I loved Horizon Zero Dawn from the moment that first trailer came out a few years back, I loved it so much that I bought the collectors edition of the game when I didn't even own a PS4. When I eventually borrowed my flatmate's console and finally got to play the game, I thought it was fantastic and well worth the wait. Like all the best things in the world though, it's still not perfect and today I'm going to rip into its weakest element - Aloy.
Now, before anyone asks; yes, I've beaten the game, I've done pretty much everything and yes, I loved it. Besides Mad Max, a game that is structurally similar to Horizon Zero Dawn, I haven't actually gotten the Platinum Trophy for that many games. I felt that HZD was worth it though, so I went for it. I'm not writing this down to toot my own horn, I'm simply telling you this so you don't think I'm just some dumbass video game journo who's played an hour of the game and is basing his opinion off that one tiny snippet.
I think HZD is a fantastic game, it handles like a dream and the setting is amazingly well thought out, with little details scattered around the world that really add a lot of depth. The backstory was great, you really got a feel for how things were before it all went to shit. I don't want to get into spoiler territory in this regard, but what humanity went through before the end of the world was horrifically tragic. The way in which you discover how the old world ended, the build up to it, was long and drawn out and you could feel the fatalistic determination in each recording you found. Those old world people knew they were fucked, but they kept on fighting to give humanity a chance at returning one day.
The main problem with the game is Aloy, and I'll say it right off the bat - she's a total Mary Sue.
Aloy was raised as an outcast of the Nora, a tribe that is considered backwater and primitive by all the other tribes in the surrounding lands. I am perfectly fine with her being a badass hunter/killer of men and machines... she was raised out in the wilds and had to do things the hard way. But once she gets out into the world she also starts giving people relationship advice, telling kings how to do their job, settling disputes and showing-up primitive tribals by lecturing them about how the world is actually round. Not to mention the fact that pretty much every major male character (and one female one) has a crush on her. A literal king asks if he could date her and she turns him down, if that's not a Mary Sue then I don't know what is.
All of this is a problem for so many reasons.
First of all, it's fine that she's had a rough upbringing. She had to learn to fend for herself and become strong and independent, I've got no problem with that. The problem is that she's had no negative effects from this very negative upbringing beyond clashing with her tribe every now and again because of their backward ways. She grew up out in the wilds, with only one guy to talk to, and every other Nora either actively refused to talk to her or threw rocks at her. How does she have such a magnanimous view of humanity after eighteen years of this? Not only that, but how is she giving such worldly advice to people when she's had so little social interaction and has never left her valley? She gets involved in regional politics and gives moral advice to leaders... where did she learn all that?
Rough upbringings leave scars and these scars become the character's traits. While Aloy had the rough upbringing, she hasn't got any scars from these events and therefore no character traits have formed from them. This happens a lot in stories, where a character is given a terribly heart wrenching backstory to make them seem interesting but then that backstory has no real ramifications on their personality. A cause without an effect is just pointless, and this is the case with Aloy. Despite everything she's been through, she's still naive and innocent... yet somehow still worldly, and willing to aid a world that has wanted to ignore her existence since she was born.
Beyond the weird disconnect between Aloy's background and her personality, HZD has an odd set up in regards to men and women. Now, I've got to get this out before people lose their shit over this next part. I'm fine playing female characters and I couldn't care less about their presence in video games. There are women in the world, it makes sense for them to be in video games too. It's not even a real issue, and any dude who has a problem playing as a chick in a video game has some serious self reflection to do. Tomb Raider is one of my most favorite games, I've bought four copies of that game over the years and gotten 100% all four times. Its sequel, Rise of the Tomb Raider, was just okay. But when it comes to HZD, all the "good guys" are ineffectual in some manner; alcoholics, inexperienced, rude, dumb or afraid etc, while all the proficient and truly badass men are "bad guys."
I think there's one male character that doesn't fit this mold, her foster father, but that's it... and he dies pretty early on. Beyond that though, she's surrounded by these men that she needs to save because they're useless and these other men that she needs to kill because they're not useless, and they're evil. This has some interesting connotations if you stop to think about it... what were they trying to say with that?
This is accompanied by the fact that there are so few female enemies in the game. When you've reached a stage in the game where Aloy starts killing humans, you're only ever rarely killing women. You could say that female enemies have always been rare in video games, but for a game that places such emphasis on female involvement in the world's events it's interesting that the developers didn't make an even amount of female enemies too. I'm not saying that I want a lady killer simulator, I'm just saying that if you're going for realism and equal representation then you need to take that to its logical conclusion. The world of HZD is clearly full of competent and badass women, so why are so few of them Aloy's enemies?
When you combine all this with the fact that the world was ended by a man's mistake, that the new world-ending threat is started by another man, and that in both cases it's saved by a woman, you can start to see how a lot of people could think that HZD is trying to push a certain agenda. It's almost like the developers wanted all the benefits of equality but also wanted to minimize the drawbacks, they wanted women to play pivotal roles but they didn't want to depict them as being as prone to villainy, or being as expendable, as men are. Equality isn't all sunshine and rainbows, if women are to be depicted as truly equal to men in stories then they need to have the same moral range as men and they need to die just as easily as men.
Now, we could get into the plot point that Aloy is "genetically predisposed to saving the world" but that's a rabbit hole that could lead to some seriously nasty places.... so let's just move on.
By this point though, you're probably starting to question whether or not I legitimately liked the game. While this isn't surprising, I have to reiterate that I did really enjoy it and I'm actually thinking of playing it all over again when I eventually get a PS4. My only wish is that Aloy would have been a bit more of a realistic character and less of a Mary Sue, she's got a great backstory that should have played a much larger role in who she turned out to be. I would've liked to have seen her end up a bit more jaded and socially awkward, not knowing how to operate in her tribe, let alone the outside world. These negative character traits would've given her something to overcome as the story progressed, and I think in the end she would've been all the stronger for it. As it is, she starts out as a strong and independent woman and she finishes as a strong and independent woman, she doesn't really grow from the events of the story.
I'm really excited about this series and I'm keen to see where they take it next, whether it's with Aloy specifically or with just the world in general. I have an idea of where it could go next, there are certain NPC's from the old world that could still potentially be around, but we'll all just have to wait and see. If you take anything away from this, let it be that I loved the game but that I wish the protagonist was a bit more well rounded. Because at the end of the day, you're hunting robotic dinosaurs with a bow and arrows and you're saving the humanity from apocalyptic AI - how could that not be a world you'd want to explore?