Horizon Zero Dawn. The game known for bright colors, a big open world, and giant robot dinosaurs. We all know now that studio Guerrilla Games’ Horizon Zero Dawn for the Playstation 4 is a big hit. Many of us have sunk endless hours into playing it (I mean, I’ve even platinumed it), and it was even nominated for Game of the Year. But there was certainly some skepticism about how good this game would actually be before it released.
Yah, everybody could see it LOOKED cool, but if this game was all show and no substance, it would just wind up being a disjointed and soon-forgotten mess. But Horizon Zero Dawn didn’t flop, and instead did so well that it stood above many of its competitors, even some from long-established franchises. And a lot of what made this game so unique and yet so grounded was its complex world building. World building is an incredible challenge to do correctly, but it is vital for a successful fictional world, whether that world is in a book, film, or video game.
We can tell the difference of when, say a character goes on a journey and the story randomly transitions between a generic “forests” or “towns” to just mix up scenery, and the worlds, like JRR Tolkein notably created, that were built intricately and were planned so everything in it had a purpose for being where it was and how it came to be. The difference is that in Tokein’s tales, the world WAS a character, and was far from being one-dimensional. The same is true for game design. In an open-world game, you don’t want your world to feel like a random hodge-podge of settings and pretty vistas that don’t enrich the story you’re experiencing.
Horizon delivers on good world-building, because the developers understood that there is more to a world than this. Their world is a complex character, and so they needed variety that was still believable and grounded. They needed logic and rules in a place that was fantastical. They needed to have details that established credibility and gave the world a depth and history that went deeper than just the superficial pretty outside. It takes a lot more effort to develop a world we believe has existed long before our journey begins, and Horizon’s developers nailed it. Now for those of you who at least need a little summary of the game’s concept before we delve deeper, Horizon Zero Dawn follows a young woman named Aloy, an outcast. The world she lives in is actually the planet Earth, a thousand years after the fall of civilization, as giant robotic machines turned on the humans that created them and destroyed most of the life on the planet. Aloy sets out to discover what exactly happened that led to this apocalypse, as well as to protect the current people of the world from a rising threat.
The narrative presented in the game was far deeper than most people expected, and while it’s not completely unique, it helped give the game focus, direction, and helped establish a much deeper world mythos. On a purely visual note, even from the opening moments of the game, you can see that Horizon Zero Dawn is gorgeous. Everything is vibrant, almost too beautiful to be real. The developers said they tried to make it look like a nature documentary. That beautiful look never fades for a moment – whether you are walking about the world at night, you’re in the middle of the blinding desert, or you’re stumbling across ancient ruins that have been reclaimed by nature. The development team really tried their hardest to make almost every moment in the game visually stunning by providing plenty of variety and contrast (reds to purples). The beauty never grew mundane throughout my journey. I found myself constantly stopping my progress to record footage for this video just to show off the next great thing I stumbled across. But despite it being so beautiful, the world of Horizon Zero Dawn is dangerous. This is a post-apocalyptic world, and you never really get to the point where the world stops being a threat.
You’re never completely overpowered, despite visibly growing stronger and also improving your skill as a gamer as your journey progresses. For example, you don’t automatically regenerate health once you finish a battle, so you can’t abuse the system in an unrealistic sort of way as you can in many other modern games. Damage you take from an enemy or from a fall stays with you. If you want to stock up on your health again, you’re going to have to take time to scavenge.
Medicinal plants are scattered throughout the world, some more common in different climates than others, and each only fills a certain amount of your health. This gave every mistake in the game a consequence. Every time I let myself be hit, I had to spend more time finding plants to heal myself. The world may be dangerous, but I also had to rely on the land to sustain me and keep me going. This is something that is surprisingly uncommon in a lot of open-world games, as I assume developers don’t want a player to become frustrated and stop exploring. But adding that accessibility takes away from a game’s relatability of both the protagonist and the world. Aloy on the other hand isn’t a superhero. Even as she grows, she is still human, and she must take the time needed to be well equipped and prepared to fight and survive in a savage world.
As for the actual details of this world, one of the first things you discover are Horizon’s people. In a lot of games, different towns don’t often feel that distinct from one another. They’re generally filled with the same kinds of people saying the same kinds of things. In Horizon, townspeople are far from the usual generic NPCs who spout the same 3 lines of dialogue. Depending on where you are in the world, people have different types governments, societal structures, prejudices, etc. And all of these unique characteristics make sense based on where they are located in the world. The first tribe we become acquainted with in the game are the Nora, the tribe that Aloy was born into and also cast out of. The Nora live in a cold and often snowy mountain-range, and those mountains keep them isolated from most of the other tribes in the world. Their land contains some important ruins of the Old Ones (what they call people from before the fall of civilization), so they consider their lands to be the Sacred Lands, and believe life originated from these ruins.
The Nora are proud of their heritage, but they also fear the old technology they don’t understand. Their homes, clothes, and weapons feel more primitive than other tribes because of this. They are also matriarchal, tight-knit, and collectivist. While the Nora live scattered about their land in many different settlements, their primary importance is on the tribe as a whole. In fact, the Nora are so tribe-centered that the worst form of punishment they have is to make someone an outcast. For the Nora, the group comes before the individual. On the other hand, you have the great city of Meridian, where the Carja tribe and the Sun King live. Meridian is also connected to important ruins of the Old World, but is located in a far different part of the map. It’s in a very open part of the world. There isn’t a mountain range to protect the Carja people as there is for the Nora. On one side, Meridian lies just outside of a blistering desert. On the other, it is in the middle of a treacherous forest. To protect themselves, the Carja couldn’t sprawl out over several small settlements as the Nora did.
Rather, they gathered closer together, and they built the city of Meridian to be tall, intimidating, and proud. With so many people being packed in together, Meridian became a central power in the world, and with wide influence. There is a vast economic system present in the city, but with that comes a stronger class system, and it is far more individualistic than the Nora settlements. The rich live in the highest parts of the city, and own spacious homes. The poor on the other hand, work the fields outside of Meridian’s walls and best protection. The walls of Meridian also show that it is a place more vulnerable to attack, but the Carja are very well-equipped for battle.
Guards are at post at every corner. There is also the Hunter’s Lodge is in the heart of the city, where those who dedicate their lives to taking down the most dangerous machines gather. They also generally have more advanced weaponry. While the Nora are also accustomed to battle, they are more prepared to take on machines. The Carja are prepared not just to fight machines, but to also fight other people. They are conquerors and defenders, and they see the Nora as savages. They put more emphasis on men, power, and the individual. These two tribes could not be more different, but they aren’t different just due to arbitrary choices by the developers. Every part of their culture makes sense in relation to the in-world factors that built their societies.
There’s also not just one tribe that is good and one that is bad. The Nora, Carja, and the other tribes all have positive and negative aspects to them. That’s a lot like our world. No one culture or people group is perfect. This develops a lot of detail and credibility. This world is like ours, and its people like us, even though we can clearly see it is far more fantastical than anything we would see on earth. The machines of Horizon Zero Dawn are also complex and believable in their animal-like behaviors. They feel wild and unpredictable, yet once again, familiar. They remind us of things we have seen in real nature. This isn’t just a world filled with rogue machines haphazardly placed on a map and that prey upon men. Rather, these machines belong to a complex ecosystem, and have different relationships with one another.
For example, Watchers are small and weak, and so often you will see them working as patrols for stronger and larger types of machines. If they see you, they’ll alert the others. If you’re spotted, some machines, such as the deer-like grazers, will take off running in the opposite direction, trying to get out of sight behind some hills or trees. But the vicious snapmaw, on the other hand, will head directly towards you, slinking through water, shooting long distance ice attacks, and aggressively leaping towards you when they get close enough.
We see similarities to creatures we know and understand, and we can project familiarity onto them despite being… you know, a giant giraffe dino sort of thing with a dish head. This allows for a truly unique level of creativity, but without having the world feel cold and unrelatable. I could go on and on about so many different details this game contains that further explore the balance between the fantastical and the familiar. When building a fictional world, the world itself is a character. Just like you want your protagonist to be likeable and believable, so should your world also be. We need to be able to relate. It must have flaws, but it also must have something special that draws us in. That makes us want to explore and discover more. Horizon’s world is successful not just because it is beautiful or unique, but because of how the world works together. The land informs the tribes which informs their towns which informs their societies.
Machines work together in different ways depending on where you are in the world. This is a place with history. With secrets. With dangers. And it’s rewarding. You have fought for survival. You have explored the corners of the map. You have taken on a complex and wild adversary, and you were victorious. And the world is all the more memorable for it.
So now I have a question for you. What is your favorite video game world, and why? There are lot of good ones out there, so I am curious to know what you think! Thanks for watching, and hope you have a lovely day! .
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