Horizon Zero Dawn: Apocalypse by Capitalism (Major Spoiler Warning)
Horizon Zero Dawn is a new IP created by Guerilla Games, developers of the Killzone series. Set in a post-post apocalyptic world spread across Colorado and Utah, filled with several different unique tribes, and a bevy of interesting characters. Horizon manages to competently achieve solid gameplay and tell a great story. What the story accomplishes so well is tying together the personal story of Aloy, the main character, the larger goings of the world, and the mysteries of the old world. Horizon doesn’t just get you invested into one world and its characters, but two. Major Spoilers ahead!
Aloy’s own personal journey as well as the stories of the world are great on their own, but it’s the mysteries of how this apocalypse happened and what the previous world was like that present some of the bigger themes. Littered across the world are data collectibles, text and audio, that show glimpses into the past. One is a snippet of a right-wing radio show, criticizing young people for moving to China for work because of automation taking jobs all across the United States, all being broadcasted from a mega corporate network. Food apps that didn’t just give you whatever food you wanted, but also the setting and even people you’d be eating with. This world is essentially Silicon Valley apps into overdrive. Uber would be child’s play to this more futuristic world.
The game has you exploring several old facilities and ruins that contain the answers to how this world came crashing down. The simple answer is that capitalism itself led to this. Ted Faro, head of Faro Automation Solutions, foolishly ends up creating a system of auto replicating military robots for nothing more than profit. These machines also fuel off biomass and go rogue, almost wiping out all of humanity. This reckless and unregulated abandon by a greedy and egotistical man wipes out all organic life on Earth. Ted Faro, has no shortage of real life counterparts. Peter Theil, Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg, and endless parade of rich Silicon Valley techlords that believe through their ingenuity alone, they can propel humanity into the future and create a better world. They are not limited by what they should or shouldn’t do, only limited by their own capabilities.
Even before the robot apocalypse almost ended humanity, the world depicted is largely a hellish late capitalism. Automation is widespread, but vast global inequality still exists. The world increasingly blends the real and digital worlds, and countless people are arrested for virtual protests. This is an escalated version of our own world. We currently take for granted that Facebook and Twitter are not really public spaces, they are private corporate owned spaces. Facebook has recently been taking efforts to fight back against “fake news” but with the term so ambiguous and hard to define, it’s difficult not to see this as a similar path to the fictional future world of Horizon.
Upon arriving in one building, you witness an interaction between a receptionist and a sales manager. The receptionist wonders why a country and company that hate each other had meetings scheduled so close to each other, and sends a complaint. The sales manager explains that they wanted this meeting to happen to help enflame a conflict, in which they could sell their military robots to a country and a corporation attempting to take its land for its own purposes. The military industrial complex isn’t just profiting from conflicts in the world, they’re actively causing and enabling them.
Ultimately, humanity is saved by the same scientist that helped reverse the effects of climate change, Elizabet Sobek. She helps develop an AI named GAIA that, along with 9 other sub-AI programs, will help bring back humanity and organic life onto the planet. Importantly, she teaches this AI to feel and understand the value of human life, something that capitalists today and of this fictional world lacked. One of the branches, Apollo, is meant to store knowledge of every civilization and all their technologies and cultures for the new generation of humanity to obtain as well as learning the lessons of the past. As can be seen from the still tribal and halfway medieval setting, humans never obtain that knowledge and that’s because Ted Faro secretly destroys Apollo, claiming that the knowledge is a disease that can’t be given to the people. He even retains the anti-democratic values of those like Peter Thiel, who largely despise democracy. They constantly question people they believe to be lesser than them, and take matters into their own hands. Peter Thiel subverted the justice system by secretly funding lawsuits against Gawker, Facebook has continually worked with the NSA and FBI, and Elon Musk currently sits on an advisory council for the Trump administration.
The world ends because of an unmitigated escalation of capitalism. It’s not simply because of the actions of one man or his company, but the collective result of what that world had become. Humanity was doomed to go extinct because capitalism does not value humanity and the world did not as result. A society that values profits above all else, and that is a society based in capitalism, will ultimately lead to extinction. There are constantly themes of requiring actual good to be done in the world, rather than just acquiring knowledge or technological advancement for the sake of it. It leads Ted Faro to causing the end of the world, and Sylens, temporary ally to Aloy, from almost making it happen again. At the very end, Aloy travels to the home of Elisabet Sobek and finds an audio log of Elizabet talking to GAIA, and refers to a story where her mother tells her “Elisabet, being smart will count for nothing if you don’t make the world better. You have to use your smarts to count for something, to serve life, not death.”
Horizon Zero Dawn is not a game that endorses socialism, as much as I would have liked it too. Elizabet Sobek was a former employee of Ted Faro’s company when she helped reverse climate change, then going to found her own company. The difference between the genius of Elizabet and that of Ted Faro, Peter Thiel or Elon Musk, is that Elisabet recognizes the value and dignity of human life. In doing so, she built a better future for everyone because it was the right thing to do, not for wealth or acclaim. She does the right thing despite the system she was a part of. A clear critique of capitalism, but no riveting endorsement of socialism.