Sometimes I finish a video game and, unsatisfied by the 84 percent completion bar, I start up a New Game Plus (NG+). Sometimes I tuck the game away and revisit it months or years later. Sometimes I listen to the soundtrack and reminisce my first time playing the game. Whatever the case may be, I know a game has succeeded when I find myself going back to it. For me, that game is Horizon Zero Dawn.
I hardly remember playing a lot of video games with female protagonists when I was growing up. Lara Croft from the Tomb Raider series is a popular example, but I couldn’t work up the nerve to play the first game because the music and environment terrified my seven-year-old self. Lightning from Final Fantasy XIII is another, but her reserved emotions and adult mindset made it difficult to form a connection. Still, I admired these characters for their strength and heroism. Time passed, and I had yet to find a video game female protagonist with similar traits and experiences.
Then E3 2015 happened. It was my first year tuning in to the press conferences, and I only had eyes and ears for Sony’s. Not too long into the montage of game announcements, Sony revealed Horizon Zero Dawn with a breathtaking trailer:
The trailer introduced Aloy, the protagonist of the game. Although I was a little upset that the developers didn’t choose a WOC, I decided to buy the game upon release for its unique concept, engaging combat, and beautiful graphics. HZD held a lot of promise, and over a year later, it delivered.
Remember when Marvel Comics executive David Gabriel said diversity and female characters are hurting sales? HZD is a video game, not a comic, but both industries suffer from catering solely to a white heterosexual male demographic. When HZD launched on Feb. 28, 2017, its sales topped 2.6 million units in less than two weeks. A few months after launch, it reached 3.4 million copies. HZD is the second bestselling video game on the PS4, according to Sony. The overwhelming success is a major feat for Guerrilla Games, HZD’s studio. Sony even predicted HZD will be the next big franchise, calling Aloy a “Playstation Icon of the Future.”
Horizon Zero Dawn is an open-world RPG, which means players have the freedom to complete side quests, hunts, or anything other than the main objective. The primitive setting takes place after modern civilization’s demise, almost like the earth has reverted to its original essence. Robotic dinosaurs roam the different regions, so instead of man versus nature, it’s man versus machine.
Aloy is a Motherless outcast raised by another outcast, Rost. Aloy’s tribe functions as a matriarchy and worships the fertility goddess called All-Mother. I love that Guerrilla Games decided to create a matriarchal society and underline the importance of mothers and motherhood. Part of the reason why Aloy departs on a journey to find clues about her mother’s identity is to find her own.
I learned a lot from Aloy — don’t return the hate you receive. Instead, help others as they need it. Who you are is not defined by labels or people’s opinions. You find your identity through growth.
One of the most beautiful and iconic scenes in the game is when Aloy literally leaps into her adolescence. Now she’s a young woman who’s finally ready for the Proving — a test of strength, courage, and endurance that grants the title “Brave” (warrior) to worthy participants. Despite the tribe’s ceaseless discrimination, Aloy helps those in need regardless of who they are.
To my relief, HZD didn’t force any romance on its protagonist. Director Herman Hulste explained why it’s not about romance, but about the journey.
Aloy not only fights machines, but also human enemies such as bandits. Other tribes reside in different lands; some have more advanced architecture, which allow refreshing exploration. Each tribe is diverse, so you won’t see a homogenous tribe. I also remember there being more competent and/or tough female characters than male ones. This reminds me of Uncharted: The Lost Legacy DLC, where two WOC are the protagonists and kick a lot of male ass.
Even though Aloy isn’t a WOC, she has a realistic character design. Her default outfit logically covers up her skin due to the tribe’s snowy environment. Most of her other outfits consist of armor because even video game characters aren’t immune to robo-dino attacks. It wouldn’t make sense if she ran around with a slip of cloth over her skin, or worse, no clothes at all. Thankfully, HZD isn’t that primitive.
The game mechanics barely gave me any complications. It was rather fun crafting ammo while in the middle of a battle with a Watcher. I could form whatever strategies I wanted, whether that’s setting traps before alarming the machines or running straight into the herd and shooting fire arrows. By the time I upgraded my equipment, taking down a Thunderjaw — the equivalent of a T-Rex — was very satisfying.
Overall, the story left a deep impression, especially the last cutscene. When the credits rolled, I couldn’t believe I had finished the game. My time with Aloy ended (until I get my hands on The Frozen Wilds DLC). Then came the post-credit cutscene, which promised another installment in the franchise.
HZD received a 9.3 rating on IGN and a 9/10 rating on Gamespot. My rating is, of course, a 10. One of the main reasons why the game elicits such a perfect score from me is the graphics — it’s phenomenal. With HZD’s photo mode, players can take screenshots of the natural environments. Slap on a border or change the filter — it’s like Instagram but the content is absolutely stunning.
Now for the moment of truth: The Game Awards. On Dec. 7, the ceremony will announce the winners of each category while celebrating both game creators and game players. Fans hold some sway over the votes, but global media outlets make up the jury. The most important category is, of course, Game of the Year. HZD is up against The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Super Mario Odyssey, PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, and Persona 5.
Let’s be honest: 2017 has been a strong and amazing year for video games. While GOTY is the most competitive category, I’m happy with just seeing HZD listed as a nominee. If HZD happens to lose at The Game Awards, hope still remains for The Game Developers Choice Awards, which usually occurs in the spring. In light of all the year-end award ceremonies, The TIGA Awards recently announced HZD as the winner of the “Best Role Playing Game.”
Horizon Zero Dawn will surely win another category if not GOTY. A game as breathtaking, unique, and successful as HZD deserves at least a few prominent awards. I’ve already casted my vote, so all I can do is put my faith in the game that changed my gaming experiences.