Horizon Zero Dawn and the Plague of Expectation
Preconceptions can make a big difference to our enjoyment of great games
There was this moment I had during a recent playthrough of Horizon Zero Dawn when I was scaling a huge cliffside — probably one of the biggest in the game. I pop over to see three Bellowbacks and a Ravager wandering around. I’m not super high level yet, so I’m not really equipped to deal with this situation anywhere near comfortable, especially because all I’m looking for is a metal flower smack in the middle of these spewing machines.
So, I try my best to sneak by. I’ve almost got it when I’m spotted by a Watcher I missed, averting all eyes to me. I desperately grab the flower and start sprinting back toward the cliff, fire and ice bursting at my feat, taking my health near zero. When I get there, I jump — but a paraglider doesn’t appear above me and I plunge to my death. My ridiculous, hilarious death. I’m not playing Breath of the Wild. I can’t glide off cliffs.
That was the worst of it, but I had a number of dissonant moments like this while playing Horizon. At times I expected to move about the world like Link, scaling anything and everything, instead of getting frustrated at what felt like dated climbing mechanics. During story moments and side quests, while I was sometimes pleased, more often than not I was craving the impossibly high standard of storytelling in The Witcher 3. Side quests in that game carried more emotional and thematic resonance than some games entirely, and I just felt Horizon was lacking in some way.
These were problems of expectation though. Personally, that’s fair. Breath of the Wild and The Witcher 3 are the two greatest experiences I’ve had in the past decade, and were almost singlehandedly responsible for why I didn’t play more games in their genres. Nothing could compete. But eventually I had to get over that, lest I not experience other gems and shirk gaming altogether.
That burden of expectation has been a plague for video games in the last decade, let alone all forms of media we consume. At some point before we experience a thing, we decide pre-emptively what we want it to be for some reason. When it doesn’t come out that way, then it’s the fault of the creator.
Like when Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag came out, people decried it for not being a good Assassin’s Creed game. They expected Ezio, hidden blades and tall buildings to climb, but what they really got was the best pirate game out there.
When I was getting hyped for Dishonored, at some point I decided it was going to be an open-world game despite there being no mention of that anywhere pre-release. I felt miffed when I started playing and learned it was linear.
It’s a shame I couldn’t get over my fruitless expectations because the game was exactly what I had hoped for in a stealth game save for an exhaustive open-world system which hampered some games (Metal Gear Solid V) and was shoe-horned into others (L.A. Noire).
I think we can all agree that we expected Rockstar to not milk a single game forever and actually improve the longstanding relationship issues between their own open-world and their frustratingly restrictive quest design in Red Dead Redemption 2, but I guess that’s too much to ask for.
In these cases, the key thing wrong was our expectation. When I was playing Horizon, I just wanted it to be like my favourite experiences before. I wanted the freedom of Breath of the Wild, and the intricate morality and complexity of The Witcher 3. It wasn’t until I eventually learned to take Horizon on its own terms that I was able to fully enjoy it.
The combat mechanics were honestly fresh and intricate, as was the machine design. Aloy was one of most convincing and likeable characters I’ve ever played as, and her connection to the world and unraveling story was profound and meaningful. The world-building and lore brought out by exploration was addicting.
In noclip’s documentary on the game’s development at Guerilla, one of the designers explained how they employed what they called “intrinsic ideation” during the development process. It meant that everything they put into the game had to have a foundation in the world and mechanics they had already established. Horizon had a wonderfully concise narrative and cohesive presentation as a result. Nothing felt contrived.
This also means that having a paraglider to jump off cliffs with doesn’t make sense. Aloy isn’t a witcher either; she isn’t here to take contracts and help desperate villagers rid of a noonwraith, all the while making moral choices about coin and conscience. Her journey isn’t the same as Geralt’s.
Expectation is the plague of overhyped games and sequels that are independent of their predecessor. In that vein, as I work my way through The Last of Us Part II, I’m keeping my expectations at bay and taking the game for what it is. Seven years is a long time to let my expectations fester about what it could and should be. But that’s not the way.
So far, I’m loving it.