and art direction alone is astonishing, and the idea that these games can explore more creative settings and have gameplay inspired by them is one that the industry is in desperate need of adopting. If every AAA open world title was as creative and risky as Horizon Zero Dawn was, I probably wouldn’t be suffering from genre fatigue. Still, there are tradeoffs to taking risks when making a game this expensive: you’re working with ideas that haven’t been iterated on and polished over multiple sequels. So, whenever Horizon Zero Dawn 2 comes out, I will be looking forward to seeing how Guerilla takes this first game, which was promising but messy, and polishes it up.