Note: This post contains minor spoilers to the plot of Horizon: Zero Dawn, including locations, names of factions, and revelations provided about halfway through the game’s main quest line.
Culture, religion, and fictional worlds are a few of my common interests. I enjoy exploring the worlds others create and seeing how they are crafted to tell specific stories. I especially appreciate fictional worlds which feel living and rich, with their own ecosystems, technologies, societies, and cultures. I was happy to explore the futuristic Earth presented in Horizon: Zero Dawn this recent winter and glad to find a world teeming with a life all its own. There is so much detail to this setting, from the villages, cities, and settlements, to the flora, fauna, and geography, and to the politics and socioeconomic structures of the tribes visited.
For this post, I’ll mostly be talking about those tribes visited. I appreciate that this game’s setting includes politics and religions in their culture. I feel too many fictional worlds miss having both of those elements though both are intrinsic to human civilization: at no time in history has a culture or people group not had both politics and religions — “myths” may be the more proper term — which they operated within.
So I’m glad to enter into Horizon’s version of Earth, with its socioeconomic systems, classes, politics, and religions in tact. There are five primary people groups or tribes in the game and each has their own way of doing things: the Nora, the Carja, the Oseram, the Shadow Carja, and the Eclipse. There are subsets within some of these tribes. One of the people groups, the Shadow Carja, is even derived from one of the other groups, the Carja. Their myths are based around the environments they inhabit and the struggles they face. Their myths are intertwined with their political systems, too. All of this feels real, like a proper reflection of human experience.
Behind these tribes and their myths is the old world — that is, our world. There’s much less religion and much more sterile technology: man and man’s inventions. It seems that the tribe’s religions are drawn out of mysterious interactions with these inventions.
That’s the setting. The player, then, explores this world through the eyes, actions, and comments of a woman named Aloy — and Aloy, in my opinion, doesn’t fit in.
Aloy sits in a tricky spot. She’s a double agent, serving as an inhabitant of the game’s world, presumably a product of the cultures and environment around her, and as the player avatar. She’s the protagonist and so should be relatable. The player exists in this world, the 21st century western civilization that has elevated technological endeavors and jettisoned formal mythologies as best as it knows how. For better or worse, Aloy leans heavily toward representing the player.
In the past one hundred or one hundred fifty years, western civilization has attempted an experiment to exist without acknowledging an official religion or myth, but despite our efforts they do still persist — they just may look different and we may not formally call them myths or religions. Yet there remains a friction between contemporary culture and what’s deemed religious culture. Religion is relegated to a lifestyle choice, not a solution or pillar upon which society may be built. Science is for the people; myth is for the individual. This is our world, the player’s world.
Aloy comes across as a time traveler in Horzion’s world. She is a visitor from our secular world to the game’s religious world, sampling the myths around her but never buying in. She is inquisitive, like one visiting an exhibit, learning how the people of this alternate Earth think and feel and believe but not counting herself as one of them. She does not fear the technology of the “old ones” because that’s the technology she is used to and man’s inventions through science are more trustworthy, more tangible, for the common good than religion, which, after all, is only another invention, albeit an esoteric and intangible one. She is progressive in her thoughts and how she responds to justices and injustices around her, commenting on political systems and socioeconomic structures the way a contemporary (for the player) news site might. She is us and not them. She is an outsider.
This is a shame, I think. There’s an unnecessary dichotomy created between interest in scientific technology and religious beliefs. Again, this reflects the modern day more than the world presented. Aloy speaks and acts like a modern commentator exposing the “God in the gaps” fallacy her compatriots live in. You may have your religion, she alone says, so long as you keep it to yourself and it doesn’t hurt anybody. Because of her detachment from the myths around her, I, as the player, am never allowed to live in the world I’ve been presented with. Instead, I’m put in the place of critic.
We do not need to be afraid of myths. We can step into them and learn from them. We can explore them and come back out better for it. We do not need to critique them or chastise them at every turn. I wish Horizon didn’t feel that need.
The fictional Earth created for Horizon: Zero Dawn is rich and beautiful, with powerful humans and (mechanical) beasts abounding. I look forward to seeing this world expanded on with sequels, trusting that the excellent talent at Guerrilla Games will continue investing in their newest IP. We’ll see how Aloy and the world around her grows and evolves; perhaps with more time in the setting I’ll see how the protagonist fits in better.