Horizon Zero Dawn was almost a zombie brawling game

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Jul 6, 2018, 2:33 PM EDT

Before Horizon Zero Dawn premiered to rave reviews in 2017; before it went on to sell 7.6 million copies in its first year; and before protagonist Aloy discovered her almost messianic purpose in charting humanity’s course through the future’s post-apocalypse, developer Guerrilla Games had been pondering a creative choice that would have given the gaming world something very, very different.

How different? Instead of a stoic and resilient lead character in Aloy, the motherless daughter driven to seek out her mind-bending lineage, we could have gotten a zany mad scientist. Instead of leveling up Aloy’s elegant RPG skill tree with exploration and experience, we could have been out there wildly swinging our fists. And instead of skulking our way through an AI-crafted ecosystem of deranged robot animals, we could have been fighting…zombies?

Yes, zombies — in a brawler-style fighting game. In a broad-ranging new interview with VentureBeat, Guerrilla executive producer Angie Smets admitted the Dutch studio came this close to making a game much nearer the first-person-shooter comfort zone it had established with two generations’ worth of Killzone titles.

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Because the original idea for Horizon Zero Dawn was so ambitious and well beyond anything the studio had ever done, Guerrilla pitched two game concepts to both employees and Sony, its exclusive publisher, at the outset of the development cycle seven years ago, said Smets. One was Horizon Zero Dawn, the far-fetched and complicated one; the other, she said, was a simple zombie brawler titled Dark Science.

“[W]e decided to develop a second idea in parallel…We shouldn’t put all our eggs in one basket, so let’s do a second prototype that’s a little bit less ambitious, a little closer to our existing skill set and technology,” Smets explained. “That was called Dark Science. It was a brawler game about a mad scientist. It had humor in it. Completely different tone, very different game. It was much closer to what we could already do.”

So what pushed the momentum in Horizon’s favor? The simple fact that it was ambitious; that it almost seemed like an impossible challenge. Creating a massive open world that covered a chunk of the former American West was far beyond the scope of anything the linear Killzone series had ever tried, and Guerilla’s development team (as well as Sony’s other in-house developers) fell in love with the idea, said Smets.

“We figured, well, we’re part of this bigger family of super experienced developers — Naughty Dog, Media Molecule, Santa Monica — so let’s ask them what they think about our two concepts…I think the feedback was pretty clear. All the love went to the Horizon concept, but they did point out that it was pretty crazy in terms of ambition,” she said, adding that Dark Science easily would have been “the safer choice.”

After canvassing Guerrilla employees with a five-question assessment about the two ideas, everyone seemed to agree that the studio was better equipped to make the zombie game. “But then the last question asked which project you wanted to make. Everybody picked Horizon,” Smets said.

It turned out to be a transformative decision for the studio, and for Sony. The game went on to rocket Guerrilla into the echelon of studios renowned for narrative depth as well as gameplay, racked up tons of game awards and nominations — including the Writers Guild of America’s Outstanding Achievement in Videogame Writing award for Horizon’s gripping sci-fi story —and, most importantly, people bought the game by the millions. 

It’s been out since February of 2017, but if you haven’t played it, the PS4-exclusive Horizon Zero Dawn is in pretty much every big box or specialty game store now, as well as the PlayStation digital storefront.