Visual worlds

Among the games that I’ve played while catching up on the last few decades of big-budget productions, Horizon: Zero Dawn stands out for its combination of compelling gameplay, an appealing player character, and beautiful visual world-building. I’ve played other games with better voice-acting, better side-quests, more convincing settlements, better writing, and better combat, but Zero Dawn somehow managed to hit a sweet spot, where all of these aspects coalesced around an unusually satisfying core gameplay loop, and immersed me in its universe in a unique way. Unsurprisingly, I was anticipating its sequel with some excitement, and I can report that when it finally dropped I was not at all disappointed. Zero Dawn had quite a lot of novelty, with its core mechanic of fighting robot dinosaurs, and most of the press on Horizon: Forbidden West’s release was at pains to point out that this game is not innovative in the same way. What Guerilla Games set out to do, instead, was to double down on the first game’s virtues, and realise them on a grander scale.

This is a next-generation sequel, but my Playstation 4 Pro was more than capable of doing justice to the better graphics, larger world, and more intense gameplay of Forbidden West. However, the aspects of this game that I found really striking were not those that might have taxed the technical capacities of my equipment. The world of Forbidden West is one of competing tribal cultures, as was the first game, but the designers at Guerilla Games have really outdone themselves in developing a striking and coherent visual language to distinguish and characterise them. There’s a sense in which film, TV, and games can ‘cheat’ at fantasy world-building, by which I mean that a beautifully imagined visual setting can come alive for the viewer/player in spite of any number of conceptual implausibilities—the kinds of hole that would sink the ship in prose fiction. All of these tribes speak exactly the same language, with no attempt made to even differentiate their dialects, other than a few usages based around each tribe’s USP (although as David Graeber and David Wengrow point out in The Dawn Of Everything, cultural distinctions are not always aligned with linguistic ones). The two main tribes introduced for this game, and one of the three held over from the last, have cultures founded on simple, singular practices (fighting, farming, smithing), in a way which fails to do any justice to the complexity of real cultures. And there are a plethora of further inconsistencies and implausibilities in the social and cultural design of this world, but somehow, realised as it is through this utterly gorgeous, and thoroughly articulated visual design, it still comes alive. This is an instructive observation for someone like me, who is engaged in a more literary sort of world-building.

In comparison to Zero Dawn the side-quest content is considerably more substantive, and the incidental characters have received far more attention. The main story was gripping in Zero Dawn, but many of its revelations were disclosed through text files discovered in exploration—this mechanism continues in Forbidden West, but historical revelations are less central to the plot, and their delivery is more varied. I began the game intending to thoroughly explore the world, collect all the collectables, and beat all of the in-game activities, but in the end the main story got me hooked, and I ended up finishing the narrative with bits of the map still hidden. I’m still playing, in contrast to many games whose worlds I’ve loved, but which have lost their charm once the story is over. Continuing play is also better catered for than in the first game, which is simply re-wound to just before the final quest: here you get to wander the world and see how you’ve changed it. All of those activities—an arena, hunting grounds where you can practice fighting robot dinosaurs, hand-to-hand combat contests, and a complex strategy board-game—are all extremely well-designed, enjoyable in their own right, and in most cases offer genuinely useful opportunities to learn and practise game mechanics. As one would expect of a contemporary AAA open-world game, Horizon: Forbidden West is rich and deep. It has its imperfections, but I have to say that I usually have several games on the go at a time, and that all the others fell by the wayside while I finished this one. The narrative might be a bit confused for anyone who hasn’t played Zero Dawn, but this is one of the best-made and most enjoyable action adventure games I’ve played so far.

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