Why Horizon: Zero Dawn is a breakthrough in feminist gaming

Candice Brusuelas
Jul 18, 2018 · 6 min read
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Promo still for Horizon: Zero Dawn

Since I set eyes on Horizon: Zero Dawn’s beautiful background and fierce female hero, I knew I’d have to play it. I love gaming, but, like many women, feel a disconnect with the video game world. Female heroes are few and far between, and usually their big boobs and tiny waists are stand-ins for actual character development.

My favorite game, since I was a child, has been Tomb Raider. I fell in love with RPG exploration and the journey of a great storyline. In 2013, I fell in love with Lara Croft all over again.

YES, I thought, this is a feminist game, finally! And it is, especially by gaming standards. TR 2013, and Rise of the Tomb Raider in 2015, still leave many improvements to be desired, but it resonated with me to play from a female perspective and to experience well-developed, realistic characters.

Whatever feelings I have for TR, Horizon: Zero Dawn blew it out of the water.

What drew me to the game was a blog anticipating the release of HZD as one of the first truly feminist storylines. Aloy is a young woman in a land full of dangerous machines. Raised an outcast, Aloy has never know her true parents or why she was cast out as a child. Her journey starts as one of self-discovery.

On the outset, having a woman lead in an RPG forces you to empathize and identify with the character. She’s not a plot tool, or an otherwise unimportant object of a man’s journey. That, in itself, is huge. She’s also not just a “female version” of a predecessor male-hero game. Her story and her environment are unique, and she is written as a unique, emotionally capable character. She doesn’t struggle to be an interesting female character, nor does the story shy from her femininity.

Here are the other reasons HZD is fantastically progressive:

1. Female leads

The Nora tribe, which Aloy seeks to join, is a matriarchy who worships “the goddess.” Motherhood is considered sacred. The tribe is led by “the matriarchs,” older women who oversee the governing from a sacred mountain cave (aptly named “womb of the mountain”). Though the tribe is obviously not without flaws, gender power structure is not one of them. Men are not designated a lower status (as in some matriarchy tropes) nor are they excluded from important decision-making.

The Nora is one of many tribes of the game, and the only one that appears to be a matriarchy, but the rest of the game continues to imagine a more egalitarian society than our own.

Female characters aren’t shown to be helpless, nor sexy, nor anything other than human. Among the stories are women warriors, leaders, and inventors.

Aloy also shares the spotlight with another female hero, an “ancient one” with whom she shares a striking resemblance. Aloy later finds this woman, Elisabet, was a brilliant scientist who initially created the machines (for environmental reparation purposes), and later saved the human race when extinction was imminent.

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Aloy tinkers with technology throughout the game, and ultimately progresses her journey using her innovative skills. // Screenshot via Horizon: Zero Dawn

I don’t need to express how important it is to see emotionally intelligent and conventionally intelligent heroes in modern storylines. Both Aloy and Elisabet are technologically innovative problem solvers who also have the grit to tackle the seemingly insurmountable.

As the story progresses, Aloy is in awe of what Elisabet did for the progression of mankind, and where she was looking for her own mother, she found the mother of man’s recreation.

2. Expendable women enemies

Though most of the main bad guys are, admittedly, men, there are many women among the bandit baddies. The story doesn’t feel the need to set them apart from the men. Double points to the game makers for including women as capable villains AND not pointing them out for us to make sure we see how feminist they are (or playing them up as sex objects).

This is one of the big points I’ve been looking for in feminist movies and games, and where TR fell short. While TR is no stranger to having a main woman villain, none of the thugs are women. It sends the message that women are to be protected. And though some argue it is anti-feminist to have woman-on-woman violence, I think it says more about the status of both sexes when they are equally culpable and expendable.

3. Female characters are not sexualized

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Aloy is young and attractive, but the game doesn’t make her sexy or have her hint at a romantic interest. She’s a woman on a mission who has much more important things on her mind than her sexuality.

In appearance, Aloy is certainly a feminist character. Her hair is messy, her clothes are practical, and most of her outfits only show a hint of a waist underneath layers. The one exception is the Carja Blazon outfit — the lone apparel that shows off Aloy’s torso. While I’m baffled how leaving more bare skin protects one against flame, it’s my favorite because of the scaled armor in black and red; arguably the fiercest of her outfits. (It’s also worth noting that Carja men often share the same bare-belly style with similar vests.)

4. Emotional storyline

Horizon: Zero Dawn is an emotional epic rarity. I had low expectations (as I do with most games). I expected a vague adventure story with underdeveloped characters. What I found was a fully developed story, based in a future version of our own world, with intricate character development and engrossing side stories.

Aloy is valued for her diplomacy and fighting skills. She’s not respected because she’s attractive, or disrespected because she is a woman. In fact, many of the women leaders in the game seem to be more respected than their male counterparts. Her young age and unusual talent are what garners attention throughout the game.

5. Emotionally intelligent hero

Near the beginning of her journey, Aloy is shunned and hated as an outcast, just like other characters who have been ousted from their tribes. Though Aloy has every reason to despise the Nora for the way she was treated, she instead helps them. Obviously, growing up an outcast made Aloy frustrated at the hateful nature of tribe rules and superstitions, but untethered from xenophobic ideas, Aloy is extremely emotionally intelligent. She makes a robustly feminist negotiator and communicator, with little patience for tired prejudices. She’s able to see past tribe boundaries and customs, which becomes vital in uniting the tribes together against extinction. For all the personal emotions and attachments she experiences on her journey, she could easily act selfishly, but for all her qualities, she doesn’t.

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Official art, Horizon: Zero Dawn

Storyline aside, the game is fun and jaw-dropping gorgeous. The gameplay is intuitive and fluid. The controls were easy to master. Killing machines is exhilarating. Many are fast and clever. Different machines have different strengths and weaknesses. Some machines can be “overridden” and made into a steed or a weapon against other, hostile machines. The crossover nature makes them both strikingly beautiful, borne of nature and machine, and scary, especially when bearing down on Aloy.

And the landscapes are breathtaking. The ecosystem can change drastically from one area to the next. Aloy crosses snow-covered mountains, lush green forests, sandy deserts, rocky canyons, nearly-tropical wetlands, and (most excitingly) underground machine caverns. All of these backdrops are masterfully done, and honestly, it a huge, interactive piece of art.

I won’t spoil the ending, other than to say it beautifully ties together an emotional narrative, still leaving plenty of mystery for a sequel. HZD 2 hasn’t been announced, but is speculated to be in the works with the undeniable success of the first. But I’m also very excited to see more RPGs take notes from this adventure and do more to show capable and compelling feminist heroes.

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