Back in May I was pretty depressed over everything that was happening. I could no longer dance, workout, see my friends. All of the support network I’d spent years creating to improve my physical and mental health collapsed overnight. Or so I thought. A few days after my birthday, I got a package in the mail and I had no idea what it might be. I hadn’t ordered anything.
It was a Playstation 4. My friends had all pooled their money together and bought me a PS4 to try and cheer me up, because they knew I was sad. It absolutely blew me away, and so I’ve spent the last few months playing through some of the best stories the PS4 has had to offer. Games that my friends also bought me.
Over the last few months I’ve played God of War, The Last of Us, Red Dead Redemption 2, and Horizon: Zero Dawn. I also just finished The Last of Us: Part 2 and I do have a review for that, but am reluctant to post it due to the vitriol going on around that game. So for now, I want to focus on Horizon: Zero Dawn because it’s truly a masterpiece of storytelling.
All That Matters is the Ending: Horizon Zero Dawn
This game is a beautiful example of how even though every story has already been told, it’s in the details and nuance of the telling that make it unique. A story about robots run amok destroying the world is nothing new. A story about a clone trying to come to terms with its nature is nothing new. Yet it’s in how Horizon: Zero Dawn chose to tell that story that truly set it apart.
The Worldbuilding was Outstanding
You know, at first, I wasn’t sold on the story. As soon as I saw the hologram that Aloy’s would-be-killers had on them, that looked exactly like an older version of her, I knew she was a clone. And because I saw that twist coming, I thought I knew where this story was going. I’m so glad my arrogance didn’t keep me from finishing the game, because while yes I was correct about the clone aspect… I couldn’t anticipate the emotional payoff that would have.
What kept me going through the early sections of the game was the outstanding world- building. In the prologue of the game Aloy falls into the ruins of an old bunker, and there the mystery is introduced. Something horrible happened here a long time ago, soldiers writing their own epitaphs, and their superiors offering them humane euthanasia instead of a slow death. What happened here? What were they so afraid of?
Then there were the many questions the environment of Horizon: Zero Dawn raised. As I explored the world, I found the remains of tanks scattered all across the landscape; the shattered ruins of cities; and most intriguingly, gigantic dead robots tangled in the mountains.
Then of course there were the robots the roamed the landscape that looked like animals; robotic reflections of deer, alligators, hawks, giraffes and rhinoceroses. These were what truly fascinated me, why would these robots be designed to look like animals? What was their purpose? These were questions that made me wonder about the creator, and the motives behind their creation.
A less well written game would never have bothered to address this questions, it would be in the game because it’s a cool design choice and aesthetic. Horizon: Zero Dawn is not one of those games. I wonder which came first, the idea for robots shaped like animals or the idea for the story which naturally led to robots shaped like animals?
Either way, I was intrigued not only by their designs but their behavior. You can watch these creatures churning up soil, aerosolizing water, and even soaring through the air. I wanted to know why, I thought maybe these robots were searching for something given their behavior. I also wanted to know how these robots wiped out humanity when they seemed relatively harmless. Sure they were dangerous, but if a primitive society can bring them down with bows and arrows, they wouldn’t stand a chance against humans with guns.
I knew, as I’m sure most if not all the audience knew, that somehow mankind had brought about its own fall. I was also certain that robotic technology was likely responsible given everything we’d seen of the world. So sure, I had all the parts of the puzzle, but until the final reveal I couldn’t piece them together. There was a part of me that was afraid it would be some stupid reason behind the animal designs, like they’d been designed for big game hunting and sport after having driven organic creatures extinct and somehow wiped out humanity.
The real reason behind them looking like animals was absolute poetry.
The Plot was Compelling
I’ve seen this plot countless of times in science fiction, where robots created by mankind eventually destroy their creators. Terminator, The Matrix, Battlestar Galactica, they all explored this idea in different ways. What sets Horizon Zero Dawn apart from those other examples, is how the story is told and the theme it explores through its plot.
At its core, this is a story about conservation, the importance of preserving the incredibly complex ecosystem that sustains us. Horizon: Zero Dawn takes place sometime in the 3000, but the inciting incident of this story begins in the 2030s when environmental destruction has left the world on the edge of collapse. Millions are dead from the collapse of ecosystems that lead to famine and rapidly changing climate conditions. Dr. Elizabet Sobek along with a man named Ted Faro, who bankrolled her, create a line of “green robots” designed to help repair the damage to the environment.
The project succeeds in an event known as “The Clawback” as these robots reforest the Amazon, detoxify the air and waters, and essentially terraform Earth back into a more stable environment. Unfortunately, Ted Faro sees the potential of these robots as war machines, and begins shifting to weapons research. He succeeds in creating these war machines, and in doing so, unleashes a plague that he is unable to stop. The machines, capable of converting biomass into fuel, consume the planet, including humanity and renders the sphere uninhabitable.
Dr. Elizabet Sobek saw that the Faro Plague couldn’t be stopped, the codes to shut them down were so heavily encrypted it would take decades to brute-force them. The world had about 16-months before Zero day, the day all life on earth would be extinct. So she came up with a plan: Gaia. A self-aware artificial intelligence that would work tirelessly cracking the code to disable the faro robots, and then begin terraforming the Earth back into a state where it could support life.
But Gaia wasn’t just another cold robotic logic machine like Faro’s robots, Elizabet Sobek taught Gaia to feel. Gaia had to care about life for it to accomplish its goal, or this would never work.
So Gaia could grieve.
And that’s why her robots look like animals. She designed them as tributes to a world that had been lost, and as a promise to the world she hoped to rebuild.
A question remained however. Why would Gaia have designed these robots to hurt humans though or why do they only terraform the same area over and over again? The real reason is because the game needed enemies to fight and players needed to find them easily if they needed parts off them. That’s where most games would have left it, and I would have accepted it because video game logic is stupid sometimes. Horizon: Zero Dawn put the work in though,
All of this to explore a theme of conservation and the importance of valuing all life, even if its different from us. To appreciate how important and precious our biosphere is. Unlike in Zero Dawn however, there is no Gaia robot to save us from ourselves, and though we are consuming the planet at a slower rate than the Faro robots, we are consuming it none the less.
The Characters Felt Real
(Some of them)
I’ll admit I didn’t connect with a lot of the side characters that Aloy meets throughout the game, with the exception of Erend who you interact enough with to actually bond with. Varl, Sona, and the other allies you collect never felt quite real to me because they get so little dialogue and screen time. On one hand I would have liked to have seen more of these characters, but on the other the pacing of the story was so well done I wouldn’t have wanted to lose that to explore these side characters further.
What matters is that Aloy came across a deeply human character, who I emphasized and rooted for. I hadn’t felt this attached to a main character in a game since Senua in Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice. As a kid who was also a bit of an exile in school, the “other” who was always excluded, I felt an immediate affinity for Aloy. I recognized her pain at never feeling like she belonged anywhere. She starts off an outcast, hated for reasons she doesn’t understand, but finally works hard enough to earn recognition from her tribe.
Only for a group of outsiders to attack, murdering most of the friends she had just made. Then her tribe sends her away to find these killers, rather than being invited to grieve for their deaths, because her elders think she’s special. An upgrade from being an outcast, but being special is isolating in its own right. Then Aloy travels to various lands, and is called a barbarian and savage for belonging to a tribe that doesn’t even accept her as one of their own.
And when she finally returns home to save the Nora tribe from annihilation, even then she isn’t allowed to become part of the tribe. Instead they make her Annointed, and want to begin worshipping her, placing her on a pedestal that no one would ever reach. Watching her lash out at the Nora elders for being so xenophobic and isolationist, her passionate speech about how there were good people everywhere she traveled, was one of the high points of the game.
It was this emotional journey that made the ending so perfect.
The other characters that sold this story were the ones who died centuries before Aloy’s story begins. Top notch voice acting and writing made the audio entries and journal entries incredibly compelling, giving these never seen characters a life of their own. Hearing Faro beg Dr. Sobek to find a solution, and the horror in his voice as Dr. Sobek tells him… there is no solution. At least not one where anyone survives.
“This isn’t a glitch. It’s a catastrophe.” – Elisabet
“Fully aware. It’s bad.” – Faro
He says he’s fully aware, but his mind hasn’t fully grasped the apocalyptic nature of his mistake.
“Bad!?” – Elisabet
“Jesus Liz…” -Faro
“It’s not bad Ted, it’s apocalyptic! You built a line of killer robots – ” – Elisabet
“Peacekeepers!” – Faro
I love his plaintive cry here because even now, with it slowly dawning on him that there can be no coming back from this, he continues to delude himself. His machines were never meant to keep peace, if they were he’d never have made a profit. They were meant to make war more appealing, no more lives lost, just endless swarms of robots destroying each other.
“that consume biomass as fuel – ” Elizabet
“In emergencies!” – Faro
Again, Ted Faro is throwing up defense after defense. None of this was meant to happen.
“And you made them capable of self-replication!” – Elizabet
“Limited self-manufacture. Controlled!” – Faro
These features made sense taken separately. Of course you’d want robots that could replicate themselves in the event supply lines were cut and it would be a strategic advantage to be able to self-replicate and replace losses in combat. It was kind of genius in a way too because he seems to have modeled it on organic life. Our own bodies operate essentially the same way: consuming biomass to fuel the self-replication of our cells in a limited and controlled manner.
Unless you get cancer, when your cells begin to replicate out of control and begin consuming every resource in your body to perpetuate its own growth. Faro had created the perfect storm, a self-replicating robotic cancer that would consume and reproduce indefinitely until it had consumed every form of life on the planet: including him.
“How do I stop it while it’s contained!” – Faro
“It can’t be contained Ted!” – Elisabet
“You know what I mean!” – Faro
“Right, before the truth gets out you mean.” – Elisabet
Even now, having learned he’s responsible for the extinction of all life on Earth… he thinks like a CEO. How do I protect myself from liability? How do I fix this before it impacts my company’s stocks? He still doesn’t quite understand what’s happening.
Who could blame him? If any of us were confronted with such a horrible realization, that all life would be extinct in less than two years, could any of us truly grasp it? Even I couldn’t and it was a game. I knew Elisabet Sobek’s plan had to be radical, but even I couldn’t conceive of her solution.
When I reached US Robot Command and saw her meeting with the Joint Chief’s of Staff, I still didn’t fully understand. I thought her plan might involve the detonation of some kind of gobal, super-powered EMP device that would knock the Faro robots offline but also set us back to the stoneage. Or the launching of a colony ship (which is actually a concurrently run plan that fails) that would save but a fraction of a percent of the population.
I was just as shocked as I’m sure the members of Project Zero Dawn were, when General Herres appears in holographic form and finally reveals the truth: there is no hope of survival. There is no magic bullet that will stop the Faro plague. No super secret weapons project that will save humanity. Project Zero Dawn is a last ditch effort to make sure life goes on after everyone and everything is dead.
Billions of lives sacrificed in a futile battle against the ever growing swarm of machines to buy time for one final hope: a time capsule containing an AI meant to reseed the Earth after everything was gone.
It succeeds. Against all odds, it succeeds.
But not completely.
At the end, as the Faro Plague overwhelmed the last of mankind’s defenses and the robots were days away from destroying Gaia… the Zero Dawn team finished. Gaia was ready, all that was left was to seal it away so tightly that the Faro robots wouldn’t detect Gaia’s energy signature. Except one of the seals fails, and the only way to repair it was for someone to go outside and seal it manually.
“I’m okay with this.
I want to go home.”
Elisabet Sobek’s final words.
The Ending Was Beautiful
Horizon: Zero Dawn nails its ending because it focuses on what’s truly important: emotional resolution. Yes this ending wraps up the plot in a neat little bow, and is appreciated, had it stopped with the deactivation of Hades I would have been sorely disappointed in the ending. Luckily it takes the time to wrap up the more important element: Aloy’s journey. Most impressive is that this ending takes just over a minute and a half to play out, but beautifully resolves the story.
This story is about the end of the world, in fact it almost ends twice. I’ve complained about storylines like these in various other reviews, most recently Star Trek: Picard. But here’s why Horizon: Zero Dawn succeeds where other end-of-the-world plots fail: this plot is anchored by Aloy’s story, her quest to find her mother.
I knew from the moment Aloy sees an image of what is essentially an older version of herself that Aloy was a clone. However, I didn’t know about her origins or the reason for her creation, until the very end. When everything came together, I got chills and a little teary-eyed.
Just like Elisabet Sobek played the long game, hoping that Gaia would be able to shut down the Faro robots and reseed the Earth with life, Gaia does the same with Aloy. In the milliseconds it takes for the virus, of unknown origin but likely relating to Faro’s robots, to take hold Gaia formulates a plan: clone Elisabeth Sobek, and then self-destruct to keep Hades from exterminating all life for what will be the last time.
Aloy was Gaia’s last desperate attempt to keep Earth, and humanity, alive. Inspired by the actions of her creator, in many ways a mother to her as well, Gaia cloned Elisabet Sobek hoping that she would be as intelligent, tenacious, and compassionate enough to save the Earth again. An artificial intelligence made… a leap of faith.
The visual symbolism of the ending is beautiful. When Elisabet Sobek sat down on that stone bench outside her home, the Earth was dead. She would have found herself surrounded by nothing but ash, looking up at blackened and airless sky. The utter silence and stillness of extinction the last thing she would experience.
When Aloy finds Elisabet’s body a thousand years later, she’s surrounded by life. The birds are singing, butterflies fill the air, and the sky is blue once again. As the camera zooms out we see that the flowers are arrayed in a triangular pattern around Elisabet’s body, identical to the patterns around metal flowers you can find in the world while playing the game; in the distance, the same kind of tall pines that Elisabet had accidentally burned down as a kid, the mistake that had taught her respect life and use her intelligence to make the world better.
Which means at some point while Gaia was terraforming the planet, she had come across her creator’s body, just as Aloy does in the end. And since Elisabet had taught Gaia to feel, this artificial intelligence didn’t bulldoze the old buildings and recycle her corpse as a purely logic driven machine would. Instead, Gaia grieved for her and turned the area into a shrine; to honor the woman who had given everything to make sure that life, and humanity, would get a second chance.
And Aloy? In this final moment in the game she is no longer just an outcast, or a savage, or a savior. All the titles assigned to her, that kept her isolated and alone, fall away. Here, she is simply the daughter of Elisabet Sobek finding out that she lived up to the expectations that her mother would have wanted for her.
In these closing moments, Aloy finally feels the belonging, love, and connection she has searched for her whole life.
I couldn’t think of a more beautiful way to end her story.
Outstanding work everyone. I’m calling out the narrative director and writes specifically, but everyone deserves applause for this work of art.