This feature contains major plot spoilers for Horizon Zero Dawn.
I feel bad for Horizon Zero Dawn.
Despite being an incredible game from all angles: storytelling, visual and gameplay, it will likely always come up second-best in most game players’ minds in 2017. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, a game that is incredibly similar in many different ways, was released three days after Horizon. Despite the same amount of nominations at the annual Game Awards (The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Horizon Zero Dawn both received six nominations) and being heralding by some as one of the best games of the generation, the game was overshadowed.
But the biggest surprise within the game is the unbelievably believable world created by Guerrilla Games. A world where a plausible scenario prophesied by Elon Musk sends humanity back to the dark ages only to be rebuilt on a bed of found technology. The game’s story, led by John Gonzalez (formerly the Lead Creative Designer at Obsidian Entertainment on Fallout: New Vegas), plucks some of the best tropes from several other sci-fi stories from gaming and other media to create a unique world worth exploring.
The lead character, Aloy, follows a familiar arch. First, she demonstrates unmatched bravery at the Proving and is anointed as a Seeker allowing her to leave the four walls set up by her tribe. This sequence of events shares parallels with Mass Effect’s Commander Shepard as he or she becomes a Spectre in the first iteration of the series. Next, Aloy slowly uncovers how GAIA and its subordinate functions were meant to terraform and repopulate the Earth before everything went terribly wrong. This aspect of the narrative mirrors several sci-fi tales like I, Robot and Terminator but surprisingly, most closely resembles the struggle between 2015’s Vision and Ultron in Avengers: Age of Ultron. Finally, she defeats the rogue subordinate AI, HADES, like the heroes of many other works of fiction. However, unlike many pieces of media, this story wasn’t told over a trilogy, we got it all in one game.
Beyond the strong story, one of Horizon Zero Dawn’s greatest strengths is the way that the game gives you an authored character for the unfolding narrative. In games like the Mass Effect trilogy or the modern-era Fallout games, you are given a blank slate: a canvas where you project your own values, knowledge and desires on the main character. Instead of the “every-man”, Aloy is a character with her own backstory, experiences and convictions. She is a conflicted outcast that was singularly focused on finding her mother despite having the greatest mystery in the history of the world unfold in front of her. There is no room for differing playthroughs with branching paths, the game has a well-defined character arch as well as a beginning, middle and end.
However, video games are a hit-driven business and after selling over four million units, it is safe to assume that more games in the Horizon universe are bound to come. But given the excellent, finite story told by the developers at Guerrilla Games, it may be hard to do without resorting to sequelitis; the one-upmanship that typically drives a franchise off-course. The game’s best tricks have already been shown and outside of the final minute of the game, the story feels very complete. As someone who wants more Horizon, but doesn’t want a direct sequel, I propose three different ways to accomplish that feat without resorting to a Horizon Zero Dawn 2.
A Sylens Spinoff
The characterization and portrayal of the shadowy Sylens by Lance Reddick is the one of the high points of Horizon Zero Dawn. Through the game’s narrative, you are drip-fed details of his backstory and fully comprehend his motivations by the end of the game. However, a lot of Sylens’ backstory is filled in by character monologue. Aloy as a character is incredibly pure and getting to play as her polar opposite would be an exciting change in direction for the series.
Naughty Dog’s Uncharted: The Lost Legacy has proven that smaller standalone games focused around secondary characters are fruitful. Imagine playing through the eyes of Sylens as he discovers HADES, aides in the creation of the Eclipse and meets Aloy. It would be a great way to experience the universe of Horizon and the events leading up to HZD through a different lens (or Sy-lens, rather).
The Creation of GAIA
One of the most surprising sequences of Horizon Zero Dawn‘s story is discovering the true nature of Operation: Enduring Victory and Project Zero Dawn.
As your character unravels the mystery of these two parallel operations through on-screen holograms and text/audio logs, my mouth was agape. The scenario laid out by HZD is cold but plausible and lead me to seek out as many optional logs as I could find to fill out the events leading up to the original extinction of the human race. Particularly, the grim options you have after your Project Zero Dawn briefing (participation, indefinite detention or medical euthanasia) was particularly resonant. In short, I am still hungry for more content in that era of the Horizon canon.
A video game featuring this narrative would be a difficult proposition, but a live-action series or anime focusing on the creation of GAIA would make for excellent television. While scientists race the clock to create an AI to fix the biomass consuming robots, terraform the planet, create new life and conserve the world’s knowledge, the character drama and secondary plots that unfold would also be engrossing. The rise of Ted Faro, the game’s reverse Tony Stark aka “The Man Who Saved The World” went from creating green robots with Elizabet Sobeck to diversifying into military robotics to become the planet’s first trillionaire. One of the Alphas, the plucky Travis Tate caught my attention; a man with a biblical upbringing and a rebellious past including an unknown incident involving the Sterling-Malkeet corporation. Side note: this game has so many great fake corporations names including Metallurgic International and The Hartz-Timor Energy Combine. The game could even delve into the issues on the periphery, like how the American First Amendment was affected by the rapid evolution of technology.
The possibilities in this era of the canon are truly limitless.
An Operation: Enduring Victory Shooter
A third option for filling out the Horizon universe would be return to Guerrilla Games’ roots.
On the flip side of the Zero Dawn coin lies Operation: Enduring Victory. To buy time for the team looking to preserve the future of the human race, General Herres of the U.S. Military lied by saying that Zero Dawn was a weapon capable of destroying the Faro Plague. We all know how the story ends for these fighters, but that doesn’t mean that the experience wouldn’t be enjoyable. Think about Halo: Reach; we knew exactly how the game would end, but the experience through the game was still fun.
Evoking a similar feeling to Halo 3: ODST, the game would put you in the shoes of a U.S. army soldier through various missions over the two-year Enduring Victory campaign. Built on the Decima engine, the game would feature expansive environments and big robots. Throw in a conspiracy plot mirroring Philip K. Dick’s Man in the High Castle where you slowly discover the true nature of your mission and you have a game that may fit very well into the Horizon universe.
In one of the greatest years in the history of video games, I still think about Horizon Zero Dawn and how its story easily stands up as one of the best in modern video games.
I just want more.