#DigitalFables is Alex Ziebart's column about the boons and banes of storytelling in video games.
Horizon Zero Dawn is a great game by any metric. Currently, the game sits at a rating of 89 on Metacritic. Not only was it a great first installment of a new IP, but it's also one of the best selling games of the year thus far. I love the game and lost myself in it for a full week, barely looking up often enough to see the sunrise. I love it despite its unfailingly predictable plot.
#HorizonZeroDawn rests much of its narrative upon some of the most common tropes in gaming, rarely incorporating twists or turns to make those tropes fresh again. Even if the gorgeous visuals and premise seem fresh and new, the basic structure of its narrative is as rote as it gets.
If, at any point in your life, you've read (or watched or played) a piece of post-apocalyptic science fiction, Horizon Zero Dawn doesn't deliver a single surprise. At the same time, I enjoyed the narrative a great deal — even as predictable as it was.
'Horizon' Tells A Strange, But Too-Familiar Tale
Don't let the ultra cool robo-dinos fool you — beneath the surface, you've seen this story before.
Horizon Zero Dawn's narrative hits its lowest points when the game is dumping exposition, entirely because it relies so heavily on a bog standard post-apocalyptic science fiction scenario. Humanity's technological hubris caused the end of the world? What a twist! Except, you know, not. While its commentary on the modern tech industry and our failure to consider the ramifications of technology are apt and timely, the plot often treats these exposition dumps as grand revelations.
Sure, these things might be revelations to the playable character Aloy, but it's a narrative been there, done that for us, the players. Grand civilizations rendered unto dust out of arrogance is a tale almost as old as time. Everyone knows the story of Icarus who flew too close to the sun. Thanks to Breaking Bad, Percy Shelly's Ozymandias, first published in 1818, has entered popular culture again. At the very least, you've heard its most famous lines:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
'My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
Poet Horace Smith wrote a version of his own in competition with Percy Shelly. While Smith's version isn't as powerfully quotable, Smith's version is more direct in its point.
In Egypt's sandy silence, all alone,
Stands a gigantic Leg, which far off throws
The only shadow that the Desert knows:—
"I am great OZYMANDIAS," saith the stone,
"The King of Kings; this mighty City shows
"The wonders of my hand."— The City's gone,—
Nought but the Leg remaining to disclose
The site of this forgotten Babylon.
We wonder,—and some Hunter may express
Wonder like ours, when thro' the wilderness
Where London stood, holding the Wolf in chace,
He meets some fragment huge, and stops to guess
What powerful but unrecorded race
Once dwelt in that annihilated place.
Horizon Zero Dawn's overarching themes bring little new to the table; the concept has been explored for millennia. Aloy the player character must learn these things for the first time, yes, but the player doesn't. When a significant portion of the narrative is focused upon Aloy seeking answers, and the answers turn out to be the most obvious choice, it isn't very satisfying.
Certainly, Horizon Zero Dawn's focus on the dangers of technology and automation is apt for 2017. Those issues are at the forefront of our minds. Those concerns are clear and present. Even so, those themes need to be built upon. Though automation is an imminent threat, it's been a topic of discussion and speculation for more than a century.
Famous science fiction writers such as Hugo Gernsback and H. G. Wells have been touching on the topic of automation and the increasing reliance on machines since the late 1800s. (And significantly earlier than that if you consider works such as the Latin statue-come-to-life story Metamorphoses, believed to be written in 8 AD, to be in the same vein.)
While most speculative futurism of the period took an optimistic view of technological advancements, E. M. Forster published The Machine Stops in 1909, an apocalyptic tale wherein humanity has become entirely reliant on automated technology — and, well, the machine stops.
Just because the story has been told before doesn't mean it can't be told again. If that were the case, we couldn't write any stories at all anymore, because everything has been done already. We have the ability to make old things new again, though. We can tell those stories differently. We can add more to them. Horizon Zero Dawn's representation of an automated apocalypse doesn't offer anything new.
Let The World Do The Work
Horizon Zero Dawn's storytelling is at its best when it isn't focusing on the old world and, instead, focuses upon its present. The game world is filled with environmental details which tell most of the backstory on their own. Had there been no exposition about the apocalypse or pre-apocalypse, the game world told us enough without using a single word.
While it's a stretch to assume every Horizon Zero Dawn player would be familiar with the American southwest, the location was instantly recognizable to anyone who is familiar. The game never needed to spell out Colorado or Utah. The game world incorporates its unique, mountainous terrain and represents the ruins of the region's greatest landmarks.
Everything we needed to know about the proliferation of automation that caused the game's apocalyptic event, the game world showed us. This process plays out right in front of us:
- Machines such as Grazers harvest raw materials.
- Scrappers pull apart and recycle components from destroyed Grazers.
- Shell-Walkers carry resources and spare parts to the Vaults where new machines are made.
Without a word ever being spoken, we see a self-propagating cycle of automation taking place. Based on our own familiarity with genre tropes (and the technological advancements in our own world), we can draw the correct conclusions. And, when we see the tribes digging deep into the earth and discovering war machines that hook into the automated ecosystem, the sinister origins of this automation become clear. No one needs to verbalize the explanation for us.
"Show, don't tell" is an important part of storytelling. Horizon Zero Dawn does an excellent job showing: We can puzzle out everything we need to know entirely through the environment they've created. Putting the pieces together is a thrill.
Even though they've done that, they tell us everything anyway — and by telling us, we realize we've heard this story before. The thrill can feel lost.
Emphasize The Post In Post-Apocalyptic
That isn't to say the environmental storytelling isn't the only good aspect of Horizon Zero Dawn's narrative. The narrative is only dragged down when it places emphasis on the world that was rather than the world that is.
When Horizon focuses on its present, we're presented with something rich and beautiful rather than the bare bones. The world Aloy inhabits is fresh, full of cultures and societies obviously inspired by our time (and the time before), but still uniquely Horizon. How they interact with each other, and how they interact with what the old world left behind, is where Horizon's beauty lies.
Characters such as Aloy and Sylens are fascinating not because they went to learn about the past, but because they learn from the past. The tribes of Horizon Zero Dawn aren't interesting due to what came before, but based on what they're doing in the present. These characters, their backgrounds, and their interactions are what makes Horizon what it is.
The apocalypse was predictable. The post-apocalypse isn't. That's where Horizon shines.
Tropes Aren't The Finish Line
While some damaging tropes certainly exist, tropes aren't inherently evil. Often, they're unavoidable. They're a tool. They're a story's most basic structure, the building blocks of narrative. However, you need more than the tropes. You can't write Ozymandias. It's already been written. You can't write The Machine Stops. That's been done. You need to add the meat to the skeleton. When Horizon focuses on the past, all we see is the skeleton. When Horizon focuses upon its present, we see the meat. When your skeleton is visible, something's gone terribly wrong.
Assuming Horizon Zero Dawn is the first installment in a series, the period of the game where we're staring at a bare skeleton is perhaps a necessary evil. Perhaps the game had no choice but to spend time laying down that framework so we don't need to worry ourselves with it in the future. Now that we (and Aloy) have our answers, the environment can do the talking wherever the series goes next — and we can continue the post-apocalyptic story rather than the apocalyptic one.
After all, how much time do new entries in the #Fallout franchise spend re-explaining why the bombs dropped? Why they dropped isn't important. What's important is they did.