Horizon Forbidden West: Burning Shores – A Peek Behind the Scenes

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With the release of Horizon Forbidden West’s Burning Shores DLC just a few weeks ago, we have a pretty good idea of where Aloys’ story is headed next, but we will probably have to wait quite a while for that next installment in the Horizon series. In the recent review of Burning Shores, I said,Horizon Forbidden West: Burning Shores is a fantastic step for Guerrilla Games and sets a very high bar for DLC and for where the Horizon world will go next.”

With the team over at Guerrilla celebrating its 20th anniversary, I was given the opportunity to sit down with Guerrilla’s Ben McCaw (Studio Narrative Director) and Annie Kitain (Lead Writer) for Horizon Forbidden West: Burning Shores to talk all things Horizon, including how the team decided on Los Angeles and where they pulled inspiration for some of its characters. 

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Where did the idea for Burning Shores come from? Did the characters, story, or location come first?

Ben McCaw: During the development of Forbidden West, when it became clear that we would be able to do DLC, our first thought was about Los Angeles. There was some very brief consideration of whether we could put Los Angeles in Forbidden West, and we really couldn’t. So the idea of going there was really exciting to us, and trying to imagine a post-post-apocalyptic future with rising sea levels and volcanic and tectonic activity was exciting.

Then it was also pretty clear to us early on that we wanted to use the Quen. We didn’t feel like the Quen got as much screen time in Forbidden West as we wanted, in that their sort of maritime qualities made them great candidates to wash up on the Burning Shores

Throughout Horizon Forbidden West: Burning Shores, we get a lot of character growth out of Aloy. Even more character growth than was present in the base game. Was giving Aloy more character-defining moments the goal of Burning Shores?

Ben McCaw: Horizon Forbidden West is obviously a huge game, and it’s ultimately the story of Aloy’s socialization, in a lot of ways, from going from being an outcast to accepting the tribal world. And that really is kind of a long process for an outcast, as you might imagine.

We went into a lot of detail. When the opportunity for the Burning Shores came about, we had this really exciting moment where we decided we were going to do something that took place after the main game. That was not the case with our DLC for The Frozen Wilds for Horizon Zero Dawn. So once we had that opportunity, we wanted to get a chance to tell the next chapter of Aloy’s story and evolve her character.

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Annie Kitain:  If we look at who Aloy was at the beginning of Forbidden West, as someone who’s trying to put the burden of saving the world entirely on herself, who thinks she can just go it alone. From who she is at the end of Forbidden West with, accepting her friends, being able to rely on them, and accepting Beta as her sister, there was a lot of growth that already happened just through that story.

But when we were thinking of Burning Shores, we were thinking of how do we continue to grow her as a character? Where do we take her from here? It really felt like the next natural step for her now that she has this solid foundation of friends in this found family and wants to start to explore her romantic side. That’s something she hasn’t been able to do until now.

One, because she’s been so focused on her mission, and also, because of how she’s been developing up until now, she hasn’t been able to have friends and then maintain those relationships. The idea of her exploring romance before this didn’t just really sit right with us. But now, you know, going into the Burning Shores, It really felt like the right moment to explore that side of her character.

We spend a lot of time with Seyka, and throughout the story, she and Aloy form a very powerful relationship. When Burning Shores was forming, was Seyka always the one to keep up and match energy levels with Aloy?

Annie Kitain: I think so. I mean, this, again, relates to Aloys growth and how she’s going to further develop Burning Shores. We knew that, for the story, we needed a companion who would be able to match her in a lot of ways that she would see as an equal and as a partner, and that’s why there are a lot of similarities between the two of them.

The fact that Seyka has a focus, the fact that she is in conflict with her tribe because of it and feels that sting of rejection from her tribe are all things that Aloy can really identify with. But at the same time, she is someone that challenges Aloy, because of the tribal connection that she has. She sees in Seyka someone who doesn’t want to give up on her tribe. And that’s forcing Aloy to think about what her relationship with the tribes is and what’s her relationship to the idea of home. That really leads into the core of how she grows as a person in the DLC [Burning Shores].

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Speaking more to that relationship and the kiss heard around the world, people have put together and hoped that Aloy would come out. Was there kind of any pushback on this? How has the team received the fan feedback?

Ben McCaw: I think our team was always unified in this approach. There’s really no sort of internal debate about that. The only sort of internal creative discussions that we had were about how to do it most effectively, how to make Seyka one of the most amazing characters possible, and things like that.

In terms of the reaction, I mean, we’re just joyful. I mean, it is really hard to write something like this and send it out in the world and not be 100% about how it is going to be received. All of the positive feedback that we’ve gotten about the relationship and about Seyka has been immensely gratifying.

Annie Kitain: Just to add on to what Ben was saying, you know, before the game even came out, when we started to introduce Seyka, just seeing the positive reaction to her character and people speculating about, “who is she going to be? What is she like? how is this going to play out in the story?” That was just exciting for us to see. We were still nervous, of course. But then, when the game came out, seeing that positive reaction, that’s just been very gratifying. 

I thought it was a beautiful relationship. I’m just going to put it out there. I thought it was amazing. Early on in Burning Shores, we get this early tease of the HORUS fight when we see it wrapped around the Hollywood sign. Was that fight always narratively in mind? Was it always planned to end Walters and his interactions in the world?

Ben McCaw: Yeah, the HORUS fight was so ingrained in what we wanted to do that it would be safe to say that. Some of the thinking we did about Londra was like, “How do we kind of get that HORUS fight to work?” And, “Who could actually do that?”

The HORUS machine has been around visually since Horizon Zero Dawn. I think we’ve always imagined what it would be like to fight one of those things. I’m sure our fans have always imagined what it’d be like to fight one of these things. We thought about how to end the next chapter of Aloy’s story, which just seemed like the ultimate boss fight. And it was really part of the plan for the Burning Shores pretty much from the beginning.

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It felt like you were pushing the battles to the next level. It was amazing that it’s always been there, but we’ve never actually been able to experience it. Obviously, finally, we did, and it was a great fight.

Ben McCaw:  There are many, many data points in Zero Dawn and Forbidden West that have to do with essentially soldiers or civilians from the old world coming face to face with those machines. So it’s always something that we’ve imagined, and bringing it to life was one of the biggest challenges we faced but also one of the things we’re most eager to do.

Speaking of the data points in the overall lore, I’m not sure if you can speak to this, but how has the approach to world-building changed internally since the Killzone days?

Ben McCaw: Massively. For the Killzone games, beloved games bought by our fans of Guerrilla, but games that were not necessarily well known for their stories. I think when Horizon was in development, the studio just kind of knew that they needed to change their whole approach to storytelling, to fit Aloy’s journey, to fit an open-world game to fit In a totally different world than then Killzone, and really started beefing up the narrative team at that point, that’s where I came on.

It’s hard to even really compare because the games themselves are just so different. We went from a mostly single-player, first-person shooter, very linear game to an open world with some branching, etc. So, everything changed. It wasn’t just our storytelling; it was literally down to our tools. Everything changed.

We’ve just tried to keep evolving and refine it ever since. It’s been really cool. Because it’s really great to work at a studio that, as a writer, embraces the story. You know, some studios don’t, and some studios do great work by not embracing story, and that’s fine. But for us, it was really fun to be along that journey and to work with artists, programmers, designers, and everyone that is really interested in telling a story.

Annie Kitain: Our approach for the data points is always to make sure that it supports the story we’re trying to tell in the game. If you look at the data points in Burning Shores, we had a lot of fun envisioning what Los Angeles was like in the 2050s and 2060s of our future, and how does that relate to the themes of LA, the themes of the Burning Shores of these cults of personality, of appearance versus the reality of what those things really are like?

We tried to incorporate a lot of those ideas to help support the main story that’s going on. That’s been a process that I think we’ve been refining more from probably Zero Dawn before I joined Forbidden West and now in Burning Shores.

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We have our main baddie Londra—this pompous jerk—and a lot of people have started to draw conclusions about who this character is based on. So I need to ask, where did you draw the inspiration for not only his character but also Seyka?

Ben McCaw: That’s a great question, but I think people might be a little surprised by the answer regarding Walter Londra. First of all, Londra is not based on any real-world person, full stop. If you look and really get into the details on what his particular little creepy backstory is, you can kind of see that there’s no real-world comparison.

That said, Walter Londra really is just a combination of a lot of needs that the story had. We needed someone who was capable of reigniting HORUS; we needed someone who was capable of influencing the Quen, not just in terms of being kind of a zenith and an ancestor, but also with this particular sort of desire to form this kind of narcissistic cult. We needed a character that related to Hollywood in some way that was super important for us.

This is where the backstory about his wife and the theme park comes from, and we needed a character who just had their own particular brand of malevolence that would be suited for Los Angeles. So that’s where it came from. I always think with our Zenith characters, there are shades of the story that are important to our present moment about inequality. About people just having so much that no, nothing is ever enough. But there’s no sort of direct real-world template. I hope that answers your question.

Horizon Forbidden West: Burning Shores sometimes felt like it was meant to be its own game. It is incredibly vast and densely packed with stories. Was there any point initially where it would be either its own thing or a part of the base Horizon Forbidden West?

Ben McCaw: We did very briefly consider if we could put Los Angeles into Horizon Forbidden West. That just wasn’t going to be feasible for us. Especially once you have Las Vegas and San Fransisco… But I think a lot of the development of Burning Shores was a reaction to the development of The Frozen Wilds.

The Frozen Wilds was built as a side story. That was awesome; that had a lot of great aspects to it, especially because it was accessible to the player earlier, but it also has a lot of limitations. You can’t tell a story with quite as much of an ending because it’s happening literally in the middle of your game, and it’s actually much more difficult to do character development on your protagonist when you have a side story like that.

When the opportunity came for us to do DLC which was going to take place after the main game, that was tremendously exciting because we knew we could continue the story. It is a more contained thing where you can tell the next chapter. Was there a consideration that it would be its own full game? I mean, it’s intended to be DLC. We just wanted to make that DLC the biggest, coolest, most fun, and most emotionally engaging experience we could possibly do.

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Annie Kitain: Just to echo what Ben is saying, I think across our whole team, we were challenging ourselves to know that this is coming after Forbidden West. How do we do the most ambitious boss fight that we’ve ever done? How do we tell the next chapter of Aloys story? So I think it was from the outset always our goal to try and push the boundary on what we’ve done with it as a character and what we’ve done in the game. I think that that contributes to the feeling that this is a substantial piece of content because we were hoping that it would be

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