Thus spoke Herbert: Horizon Zero Dawn borrows the best from classical literature and myths
In the first days of March, Sony released what will probably become this year’s main original blockbuster. Created from scratch, the universe of Horizon Zero Dawn role-playing adventure promised a lot in terms of gameplay, but I’d be lying if I say I was expecting an outstanding script. Personally, I’d be fine if the authors provided a bare-bones reasonable explanation of how the world got to savages and robodinosaurs.
The fact that John Gonzales, an Obsidian veteran and narrative director of Fallout: New Vegas, was involved in writing the plot, added to my optimism. Last time, John was able to balance the farcical setting and the deep story of the Courier. Surely, he’d manage something decent from drawings of a red-haired girl and a cyber T-rex.
Let’s put it like this: in its current state, Horizon would be fine with a run-of-the-mill Hollywood script without going too far into the jungle of the setting. The game enthralls you with its mechanics like hunting, gathering, and exploring the unspeakably beautiful open world
However, either Guerilla resolved to tackle criticism for the frankly weak Killzone’s plot, or they suddenly grew ambitious during the story writing. What we got in the end may be the best science-fiction universe in the gamedev history. Moreover, it seems to be inspired by Frank Herbert’s Dune cycle, which stunned me even more.
Horizon does not invent any new narrative toolkit or language to reveal the world and its details. Guerilla and Gonzalez followed the approach adopted by immersive simulators (System Shock, Deus Ex, Dishonored) where the player learns about the universe as much as she wants.
A huge number of notes that depict the world of the ‘Old Ones’ before the collapse and what happens after it is scattered across the vast map. The game straight up tells the gamers quite a lot through dialogues, but beneath it lies a colossal load of fictional history, where the thread of events stretches across centuries. So, if you so choose, your curiosity will be rewarded with excellent stories and a much deeper understanding of what is happening in Horizon.
The main plot did not disappoint as well. It has enough sense to answer all the questions logically. But if you want an additional layer of the world’s history, kindly study the ancient ruins and the Sundom’s outposts.
However, similarly to Dune, the script works on some insane number of levels at the crossroads of several seemingly incompatible genres. Horizon begins as just another heroic fantasy, smoothly flowing into feudal squabbles, eventually turning into an environmental sci-fi epos where some guns were hanged over the mantelpiece a thousand years before what happened in the game itself.
Horizon enchants and enthralls in exactly the same ways as Dune did. Combining feudal techno-fantasy and science fiction with a deep scientific backing, the story still remains deeply personal and touches upon many topics: religion, the nature of the divine, the problems of earth biomes, AI’s empathy and AI in general, etc.
For the first half of the game, sci-fi is barely there as you are carefully led through the already established post-apocalyptic world of techno-barbarians. The Kingdom of the Sun, Oseram blacksmiths, tribes of Nora and Banuk. Looks like a standard set so far.
However, when clichés start getting to you, the story throws logs from the past into the fire of the present. It turns out that, in spite of certain failures in ancestors’ knowledge transfer, the past affects the present so strongly even the myths of the new world are formed under the influence of the Old Ones. And it goes on.
The game alludes to Egyptian (Faro, Sobek, Sun worship) and Viking mythology. The threads from the past includes the tribal matriarchy (the All-Mother) and Oseram’s mechanical cult
In the second half of the game, the plot goes deeper into the past, a thousand years backwards, and accelerates through diaries, audio recordings, holoprojections, leaving you flabbergasted. The player is pulled from the ivory-tower fairy towns to be told a cruel story about the fall of mankind and the bold plan “Zero Dawn”, which should have restored the earth after a catastrophe of incredible proportions. Here, the sci-fi part of the plot, along with the ecological one, shines.
Horizon provides one of the most original and vivid depictions of the post apocalypse in games, as well as suggesting a rather clever plan of overcoming it
At the same time, the authors illuminate almost all aspects of the game through the prism of the past: from why the holographic interfaces are made the way they are, to explaining the game’s scarce ecosystem of animals and plant life. The main evil to fight also sits well in the setting’s description, but similarly to many first instalments, antagonist is not too multidimensional.
Moreover, to describe the past HZD uses seemingly jaded narrative tools, such as diaries, audio recordings and notes scattered throughout the world, really well. All these pieces form a united narrative so harmoniously, that you can’t wait to explore the ruins in order to catch another glimpse of the end of the world.
In the last third of the game, the past and the present come together to flawlessly connect the stories of Aloy and her ‘mother’ Elizabeth Sobek. You cannot fully appreciate how masterfully the scenario bridges the past and the present almost until the very end. And this is exactly why all the revelations inspire not a tired “yeah, that’s what I thought,” but a sincere sense of admiration. And it’s not twists for the twists’ sake; the many plot moves are justified and logical in the context of both the world design and Aloy’s personal story.
Horizon, like Dune, is, at its core, a personal journey revealed through a kaleidoscope of epic events in completely different times. Aloy, of course, is not Paul Atreides, but the bonds of being the chosen one against her will and religious mysticism envelop the heroine from the first minutes of the game and until the finale.
Still, Horizon is a mass product, so the ending and the character evolution are naturally different from the Dune. The heroine is not going to launch Jihad on an entire galaxy or anything like that. However, Herbert’s masterpiece shines through in Horizon much more often than one would expect, especially from a game where you are handed a bow and spear to hunt a cybernetic sabretooth tiger. In my opinion, this is the highest praise.