Red Rocks, to put it in the words I would have identified with, was out of my league. Red Rocks Amphitheatre was where the cool kids went to see concerts. The type of kid who didn’t need their parents’ permission for stuff. The type of kid who lived the I-drive-an-expensive-car-in-a-high school-parking-lot life: needlessly excessive, but all I thought I wanted. The good life.
That is, Red Rocks was out of my league, until one fortuitous night in the 10th grade. A friend had tickets to Jason Mraz, and one of his much cooler friends had bailed. All that stood between me and the good life was parental permission. To my surprise, it was granted.
After that night, the crooning tenor and skat-a-la-bee-bop-doe of Jason Mraz became my soundtrack for every car ride, every heartbreak, and every morning shower. How could it not? I had seen him at Red Rocks.
I completely ignored Horizon Zero Dawn when it was first released, instead opting to overdose on open worlds through The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. So as I launched Guerilla Games’ masterpiece a few weeks ago for the first time, I was basically still blind, totally unaware that I was diving into an adventure set in the region where I grew up: Colorado, the front range of the Rocky Mountains.
The game has countless collectibles and pseudo-collectibles, but the “Vantage Points” were among the most pleasant surprises. I think that when I walked up to the first one I had expected to find a unique vista where you could take a screenshot, and definitely not a freeze frame flashback of our era. I stumbled upon the Colorado Springs vantage point in the game pretty quickly, but thought it mostly coincidental or unimportant or an easter egg, as an audio log I recovered a few minutes before mentioned New Zealand. So I continued to move north, oblivious to the fact that I was literally trampling atop the overgrown remains of my hometown, which sits approximately halfway between Colorado Springs and Denver.
I remained oblivious until I saw a cliff rising in the distance. The cliff was jagged — a dusty, dusty red. It all clicked. My sister happened to be in the room. I looked over to her and said, “we’re going to Red Rocks.”
If you didn’t spend your entire life growing up in this area, or you didn’t go into the game blind (countless Redditors had deduced HZD’s Colorado setting from promotional videos and trailers alone), you probably are going to think it’s pretty corny how emotional of a moment this was for me. As I got closer and closer, I saw that not only were the rocks that unmistakable shade of red, but the actual amphitheatre was recreated with fidelity. I got even closer, and cleared out some apocalyptic machines from the seats, and not only was the amphitheatre true to real life, but there was a Vantage Point and an audio log that teased about a concert happening there the night before. “Jason Mraz!” I shouted aloud. I found where I had sat on that night. I could almost smell the marijuana.
From there, the entire journey of Horizon Zero Dawn took on new significance. Whereas Aloy was a young person on a journey of literal and metaphorical self discovery, I now saw in parallel my own journey of growing up, the two adventures overlapping in the same physical space. “Denver Stadum” was particularly rife with memories of families and friends. As I made a mad dash across the now dismantled football field in an attempt to light up the Carja’s storage of flammable material, I couldn’t help but feel like a futuristic Demaryius Thomas making the 80 yard touchdown reception from Tim Tebow in a 2011 overtime game against the Pittsburgh Steelers. And as Aloy’s journey took her west over the Rockies and into the stark transition of Utah deserts (it’s like that in real life, too), I remembered my own family’s road trips through the same mountain passes as we drove toward California, as was our yearly ritual. The seemingly endless steps it took to make that trek were reminiscent of endless hours in a packed car.
In both the game and my childhood memories, those were slow hours, but there was something sweet, something to be savored, about that slowness.
Go read anything from any of the developers of Horizon Zero Dawn, and you’ll likely see a particular phrase two or three times: “post-post-apocalyptic” (1, 2, 3). The game has a such a single-minded vision that it’s difficult to see it as a product of a large team like Guerrilla Games. So consistently do the game’s creators refer to the “post-post-apocalypse” that you get the feeling that you could instantly transport them back to the six year slog of creating the game just by whispering the phrase in their ear.
Surprisingly, the more the Guerrilla developers try to sell me on “post-post-apocalypse,” the more I’m buying. This take on setting allows for a unique exploration of themes beyond mere survivalism, something that so many post-apocalyptic games attempt with their story but cannot execute due to the fact that survival is the core gameplay mechanic. You won’t find the Rick Grimes-do-whatever-it-takes-to-survive-and-“this is not a democracy” mindset in Horizon. In the post-post-apocalypse, characters are bent on discovering the better parts of the world rather than avoiding the worst.
If discovery of the world is central, then there needs to be a pretty good world. Critics tend to agree that the Horizon Zero Dawn’s setting is among its most compelling features, both at the level of procedurally generated shrubs and from a Glinthawk’s view. You do not need to have the intimate experience and memories I had as a Colorado native to recognize that this a great world. So great, in fact, that critics have gone beyond recognizing its beauty to arguing for its desirability. This is what Becky Ferreira argued in her Vice article, “Horizon Zero Dawn Might Make You Yearn for a Post-Post-Apocalyptic Earth.”
“Tossing aside the bleak, dusty hellscape of an immediate post-fallout world, the Guerilla team builds a natural landscape that has mostly rebounded from the demands of human overpopulation. It kind of reminded me of the extraordinary biodiversity recovery observed at Chernobyl since the region’s population was forced to permanently evacuate 30 years ago. Catastrophic radiation pollution from that meltdown proved to be less damaging to the environment over the long term than sustained contact with our own species. Horizon Zero Dawn plays with those themes with its indigenous-inspired cultures that emphasize coexistence with nature and warn against the legacy left by the machines.”
There is certainly both an ecological and philosophical argument embedded in Horizon Zero Dawn, but the more I play, the more I tend to think that Ferreira has it all wrong. The point of the post-post-apocalyptic world is not to make you yearn for that future; rather, it’s to make you yearn for the present. Never before has a game inspired me to take so much care and pride for mountain peaks that I could literally see in real life by walking out my front door.
On more than one occasion, I wanted to jump out of my seat and tell Aloy, “Look! Here’s where this inconsequential thing happened to me as a child!” But I couldn’t, because I and presumably everyone I know was wiped off the face of the earth. I was forced to dwell on that for a bit: “the apocalypse” is a tough concept to chew on, so we usually try to dry swallow it as quickly as possible. Everyone’s dead. As a result, Aloy would never really know how important a night at Red Rocks could be. Things that were full of meaning were now a pile of stones or a mound of steel.
In Horizon Zero Dawn’s post-post-apocalyptic world, I found a new desire to keep that which could potentially be lost. More games about the complete destruction of our world should attempt to inspire the same.
If you’ve made it this far, thank you so much! I write a weekly, thoughtful, and all-too-imperfect blog that hopefully will cause you to think twice about the games you love. You can see all my stories, and sources and further reading for this story, on my site.