A Liturgy of Progress and Robot Dinosaurs: ‘Horizon Zero Dawn’

Horizon Zero Dawn is a reflection on fundamentalism, atheism, and robot dinosaurs … mostly robot dinosaurs.

Written by Richard Clark / Published on March 20, 2017

Aloy was born with a chip on her shoulder.

She was cast aside in the first moments of her life, so it’s no wonder the playable protagonist in Horizon: Zero Dawn spends much of the game brooding about her outsider status. Deemed motherless by her matriarchal tribe, raised by a fellow outsider (whose status as a man makes him a second class citizen), Aloy is obsessed with freedom.

"In Horizon: Zero Dawn, the further from community and tradition we get, the more answers we find."
After all, Aloy has grown accustomed to the wilds. Her prison was a wide-open space, and the second she gains access to her tribe, she leaves it. Ostensibly she’s a seeker, looking to protect her people from whatever dangers lurk in the outside world. In reality, she’s a seeker, looking for truth wherever it may be.

One thing Aloy seems certain of: her people do not possess the truth.

Horizon: Zero Dawn gives us little room to doubt Aloy’s doubts, pulling back the curtain within the first few hours on the fundamental beliefs of her tribe. It drops us briefly into a claustrophobic cave only for us to slam hard against a wall in our attempt at discovery.

This is not an accident. In Horizon: Zero Dawn, the further from community and tradition we get, the more answers we find. But these answers aren’t so much objective truths as collection of mechanics that just feel right.

The freedom offered in the open world serves as an analog for Aloy’s own motives, and offers less a set of beliefs or revelations as a set of persuasively empathic and invigorating experiences. Aloy encounters person after person who needs her help, and example after example of just how unpleasant a stubborn belief system can be.

But it’s hard to blame Aloy and others who have gone out from them; those within her hometown truly are the worst. Like overly confident freshmen at bible college, they speculate on the implications of their beliefs as ones with authority. One person contradicts the other, almost all of them out of either self-conscious defensiveness or a rote lack of intellectual curiosity.

As much as Aloy wants to distinguish herself from her people, she falls into the same traps. At every turn, she clarifies her own thoughts on blessings, divine will, and fate. Like a militant-atheist Twitter egg, she insists on taking credit for whatever it is we are praising the divine All-Mother for today. She rails against the fundies in a remarkably impotent attempt to convert whoever she meets into her own fundamentalist commitment to non-belief.

It’s important to note that this is a game-world inhabited by robot dinosaurs. It’s a world with vegetation surrounded by light-up bugs at night, a world with beautiful sunsets, and rainstorms that cause the player to stand back in awe.

But Horizon: Zero Dawn leaves little room for awe. It’s a game that comes across as having a major chip on its shoulder. It’s determined to get the mechanics just right. It insists the player progress evenly over time, leaving little room for play or leisure instead of getting the chores done. It wants to prove its own right to existence with more and more freedom. It wants to give the player all the right answers. It wants the player to become more and more enlightened, to embrace its’ systems, and to find the truth, wherever it may be.

There is no better example of this than the increasingly cumbersome sensation of killing mechanical dinosaurs. The game continues to unlock an increasing amount of methods, but the gameplay loop never changes. It involved studying the dinosaur’s flaws, determining the best method for taking on the robot dinosaur, and executing that method relatively flawlessly. This loop—study, determination, and execution—is nothing less than liturgy in the service of personal determination and progress. The reward is not personal fulfillment; the reward is the privilege to move on to the next thing.

No wonder Horizon: Zero Dawn leans so heavily on the mystery of what lies in the future. Otherwise, it leaves little room for the imagination. It does not encourage speculation as such. Instead, it presents speculations as fact and offers mechanics as truth. In doing so, it asks players to look at the horizon and see not inconceivable mystery in the setting sun, but the infinitely reducible sum of its parts.