Aloy vs. the Apocalypse

by wjw on August 1, 2018

Horizon Zero Dawn 03 - Aloy

I just finished playing Horizon Zero Dawn after 150 hours of gameplay.  It’s not like I’ve been slacking off my other duties to play the game, because those 150 hours started back in January.  I had to slot in a few hours here, a few hours there, and sometimes a month or two would have to go by before I could get back to it.  My understanding of game continuity suffered.  I’d forget who those minor characters were.

The game has been widely praised and won a fistful of awards, including the “Ivor Novello Award for Best Original Video Game Score.”  (The score is in fact very good, and features improvised instruments, or conventional instruments played in unconventional ways, to compliment the story’s tribal setting.)

Zero Dawn is an action-heavy single-player roleplaying game with a science fictional premise.  We open centuries after the Robot Apocalypse, when self-sufficient warbots (with the capability to repair themselves and consume biomass) slipped their leash and began attacking their creators.  Humans are reduced to tribal groups living in perilous proximity to gangs of hostile robots, mostly modeled after natural creatures.  (Lots of bison and t. rex out there, not to mention gators the size of semi trucks.)

Our heroine is Aloy, who has a plausible character arc beginning as a child curious about ancient technology and ending as a teenager (I guess) who gets to save the world from Robot Apocalypse 2.0.  Aloy is able to access 21st Century technology because her genetics turn out to be identical to those of Dr Elisabet Sobeck, who headed a vast, complex project called Zero Dawn intended to save humanity from Bad Robots.  A large chunk of Aloy’s quest is to discover her relationship to Dr. Sobeck, who presumably died centuries before.

Actress/podcaster/writer Ashly Burch voices Aloy and makes her journey credible and sympathetic.  Since much of her journey consists of trying to convince tribal peoples to jettison their traditional ways, ally with strangers, and get on with the program of saving the world, Aloy’s dialogue toward the end begins to seem a little meta.  (“The Elders won’t approve?  Why am I not surprised?”)

Along the way Aloy gets to fight a lot of robots, along with bandits, renegades, and cultists who support the extermination of the human race.  (‘Cuz that’s what cultists do.)  To break up the action, there’s parkour up cliffsides, a lot of MacGyver-ing improvised weapons, and the occasional puzzle.

The game system is open, meaning that you can follow Aloy’s quest, go off on side quests, do errands for NPCs, collect bits of ancient tech, recruit allies, or just wander around on your own.  Wherever you go, you’re in a beautifully-rendered Southwestern U.S., filled with the ruins of an ancient civilization that built the Air Force Academy Chapel, Lake Powell, Red Rocks Amphitheater, Denver Stadium, Provo Utah Temple, Bridal Veil Falls Powerplant, and other recognizable (albeit ruined) locations.

Wherever you go, there is a cycle of day and night— I watched dawn breaking over the Rockies numerous times, and it was never less than gorgeous.  (Despite there being day and night in the game, like most video characters Aloy never needs to sleep.)  There are also weather patterns that will produce rain, dust storms, and snow, depending where on the map you are.

But I didn’t actually intend to talk about all that, what I wanted was to talk about the story.  Because it turns out that the story of this world isn’t at all what we’re led to believe.

We’re led to assume that the humans in the story are descendants of the survivors of Apocalypse 1.0, that the various machines stalking around are the robots that failed to completely exterminate them, and that Project Zero Dawn, headed by Elisabet Sobeck, was the agency that somehow preserved the human race.

None of that is true.

Aloy can piece together the true story by reading documents, listening or viewing old recordings, and interrogating various NPCs.  Along the way she finds her true relationship with Dr. Sobeck, and finds the artifacts necessary to halt Apocalypse 2.0.

These reveals are built into the game story, and were there all along.  Their discovery is organic and doesn’t contradict anything that we already know.  Yet they manage to be surprising, and they don’t feel like a cheat.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is one hell of a great job of plotting.  To be able to say to the players, “Everything you learned in the last 140 hours of gameplay isn’t true, and here’s the real story,” and have it not piss everyone off, is a real achievement.

My only real complaint with the story is that there weren’t any surprises saved for the end.  The climactic scene is a bossfight against some nasty robots, and that’s all it is.  Aloy’s fought robots before, and she fights these in more or less the same way, and it’s just another big scene.  I kinda wanted something a little more, umm, special.

But still.  If you’ve got 150 hours to spare, and you like the sort of thing that Zero Dawn is, then you won’t in any way be disappointed.

Rob Wright August 2, 2018 at 12:15 am

The Witcher 3 The Wild Hunt was like that for me. Over the course off six months I put in over 200 hours of play time 8nto the main game and the the two expansions. Some of your decisions didn’t have consequences until long after you made them.

There are so many stories besides the main quest. Some side quests are heart wrenching, not everything is clear cut. The depth of characterization is amazing.

Which led me to the Witcher books, the audiobooks in particular are very well done.

Argh, I’m itching to start a new play through now…

Privateiron August 2, 2018 at 8:59 am

Second the love for Witcher 3. Horizon Zero Dawn and Prey were very pleasant surprises both for the story and the game structure. God of War was also pretty good, if you get the chance.

Toomb August 5, 2018 at 12:42 pm

Agreed! And SO ready for Red Dead 2..

Jerry Ebner August 12, 2018 at 7:22 pm

Aloy. . . . Any relation to Helen O’Loy? Is that “the twist of the dog’s tail” at hour 140:01? No no, don’t tell me.

Also, what do you think of the proposed United States Space Force? The idea excites me because young people growing up today could have realistic expectations for actual careers in outer space. . . .

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