There's something beautiful that happens when you and a game just *click*.
The first time I watched Wicked (the musical), it was a treat from my mum: I was a musical theatre kid and I’d listened to that soundtrack obsessively for months, so she flew us down to Melbourne and I finally learned the narrative that stitched those incredible songs together. From the opening notes of the second last number, tears began to stream down my face, not because the content was particularly emotional, but because I knew the experience was nearly over.
This is not a response I typically have to the media I consume, and it’s not something I’d felt again until fifteen years later, as I neared the end of Horizon Zero Dawn.
I don’t know exactly what it is about Horizon that made me spontaneously burst into tears as I completed the last few quests of its main narrative. Perhaps I identify with Aloy so intensely that even her smallest failures and successes felt connected to my own. Perhaps I simply spent so long waiting to play this game that I was overwhelmed by the delayed gratification.
I first saw Horizon at EB Expo in October 2016. The demo showed the natural landscapes I love exploring in video games, plus the sci-fi themes that intrigue me in a narrative. When the Tallnecks wandered majestically across the plains, I was sold (which I am absolutely sure was their plan all along). I fell heavily for the red-headed girl with her spear and fierce determination, who could hack mechanised creatures and then ride them across mountains and deserts and leafy forest floors.
But I haven’t just been waiting for Horizon since experiencing it at EB Expo; I feel like I’ve been waiting for Horizon for my entire life.
I think sometimes, in our fight for greater diversity in games, we can forget exactly what it is that we’re hoping for. Diversity is so important, but it can become this amorphous and distant thing. Horizon reminded me why diversity matters so much, not just for the gaming community or society more broadly, but for me.
Many games boast that they are suitable for anyone and everyone, but there’s a big difference between who is able to play a game and who that game is actually targeting. Every game has an ideal player, and it’s often not me. Playing games that are made for other people is still fun—if it wasn’t, I wouldn’t play games at all—but it can feel like I’m trespassing. And it doesn’t help that a vocal chunk of the gaming community is literally telling me that I’m infringing upon their hobby.
But Horizon Zero Dawn was made for me.
It feels like the designers of Horizon reached into my mind, found everything that’s important to me in a game, and prioritised it. The narrative is well-constructed, filled with wonderful foreshadowing, and explains the game world in a way that doesn’t feel contrived; every new detail the story revealed during my playthrough was satisfying and exciting.
Horizon’s aesthetic—with its beautiful biomes smashed together in a way that only open world games can manage—is the perfect size for me to explore without becoming bored or overwhelmed. The sunsets are magical, and the intricate ‘photo mode’ is the sort of extra feature that I waste hours experimenting with. When a post-release patch added the ability to pose Aloy in photos, I thought Christmas had come early.
Although exploring this world isn’t always perfect, with the climbing mechanics feeling a little clunky at times, the space is inviting. Watching machines interact with the landscape feels strangely natural, and engaging in combat with them is very satisfying. There are a range of weapons that can be combined in ways that I really enjoyed, and despite usually being terrible at stealth mechanics, I used them a lot in Horizon.
The characters who populate this world—no matter how important (or unimportant) they are to the central narrative—are nuanced and filled with personality. Many only make brief appearances in the game, but are still presented in ways that made me feel something for them. Watching these people criticise or support Aloy, or make decisions about their own journeys that are unrelated to hers, made the world feel alive and sometimes made me quite emotional. These characters also helped side quests—of which there are just the right amount—feel less like the ‘fetch quests’ that they essentially are.
And despite there being obvious mutual respect—and some occasional flirting—between Aloy and the characters she encounters, there are no explicit romances in the game. This is somewhat unusual in open world RPGs, and also incredibly refreshing. Aloy is an independent person—which reflects the way she was raised—and I like that Horizon embraces this by allowing her to find allies and begin valuable friendships, without muddying these platonic relationships with romantic feelings.
Aloy’s independence is one of the reasons I love this game so much. There are so many little moments throughout the title that work to empower her, and women in general. From the matriarchal society from which Aloy originates, to the various men in charge of armies who tell their soldiers to report to and listen to her, to the side quests that are about fighting against patriarchal power structures, Horizon made me punch the sky in celebration on more than one occasion.
The game has been referred to in some circles (and you can probably guess which ones) as ‘feminist propaganda’, as having a ‘feminist agenda’, and being ‘a showcase of the damage feminism has done’. If this is what feminist propaganda in games looks like, sign me up—I’m keen for more.
But it’s remiss of me to praise the social progressiveness of Horizon without highlighting that its representation of all minority groups is certainly not perfect. There have been valid criticisms of the game’s use of Native American terms and imagery, perhaps best summarised by Dia Lacina’s essay on Medium. John Gonzales, the game’s narrative director, responded to these criticisms in an interview with Waypoint, and I’m interested to see how this might be addressed in a sequel.
Horizon is not a flawless game, but it is a game that made me feel welcome and valid. It’s a game that made me laugh at silly interactions, and weep through the credits sequence. It’s an open world that truly felt open—this game invited me in and asked me to enjoy myself, and told the men in the game to talk to me like I am their equal.
It’s only June, but I can safely say that Horizon Zero Dawn will be my game of the year. In fact, I think it’s my game of the last twenty-four years. Thank you, Guerrilla Games.