Horizon: Zero Dawn and the beauty of annihilation

Art became the reason I gave up God. Reading great works of literature, I realised the experience of the numinous and transcendent was not solely the domain of those claiming a direct line to divinity. Indeed, for me, a god was irrelevant for experiencing what many assert is central to faith. These moments of wonder arise not just because a talented artist points at something beautiful through their skill, but because they capture some part of life within the frame of creativity. In Horizon: Zero Dawn, I experienced such a moment when I ascended a mountain.

(Captured on my PS4)

Every moment I’ve captured of this game seems like a piece of concept art. I’ve always preferred a game’s concept art to the finished product since the possibilities are infinite and, inevitably, more interesting. Not because I’m more creative but because our imaginations are not restricted by hardware.

Yet, Horizon is the first game where my imagination barely touches the edge of Guerilla Games’ realisation. This is a world so full of the fantastical, so packed with alien wonder, it evoked my adoration for what I thought and hoped No Man’s Sky would be.

But that’s not what I want to focus on. Or at least not all.

// The rule of women


Set in a post-apocalyptic world, you play Aloy: a remarkably talented warrior who has dedicated her life to discovering her history.

In so doing, she begins uncovering not only what happened to her, but to the world as a whole.

The monsters in this fantasy world are mechanical rather than flesh, they’re robots shaped after dinosaurs and enlarged toothy beasts.

Old, rusted signposts of modern cities poke out as ruins in green covered hills; sports stadiums become fortresses with no one understanding their original function; holographic recordings are ghosts and whispers in the dark.

I love this idea of reversing the future, playing into Arthur C. Clarke’s maxim that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. And considering society in Horizon has gone “back” to days of fur skins and wooden huts, it so obviously fits. Mixing ideas of primitive society encountering advanced science is central to Clarke and other sci-fi writers. (Indeed, I’m most reminded of the award-winning Dark Eden by Chris Beckett, which is also about a primitive society constructing technology as divine magic.)

But aside from that, the game presents the idea of women not as princesses or those needing saving — instead they are the rulers, the deities, the player character. They’re saving the world, protecting those few who remain and venerated by this same group. Indeed, this is a game where passing the Bechdel-Wallace Test wasn’t an exception but the norm. (Men have a role, too. Don’t worry, fragile masculinity of the internet.)

Aloy is raised not by a mother, but by a surrogate father. Discovering the identity of Aloy’s mother is, in fact, the entirety of the game. The answer is not simple and, for some, may not prove satisfactory. Yet, in keeping with the themes of the game, it works perfectly.

It’s here we get into spoiler territory. Be warned.

// Mother of destruction

We discover that the world as we know it ended. What we’re seeing is, literally, a post-apocalypse. Humanity truly did end, as a result of a rogue artificial intelligence, which fed of organic matter. There was no stopping it.

You also discover god is dead and frozen in the mountain

Discovering that humanity could do nothing to save itself was a bold move for the game’s writers to take. There’s nothing hopeful here.

You discover in recordings that there were often battles between human soldiers and robots — but we discover this was all for show, so that people didn’t feel hopeless, so that they went raging into the dying of the light. “Zero Dawn” was a project never aimed to help the current members of humanity but an attempt to redress the wrongs humanity had wrought. It was sold publicly as a super weapon, capable of stopping the machines overtaking the world. But this was not the case: It was a set of powerful systems run by another AI (you think they would’ve learned by now) that, one day, would kick into action reinvigorating life on the planet.

This idea of accepting annihilation stuck with me. These people saw their oncoming demise and acted as best they could — not against it, but despite it. Mortality came for them, in the form of metal jaws and static.

This existential metal death came as a result of a powerful corporation, already unmatched in power and profit, deciding it wanted more. The “Faro Swarm” was a because of a “glitch” in robots nobody needed to fight wars nobody wanted by a company that didn’t need more money.

This game literally shows how unbridled capitalism leads to an uncontrollable system of natural global destruction we are powerless to stop or undo.

Can you say global warming?

Water and rocks and grass

// Facing mortality

Death is terrifying. The vastness of space and time blinks and we’re not even ghosts in dust particles. Seen from the outside, the game illustrates how the swarm spreads, taking over the planet, destroying it as it is consumed. A plague of our own design, consuming resources, ending life for its own gain. Call it capitalism or global warming or selfishness. Call it humanity’s inherent nature to justify destruction by claiming creation.

But the game also deals with facing this. I wouldn’t label this hope. There is no hope, there is no salvation for the damage we’ve done, for the wrongs we’ve caused, for the pain the powerful put us through in order to obtain their meagre win to gain a few more bucks, a little bit more power, while we survive hanging on by the threads we only later realise are nooses they’ve woven for us.

Instead of putting our necks through, Horizon says “Let go”.

Dr Elizabet (not Elizabeth) Sobek, a “mother” of Aloy’s, seemed devoid of human relationships. What she clung to was a moral purity, that looked beyond what had to be done for the good of the people here and looked at what had to be done for the Good itself everywhere. There’s a lot to think about regarding whether morality even exists without people — but certainly Sobek and those who followed her believed if there’s no saving or helping us, there might be something else to save.

Naturally, they put in place ways for humanity to return. But even beyond people, Project Zero Dawn focused on life itself — the very things killed by the swarm we created.

Horizon is inspiring because it doesn’t boast about humanity being worth saving, it doesn’t put hope on a pedestal. Instead it deals with reality, it says mortality is coming and we’ve fucked up. There’s nothing worth saving except the time we have now and the future is dark and barren — that, to me, is inspiring. It makes me want to live now. It makes me realise the little time we have, the best we can do is not fuck it up for others. It makes me want to be a better person, not because of some higher ideal but because it just makes sense in this little time and small amount of power I, as a meaningless person, have. How can I be better? How can I, through learning about how not to hurt others instead of doubling down on my privilege, be better? What minor inconveniences or rectifications on myself — trying to use the right pronouns, dropping hurtful terms, etc. — could do a lot for others? I’m not talking bigger than the mundane because I’m not a President or lawmaker — I’m a minor person with a small influence, as is anybody reading this. What can I do? This is what Horizon speaks to because, hey — it’s all darkness and poison, it’s all death and annihilation, so why not make the best of it for everyone so they do it for you, as we unplug the world and slide into the drain of history to be forgotten even by the dustmotes we later become?

All your efforts turn to rust

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