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Of Monsters and Machines – An Analysis of Horizon: Zero Dawn

Horizon: Zero Dawn was one of the most anticipated games of 2017, and boy were there many contenders. Now a little more than a month later, the game stands as the second-highest reviewed game of this quarter, next to Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Obvious nostalgic nods to the latter aside, what exactly makes HZD so good? What about its protagonist makes her such a viable icon for PlayStation?

My analysis, after the jump!

All cosplay credit goes to Lucky Strike Cosplay

Aloy is a special character. From the very first announcement of Horizon: Zero Dawn, Aloy became a new icon for the PlayStation franchise, next to Lara Croft, Nathan Drake, Crash Bandicoot, Ratchet and Clank, Spyro the Dragon, and Jak and Daxter. (My God, Naughty Dog sure has created the majority of PS icons, hasn’t it?) Now that most have played through the game, consensus seems to say she sure has earned her place. But why?

The answer to this question is multi-tiered, and we must begin chronologically.

WARNING: PLOT SPOILERS AHEAD. DO NOT CONTINUE INTO THE BREACH UNLESS YOU HAVE COMPLETED THE GAME. You have been warned.

The very genesis of Aloy’s iconic role begins at the very genesis of her birth; it would set in motion everything she is and for which she stands. Expelled from the belly of a mountain known only to the Nora as All-Mother. In tribal matters, this is a double-edged sword. On one side of the blade, by the tribe’s religious notions, Aloy is anointed. She is a direct descendant of their beloved All-Mother. However, without a true human family to call her own, she is illegitimate. Herein lies where Aloy’s arduous journey begins, and her iconic role finds its footing.

It is common knowledge she is cast out of her tribe and raised by another outcast, Rost. He serves as Aloy’s father figure, and fosters her insatiable curiousness to find out who she is and where she truly belongs. This curiousness is what fuels her expedition into lands the other Nora dare not venture. This curiousness is what furthers her desire and deepens her understanding of what happened to the world. And surprise, it directly conflicts with the beliefs of the Nora.

This differentiation is key to Aloy as a character. It represents more than just her personality and her lust for knowledge and truth. This disparity is most certainly allegory for scientific ignorance, favoring believe as fact and science as a means to sabotage that belief. Now, in-game, the ignorance is borne from the fact the Nora literally had no knowledge of what happened, so naturally, they created their own explanations. Again, allegory for our own natural evolution. The reason they are knowledge-less, however, is not natural. But that’s not part of our discussion, at least not yet.

All cosplay credit goes to Lucky Strike Cosplay.

I have found the best game narratives serve as allegory to our own reality. It all comes back to relatability. Take a look at Last of Us, for example. The entire narrative LIVED within the human condition, rife with depression, suicide, rape, desperation…I could go on, but it would take an entire editorial to do so, which I have already explored here. Another appropriate example is BioShock Infinite. Comstock, despite who he actually was, created an entire cult-like religion that undermined and underpinned society, basically ruling over it much the way Christianity did during the Crusades era onward.

By this point, you’re asking me how Horizon’s narrative fits into any allegory in our present time. To explain this, I must preface with a short speech from famed astrophysicist Stephen Hawking. To quote: “powerful artificial intelligence will either the best, or the worst thing, ever to happen to humanity.” Space X and Tesla Motors founder Elon Musk validates Hawking’s belief, though taking it to a threat-level analysis, stating “I think we should be very careful about artificial intelligence. If I had to guess at what our biggest existential threat is, it’s probably that.” A New York Post article discusses his belief further, discussing a potential cyborg race. In another piece, he likened AI to Marvel Studios’ Iron Man and his creation of Ultron.

Some may say this is hypocrisy, from both parties. One–at a veritably most basic level–uses AI every day with his computer, utilizing a sensor in his cheek to type, which is then translated through text-to-voice technology. The other utilizes high-tech, computer-based equipment in every one of his businesses. That being said however, further validates the two in their first-hand knowledge of potentially hazardous technology.

Despite potential hypocrisy, both men have right to worry. Mankind has a habit of messing with things it doesn’t completely understand, and if it does, goes through the project anyway. Michael Crichton and Jurassic Park is a perfect example in the most recent headline “Scientists Say They Could Bring Back Woolly Mammoths Within Two Years.” It doesn’t take a scientist to see the implications, as we have seen, a best-selling authors, directors, and now video game developers have explored the “what if” stories of science.

All cosplay credit goes to Lucky Strike Cosplay.

Horizon: Zero Dawn is one such exploration and it does so with frightening gusto. Imagine a world where human life needn’t be utilized during wartime. In lieu of warm bodies, Ted Faro proposed fully sentient, self-replicating AI machines. There’s a catch though; these machines consume biomass for fuel. Self-sustaining, self-replicating artificial intelligence, using natural matter to continue their barrage against our enemies. Perhaps it doesn’t seem too farfetched. Except for one thing: what is AI, but a learning, self-aware computer? What is a computer but a set of “if-what-then” codes? What if one of these codes was faulty?

Therein lies the warnings supplied by our most intelligent minds. All it takes is one strand of code to ruin a good thing, and this is where the allegory ties in. It’s nearly a mirror image of how humans as a species has been and will continue to advance in technology, and will likely be a precursor to our arrogance, a la Orwell’s 1985, or even Asimov’s I, Robot.

But how does Aloy fit into this?

Aloy is the voice of reason, the light of truth, among those that are too ill-informed to believe in anything but their faith. This truth is where she finds her strength; it stands as a bulwark of opposition to her childhood and how she grew. Without her curiosity, the world would remain ignorant. She is the strength in our faults, and the embodiment of scientific exploration. She represents a solution to scientific ignorance. Something that is extremely important more so today than ever before.

That’s all for this week’s analysis! If you think I should have touched on more, let me know in the comments! Till next time!

Tony Marinilli

Tony Marinilli

Tony is a passionate and devoted gamer who studies, examines, and enjoys all aspects of games from narrative, script, and score, to character development, and of course, gameplay and graphical quality. He enjoys Action/Adventure and RPGs like Last of Us and The Witcher, respectively. He writes about a myriad of topics within the gaming community, including but not limited to: reviews, focus pieces such as sexism within the industry and general news surrounding gaming as a whole. If reading about hot topics and enjoy engaging conversations about games, Tony is your go-to guy. When he is not at work, writing, or eating, Tony can be found playing games.
Tony Marinilli
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