Gender, Race, and Robot Dinos in Horizon Zero Dawn
Horizon Zero Dawn is great for a lot of reasons, and maybe the most subtly feminist AAA first-party game I've played.
The Waypoint crew is (tall)neck deep in Guerrilla Games' open world action game, Horizon Zero Dawn, and writing to each other about it. Check out Patrick's thoughts here, Mike's here, and stay tuned for Austin's letter on Wednesday.
Austin, Patrick, and Mike,
I'll start this off with a caveat—though I have been playing Horizon Zero Dawn, I've also been watching my girlfriend play it. So, most of my insights are related to the world, story and aesthetics (with a light smattering of gameplay).
With that said, Horizon Zero Dawn has really surprised me. I was wary about open-world fatigue going in, and really, really worried about the game's tone. From the preview footage we looked at on-stream, Austin, this looked like a really self-serious game. When your primary tagline is "it's robot dinosaurs, motherfucker!" going for a sober approach sounds... terrible.
But there's a really warm and earnest tone to the game's writing. Right from the opening cutscene (which is a massive lore dump, but a very pretty and heartwarming lore dump), I was fascinated by this post-post apocalyptic world, the tribes, and Aloy and Rost (good old spear-dad). There's so much love between these characters, and as trope-y as the whole first hour is, it actually hit its marks. I almost got teary-eyed when that wannabe Draco Malfoy kid threw a rock at poor baby Aloy.
There's a lot of depth and character to this world, and I'm really enjoying the way its unraveling before me.
I'm also a little obsessed with the camera tools in the game. Man, this is a beautiful world.
Another thing I love about this game is just how Tomb Raider-y it is. Aloy feels a lot like the new Lara Croft—and that's a very good thing. The climbing, long-range combat and the level design (at least, within linear spaces, less so the truly open ones) feels much more Tomb Raider than Far Cry or Assassin's Creed. It's tighter, and a touch weightier.
Oh, and as for the question on everyone's minds, I knocked the rock out of that other kid's hand. That seemed like the very best way to go: showing him my mad skills, the fact that I would take no shit, but also, that I'm peaceful and not a sniveling snothead like him.
I will say only this, to avoid spoiling anything from the endgame: I really love the sense of discovery in this game, through its story beats (which, thankfully, it carries, as I was very worried the ball might get dropped on a cheesy revelation), and in the combat, upon finding new creatures to fell. At the final hour or so of the game, I'm left feeling... impressed.
This is maybe the most subtly feminist AAA first-party game I can think of.
Something else that really impresses me is just how awesome and prevalent women and people of color (and especially women of color!) are in this world. We have matriarchies here, and other forms of tribal society, and everywhere I went there were women as war chiefs, mechanics, hunters, tribe elders, women in positions of power and authority. Complex women. Many of these ladies were black or Latino, and so were many of the men in this world.
Speaking of men, they also enjoy a wide representation here—and are often just as capable as nurturers as they are warriors or kings or "braves," proving that, hey, when there's something approaching gender parity, everybody wins.
Aloy herself, and the character that she shares a special connection with (no spoilers), Elisabet, are women of conviction, skill, intelligence, and enormous heart. There were so many moments in this game, really weighty moments, where that shines beautifully, and neither of them are presented as unrealistically perfect. They are flawed, but capable of greatness. Honest-to-god heroes.
In some ways, this game feels quietly revolutionary. It's maybe the most subtly feminist AAA first-party game I can think of. I say subtly because it doesn't feel the need to proclaim anything; it just happens to show a world where gender roles didn't develop along the patriarchal lines in the same way for everyone, where women and folks of color can take on any position and thrive.
It's not a perfect world, by any far stretch. But it's incredibly striking, and honestly, refreshing.