Horizon: Zero Dawn's unique science fiction world-building

Contributed by
Mar 2, 2017

Horizon: Zero Dawn is a curious game, but not because it stars a female protagonist or a diverse cast of characters. It can be lauded for several positive choices in terms of characterization and the faces and voices it chose to employ, but perhaps the most important aspect of all is its capacity for world-building and creating a sci-fi narrative that's unlike a good portion of what's currently out there in the gaming landscape.

By weaving a cautionary tale of technological advancement around familiar, primitive concepts like tribes and deities surrounding that which isn't understood, it's able to layer together a believable world that practically begs you to pull apart all of its mysteries.

For context, Horizon: Zero Dawn takes place in a world set about a thousand years in the future, where humanity has devolved into tribal communities who lead simple, primitive lives. The matriarchal tribe of the Nora is home to young Aloy, an orphaned outcast who happens upon an advanced piece of technology she comes to call her "Focus," which is an important key to recovering information about humanity's darkly storied past. The world itself is in disarray, with hulking shells of its former self scattered throughout the planet in caves, forgotten ruins and even an enormous area with technology the tribe has christened the "All-Mother," believing it to be where Aloy was born.

Rather than making it clear as to what happened to bring humanity to such a lowly state where the survivors after some massive calamity have returned to creating tribes and villages, Horizon offers a slow build-up. There are machines wandering the world that look very much like the animals of our time, but then there are smaller animals like rabbits and boars that are still alive and well as you roam the countryside. These prompt more questions than they answer, but the game is able to offer tidbits of information as you go along to hold your attention.

From the beginning of the game when young Aloy happens upon her Focus in an underground cavern rife with audio logs and other 'ancient' technology, you know something cataclysmal and terrible happened — so terrible, in fact, it seemed as though the humans involved with whatever it is (you won't find out for some time) took their own lives to either repent or avoid the fallout from whatever it is that they did. Their follies with technology or whatever became of it serves as the push you'll need to move forward in-game, but Horizon does such a good job of keeping you in the here and now where people use more primitive tools, weapons and mannerisms instead of nudging you to the future.

Simply put, keeping Horizon grounded in a future sci-fi space could have kept it from blossoming. Instead, giving bits and pieces here and there to supplement your understanding of the world's downfall gives it narrative strength. Sometimes, while you're completing tasks and making the trip from one area to another, it's easy to forget the bigger picture (figuring out Aloy's birth parents and history) when faced with the dilemma of corrupted machines throughout the land, what tribe wreaked havoc upon the Nora and a variety of other mysteries that beckon to you. Knee-deep in enemies and purchasing new weapons and crafting others, you forget you have this massively high-tech Focus item with which Aloy can scan her environment and perform other important tasks.

It's easy to become complacent when mired in the older civilization's way of life, and even in Aloy's quest to prove herself after being labeled an outcast and orphan all of her life, much like humanity must have become when relying on advanced technology before things gave way to chaos. So when you look back on things as they actually were later in the game, you can draw parallels to what happened to society to bring it to its knees while you were gallivanting around proving yourself to the various dwellers in each tribe and getting to know your fellow neighbor instead of figuring out what's going on with the corrupted machinery across the world.

In the end this duality of technological advancement and a return to nature make for an exciting mixture of story tropes that skim the surface of being overused but skillfully avoid sameness. Horizon: Zero Dawn is a homogeneous mixture of old and new that works in tandem to weave a sci-fi narrative that draws from two very different worlds to make something we haven't quite fully explored yet.

If that speaks to you, you'd do well to pick up Horizon and give it a try, if not to see how it feels to straddle the line between and old civilization and society as we know it then for an exemplary exercise in keeping audiences familiar with tired science fiction engaged.

Oh, and it's a great game, too.