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A Photographer Chronicles The Alien Beauty of 'Horizon Zero Dawn'

A photo essay across the wilds of Earth, post-post-apocalypse.

All photography by author.

Aloy crossed the desert as the moon began to rise. A clear view of the moon's ascent was impeded by a lone tree at the edge of the horizon. This was scrubland. Cacti, chaparral, mesquite. The desert's valleys and burnt red mesas lay at Aloy's back. All Aloy could see was the unending waste that laid before her. And that tree scattered moonbeams across the unbroken desert, over rocks and through the sparse, dying vegetation.

Moments like that and the photo above which tries to capture it are what keep me coming back to Horizon Zero Dawn.

Horizon Zero Dawn is part of a growing class of games like Fallout 4, Far Cry: Primal, and any current gen Assassin's Creed game that I play more for the pleasure of traversing their meticulously crafted environments than any of their other, broader design decisions. After about a dozen hours with the game, I realized I was starting to tune out its most explicit narratives. Tribesmen A asking me to kill Robot Dinosaur X, Priestess B hoping I'd delve into Ruin Y, Mysterious Stranger C requesting I retrieve Gadget Z. It was all washing over me in an endless wave of "why should I care?"

 

There are big ideas in Horizon Zero Dawn's world that I love (the place it carves out for so many women, spoiler-y late game reveals about the nature of the game's dystopia), but, almost any time a character is talking, my brain starts thinking about homework or how I could be on Tinder or anything remotely more stimulating than its awkward, exposition-laden dialogue and tonally dissonant voice acting.

But I've played over a dozen hours of the game since that realization and I easily see myself playing a dozen more. As a photographer, Horizon Zero Dawn's photo mode is a constant invitation to explore, analyze, and communicate the romantic sweep and tragic loneliness of the game's world.

 

I fell into photography.

In my work as a music journalist, I've done concert/festival photography for a wide swath of artists: Frank Ocean, Charli XCX, Nas, They Might Be Giants, Kendrick Lamar, David Byrne, St. Vincent, and Vampire Weekend and that's a just very small sampling. Photography was never a field I meant to work in but I wound up doing concert work nearly every week when I had a full-time job covering the New York City indie music scene.

The first time I ever touched a DSLR camera was on the drive down to Tennessee for Bonnaroo 2013. I spent nine hours fiddling with my boss's camera, trying to figure out how to turn it on and how to change the focus and how to turn the flash off.  My family couldn't afford anything fancy like a DSLR growing up. We had disposable cameras. My dad wouldn't splurge on a cheap digital camera until I was in college. Photography always felt like a hobby for people with money… money for film, money for lenses, money for lights, money to travel. Money we never had.

My photos at that first Bonnaroo I covered were a disaster. I could barely operate the camera, and the handful of good pics that I did snap turned out okay almost purely by accident. I was grappling with a complex piece of tech I barely understood while also getting a crash course in the most basic formal lessons of photography.

Any grasp of composition I had I'd gained from film, not still photography. I only knew what the word aperture meant cause of a high school physics class. I didn't know when to use a short lens or the zoom lens for the first two days of the festival. I shot Passion Pit on the main stage and the band came out looking like ants in the photos I'd taken. Michael Angelakos is energetic enough on stage that you probably want some wide shots of him cavorting around his bandmates, but you need those close-ups too. I had none.

 

Learning the tech and basic theory of photography is expensive, and one of the beautiful things about Horizon: Zero Dawn's photo mode (and similar modes in Uncharted 4 and Shadow of Mordor or more stripped down photo systems in Firewatch and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild) is that they give gamers curious about the ins & outs of photography many of the tools they need to learn the theory of the craft without the absurd expense of buying cameras and lenses.

If you're into travel/nature photography, the costs are even steeper. The month I spent studying abroad in Florence, Italy is still one of the fondest memories of my life. I also had to take out a $7000 student loan to finance the trip that I'm going to be paying off for the next twenty years alongside the rest of my student loans. It's hard for me to justify any extended vacations these days with travel costs and costs from not working.

But I can buy Horizon Zero Dawn and pass 40 hours across weeks exploring every last nook and cranny of its world and find something new and beautiful and mythic to capture every day. Digital tourism is today's affordable travel option.

 

Photo modes do more than give players the ins & outs of basic photo fundamentals and affordable options for escaping to breathtaking environments. They invite us to think deeply about the visual design decisions developers make.

I had a textbook last semester (edited by game academic Ian Bogost) on the concept of silence that had an essay on photography. One of the points the essay made was that photographs are a brief glimpse into the world with all movement and sound sucked out. Photographers make decisions about what they're capturing because not only do they have to choose what gets left out of their photos (like any artist, half of your work is choosing what you aren't going to cover), they have to reckon with the inherent limits of their medium.

When I covered Bonnaroo for the first time, I got to shoot Tom Petty. I was five feet away from one of my favorite musicians of all time. And the photos I took utterly failed to capture anything inherent to his nature as a performer. I got pictures of him smiling, pictures of him singing, pictures of him looking like hippie Jesus. But nothing that came close to saying "here's the legend that wrote 'Refugee' or 'Learning to Fly.'" I was too in shock about being that close to him and too new to photography to think about what those kind of shots would require.

Photographs are a brief glimpse into the world with all movement and sound sucked out.

Photography is more than just capturing raw visual data. If that was all it was, it would be unnecessary. Photography is about carving out a tiny moment in a bigger story and letting that image speak to something more profound than the mere info it contains. And when I started to take photographing the vistas of Horizon Zero Dawn seriously, it meant that I had to think seriously about what I was trying to capture in my photos in the first place. And that taught me what was special about Horizon Zero Dawn's environments beyond superficial notions of "beauty."

Like The Witcher 3, Horizon utilizes a vibrant and dominant color palette. The former was dominated by oranges and yellows and whites and reds. Horizon is awash in blues and reds and greens. In fact, green dominates the color of the game so much that I often hiked up the blue colorization options in the photo mode to add a hyper-real quality to many of my night shots. It brightened up the scenes so that you could see for hundreds of yards with an eerie clarity.

 

Horizon's best vistas are also almost uniformly related to scale—the player, and even entire areas—are dwarfed by the vastness of its deserts and plains, the suffocating thickness of its forests, and the titanic mountains that encircle you. My photos were almost all landscapes with a few shots of decrepit buildings rising out of jungles and frozen tundras. The game is at its most transcendent and awe-inspiring when you feel as Aloy likely would: utterly lost in a world so much bigger and older than she could ever imagine. Taking photos helped confirm that the tribes and ruins of civilizations long dead never hit with that same degree of wonder.

For a lot of people—myself included—digital spaces increasingly dominate our life. It's natural then, that we would make mementos of our time spent in those alien worlds. Games are increasingly giving us the tools to make art in those incredible moments, and see things that not every player will come across.

Here's hoping that our new virtual shutterbugs can bring these worlds to life for those of us who can't go there ourselves.