To continue the trend of me not getting into games until they’ve been out for a year or so, I’ve been playing Horizon Zero Dawn, Guerrilla Games’s adventure for the PS4 that follows Aloy, a young woman tasked with discovering why the dangerous machines near her home are going crazy and murdering people. When I looked into what this game was about, I felt sold immediately. It has everything I like: a strong female protagonist, robot animals, beautiful settings, and lots and lots of sidequests. The A.V. Club’s Clayton Purdom calls Horizon Zero Dawn a “map game,” which isn’t completely fair. Yes, it’s a game where the player is invited to explore a map and complete quests in different areas of the map, but it also does a good job of building a complex world full of robots and intricate social hierarchies.
There are many things that make this game worth discussing, and many reasons why it creeped on to many Best of 2017 lists, but for the purpose of this blog post, I want to focus on Aloy, the main character of the game, and totally badass young woman.
2017 was a huge year for women speaking out against inequality and sexual harassment (and I hope we continue that trend in 2018 as well), and Horizon Zero Dawn attempts to channel some of that energy into video game form by featuring a protagonist that refuses to take crap from men. Many other games, like the Witcher series or any fighting game ever, work to oversexualize women by featuring them in skimpy outfits and posing provocatively while simultaneously underdeveloping their role in the plot or personal motivations. In the Witcher series specifically, the player can bed women and collect sexy pictures of them on playing cards. This depiction of sexuality portrays women as being implicit in a misogynistic system that codes their bodies as commodities. Women often offer Geralt (the protagonist and player character of The Witcher series) their bodies as payment for saving them, or for performing some other task.
Horizon Zero Dawn departs from this model of simultaneously commodifying and shaming women for engaging in sexual relationships. Aloy is beautiful, even in her tribal gear and while jumping around the wilderness. Maybe she’s even more beautiful because she can conquer huge robot animals and leap across a canyon gracefully. Non-player Characters (NPCs) take notice of Aloy and sometimes make comments on her body, or how she should go on a date with them. Aloy frequently rejects these come-ons, arguing back against whoever is trying to pick her up and standing her ground. Where many other games have their female characters passively accept sexual comments from NPCs, Horizon Zero Dawn doesn’t give the player the chance to stay silent. Instead, the game makes a comment on misogynistic trends in video games by having Aloy talk back. Additionally, the game’s plot itself lacks any romance at all, which can at times be frustrating, but also opens up the game to address women’s issues directly without worrying about an additional element of the plot. (As a side note, Mark Serrels has written a great piece about realizing how he has treated women in the past after playing as Aloy.)
Sometimes, the lack of romance frustrated me, and I (and the folks I played the game with) began constructing an imaginary harem of NPCs we would like to seduce. Some of these characters, like Petra the blacksmith, openly flirt with Aloy--and Aloy flirts back!--but the game has bigger fish to fry, like, you know, saving the world or whatever.
An interesting observation (made by my friend Jenni--thanks, Jenni!) that changes the way we view Aloy is that she comes from a matriarchal society. Early in the game, Aloy’s tribe, the Nora, explain that she has been outcast because she does not have a mother. Mothers are important. The Nora trace their ancestry through their mothers, their goddess is the All-Mother. Because she comes from a culture that reveres and respects women, Aloy is more empowered to be the adventurer she is. Horizon Zero Dawn is a post apocalyptic world, but it contrasts with the MRA fantasy that is the Mad Max universe. Instead of women being traded like slaves or forced to birth children for a despotic ruler, the women of the Nora are viewed as sacred. The people of the world worship goddesses and many, many female NPCs in the game are hunters. I feel good about the representation of women in the game, and while the racial diversity of the main characters leaves something to be desired, in general the population of this new America seems varied.
But there’s one big problem with race that hasn’t been addressed much.
Dia Lacia talks about this issue much more eloquently and with more authority than I can, but this blog post wouldn’t be complete without mention of the shortcomings of Horizon Zero Dawn. The premise of the game is that the world has essentially started over, and humans have reverted back to a time before technology. Unfortunately, that means that the developers have relied on using racially charged words associated with Native peoples, like brave, savage, tribe, etc.. While I don’t want to defend the developers, and this is an issue that should definitely be discussed more in the discourse surrounding Horizon Zero Dawn, the decision does make sense, even if it’s the wrong decision. If the devs were imagining a world shoved back into the past (with the addition of robo dinos), it makes some sense that people would live in the tribe-like systems of the past as well. That being said, it would have been remarkable to see what a completely new system of living would look like.
As usual, I'm behind on what games are hot. Being a grad student, I have limited time and resources to really dive into games the way I like to, and I've been fortunate to have the time to dedicate to Horizon Zero Dawn--even if it is a year late.
If, like me, you are also perpetually late to the game, make sure you check out Horizon Zero Dawn, available on PS4!
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The authors of this blog are four women with opinions about pop culture. That's all you really need to know.