Warning: The following contains full story spoilers for Horizon: Zero Dawn and Horizon: Forbidden West
Seriously, I’m going to talk about the twists and turns of both games without any filter. You’ve been warned! That said, if you’ve never played these games and you’re just curious, I’ll try to explain the basics.
How Zero Dawn uses a “tell, don’t show” approach to great effect
The original Horizon: Zero Dawn is the perfect sci-fi story for a teen-rated video game. You play as Aloy, an outcast in a tribe of post-post-apocalypse people known as the Nora. She appeared suddenly as a newborn within the Nora’s sacred temple, and thanks to some conflicting beliefs, she is deemed motherless and cast out of their tribe. From there she is raised by another outcast, Rost, and grows up in his care.
On top of the strange circumstances behind her appearance, Aloy comes across a device of the “old world” known as a Focus. Imagine if smartphones progressed over the next few decades before the world ended, and you have an idea of what this device can do. It allows Aloy to learn about the old world, scan the massive robots that roam this future earth, and essentially become the smartest person in every room.
What makes Aloy such a great character is that she sort of mirrors the player. Because she has some understanding of science and starts to piece together the history of what really happened in the 2050s and 2060s to lead to the world ending, the beliefs of the various tribes around her can seem silly. She tries to be respectful on her quest, but sometimes she takes a shortcut in a conversation, or mutters something under her breath that lets you know you’re both on the same page.
And so the story of Zero Dawn is essentially you learning about the past through text logs, audio logs, and holograms, while dealing with the understandably ignorant ways of the various tribes in the world. The truly dark stuff—the suffocating stories of the world being eradicated by a swarm of killer robots (the real hard-R Terminator-type stuff) is intentionally never shown.
And it works! I remember my overactive imagination contemplating the end of the world and humanity’s final attempts to save it. As I traveled the lush and overgrown ruins of Aloy’s present, I couldn’t help imagining what its past was like. The robots you fight look like animals—cows, deer, birds, and dinosaurs—but the dead robots of the past are unnatural. Their giant metallic tentacles still cover parts of the landscape—the closest hint of what humanity’s horrible ending was like.
Eventually you learn that it was a true ending. The goal of Project Zero Dawn wasn’t to survive. It was to starve the swarm of killer machines and then reboot the planet using sophisticated AI. New machines would operate like animals, rebuilding the plant-life and atmosphere of the planet. When the planet was habitable again, an underground facility that birthed new humans would let them out into the new world.
You also learn a lot about the actual people at the heart of these projects, including Elisabet Sobeck, the mastermind of Project Zero Dawn (she also happens to be the person Aloy was cloned from). Then there’s Ted Faro, the greedy Bezos/Musk-type responsible for causing the robot plague, who seems to shove his way into every situation and ruin it.
The future world Aloy inhabits is close to Elisabet Sobeck’s vision, but something went wrong. The robots are becoming more hostile, the new people were supposed to be taught about the old world and clearly weren’t (another Ted Faro plan gone wrong), and so it becomes Aloy’s quest to fix what’s wrong, uncover the past, and try to live up to her heroic ancestor.
It all works brilliantly. Aloy is a smart woman on a mission, and you’re eager to learn more. When a tribal prince falls for her and asks her to stay, you both know she ain’t got time for that. And while Horizon: Zero Dawn is an open-world game, the amount of side activities feels pretty reasonable. You’re never so far off from the main path that it feels like Aloy is ignoring the urgency of the core plot.
Allow Me A Little YA Tangent
I promise this will make sense.
My wife is an avid reader of Young Adult novels, which means I end up reading some of the better ones that come along. A lot of them are sci-fi/fantasy stories with adult concepts—a society that solves immortality and needs a class of grim reapers to control the population, a space opera where sarcastic teens save the adults from murderous zombies, or an outcast group of plague witches that become the best hope for saving a corrupt kingdom.
Many of these stories deal with mature concepts, either dancing around sex and violence or describing things in a way that a book can get away with, while still being cool for teens. The best ones walk the line expertly, feeling no less mature than an adult book, but staying within a sandbox that makes the story more T for Teen and appeals to a wider audience. The worst ones constantly pull punches, feeling like M-rated stories that got cleaned up by a committee. Every character in the story dies a tragic death, only to come back to life a chapter later. There are no stakes, and all the teens give each other little kisses on the cheek at the end.
If Horizon: Zero Dawn is one of those expertly-crafted YA stories. Horizon: Forbidden West is the other kind. It wants to be an M-rated game so badly, but it isn’t, and the story suffers for it.
The Moment Horizon: Forbidden West Broke Down For Me
Horizon: Forbidden West picks up Aloy’s story right where the first game left off. Despite winning the day, the AI systems that ran the world are still causing issues. A nanotech plague seems to be killing the environment, and threatening to turn the world into a wasteland once again.
The only solution is to find the collective of AIs that rebuilt the world, and try to heal it once again. This takes Aloy on a tour of the American west, visiting the ruins of Las Vegas and San Francisco along the way. At first she rejects help, but her friends insist on joining her, eventually building a crew of new and familiar faces not unlike the crew of Mass Effect’s Normandy.
It’s a much bigger journey. The opening prologue alone is a couple hours, and that just spits you out into a mini-open world that’s itself a prelude to the real quest. Aloy spends a lot more time talking to random people and helping them with small problems. At one point I halted my world-saving quest to help a cook find materials for a new frying pan.
An early twist introduces you to a group of seemingly immortal and unkillable humans. While Zero Dawn briefly touched on the Far Zenith space program in its lore, the implication was that it never got off the ground. Forbidden West reveals that to be an intentional smoke screen, allowing the most rich and powerful people of the old world to escape the planet, solve immortality, and colonize a new planet in the Sirius system.
So you have a story where Aloy has more downtime, more heart-to-heart moments with a lot of people who have the hots for her, new tribes with ruthless customs, and the twist that a bunch of greedy, sadistic Far Zenith assholes have returned to take the planet back. It turns out to be a recipe for a messier story, and one that Guerilla Games can’t seem to find balance with.
The moment where this all really broke down for me was later in the game, during a quest called Faro’s tomb. In this quest you meet the Quen, a tribe from across the ocean that uses an older version of Aloy’s Focus to learn about the past. Because their older tech doesn’t give them the full story, they believe Ted Faro to be the savior of the world. And so, while these people are a little weird and very misguided, Aloy sides with them to get into Faro’s facility in San Francisco.
What follows is a very weird and uncomfortable quest where the leader of the Quen believes himself to be the descendant of Ted Faro, dresses up like a man-bun-sporting techbro, and forces Aloy to dress up like Elisabet Sobeck so they can ritualistically cosplay their way into Faro’s tomb. The Quen leader is a real piece of work, and incredibly, hilariously calls himself Ceo, which is pronounced “See-Oh”. It’s a bit of on-the-nose humor that works incredibly well.
As you explore further and further into the tomb, you come to learn that Faro kept a harem of women and an expert in immortality research on staff. You then learn he had them all injected with kill switches, in case anyone ever rebelled. Eventually, Faro seemingly killed everyone, including the man feeding him his daily immortality cocktail. It starts to become clear as the mission progresses that something bad happened with Faro’s immortality experiment, and that he might still be alive even after hundreds of years.
The climax of the quest occurs when you finally find the room Ted Faro is locked away in. Instead of the expected pay-off—a disgusting boss fight against a Ted Faro body horror monstrosity—the creature is never shown. You hear his screams, and the Quen leader orders him to be burned alive. And it all happens off camera. Lame!
The Wrong Jenga Brick
Faro’s Tomb isn’t the first time that Forbidden West pulls punches, nor is it the last. But it’s such a blatant example of the game wanting to go for the M-rating and backing off, that it called not just the fiction of this game into question, but even Zero Dawn. If Horizon’s story is a carefully assembled Jenga tower, Faro’s Tomb was the brick they should have never pulled.
After Faro’s Tomb, I started asking new questions:
- If the new Tanakth tribe is so ruthless, why do we see so little of their ruthlessness?
- If Aloy is taking more time to help people and make friends, why isn’t she taking time to explore love? Everyone in this game is super horny for her, but she never goes for their advances.
- Okay, fine, maybe Aloy just isn’t that kind of person. That doesn’t really explain why there is barely even the slightest kiss or hug in this entire game. There are romantic relationships between characters and yet all they ever do is stand next to each other and talk to Aloy.
- These Far Zenith people make another Elisabet Sobeck clone and keep her imprisoned on their ship for 19 years. One of the Far Zenith is revealed to be more or less obsessed with fixing her long-lost love affair with Sobeck. All of them are twisted in the head from a thousand years of lazy, frivolous existence. That seems to be a recipe for some really fucked up stuff to happen to that Sobeck clone…and yet?
- Seriously, why couldn’t I see John Carpenter presents: Ted Faro?
- How did Kotallo (one of your companions) get his arm ripped off by a machine and then 4 seconds later it is bloodlessly bandaged up?
- Do we barely see the Far Zenith the entire game because this T-rated game isn’t actually about a bunch of serial killer colonizers?
- Varl was one of the best characters in the game, but he gets a cheap, lame, unearned death that happens so fast and so clean that you barely have a chance to feel bad about it. What is that about?
And then I started asking questions about the series as a whole:
- Why aren’t more people being horribly maimed by these multi-ton, metal, killer robots?
- The first new humans of Project Zero Dawn would have been let out into the world as uneducated children. Wouldn’t this society be a lot more Lord of the Flies than the sort of problematic techno-Native Americans they end up acting like? Or did I just watch a season of Yellowjackets and now I have teenage cannibalism on the mind?
- Boy this really is a fucked up, adult story masquerading as a mass market game for all ages, huh?
Forbidden West Should Have Picked a Lane
At the end of the day, while I think it would be cool to play a version of this story that’s truly adult (or even at least a little closer to Mass Effect than a Marvel movie), I don’t seriously think that’s the direction they should have gone. My problem here is that Forbidden West crossed a line and didn’t have great answers from there. It should have simply stepped back and said a little less.
The joy of Zero Dawn was the mix of an entertaining robot-dinosaur hunting game with a cool sci-fi story that left a lot of room for imagination. It stayed focused, and it always made sense for Aloy to be so driven and dead set on the mission. The internal logic of everything was consistent and so I never felt the need to question it in this way.
Forbidden West breaks that internal logic, making it feel like a world of sexless prudes, cordial ruthless murders, and narcissistic serial killers that don’t actually do anything fucked up.
People die or get hurt and you don’t get to feel it. It’s all a big contradiction.
The one Far Zenith who is supposed to be helping you is revealed to be the worst of the bunch because we need a final boss fight. It makes no sense except in the logic of: “this is the same thing that happens in every other video game and it sucks there too.”
Forbidden West ends by more-or-less wiping the slate clean of all these problematic elements, introducing an even more unknowable villain for an inevitable third game. While that ending sucked away any excitement I have for this as an ongoing trilogy, I do hope Guerilla Games takes this opportunity to reset the board a bit, and tell a story that’s a little closer to the tone of Zero Dawn.
I hope next time around they make a story that’s truly for the audience they’re marketing to, rather than the story the writers wish they could make. Or, go nuts, change it to an M-rating, and make that fucked up story they clearly want to make. Either way, pick a lane.