Aloy moves alone through her world. Geralt in the Witcher series is constantly bounded and motivated by his social relations and obligations, despite his fundamentally ronin status; in contrast, although the protagonist of Horizon Zero Dawn is provided by her back-story with a social context that explains who she is and why, the earliest stages of the narrative excise her of all social obligations and close relationships. It is to the credit of the writers that they take the time to show how this is socially possible, within the customs of her tribe, but this liberty accorded to Aloy is clearly a pretext for the player’s freedom within the game’s beautifully realised open world. Also in contrast to the Witcher games, side quests lack narrative complexity, and almost every secondary character is lacking in depth. Even the Witcher’s over-sexualised female companions, placed at the erotic convenience of both character and (implicitly male) player, are much more convincingly drawn characters, with the semblance of their own lives and motivations, but in Horizon Zero Dawn the only character that really gets to sing her song is Aloy.
Lucky then, that it is a song worth singing. Her courage, compassion and intelligence will capture the hearts of most players before they’ve known her for an hour, even if, unlike me, they do not have a daughter of roughly Aloy’s age. Although the writers must clearly be given their due for the way in which Aloy responds to her experiences and environment, there is little development in her character from beginning to end of the tale, and the majority of the credit for her striking charisma belongs to the voice acting of Ashly Burch. Burch is known as a specialist in voice acting for games, although I’m only familiar with one of her other roles; in Horizon Zero Dawn she speaks with the same kind of quiet precision deployed by Mark Rylance in his portrayal of Thomas Cromwell in Wolf Hall (and memorably satirised by Ben Miller in S3:E3 of Upstart Crow). This proves a very apt match for Aloy’s character traits, which include an unshakeable ability to focus, relentless determination, icy unflappability, and razor-sharp mental and physical capacities. Despite her seeming perfection, or perhaps because of it, the player still feels her vulnerability in the face of circumstances that are both global and apocalyptic in scope, and it is her mourning for the destructive loss of the world that was (our world, that is to say) that gives the game its narrative heart.
Horizon Zero Dawn is set roughly a thousand years in the future, in a world populated by tribal peoples who know nothing of our times. They have some technical capacities, based around the scavenging of ancient or discarded technology, but live for the most part somewhere between the neolithic and the medieval, in terms of both material and social culture. They share the world with a curiously reduced palette of land vertebrates, and a large number of advanced robots of mysterious origin, which fill the ecological niches that, in our age, belong to the larger animals. These robots are routinely hunted for the parts and materials which can be scavenged from them, although some are so large and so well equipped with military equipment that hunting them is rarely practical for those less remarkably skilled than Aloy. Finding out how this state of affairs came about, and preventing it from becoming precipitately worse, becomes Aloy’s goal, by way of investigating her own mysterious origins.
It is this hunting of the machines that gives the game its heart as a game, and which makes it as compelling as the Witcher, which is far more engaging on a narrative level, but which can be played with little more than ham-fisted button-mashing (on the difficulty levels I tend to choose in my dotage, at any rate). Each machine must be hunted in the correct way, with the correct weapons, although it should also be said that there are usually several correct ways to complete any gameplay objective. I have to admit that I usually play for the story, in this kind of visually accomplished AAA game, but with HZD the gameplay grabbed me and didn’t release me until long after I had completed the narrative. That this nuanced and multi-levelled hunting and combat takes place against the backdrop of a beautifully rendered version of what our material culture might look like after a millennium of total neglect gives HZD its peculiar and engaging affective character, a kind of kinetic melancholy.
As the big secrets of the backstory are revealed we are drawn deeper into the narrative, whose most compelling elements turn out to be the fragmentary lives preserved from earlier times in the media snippets that are scattered throughout the world. Aloy has a mission, in terms of responding urgently to events that are emergent in her own time, but her progress through the world is as driven by curiosity as much as anything else, and by a need to recover lost lives from their documentary traces. The past exists liminally in HZD, poised between presence and absence, as in Jacques Derrida’s concept of ‘hauntology’. In fact, it sometimes feels as though W.G. Sebald had written a Tomb Raider game, its protagonist pursuing not treasure or power, but an ineffable palimpsest of forgotten lives. Although HZD does not really stand up to its competition in terms of characterisation and interpersonal drama, this combination of uniquely compelling gameplay, and a pensive, hauntological fascination with the frailty of memory, both crystallised through the person of its precisely delineated protagonist, makes the game, for me, one of the AAA genre’s most complex and moving works of art.