Before I even get into this I know I have to say spoiler warning. I will be talking about Horizon: Zero Dawn and if you haven’t played through the entire story then you will be lost.
I want to preface this analysis with this: Please play this game. It is fantastic, in many different ways. The design of the world is stunning. A few of the standout characters are actually fun to learn about their lives, and the game-play mechanics are tight, fun, and actually made me want to get all the trophies in the game:
All of that easily makes Horizon: Zero Dawn a fantastic game. If you have a PS4, please, do yourself the favor of playing this rock solid game. But today I want to talk about something I felt was, in certain respects, kind of weak: the story. Yes, by the way, I can hear you groan every time you hear me talk about story. Storytelling is a major part of the gaming medium, so, of course, I’m going to look at it.
The story actually has all the core elements that a video game needs. The protagonist has enemies established very clearly, right from the beginning; the world is opened to her quickly to start a long journey; and she gets to start as the hunter of superior adversaries but becomes stronger and stronger until they don’t pose a threat until you're headed to the climax with the big baddie. Throw in some side characters that want to bang the protagonist, some neat weaponry, and a sub plot that goes no where and we can call it day fellows!
Are you seeing my issue here? This is a game about literally blowing up robot dinosaurs as a cool, savage, yet caring person in a world that is absent of real stability and they still managed to write the most generic story they could.
I think this stems from a few problems. The team had a great idea. The twist that humanity was wiped out, and Zero Dawn was a project to bring humanity back after the world was terraformedwas INSANELY interesting! That’s awesome, but it's brought down by basically sprinting to the conclusion after that! Why is it not revealed 2/3rds of the way through instead of a few missions before the end? That would allow the rest of the story to focus on how Aloy deals with and takes in that info, instead of rushing her and the rest of the humans to fight the final enemies. They could have had some interesting character development to build off of the revelation, but instead, dumped it on the characters and the audience too late to have it have any real impact.
Also after this moment:
And others like it we almost have to assume that Aloy can’t fail. Hello plot armor. She can literally figure out that the earth isn't flat because she's so observant and smart. This scene was one of two that made me roll my eyes at the screen. The other was the mid-credit scene where Sylens caught Hades. Fuck that guy, for real.
But if we assume that there isn’t a chance of failing then what are the stakes? How can you build tension like that?
Some games can be played without this tension, games like Minecraft, Geometry Wars, Rocket League. All incredibly fun games even with no story to get there. And yes, while these games have conflict that can cause tension, games like Horizon: Zero Dawn have to merge and match the story’s rise and fall in tension with the gameplay. Actually, that's kind of the point now that I think about it.
It refuses to let you fail in a lot of ways both as the player with a bit of handholding, and with the narrative by being really obvious with plot armor. Aloy will stick that landing. That robot isn't going to kill anyone that's been given a name. Aloy knows how to climb and just does it on her own, you just point the stick in the right direction and don't worry about it buddy.
Which is all par for the course really, that wouldn't be bad but then there’s a plateau of difficulty that happens at about the halfway point. There’s a time when not only has your gear gotten to max, and is surely leveled to endgame, but you've also gotten better at the mechanics and there's no challenge remaining.
And while you're basically having a walk in the park with the actual missions, the story is going in all kinds of crazy directions. It's all over the place with what it thinks the audience should feel is important. Trying in equal measure to depict Aloy as a person who's half unstoppable badass and half lost child. The game is sending you mixed signals is basically what I’m saying and that aggravates me. I think it’s because in most other ways, this game is incredibly polished and fine tuned.
Now, with all that said, A LOT of story driven AAA games have this problem and I’m honestly just using this game because I just played it, and it’s still new and fresh on people’s minds. Also, as I said up top, I LOVED this game! I just truly believe that when a game marries gameplay tension with plot tension properly, it makes for a great game.
Or it could be a total shitshow, what do I know? I’m just a gamer that likes to look at this stuff and wonder how the next great game will push it even further. And I can’t wait to see what they do next.
Thanks for reading!