Design Analysis: Horizon Zero Dawn

Horizon Zero Dawn is an action role-playing game (RPG) that was released at the very end of February 2017. Its developer is Guerilla Games and publisher is Sony Interactive Entertainment. It was released exclusively for the PlayStation 4.

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Rost and Baby Aloy

Beginning the game enters us into a lengthy cutscene with a bearded tribal-looking man explaining to a baby why they are venturing out that day. Rost, the man, is about to perform a naming ritual for this baby girl, who is not his biological daughter. In fact, she is believed to have no parents at all. This cutscene teaches us much about the world we will be experiencing. This includes lore—such as the “Old Ones” who turned their back on the “Goddess”, and culture—this child was raised as an outcast of her tribe and the High Matriarchs argue whether or not she is a cursed child. We are also introduced, almost deceptively, to a kind of creature that inhabits the world; machines. I say “deceptively” because the machines it shows are not common or don’t show up in the early game at all. Nevertheless, they all exist in game. Once we reach our destination, after Rost has given us enough backstory, the ritual is performed and we know the baby is named Aloy (the A is pronounced like the A in “ate”). The name is obviously a play on the word alloy, which is understandable since machines and metal play an intrinsic role in the culture.

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Horizon Zero Dawn takes an interesting turn, your first actual gameplay is as Aloy when she is about six years old. We are introduced to how young Aloy is being treated as an Outcast of the Nora Tribe, and it’s about as well as you’d expect for a six year old child. All she was looking for was some recognition but instead everyone turns their back to her and shuns her.

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Aloy finds the focus

After Aloy’s unfortunate encounter with the tribe, she flees in a torrent of six year old emotion and finds herself tripping and falling into a chasm that leads to a “Ruin of the Old Ones.” These ruins are forbidden and it is taboo among the Nora to enter, however, Aloy’s venturous and curious mind allows her to proceed guilt-free. The ruin is entirely made of metal and it appears to have been some sort of facility, perhaps for manufacturing something. Aloy’s exploration allows you to discover a small triangular piece of metal placed on the right temple of a mummified human, long dead. Her curiosity gets the better of her and she puts it on her own temple. We are then given a view of the world through this piece of technology, the Focus. This device allows her to see and hear messages from the past. One such message is a hologram that plays of a man wishing his young son a happy birthday, which entertains the young Aloy. Consoles have similar holographic controls now visible, we can see pipes through the walls, and we can even see rats that are scurrying about. The Focus plays an important role in both gameplay and story so it makes sense for that game to introduce it so early. It also gives Aloy many years to master and understand how the Focus works.

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Using the Focus

This introduction to the Focus isn’t the end of our gameplay as young Aloy. Rost, being very concerned about Aloy’s safety, decides the next day is when he begins her teaching on navigating the wilds and how to deal with the Machines. This is a fairly straight forward mission teaching stealth and bow techniques. It also introduces a character that we will see in the future. We’ll also see some of the children when they are grown. This is always an enjoyable experience when we play a game in one time and then it shifts to several years in the future. After Aloy’s stealth mission, we continue to see how the Nora shun Rost and the young Aloy.

After Aloy is safely back from hunting a particular child, named Bast, thinks that she is a prime target for bullying and throws a rock at her which adeptly hits her on the forehead. Bast then throws another rock which Aloy grabs out of the air and we are given a choice: throw the rock and aim for his head, aim for his hand to knock out another rock, or to drop the rock and let him go unharmed. This choice can be seen as a good, bad, or neutral karmic choice. However, the game decides to look at it another way; hitting Bast in the head is an assertive and aggressive action represented by a fist symbol, throwing the rock at his hand is a logical and calculated action represented with a brain symbol, and dropping the rock is the understanding and compassionate route represented with a heart symbol. These choices will crop up through gameplay. Unfortunately, these choices don’t appear to have a direct impact on the game or how the world unfolds. It is possible that the choices matter but it is just not apparent, if this is the case it is still a problem. Players enjoy seeing the choices they make impact the world and events, especially in an RPG, so players will view the game more critically when these choices don’t make an apparent impact. Alternatively, these choices do provide a good way for the player to develop Aloy as a story character by essentially allowing them some control over her thoughts and motivations.

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What should Aloy do with the rock?

In Aloy’s frustration, she demands Rost explain why she is an outcast. He tells her, reluctantly, of a trial called the Proving that is held when the young come of age. The best aspect of this trial, for Aloy, is that outcast children may participate. All who succeed become Nora Braves and are accepted as part of the tribe, and the winner may have the Matriarchs grant any one request. Naturally Aloy dedicates the rest of her time to training for this, until she is about twenty years old.

Our full-grown Aloy is who we play as for the remainder of the game. Instead of jumping right to the Proving, we are placed a few days before and thrown into the wilds for the full experience the game has to offer. The world feels huge when you first start and it is only a fraction the size of the full game. Being thrown into the wilds like this allows us to interact with other characters. One thing that Horizon Zero Dawn does is animate faces constantly. Talking with characters shows us facial expressions not too often seen in video games. However, it’s not done perfectly. Non-player characters (NPC’s) will sometimes make odd motions and appear to have facial tics. While it is easy to become engrossed in some interactions, other NPC’s feel like they are just bad actors. Another issue along this vein is that the dialogue sometimes loses sync with the face and it feels like a badly dubbed movie. In spite of this, Aloy’s face is done very well at almost every turn. These interactions also allow us to see how Aloy has developed mentally. She clearly leans toward Atheist when the rest of the Nora worship the All Mother and she believes much of the Nora tradition is foolish. Nonetheless, she is still driven to win the Proving and ask the Matriarchs to divulge the secrets of her birth.

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This all happens very early and, even though it is so early, it feels like sharing spoilers if I continue with any more synopsis. Horizon Zero Dawn is rich with culture, beautiful environments, and has a gripping story that is very entertaining. The game does a good job of encouraging the player to follow side missions before the main missions. This is typically a good decision in RPG’s as these kinds of games tend to have many side missions that can impact later story missions—which is the case with Horizon Zero Dawn. One downside to this strategy is that players tend to forget about the main missions and lose interest in the main story, which is a shame because the story is one of the best aspects of the game. However, the missions never go away and the player will eventually have nothing else to do and will get sucked back into Aloy’s riveting pursuit of knowledge.

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Carja Blazon Heavy Outfit

An important aspect about Horizon Zero Dawn that is worthy of note is how the developers have portrayed women and the inclusion of non-cis characters. There are several strong female NPC’s and it is worth noting that Horizon Zero Dawn has homosexual NPC’s and a prominent trans man NPC (it’s never directly stated that he is trans but is heavily implied). While this isn’t earth-shattering inclusion, I hope that it is the start of better representation. Another important implementation is Aloy herself. To my knowledge, she is the least sexualized female protagonist of a video game that doesn’t let you choose your gender or sex. While there is an outfit that could be considered sexualized it reveals little more than her midriff, which shows her abs that are quite defined—going against the typical view of sexy female stomachs. She rarely falls into typical female protagonist pitfalls that seem to be written so frequently. She is always strong and either compassionate, aggressive, or sarcastic when required. Any men who come off as too creepy are told off fairly quickly. As I am a male, I may not be the best source to share that information, so I do encourage my readers to seek out female opinions. One aspect that I’ve seen complaints about in reviews is that Aloy comments too often about anything from combat situations to the weather. While it may sometimes seem that it is more numerous than not, it really isn’t that much more frequent or different than, say, Geralt from The Witcher series. I’ve seen almost no complaints about the gruff Geralt’s comments, so I do wonder if there isn’t some latent misogyny in these complaints? It does legitimately get annoying when she says the same thing over and over to prompt the player to do something, it’s another situation entirely when she comments about the world.
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When it comes to story, Horizon Zero Dawn is top notch. When it comes to mechanics, however, it is a bit more rudimentary. It is an open world RPG and has many common elements to other games of the same genre, if you’ve played any games in the Far Cry or The Witcher series’, you’ll recognize what I’m talking about. However, one way it deviates from these other games is that Horizon Zero Dawn implements very few interactive tutorials. Playing as six year old Aloy provides the typical lessons for the controller, but you don’t get too many button prompt tutorials once Aloy is fully grown. Instead, the game features tutorial missions for new weapons that are completely optional and don’t actually teach anything on their own. These tutorials feature mission goals and it is expected that by completing these goals, the player will have enough understanding on how to use the new weapon.

The player has three skill trees that each focus on an aspect of gameplay. The first tree is the prowler tree which gives Aloy stealth skills such as a powerful sneak attack or reducing her movement’s noise. The second tree is the brave tree which gives Aloy combat skills like firing more than one arrow at a time or a knock-down attack. The last tree is the forager tree and gives Aloy skills that influence how she gets and uses resources like crafting additional ammo or reusing upgrades. This skill tree is very basic and not particularly exciting. Some abilities are very helpful while others don’t feel worth the skill points.

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Horizon Zero Dawn skill trees

When it comes to gameplay styles, Horizon Zero Dawn tends to lean toward direct combat. This isn’t so much an issue because the combat is quite excellent and often easy to control. You have both a light and strong melee attack with Aloy’s spear and you have a variety of ranged weapons. There are also status conditions that can be placed on enemies: burning deals damage over time, frozen greatly increases the amount of damage the target will take, shock stuns the enemy and places it in a downed state, and corruption causes the enemy to go berserk and attack anything. Naturally, Aloy can inflict these states with special ranged ammunition but she can also cause them by exploiting enemy weaknesses. For example, if you use fire arrows to hit canisters on a machine that house flammable liquid, it will cause an explosion that deals a lot of damage and ignites the machine. This is one aspect about combat that is highly enjoyable, you can exploit all sorts of enemy weaknesses. My personal favorite is knocking off an enemy machine’s mounted gun and then picking it up and using it against them. Unfortunately, combat is only as difficult as you make it. It is a completely viable strategy to use the slingshot and just constantly pelt a difficult enemy with explosives until it dies. This is unfortunate because it lessens the tension of fighting a new and intimidating enemy, and it can overshadow the rest of the possible combat options which is a shame because it is done so well.

When it comes to Aloy’s ranged weapons, Guerilla Games made a very interesting decision. There is not one, but three bows and two slingshots. Each have their own stats that change how easy they are to use, but they also fire their own unique ammo. This seems like an odd decision at first blush, why not let one bow or slingshot fire any ammo? While it can be annoying to switch between so many weapons in your inventory, it would be very similar with ammo if this was the case. The quick select weapon wheel for in-the-moment weapon swapping is very easy to use and changing how the ammo works would have impacted its usability. Since common versions of the weapons can only fire one of the ammunition, the scaling ammo also allowed Guerilla Games to give another bonus to the rarer versions. Not to mention certain bows use more powerful ammo, which means those bows likely fire slower, which is a game balancing mechanic.

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Combat with the weapon wheel

Aloy’s stealth is very useful early on. Machines are very strong, even the weakest and most common machines can kill you in only a few hits if your wounds are left unchecked. The best strategy for a low-level player is typically to sneak through areas with a lot of enemies and run away if spotted. The sneak attack skill can allow the same low-level player the ability to kill these common machines in one hit. There are also traps that Aloy can set, allowing the player to be methodical and prepare for a difficult encounter. In spite of this, once the low-level player progresses and eventually caps out at level 50, the benefits of stealth disappear. This occurs because the enemies have a static difficulty, that is to say, the enemies don’t level up. This removes the threat a horde of enemies imposes and removes the tension that the player feels in the early game. Ultimately, these aren’t actually problems. If the player has a capped level, so too should the enemies. Leveling up is a means for the player to overcome obstacles, never should an enemy always be too daunting. The choice to level cap is also understandable, Horizon Zero Dawn isn’t an expansive game that someone will sink 100 hours into. There is only one story and only one ending and no real choices in between. If it was an expansive game, it would have to drag out its story to do so which would be a great disservice to it.

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Looting a destroyed machine

When you defeat enemies, they can be searched for loot. The most common type of loot are a variety of items used in crafting. Crafting is most commonly used for making ammo and upgrading your carrying capacity. Ammo can be made quickly and on the fly in the heat of combat, while this is very helpful, it also helps make the explosive slinging slingshot overpowered. Another use for these resources is selling and trading. This brings us to a prominent shortcoming of Horizon Zero Dawn, there is never a satisfying payout. You can scrimp and save, find rare items, and collect all the hidden collectibles. What does it get you? A whole lot a nothing. Your rewards exclusively consist of experience, money, and resources. Only two quest lines give you unique weapons or armor, and only the armor feels extraordinary.

Another common enemy drop and quest reward are upgrades called “coils and weaves”. These items are used to give percentage bonuses to the stats on weapons and armor. While they are certainly helpful, they become boring to find. I found myself with an inventory of about 30 upgrades all at the highest rarity, and it felt like a chore to go through them. Once you already have a stat increased by 44%, 46% just doesn’t feel worth the effort. Guerilla Games could have made the upgrades universally stronger but also much harder to come by, this would have made acquiring them feel exiting. They could have even added “legendary” upgrades that give amazing bonuses. One amazing coil or weave would have been infinitely more exciting than six boxes full of lackluster upgrades.

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Coils and Weaves

There are other activities common in open world RPG’s besides the main story and looting enemies. One such common element is the inclusion of side missions. The side missions in Horizon Zero Dawn are done quite well. Each mission is unique in its own way, even the missions that shared a theme never followed an exact pattern. Some missions end after a quick errand while others have their own mini-saga of several missions. No matter how these missions played out, I found myself interested in the next simply for the emotional payout, especially considering the rewards were so dreary.

I’m not the only one who considers Horizon Zero Dawn a great success. It has critical acclaim with high praise from each publication that reviewed it. It was the biggest new IP launch on the PlayStation 4 and it was the best-selling game during its launch week in the UK and Australia, and reached second best in several other countries. It was also the second most downloaded game on the PS4 US store for the entire month of February. This is particularly impressive considering it was released on February 28th. Horizon Zero Dawn has several aspects that are worthy of note, like how it portrays women and its fantastic use of story in both the main and side quests. I only hope future RPG’s use this as a lesson and we get better games because of it. I, for one, await a sequel that will ideally be just as entertaining, if not more so, than the first.

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