Understanding the world and backstory of Guerilla’s AAA beast Horizon Zero Dawn begins with a look at Aloy, PlayStation’s newest heroine portrayed by Ashly Burch. A glance at her hazel eyes and her stoic face can both dazzle with its impressively realistic animations and, simply, surrender the essence of a misunderstood female outcast. A glimmer of Aloy’s hair impresses with its amount of polygons—but the Metis-evoking dreads are also capable of telling a tale of long sunburned hours traversing a green expanse. With Horizon Zero Dawn releasing on Feb. 28, fans are examining the game just this way—at all angles—desperately trying to unearth the answers to the game’s world. And the key seems to lie in the relationship between technology and humanity.The game may seem purely sci-fi on the surface, but a closer look reveals a world where technology masks the very humanness behind it—and it’s made of stardust like the rest of us. So let the following guide be a tour of Horizon Zero Dawn’s universe, one you’ll be exploring soon in all its seamless load-times wonder:
The Game Will Be About Clearing Corrupted Zones
The story of Horizon Zero Dawn takes place 1,000 years into the future and revolves around a catastrophic “corruption event” that sends humanity back to the Stone Age. John Gonzalez, the lead writer of the game, says in an interview with VentureBeat: “The main quest itself is connected to the corruption. The corruption is a major event. But it goes a lot deeper than that and a lot farther than that.” He is referring to the secrets behind what’s going on in the world, secrets that will answer questions like why the enemy robots are self-sustaining animals, or why there were no human survivors who retained modern day technology—or if, perhaps, there were, for that matter.
That’s where Aloy comes in. She is a tribal outcast searching for these answers and for her origins. “She’s not just hunting the machines. She’s trying to understand the world around her as well,” Gonzalez continues. So don’t be fooled into thinking Horizon is simply Monster Hunter with machines: there are so many more elements at play in the story, like the mystery of the enemy tribe that can corrupt animals through a type of black magic. As Aloy, players will have to take on the role of the curious cat to sniff out these mysteries. And with fan theories already buzzing about how the machines might be products of a hidden, advanced civilization of survivors, or about how the title could refer to a god-figure named Horizon, there will be no shortage of mysteries to uncover. As Gonzalez puts it, “The narrative ambition has been immense.”
Princess Mononoke Is a Major Influence
Red and black gunk, corrupted animals, a tribe member cast away from safe and sacred lands to go save the world—Horizon Zero Dawn really couldn’t sound more like Princess Mononoke. And Guerilla makes no attempt to mask it: when talking about how the story team came up with the character Aloy, Gonzalez said, “She sort of arose out of the world we were developing. There was no one-for-one reference point. But certainly some things were influences: Nausicaa, Princess Mononoke, the Studio Ghibli heroines, and other strong women action heroes like Ellen Ripley or Sarah Connor.”
If you haven’t seen the movie, Princess Mononoke follows the story of a prince named Ashitaka, who becomes cursed when his village is attacked by a corrupted boar god. When he heads west to find a cure, he gets involved in a war between nature and an industrious iron-armed town lead by a woman named Eboshi, and ends up playing the part of diplomat to try and bring peace to the lands. The game’s resemblance to the movie is especially staggering considering Guerilla suggested that Aloy has the uncommon power to control the forbidden mechs—much in the same way that Ashitaka is endowed with power from his curse. Visually speaking, the corruption in both the game and the movie manifests itself almost identically: as strands of red and black fluid that twist and twine around the affected animal. Assuming that Guerilla will continue to draw from the Princess Mononoke well, it is fair to expect that the game will speak to spirituality and man’s influence on nature. And that no matter how hard people try to overpower and misuse nature, in the end, nature wins out. Nature always wins out.
No One Knows Where Aloy Came From—Except the Machines
The Horizon Zero Dawn E3 2016 trailer shows a tribal elder saying of Aloy, “the girl is a curse. She came from nowhere. She is no one.” It seems like no one around her knows who she is or where she came from, not even Rost, the fellow Nora tribe outcast who took her under his wing and raised her. In the trailer, a child Aloy asks him, “why am I an outcast? Who was my mother?” The Nora tribe is a matriarchy, and so Aloy’s motherlessness must be a cause of particular pain to her. It is also a tribe with strong taboos against the technology of the ancient world, a past that could be entwined with Aloy’s. At the end of the trailer, Aloy is seen interfacing with a mysterious alien-like entrance that scans her and audibly reports, “identity confirmed,” suggesting that Aloy is from this elusive world of advanced machinery. If so, the Nora tribe’s rejection of her makes sense, for it could be that the Nora tribe know of her true origins and are hiding it. After all, a point of contention even between Aloy and Rost is Aloy’s fascination with the technology of the ancient world.
It’s wholly ironic that even in real life, Sony was going to shun Aloy as well. In a Polygon interview with Shuhei Yoshida, president of PlayStation Worldwide Studios, Yoshida said he had worries about whether or not it was too “risky to do a female character.” They even hired a marketing team to conduct focus testing for Aloy to see how well the female character would be accepted.
The Mechs May Not Be What They Seem
Guerilla’s use of David Attenborough documentaries as a reference point in creating the animal-mechs for Horizon Zero Dawn brings to mind the time when Disney went on an African safari to bring Zootopia’s furry friends to life. Although Guerilla might not have had the opportunity to travel to the Jurassic era to take reference photographs of T-rexes, they’ve still managed to capture something impossibly organic about the creatures. From the swift movements of the sabertooth like Sawtooth, to the elegant Tallneck; the prance of the Bambi-like Grazer, to the iconicized Thunderjaw imposing itself on the game’s cover-art, the animals feel very real. “You can look at a creature, and by how it’s animating, how it’s behaving, you can tell what sort of attack it might do” says Jan-Bart Van Beek, the game’s art director, in proud praise of his creations.
But the mechs may not be what they seem. Different sizes and variations suggest a natural evolution to the creatures. The large expanding sacs of the Bellowbacks can be found storing a range of dangerous fluids depending on where you find them. Similarly, the raptor-like Watcher will surprise players, as it comes in different strengths and with different powers, suggesting a natural, geographically-based evolution system. Animals will also tend to group into herds, and the gameplay will be emergent, adding to the illusion of life—maybe what you wanted out of No Man’s Sky, you’ll find in Horizon. Moreover, early on in the game, Aloy acquires the ability to use runes that can temporarily take control of the mech-animals. The enigmatic rune gives an eerie hint that humans are controlling the mechs from a far off place. Similarly, an antagonizing masked tribe (the so-called bad guys) are seen performing rituals that corrupt and control the animals with a voodoo-like magic. Perhaps, in Horizon, the interface between man and animal may be bigger than technology, may involve a live connection between body, soul, and a holy spirit.
Horizon Zero Dawn’s “Happy New Year” advert has the world meet its end when the calendar strikes 2017. Then, it counts up to the new beginning: the day when players will enter into Guerilla’s world. And what a world it is. A far cry from ours, but utterly familiar. Aspects of Celtic and Nordic culture, as well as the cultures of the indigenous peoples of the Americas, abound. With a touch of the magic of Game of Thrones (developers have said Aloy’s style was inspired by Ygritte), Horizon has learned to blend reality into a believable fantasy: the red braided hair, the ochre facepaint, the tanned leather; the tribe that has learned to respect all living things.
In the world of Horizon Zero Dawn, humanity descends from their technological pedestal back to the same footings as nature. “Sorry little one, I couldn’t let you call for help,” Aloy can be heard apologizing when she slays an animal-mech. People follow the road of the “waste not, want not”—Aloy carries around a medicine pouch used to collect herbs (which the player can use to restore health), armour is harvested from the mechs you kill, and the architecture of settlements around the game is shaped by the resources directly nearby. Players will traverse a land not bound by borders, but by rock, grass, sand, and soot, and the streaking clouds above. “This was something different, where you have this whole new world that’s grown over the grave of the one that came before. I felt like there was a different sort of resonance to that, a kind of sadness, and a curiosity about our future,” Gonzalez finally says about the world he helped shape. It's a world that may meet another catastrophe, suggested at the end of the Horizon Zero Dawn story trailer: an ominous voice says “There’s so much more to discover before the world ends.” That being said, it’s worth noting that for a game that has the world end once—and plans to end it again—it never fails to express the ceaseless bustle of life.