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Horizon Zero Dawn

Entry updated 18 January 2021. Tagged: Game.

Videogame (2017). Guerrilla Games, Sony Interactive Entertainment. Directed by Mathijs de Jonge. Written by John Gonzalez and Men McCaw, additional writing by Meg Jayanth, Ben Schroder, Anne Toole, Dee Warrick. Cast includes Ashly Burch, JB Blanc, John Hopkins, Crispin Freeman, Lance Reddick, Nicolette McKenzie and Josh Keaton. Playstation 4 and PC.

In a Post-Holocaust world where the memory of present-day humanity has been reduced to legend, autonomous predatory Machines that mimic extinct megafauna stalk the ruins of twenty-first-century Cities. Nature has reclaimed the planet centuries after the collapse of human civilization. In this brave new world, the protagonist Aloy (Burch) from the Neolithic Nora tribe sets out on her people's rite of passage in order to earn the recognition she needs to unravel the greatest mystery of her life: her birth. Cast out of the tribe as a baby for transgressing tribal taboos and shunned by her people her entire life, she has been raised for seventeen years by the gruff but kind-hearted fellow outcast and father figure Rost (Blanc) to be an exemplary tracker, hunter, warrior and survivor in order to maximize her chances of assimilating smoothly into the Nora. Before she can complete the rite, however, her tribe is attacked by mysterious strangers carrying highly advanced weaponry against which the Nora, armed with bows, cannot prevail. Targeted by the enemy leader Helis (Freeman) for reasons unknown to her, Aloy survives through Rost's sacrifice, and is told by her tribe's spiritual leader High Matriarch Teersa (McKenzie) that, as far as anybody knows, she simply appeared one day as a baby deep within the mountain sanctuary that serves as a holy place for their people, and must go into the world to seek the truth of her origins as well as discover why the Nora were attacked.

In her travels, Aloy encounters people from many other tribes, from the sophisticated, genteel sun-worshippers who call themselves the Carja, ruled by Sun-King Avad (Keaton) to the mechanically-minded Oseram and the mystical, nomadic Banuk. Her search leads her to discover that the attack was perpetrated by a rogue faction of the Carja, being driven and manipulated by an AI called HADES, a sentient program from the twenty-first century which seeks to destroy all life on Earth; it has survived dormant until awakened by Helis, who interprets it as a figure from Carja legend. Driven to seek a method of defeating Helis and HADES, Aloy explores the ruins of the old world, delving deep into the bones of cities, digging up ancient military bunkers and spelunking through long-abandoned scientific installations, occasionally guided by the Banuk shaman Sylens (Reddick), who has spent his life plumbing the secrets of the "Old Ones" and the "Metal World" they built, hoping to discover why it was destroyed. Aloy eventually discovers that the Old Ones' use of automated, self-replicating Robots destroyed all life on Earth and resulted in the complete collapse of the biosphere. Life survived because of a scientist named Elisabet Sobeck (Burch) who gathered the finest scientific minds of her era to create an AI called Gaia which would Terraform the Earth to make it habitable again and seed it with life, served by "subordinate functions" intended to do everything from maintain the atmosphere and purify the oceans using the giant megafaunal robots that Aloy has encountered throughout the game, hold human and animal embryos ready for a habitable Earth, and even destroy all life as a kind of "reset" button. This last program is HADES; due to a mysterious cyber-attack from an unknown source, the subordinate functions broke free of Gaia's control, forcing her to self-destruct in order to prevent them from taking control of her. This has resulted in the world Aloy knows: without Gaia guiding the subordinate function dedicated to building the machines used to rebuild the Earth's biosphere, they became feral and dangerous; without Gaia taking the reins back from HADES, all it wishes to do is destroy the world. Aloy learns that Gaia created her from Elisabet Sobeck's DNA and placed her outside of one of the Cloning facilities – the sacred site worshipped by the Nora as All-Mother Mountain – in the hope that she would have her predecessor's indomitable spirit and drive to do good, and save the world from HADES and whatever malevolent force unleashed it. Armed with this knowledge and now known all across the game's world for her exploits and heroism, Aloy unites the tribes behind her to hunt down and finally destroy HADES. Amid the celebration and joy of their victory, Sylens traps HADES in a piece of hardware and secretly transports it away, heavily implying that he wishes to interrogate it for further scientific knowledge, while the mystery of who sabotaged Gaia and set HADES loose remains unsolved – a mystery for a sequel.

Horizon Zero Dawn tells a classic tale of a valiant heroine going out into the world to find the truth and finding herself in the process. The setting itself is revealed to be the regions around the American states of Colorado, Wyoming and Utah, and there is a real sense that the world existed before the game happened, that this is a world with history, ancient and complicated. Aloy is forced to deal with Politics and relationships with their roots in War, generational trauma and foreign cultural norms. The game is graphically stunning, rendering vast wildernesses in painterly detail, filled with secrets to find and places to explore. But the main strength of this game is its story, and the dexterity with which it is told – despite Aloy's laconic, no-nonsense personality, she moves from being a self-sufficient loner to a passionate heroine determined to contribute what she can to the good of the world, even as we watch her travel from her backwater tribal village to great cities, great ruins (see Ruined Earth) and great mountains. For all that the game takes place on an epic scope, with huge stakes and the fate of the world on the line, it is a deeply human story. There are hundreds of details and asides and moments tucked into the game's environments and dialogue as well as played out splendidly in the central plot that reinforce over and over that this is, at its heart, a story about people, and how hard they can try, and how much they can care, and their need to leave a mark on the world they love – whether that is as simple as leaving pages from your diary hidden in your workplace so that there is some record left behind of the friends you made there, or as splendid as saving the Earth and giving it hope for a future. [DN]

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