by Kaytlyn Bell, Ball State University
Since its release on February 28, 2017, the video game Horizon: Zero Dawn has been praised for the originality of its apocalypse and its strong storytelling. The game is set on 31st century Earth. Decaying cities surround you, overtaken by vegetation, half-buried in snow, or barely visible between sand dunes. It’s beautiful in that eerie, peaceful way that any place devoid of humans can be. From the very first screen, it sucks you in.
The plot is something you uncover as you play, so I won’t get too much into it in order to avoid spoilers. What you need to know for this article is that AI robots destroyed all life on Earth, an AI program shut them down and rehabilitated the planet using new AI robots, and then that same AI began to produce human beings from stored DNA. Originally these people lived together at the base of a mountain, but as, time went on, they began to forget their origins.
Eventually, people splintered into tribes founded on beliefs about their creation or how they should progress as a civilization. One of these is the Nora, who believe that they hail from the great mountain in their region. This is the tribe to which the protagonist Aloy belongs. Aloy came from the mountain itself, and so has been raised in exile by a man named Rost. The mystery surrounding her birth drives the majority of the game.
While the story of the game cannot be changed (as in, there is only one ending), you get to choose the kind of person Aloy is and how she interacts with the people she meets. In almost every encounter from the very beginning of the game, there are opportunities for you to choose one of three dialogue options: heart (compassionate), brain (logical), or fist (aggressive). These alter the details of your progression in minor but meaningful ways. Maybe because you were aggressive, someone refuses to do a favor that would make a quest easier for you. Or maybe you were too soft, so someone chooses to wallow in despair instead of helping you. It’s these choices, scattered throughout the game, which let you find yourself in Aloy.
While this mechanism allows players a measure of control over who Aloy is and how the story plays out, in comparison with post-apocalyptic games in which you design your main character and have complete control over the direction the story takes, Horizon: Zero Dawn leaves something to be desired. Forcing players into the shoes of a teenage female could potentially alienate the male or adult audience. Even if it doesn’t, players could begin to disagree with the choices Aloy makes as the story progresses, but they can’t do anything to change them. For the many people who are able to identify with Aloy and her decisions, Horizon: Zero Dawn is immersive and engaging. For the many who can’t, it fails to serve the function post-apocalyptic games should: getting people inside an imagined apocalypse.
In the Digital Literature Review, we’ve discussed the way literature about apocalypse has failed to make people get involved in preventing the world-ending events the novels predict. The same goes for film, and this is because we have a set perspective on these activities in our culture. Books and movies are for escaping what’s going on in the outside world, and that’s been established for decades. Video games are still new, and we’re still figuring out how they fit with our society—and that gives them so much potential to inspire social change. This is especially true in the online gaming context, which is specifically designed to encourage players to interact with each other.
I believe video games are still young enough that an online post-apocalyptic game could be designed with the goal of getting a broader base of people engaged in world events. For instance, climate change is an ever-growing and ever-pressing problem. If a video game were designed in which players took on the role of survivors in an environmental apocalypse, it would easily surpass film or literature in terms of immersion. Eventually, as virtual technology improves, players could interact with this apocalypse as if they were truly in it (shy of the sweltering temperatures and threat of imminent death). Game developers could use this to show them what the world could be like if we don’t all intervene in every way we can and could provide in-game links to organizations that are making a difference right now. Games could include loading screens that talk about ways to conserve power and water, that suggest convenient places to bring recyclables, or that incentivize donations by providing in-game rewards.
Video games are the most immersive platform of entertainment we have available to us. If game producers can jump on this in time, they can revamp the social climate to encourage activity even outside of the game world and be the medium for change that media and literature could not. I chose to talk about Horizon: Zero Dawn because it’s a step in the right direction for post-apocalyptic games in that it’s highly immersive for those who identify with Aloy, and because of its success. It’s received a number of awards, but more than that, it broke sales records on the PlayStation 4, for which it was released exclusively. In its first two weeks, it sold 2.6 million copies worldwide, which is more than any non-sequel PS4 game to date. That immediate accessibility is unrivaled in film and literature: you can’t sit at home and wait for the digital download of the next Star Wars movie so you can watch it seconds after the release. If Horizon: Zero Dawn had also included messages about taking care of the environment, those messages would’ve reached more than 2.6 million people. If game producers teamed up with environmental scientists and made games like I discussed earlier, we would see an entirely new age of social involvement, and that would start right in your own home.
Guerrilla Games. Horizon: Zero Dawn. Sony Interactive Entertainment, 2017. PlayStation 4.
Makuch, Eddie. Horizon Zero Dawn Sells 2.6 Million Copies in Two Weeks, Story Expansion Coming. Gamespot, March 2016. Web.