Technology Will Kill Us and Save Us: Final Thoughts on “Horizon: Zero Dawn”

I completed the main storyline of Horizon: Zero Dawn this past weekend. It’s a testament to the game’s marvelously innovative and absorbing setting that I rushed through the main quests so quickly, perhaps quicker than I ever have with an action RPG of this scale. I also can’t recall a title in recent memory where I was so eager to absorb the setting’s lore: I gobbled up every text datapoint, audio recording, and hologram I could find along the way. Usually I get burnt out on such “lore tidbit” collectibles fairly quickly in RPGs, or I just ignore them entirely from the outset. But H:ZD is so good, it’s worth taking the time to absorb these details. It’s a exemplar of the video game as pop literature, and one that engages in the best kind of world-building: sophisticated, compelling, and tightly tethered to the protagonist’s evolving understanding of their universe.

[MAJOR SPOILERS to H:ZD follow, for those who care about such things.]

The game’s backstory is a grim, astonishing saga. It is eventually revealed that it’s been roughly a millennium since the fall of human civilization — or, more accurately, since the de facto extinction of all life on earth, humanity included. This extinction was perpetrated by military robots manufactured by the Faro Corporation, which were engineered with the ability to consume biomass and turn it into both fuel and raw materials for the production of yet more robots. Self-replicating war machines controlled by AI: What could possibly go wrong? Everything, it turns out.

While the “Faro Plague” laid waste to the planet and overpowered all efforts to stop it, humanity had to face up to the inevitable transformation of Earth into a ball of lifeless ash. In response, a brilliant engineer name Elisabeth Sobeck devised one of those ridiculously improbable global Manhattan Projects that are staples of science fiction. The project, code named “Zero Dawn,” was a sentient terraforming system, complete with the infrastructure to build whatever technology the program’s AI, dubbed GAIA, deemed necessary. The project’s purpose wasn’t to save Earth, but to resurrect it, recreating the vanished ecosystems and life forms. (Once the Faro robots had devoured every molecule of organic matter on the planet and then ceased to function, that is.) The resurrection of humanity was also a part of this plan: Our species would be reborn in subterranean “Cradles” where robots would eventually gestate preserved embryos and then raise the resulting humans to adulthood.

Needless to say, the plan worked, albeit with complications. The world was terraformed back to something resembling an Edenic state, albeit according to GAIA’s idiosyncratic decisions. However, the APOLLO sub-routine designed to inculcate the new humans with all of civilization’s knowledge was sabotaged. The Cradles functioned as intended for a time, but glitches and power failures eventually resulted in the early ejection of Humanity v2.0 into the freshly virgin wilderness. In essence, humankind had to start from scratch, the accumulated scientific and cultural knowledge of the past 20,000 years having been lost forever.

That’s the nickel version, but one of the pleasures of H:ZD is the way that this history is elucidated, as much through the details as through sweeping exposition. Sure, there are some key holographic recordings that lay out pivotal moments in the history of the Faro Plague and Zero Dawn. Most of the Big Revelations come courtesy of such recordings. What truly gives H:ZD its convincing and fascinating texture, however, are all the aforementioned lore tidbits that flesh out the backstory through the personal experiences of people who are long dead. Over the course of the game, you can peruse all manner of records: snatches of news reports and advertisements from the era before the world went to shit; Faro corporate emails that provide glimpses into the company’s culture and the early days of the Plague; messages from weary citizen-soldiers on the front lines of the Plague back to their loved ones; and diary entries from the scientists who worked to make Zero Dawn a reality, knowing full well they would never see its results.

These historical remnants provide answers to many of the nagging questions raised by the game that aren’t necessarily germane to the main storyline. If you’re willing to do a little digging, almost all of the setting’s more puzzling elements are explained. For example: Why do most of the Machines that roam the world look like robotic animals instead of military weapons? Because, as a journal entry from Dr. Sobeck reveals, they aren’t Faro warbots at all. They are GAIA-created terraforming robots, and the AI rather eccentrically based her machine designs on biological forms.

Just as significantly, however, the lore tidbits repeatedly underline H:ZD’s themes of folly, despair, and unforeseen consequences. There’s the repugnant abut unsurprising discovery that Faro routinely goaded nation-states and corporate entities into conflicts in order to keep orders for its military robots rolling in. There’s the haunting revelation that the scientific and cultural “Alphas” were given a euthanasia option once they were filled in on Zero Dawn’s purpose and the looming global extinction. As for the fact that some Cradle-born children turned on their robot “parents,” unleashing strange scenes that were half Lord of the Flies, half Peter Pan’s Pleasure Island — well, that’s amusing and unsettling at the same time.

The notion that our technology will one day destroy us is hardly original in the annals of science fiction, but one of the more striking things about H:ZD is that it’s more interested in how we responded to our self-inflicted techno-apocalypse than in how that doom came about. The game almost takes it as a given that a combination of greed, hubris, and lack of foresight will unleash a horrible fate on us someday. The fictional history that H:ZD plums is really about how humans — individually and collectively — responded to the threat of killer machines, and eventually to the annihilation of all life.

It’s also, not incidentally, about the moral duty we have to the Earth’s future, not just terms of our own species, but to the biosphere as a whole. Is the preservation of an ecosystem, or even single species, a moral act, independent of its relationship to us? At one point in the game, I discovered a bittersweet audio recording from a scientist who missed his window to enter an underground Zero Dawn facility before it sealed up, dooming him and separating him from his partner forever. And all because he was preoccupied trying to assemble and preserve archival Paradisaeidae genetic material: the last vestiges of the 42 species of the birds-of-paradise. Through its stark, unthinkable scenario, H:ZD poses sobering questions about our civilization and our planet, without resorting to vapid eco-platitudes, Luddite lecturing, or ludicrously optimistic futurism.

All of this goes to the larger point that H:ZD’s designers have conjured a fascinating speculative history and milieu. While the gameplay is pretty standard “Map Game” stuff and the storyline yet another “Chosen One” saga, I have a hard time recalling an original video game setting that’s sucked me in quite like this. I’m not usually a huge fan of “hard” science-fiction, but the combination of the game’s fantasy framework and the endlessly intriguing setting has made H:ZD an unequivocal pleasure.