Due Diligence: Horizon Zero Yawn

Due Diligence: Horizon Zero Yawn

Leigh Harrison doesn’t care about your chickens.

Horizon Zero Dawn is a tale of two compromised narratives. The bombastic one, about fighting robot animals in the post-post-apocalypse, is classic big-budget videogame boilerplate: an ancient evil awakens and you, the unlikely hero, must defeat it. The other is a more interesting and meditative experience, that has you turning archaeologist to uncover just what that ancient evil is, and how it came to be. Both are, frankly, a bit rubbish.

The game’s main thrust is all cutscenes and dialogue trees that barely hide the banality; it exists to lead the player from one area of the game world to the next, and little else. And what could have been a fascinating investigative subplot is hampered by staid delivery. Huge revelations are unearthed not through participation or even non-interactive cinematic, but a grand swathe of text and audio logs. Horizon tells the two interwoven halves of its story in very different ways, and wholly undermines them both.

* * *

In an article for The Atlantic a couple months ago, agit-polemicist and fellow Deep Thinker with long hair and glasses, Ian Bogost, suggested that “Video Games Are Better Without Stories”. It’s a piece so unapologetically Bogostian that Critical Distance, while still including it in its weekly roundup of noteworthy game criticism, was forced to do so with the jaded cynicism that only comes with repeatedly casting your curatorial net in all directions but my own. His opinion naturally caught the ire of many (including right here at home!), thanks to it being so characteristically sweeping and dismissive.

Regardless of whether Bogost actively sought to ruffle feathers with his negativity—which he did, and lots of people fell for it—his piece makes, as they often do, interesting points about where he considers videogames’ strengths to lie. He sees grand artistic possibility in their textural and meta-textural properties. In his words, “the delightful curiosity that can be made when stories, games, comics, game engines, virtual environments—and anything else, for that matter—can be taken apart and put back together again unexpectedly”. Here, he’s talking about the level-to-level formal, architectural, and perspective changes in What Remains of Edith Finch, and how, through the breaking down and reconfiguring of digital spaces and viewpoints, the game embodies the unique possibilities of the medium.

Remove the title and a few of Bogost’s more outlandish assertions—”the best interactive stories are still worse than even middling books and films,” springs to mind—and his article is at the very least worth a good ponder on the crapper. I think the decision by Bogost or his editors to frame his genuinely interesting argument in such an inflammatory, headline-grabbing way was ill-considered. It stymied further discourse to the point where we—quite fittingly, perhaps—lost the story of his story about games not simply existing as an interactive extension of older mediums, amid tweets and op-eds simply calling him flat out wrong and a dick—if nothing else, the guy knows how to get a rise out of people.

In short, it wasn’t what Bogost said that was the problem for people, but how he said it. And whether purposefully or not, he detracted from his own story by choosing to deliver it in the way he did. Insomuch as this, the philosopher and writer Ian Bogost and the Netherlands-developed videogame Horizon Zero Dawn are one and the same. Both think they have very valid things to say, which they may, but largely fumble the delivery and lose the message partway through transmission, so nobody can really be sure.    

* * *

Horizon opens strong, with an extended tutorial replete with coming-of-age, betrayal, and loss. It also paints a picture of a novel fantasy world, one purposefully at odds with the tired cliches of RPGs. The game’s protagonist, Aloy, belongs to a matriarchal tribe of hunter-gatherers named the Nora, who proudly avoid both the outside world and genre tropes. They live 1000 years in the future, in an isolated valley, and hunt both regular and robot animals to survive.

Life is hard but stable for Aloy and the Nora, until evildoers and new, gun-toting robots attack, throwing their way of life into mortal danger. By the end of the game’s emotional opening, Aloy has already overcome great odds to win the respect of her tribe, and had to confront the death of her father figure, Rost, who is murdered before her eyes. This sets players on a quest for revenge that will see them try and rid the world of weaponized machines.    

It’s an effective first few hours, and they set the stakes high for the rest of the game. You meet memorable characters and, whether through well acted cutscenes or Mass Effect-style shot reverse shot conversations, become emotionally connected to the Nora and their plight. The opening hints at intrigue, adventure, and a grand revenge tale; the sort of multifaceted, “Hollywood-quality” storytelling in games we’re told is either already here or just around the corner. But it’s all part of a bait-and-switch.

When finally let loose on Horizon’s world proper, players find it to be largely empty; if not of content, at least of character. The game’s environments are filled with quests that have you interacting with a rich and fantastically kinetic combat system, but in stark contrast, the quest givers who send you off on these missions are conspicuously static. Not just in that they stand in one place for the whole game, as is often the case across the genre, but in how they talk. Every conversation goes like this:

Dude: My name is Dale, I’m a farmer. My chickens are gone. I saw a cloaked figure ‘round here, he went towards the waterfall.

Option 1: Who are you?

Answer: My name is Dale. I’m a farmer ‘round these parts. Been a farmer all my life, just like my da before me, and my da’s da before him. I keep chickens, I do.

Option 2: What’s this about your chickens?

Answer: I had me a nice flock of chickens, I did. They were all colors. Some were red. Some were white. Some were black. And some were as green as your sweet emerald eyes. They’ve been stolen.

Option 3: Who’s this shady lad you mention?

Answer: I saw me a cloaked figure sniffin’ around my chickens just yesterday. He picked one up an’ gave it a right big sniff. Breathed in all the way to ‘is belly. It just ain’t right. Only a farmer ‘as the right to sniff​ ‘is own chickens. So I chased ‘im off towards the waterfall. Saw the pervert over there earlier today, before mi chickens went a missin’.

Option 4: Cool. You’ve already told me enough. I’ll get your chickens in exchange for XP and maybe an item.

From lowly errand to the final mission, every conversation is essentially a single line of useful dialogue, followed by the option to further explore each clause in turn, and be rewarded with a longer-winded, but no more illuminating screed. No character ever says anything new under further questioning; they simply repeat their original answer in more words than before, but without adding anything useful.

In this way, Horizon takes conversation—a cornerstone of RPG design—and makes it pointless. It teaches you that every character exists to merely send you on your way; that they do not live and breathe in the world they inhabit, but that they serve the singular purpose of giving you things to do.

And these things always, without fail, involve fighting robots. Whether you go to fight bad guys and at some point robots show up, or you just get on with fighting robots from the off; every character interaction results in you fighting robots, regardless of the actual words spoken to you. It’s not that Horizon fails to adequately cover up the artificiality of RPG progression and storytelling, it’s that it seemingly doesn’t bother to at all. It wants you to fight robots, and doesn’t put much thought into how it encourages you to do that for 30+ hours—as if, in a fit of Bogostian thought, the game itself wishes it didn’t have a story.

Like its characters, Horizon’s quests merely pay lip service to RPG conventions, and don’t fully embody them. Side quests are the most egregious example of this, in that they, like much of the game, at first appear to promise thrills, spills, and intrigue, but all prove to be uniformly gaunt and underwhelming.

There’s one about restoring the honor of a compromised soldier. Another about investigating a massacre and bringing the perpetrators to justice. Another is a fun murder mystery. And one is about rescuing a child monarch. He’s the rightful heir to a kingdom, but is being held prisoner by a cult who are using him as a figurehead to legitimize their brutal reign of terror. It’s exciting and rife with political intrigue that could feed into the main quest and potentially destabilize your efforts to rid the world of evil robots.

But the rescue itself is anything but thrilling, and sees you fight some bad guys on a mountain, kill a robot monster you’ve battled numerous times before, and then fight another handful of bad guys and yet more robots you’re intimately familiar with. Then you win. The entire questline—one of the longest in the game—is two quests long, and beyond letting you engage a few characters in the game’s sparkling take on interactive conversation simulation, it offers the player nothing they haven’t seen before.

This is the case for all of the game’s quests: a fun, or smart, or dramatic, or beguiling, or kooky setup, that ultimately leads to you fighting robots and being rewarded with a “cool, bro—thanks a lot,” for your efforts.

* * *

Intertwined within the body of the game’s main quest are a half dozen exploration-heavy sections, where Aloy descends into long-forgotten “old world” facilities and works to uncover the past. These sections are interspersed between the many combat-heavy quests, and offer players some respite, along with much needed explanation of why a society with no fancy tech of its own wound up having to fight so many robots.

As you slowly pick your way through these bunkers, you’re able to access text and audio logs. Text logs are read by pulling up a menu, while their auditory counterparts play automatically, allowing you to walk around while listening. The game often places four or five of these logs in a single room, and so progression takes the form of PICK UP LOG 1 > READ IT > PICK UP LOG 2 > BEGIN LISTENING TO IT > LOCATE LOG 3 > WAIT FOR LOG 2 TO END > BEGIN LISTENING TO LOG 3 > etc. etc.

This sort of storytelling has a place in games, but only because it is used sparingly to tell supplemental narratives. But Horizon doesn’t do this. The cause of humanity’s collapse and near extinction. Aloy’s true identity. Why the world is filled with robot animals. The nature of the ancient evil ravaging the planet. All of the questions about the game’s world and people are answered through the least engaging, least videogame-specific narrative delivery methods available.

It asks you to walk slowly through empty corridors, stop, read or listen to something, and then do it again, many, many times, in order to uncover the hows and whys of its entire narrative. In trying to finally offer players a break from all the fighting robots, Horizon just takes away the robots without offering anything engaging in their place. And herein lies the crux of the game’s narrative failure.

* * *

Simply put, it’s hard to say Horizon is about anything more than fighting robots. It wants to tell a grand videogame narrative of overcoming the odds, beating the bad guys, and saving the world. But even within this relatively simplistic framework, it fails in every aspect of its delivery and reduces itself to a long string of fights with robots punctuated by horrible storytelling. Characters are empty and lack any real development or motivation beyond the basics of good vs. evil. Even Aloy herself changes very little once the game’s tutorial is over, instead becoming the sort of quest-hungry, “character sheet protagonist for hire” you’d more readily associate with a game from Bethesda.

Quests and the characters who send you on them offer only perfunctory context, and all fail to build any tangible connection between the player and the game’s world. And to this end, what initially appears to be a fertile and refreshingly trope-free setting, nonetheless slides into genre convention free-fall. The interest of the matriarchal Nora is quickly replaced by more recognizable archetypes in the shape of the Latin American-inspired Carja, who of course make sacrificial offerings to the sun, and the Oseram; RPG Dwarves in all but stature and name. But even while discounting Horizon’s societies, I’m hesitant to dismiss them entirely. The game simply doesn’t give me enough information—whether through direct interaction, exposition, or even codex entries—to get beyond superficiality.

I’m sure somewhere there’s an exhaustive lore bible that fills in all the blanks, and one day I hope it sees the light of day in an excruciatingly expensive coffee table book that I’ll never buy. Because there are glimmers of great writing coupled with great delivery to be found in Horizon. Hidden away in collectibles called “Vantages” is the story of Bashar Mati, a teenage tearaway turned space engineer, who tours the world just before humanity is all but wiped out. The collectibles that tell his tale are tangible, in-world objects, not arbitrary gewgaws, in the form of data stores placed on hillsides and mountains. Finding them is a fun little distraction on its own, and calls upon observation and traversal skills, as you find and then climb up to them.

Once you reach them, you’re offered a holographic vision of the past superimposed over the present day’s post-post-apocalypse. Seeing the battered husk of a huge stadium momentarily come back to life is a striking sight, and each of the 12 vantages re-contextualizes your understanding of the game’s world through images of the past. But more affecting are Bashar’s words; journal entries penned to his dead mother containing touching outpourings of guilt, remorse, and redemption, as he finally comes to terms with her passing and his history of substance abuse as the world comes to an end.

The vantage journals are astounding not just in the beauty of their visuals and poignant story, but also in how they bring the rest of the game’s narrative deficiencies into such stark relief. Beyond Aloy and perhaps one other key character, Bashar Mati—the faceless author of a dozen collectible journals—is Horizon’s best-drawn character. It is this lack of compelling characters, of a sense that the world is worth saving—of a reason to care, that means Horizon is, and could only ever be, a game about fighting robots.

And yes, this does play to Bogost’s thesis that games may well be better without stories. But the fact it tries and fails on so many narrative levels, and yet still contains within it a touching example of storytelling that excels precisely because of its interactivity, is a cause for optimism. But this is optimism for the medium as a whole, not the game in and of itself.

It’s no mistake that the actual fighting robots is engaging enough to make up for the game’s narrative deficiencies—it’s clearly what Horizon is most concerned with. Its mechanics continue to deepen and expand even after many hours, while its story just sort of hangs around for the sake of it. It’s not even the case that improved story or delivery would make the game better. Its interests simply don’t seem to lie in telling a story to begin with, and it only really has one because they are expected in big-budget videogames.

Bogost is wrong in saying all videogames would be better without stories. But in some cases, and especially where the game in question is just following convention, it wouldn’t hurt to cut the grand videogame narrative altogether—indeed, it might even be an improvement.

Leigh Harrison lives in London, and works in communications for a medical charity. He likes canals and rivers a great deal, and spends a lot of his time walking. He occasionally says things about videogames on the Internet, and other things on The Twitter.