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The Virtual Life – What Makes Horizon Zero Dawn's Heroine Remarkable

by Javy Gwaltney on Feb 22, 2017 at 09:00 AM

Horizon Zero Dawn launches next week, and we've been exploring Guerrilla Games’ surprisingly photogenic take on the post-apocalypse. You can read our review here. At first glance, Horizon Zero Dawn doesn’t seem that different than most open-world games. It might even be fair to call it a bit of a hard sell given just how many fantastic, content-packed games in a similar vein have been released in the past few years.

However, one of the many ways that Horizon stands out is with its protagonist, Alloy. Fellow Associate Editor Elise Favis and I sat down to talk about Aloy, and what makes her so remarkable.

Javy: Alright, so let’s get to it, Elise. What makes Aloy so cool?

Elise: I think, at first glance, Aloy comes across like most video game leads. She’s strong in a heroic way, and wields a power that few in the game’s world seem to understand. But she doesn’t start off this way. In the opening sequence of Horizon, Aloy is cast out from her matriarchal tribe at birth for being motherless. She’s brought up by another outcast, and suddenly I started to see what set her apart. Without a tribe, Aloy had to learn how to be resourceful. She’s smart. She’s inquisitive. She’s one of the best female leads I’ve come across in a while, actually, because she holds her own and doesn’t let anyone take advantage of her. It’s cool. Plus, while there already is a strong basis for Aloy’s character as it is, the player has a chance to mold her personality in subtle ways. What did you think of Aloy, Javy? And what did you think about those moments where we get to shape who she is?

Javy: Yeah, so I think the first moment in the game I went from being curious about Horizon to falling in love with it was actually when we got to make a choice about how Aloy responds to having being wronged by someone simply because she’s an outsider. We can choose to respond to violence with matched violence, with violence that keeps further violence from happening, or with an empathetic statement of pity. And these situations, where we have leeway when it comes to how Aloy responds, show up constantly. While there doesn’t appear to be any major branching choices that stem from these moments, they do a great job of letting us choose who Aloy will be.

Like you said, the foundation for her is strong. She’s a lost woman who’s been willfully mistreated simply because she’s different and she constantly has to overcome obstacles put in front of her by others because of their bigotry.

Horizon seems to unabashedly embrace a feminist perspective. One of its earlier sequences has her competing in a contest. Even the officials of that contest are constantly trying to rig it so she loses, but she always rises above those tricks and manages to snatch victory from jaws of defeat. A conversation Aloy has with a brave male warrior later on has the warrior admitting, within moments of meeting her, that she could probably best him in battle.

What do you think of Horizon’s take on gender in its fiction?

Elise: I noticed early on that Horizon’s take on gender is different, and found it refreshing. It’s definitely got a feminist vibe, like you said. And this isn’t just because Aloy is a headstrong, intelligent woman. It’s also about how she interacts with the world, and how this world interacts with her. Rost, the man who raises Aloy, doesn’t hesitate when showing her the ropes of how to hunt. Being a woman doesn’t make her any less qualified. Although she was cast out of her tribe, there’s still this surrounding culture that women are capable leaders, and I think Aloy’s feminist qualities subtly derive from that notion.

As the world opens up, you come across many other cultures, tribes, and groups of people that vary in their ways of life. Aloy continues to be confident in herself, and respect those around her – even when disrespect or bigotry is sent her way. For example, a couple of NPCs I’ve met to initiate side quests have attempted to objectify her, and she just deflects these remarks right back at them in her snarky but self-assured way.

Javy: Yeah, one of the most impressive things about Horizon’s world is that it moves alongside the player in a parallel line, serving as an environment that makes Aloy’s evolution into a self-assured woman and skilled warrior. So many open-world games fail to do this. Assassin’s Creed. Far Cry. Fallout. Even Grand Theft Auto. These are all games that are packed with content for the player to do at the cost of storytelling.

However, everything Aloy can do in the main game ties into her development in some way, whether it’s crafting or scavenging supplies or heck, investigating murder scenes with her visor. I have yet to do anything in Horizon where I think, “Well, this isn’t something Aloy would do or waste her time with,” which is a problem that many open-world games have when it comes to devising a protagonist.

I honestly think Horizon’s trump card is its first two hours. It’s a game with a long setup where a lot doesn’t actually happen, plot-wise. It’s mostly there to reinforce Aloy’s identity as an outcast. People pick on her. She’s rejected by children she just wants to be friends with. Even her pseudo-father, Rost, isn’t warm with her, often barking “Follow” (which is probably an amusing commentary on the tutorial missions that video games often make you walk through). It’s actually quite astonishing the level and care that’s given in this open-world game within those first two hours when you consider that this is Guerrilla Games’ first game that isn’t a shooter. This isn’t a studio that’s ever made an open-world game before and it just blows my mind how confident and graceful Horizon is on nearly every level but especially the introductory sequences.

What did you think about the opening?

Elise: I was intrigued about Horizon’s premise ever since I saw its first trailer, and the opening of the game confirmed to me that my excitement was well-founded. It sets up the story well, albeit slowly. Actually, more than setting up the plot, it does a sound job of telling us who Aloy is. And, Horizon is without a doubt Aloy’s story. I remember wondering, “Where is this going? Is this just about Aloy fighting to be reintroduced into her tribe?” It turns out that it’s much, much more than that. This isn’t just about empathizing with Aloy’s struggles as an outcast, and her attempting to gain acceptance from her people. It’s about independence, self discovery, and understanding the world through Aloy’s experiences.

Horizon is a character-driven game, but it’s not so much about its secondary characters. It is deeply focused on Aloy, and the evolution of her character. So many games deal with narrative dissonance on some level, but it is barely noticeable with Horizon. Everything Aloy says and does seems to line up with who she is, and it doesn’t contradict with the world she exists in. That’s pretty admirable.

Is there anything that you didn’t like about Aloy? Jeff Marchiafava mentions in his review that she can complain too much and he seemed to be let down by some of her character traits. Did you notice any of that in your playthrough?

Javy: Honestly? Not really. But I’m only about 20 hours in, so it’s entirely possible for her to annoy me later on, I’m sure, but right now I’m just really impressed with her character. I think she grounded in the world of this game in a way that precious few characters actually are. I think Ashly Burch’s voice performance does a fantastic job of bringing that’s character mixture of anxieties and bravado and desperation to the surface. There’s just so much to like about Aloy, and I can’t wait to find out more about her character, and her past, as the game goes on.