A hands-on session with Sony's next big PlayStation 4 release reveals grand scope and a complex story
Guerrilla Games was already set on the big-picture concept for Horizon: Zero Dawn – due exclusively for PlayStation 4 on February 28 – by the time the game's current narrative director John Gonzalez joined the studio over three years ago. The intriguing contrast of a primitive, tribal people whose natural world comprises impossibly advanced technology – robots as intelligent and complex as any organic wildlife. What they didn't know was how these disparate ideas could possibly coexist in the same game. It was Gonzalez' job to draw on his previous experience as the lead story guy on Obsidian's Fallout: New Vegas and Warner Bros.' Shadow of Mordor to connect the dots.
"How do you end up having a world where those things go together? How did people forget these technologies that are all around them?" Gonzalez ponders at a recent preview event for the game in Los Angeles. "That was the mystery that I really wanted to solve."
Horizon is unique in that it's set in what the developers have dubbed a "post-post-apocalypse." An action-role-playing-game, Horizon features huge, lush environments brimming with story missions and side quests, people to talk to or trade with, resources to harvest, mechanical beasts to slay, and countless challenges to conquer. It's an enticing combination of Ubisoft's caveman survival adventure Far Cry Primal and the sprawling character-driven fantasy of CD Projekt Red's The Witcher 3.
Horizon's gameplay being so derivative isn't necessarily a bad thing, given that it's cribbing from such credible sources. It just puts more weight on its narrative, and it's there that Horizon seems particularly promising. In a typical post-apocalypse video game, like 2015's Fallout 4, humans have barely begun to rebuild despite centuries having passed since civilization's fall. Mostly they wallow in society's remains, eating 200-year-old cereal and sleeping on dirt floors in the middle of irradiated wastelands.
It's been a millennium since Horizon's apocalypse. Gonzalez and his team began with our world, moved the clock forward, and imagined the events that might lead to some kind of global catastrophe. How would different groups react? What scraps of our culture and technology would remain? Exactly who – and what – would rise from the rubble?
All that's left of us are the fossilized printers and office chairs – and the mechanical beasts, small and very large, that make the game so instantly distinctive. Nature hasn't just reclaimed civilization in Horizon; it's melded with it so completely that there's no longer a difference. Humanity has reverted to pre-industrial tribal societies, hunting and harvesting organic and mechanical life alike, the skeletal remnants of our world avoided as a superstitious rule.
Enter Aloy, an outcast woman of mysterious birth whose guardian, Rost, has been exiled from the matriarchal Nora tribe that's led by a council of goddess-worshipping wise women. They live in a valley called the Embrace, in villages named Mother's Heart and Mother's Crown.
Horizon's story begins with Aloy as a child, discovering a futuristic (to us; ancient to her) smart-device that latches to her temple and lets her interface with the taboo technology around her. The gadget gives Aloy an edge as she sets out to pass The Proving, a ritual that will let her rejoin her tribe and demand the Matriarchs tell her from where she came.
"We saw that as being a really interesting culture to explore," Gonzalez says. "There have been matriarchal societies, there have been matrilineal societies, and there's no reason why the authority in the society shouldn't rest with women. I mean, the very fact that they have the most direct role in producing life is sort of the argument, I think, that the Nora have."
But the Nora aren't Horizon's only culture, and other tribes, like the sun-worshipping Carja, see things differently. That doesn't necessarily make them the enemy. "The other thing that we wanted to do when we were exploring different cultures was not fall into the trap of imagining ‘these are the good guys, and then there are the bad guys,'" Gonzalez says. "We looked at every culture as being a mixture of positive and negative qualities, which seemed like a good approach to take because that's how all of our own cultures on Earth are too. That's how humans are."
"For Aloy the idea that a woman can be a person of power, that's not something that's ever in question," he continues. "That's something that she'll certainly express when she's meeting other people from different groups."
One thing the disparate tribes share is a fear of the new breed of machine-beasts that has invaded the valley, "corrupted" variants that are far more aggressive and dangerous. The Nora can't begin to guess their origin – they don't know where the robots came from to begin with. To them the machines are simply another part of nature, to be feared and respected, just like a black bear or a roaring river.
To players, though, they're part of the mystery – one that Gonzalez promises will be at least partially solved throughout Horizon's story.
"What we wanted to do was to try to find a way of combining the personal and the epic, having there be some kind of mystery that Aloy feels driven to solve, but have that intersect with these bigger mysteries so that you're really laying bare all of these secrets – her origins but also the deeper secrets of the earth," he says. "I think there's a contract, so to speak, that we have with the player, that we set up these big mysteries we have to pay off." In other words, Horizon is not The Walking Dead, a series that may well go on forever without revealing the cause of its catastrophe.
Gonzalez also worked on Fallout, serving as lead creative designer on the beloved New Vegas. In that post-nuclear series, the cause of armageddon is never in question, but what happened in Horizon's distant past is far from obvious. And unlike most other post-apocalyptic fiction, which tends to berate its audience about mankind's boundless hubris and folly (often deservedly, to be fair), Horizon may not ultimately be a condemnation of humanity.
"This is a very different tonal piece from Fallout. There are elements here that I think are more hopeful, less cynical, about human nature," Gonzalez says. "I think that if we look around at the world that we live in right now, there is no reason to think there will be a shortage of human folly anytime soon. But what is it that we have to place our greatest hope in? It's our capacity to hopefully somehow transcend that, to care about the world that we're in, care about each other."
"There's a great deal of viciousness in this world. There's savagery in this world, violence in this world. There's also a great deal of care," he continues. "If there's going to be a solution to the problems we've got, it also has to come from us."