How Horizon Zero Dawn Moves Beyond The Strong Female Character

Horizon Zero Dawn is a landmark of gender equality in AAAs. Aloy reps the cause so overtly that it barely even needs to be said. She's a strong female character in every way, with a practical, unsexualised design and a pivotal role to play in the story. Hell, she comes from a shamelessly matriarchal goddess-worshipping society.

But plenty of games have strong female characters. Horizon Zero Dawn is the first to take the next step, setting Aloy free in a truly progressive world.

Warning: Some small spoilers follow for events leading up to (and including) Meridian.

The strong female character has long been a hallmark of progressive games, from Lara Croft to Samus Aran to Faith Connors. These badass ladies have always kicked ass and taken names with the best of them -- albeit sometimes in some questionable outfit choices. Horizon Zero Dawn announced its intention to add its own protagonist to these ranks very early on -- though the decision to focus on a female character was sadly still seen as a 'risk'.

Shuhei Yoshida, President of Sony's Worldwide Studios, revealed in an early interview that they felt the need to put the game through rigorous market testing for this reason. "She's a female lead character," he explained. "That has always been the vision by the team, but we had a discussion. Is it risky to do a female character?"

Thankfully, this rigorous process must have been a good thing. Aloy is a great character. There's no denying it. She's intelligent, curious, kicks ass, wears practical (but gorgeous) outfits and has a face that looks like it belongs to a real person. She takes initiative when other characters falter and doesn't hesitate to tell it how it is. She's a redhead. She is progressive herself, breaking taboos and changing tradition where she sees fit.

The devs behind Horizon Zero Dawn have indicated that this was very much their intention -- that while they wanted to make a game with a female character, they wanted her to be an interesting character first and foremost: "what we have been focusing on is not if it's male or female, but it's more to figure out her personality. Make her personality really interesting."

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But Horizon has something that sets Aloy aside from the rest, that sets itself aside from most other female-led games. Guerrilla Games have unshackled Aloy from the tired 'strong female character' cliché of a woman trying to make her way in a man's world, giving her free reign to be all these things and more. She still has to overcome the burden of being an outcast in a tribe of traditionalists, maybe, or an outsider in new and foreign lands -- but for once this strong female protagonist can do her thing without the script calling attention to her femaleness again and again. A large part of this is thanks to the way that Aloy's very world functions.

The Nora Matriarchy

Let's break this down, starting at home with the Nora tribe. While we know the tribe is matriarchal, placing a heavy emphasis on the role of mother and resting its power in the hands of a council of matriarchs, the Nora don't seem too fussed about gender otherwise. Young men and women run in the proving alongside each other to become braves. The tribe's most powerful warrior, Sona, is a ruthless woman of colour who will stop at nothing to get her vengeance.

But it's not just the women who are unbothered by gender norms in Nora lands. Another Nora we get to know is Teb -- a young man who you first encounter when his lack of physical prowess lands him in hot water with a herd of robots. Teb later reveals that he has become a 'stitcher' for the tribe instead -- a position which he seems to both enjoy and take pride in. For the Nora it's acceptable not only for a woman to assume traditionally masculine qualities, but also for a man to embrace feminine-coded ones.

Aloy's surrogate father Rost also embraces traditionally non-masculine roles, telling a story that is surprisingly rare in all kinds of fiction. While stories of both father-son and mother-daughter bonding are commonplace, you barely see any that examine the relationship between a father and his daughter. While Rost often toes the line between father and mentor, their bond is unmistakeably close. "We said nothing of love," Matriarch Lansra admonishes Rost in the prologue, but even by that time it's too late. Aloy even has the option of honouring Rost in a section of the Proving ritual usually dedicated to mothers.

After spending way too long meeting Nora and finishing sidequests inside the Embrace, I realised something. In more than ten hours of play in the Nora lands, I couldn't remember a single time someone had referred to Aloy as a woman. There was no "I can't believe a woman won the Proving," or "it's too dangerous for a woman." Instead, everything was focused on Aloy's accomplishments.

Outside The Embrace

This changes a little when you cross the border into the wider world of Horizon Zero Dawn. The Nora's problematic neighbours, the Carja, do seem to be the most gender-restrictive tribe in the game -- but even then they don't seem to stick to that restriction too strictly. Despite the hunting lodge's trader Aidaba saying that "Carja don't exactly encourage their daughters to run around hunting machines", this attitude is not absolute -- in fact you're soon sent to a female hunter named Talanah to try and become her apprentice. Even the Lodge's man in charge and resident asshole Ahsis has far more of an issue with Aloy being a 'savage' than he does with her gender.

The Carja do have some rules surrounding gender roles, evidently. A soldier posted in a remote prison in the southern jungles reveals that women are not allowed to serve in the Carja army -- although the soldier who tells you this, Janeva, is a woman herself. Kind of. Interestingly she's strongly hinted to be either non-binary or genderfluid in some way. "No woman is allowed to serve," she says, explaining that instead she "became a soldier". Though other characters still do refer to her as a she, she still doesn't hesitate to threaten you if you admit curiosity about her genitals.

Thankfully, the Guerrilla devs haven't used Carja culture as an excuse to skimp on female characters. Even when you pass the gates to the great wide world beyond, Horizon doesn't stop throwing amazing women characters at you. Aloy is not so much a woman struggling to make her way in a man's world, but is one of a world full of strong, accomplished women.

Women On A Mission

Not only are there lots of women characters, but all of the women in the game are distinct and different. For one, they are incredibly diverse. They run the gamut of racial features from African to Asian to Hispanic and more. The scope of diversity in Horizon is fantastic -- especially considering that Horizon's future world would realistically have much the same mix of races as we have today. They all have interesting personalities and traits beyond 'being a woman', they all have their own motivations and ambitions to make their mark on the world.

Horizon Zero Dawn™_20170228174248

In fact it's hard to find a woman without agency in Aloy's world. Very early on, Horizon flips the overused 'fridged woman' trope on its head -- wherein dead wives, girlfriends and family members are used as a plot device to further a male protagonist's story. While speaking with Oseram warrior Erend before the Proving, he mentions that his sister Ersa was taken by the mad Carja Sun King's armies to fulfill a blood sacrifice.

But this isn't your classic dead-family-member-revenge-plot -- instead, Erend reveals that she actually survived, escaped, and went on to lead the army that would eventually overthrow the mad king. Ersa later became the head of the new Sun King's Vanguard, and appears to be loved and respected by many of the Carja in Meridian -- even though she is an Oseram herself.

Challenging Tradition

Even among the Carja women you can find an attitude of change, of resistance to stifling tradition. While plenty of characters appear to miss the old regime of terror, most of those characters are men. In many cases, the characters that push back the hardest are women -- or, in the case of one small sidequest, a gay man. Take the hunter Talanah, for example. While she reveals to Aloy that she aims to open up the traditionally noble, traditionally male Hunter's Lodge to people of all walks of life, it's strongly hinted that she has already blazed the trail for female hunters to join.

In this context of change, Aloy is more than just a heroine -- she's a catalyst, a point of inspiration for women in the tumultuous Carja lands. While almost everyone you talk to is impressed by Aloy's exploits, many of the women seem not just impressed but inspired. Horizon depicts a world in flux, a world actively working for a better future even in the face of destruction.

But while Aloy is symbolic of resistance in many ways, she never feels bogged down by the sexist attitudes she only occasionally comes up against. Horizon is unapologetic about putting a woman in a position of power and prestige, no ifs, ands, or buts required. While Aloy earns the reputation she carries throughout the game, it isn't by having to prove herself against a hyper-masculine standard.

So is it really risky to make such a woman-focussed game? Not at all, if the success of Horizon Zero Dawn is anything to go off. It even out-sold Breath Of The Wild in the UK to take the top spot on last week's chart. The risk paid off, and fittingly Sony has changed its tune. Earlier in February before the game's release, Sony Interactive Entertainment UK’s product manager Jon Edwards sounded far more confident of their risky female character, describing her as "a PlayStation icon of the future."

Developers should be looking to the example that Horizon Zero Dawn has set -- not only with its female protagonist, but with its woman-friendly world. This is how you make a truly progressive game.


    The game is definitely a poster-child for diversity... to one particular point that actually made me frown a little.

    An insular community of only a few hundred people like the Nora sure does appear to be strikingly distinct in their ethnic diversity, considering that it's had that small population for the last thousand years. Either the entire tribe has an unspoken rule that you only breed with people of the same ethnicity of yours, or genetics went haywire and stopped working the way they do now to avoid homogeneity. (Which - SPOILERS - may actually be a thing.)

    Whatever. If it means people see more characters that look like them, it's worth the additional suspension of disbelief. And it's a bloody amazing game.

      The first thing that came to mind was exactly this. 1,000 years of inter breeding, so why isn't everyone brown?

      I did actually have this thought, especially when Sona and her family look so ethnically distinct. But, like you said, I'm willing to overlook that because it's awesome to see so much representation. I feel like a lot of the Carja tend to look more like a 'melting pot' of races, though, which is cool.

        I guess we still don't know too much about how genetic trends work. For example, I know a girl whose family all have brown skin and black hair, but she's pale, freckly and red-haired. Not that any of that stuff matters deep down – which I feel Zero Dawn expresses, too. We're all human, or – if you're spiritual – we're all souls in varying flesh costumes. But I guess my point is, maybe no-one can be sure that humanity will ever reach a kind of... homogeneous state of consistently brown skin. :)

      I think people may be assuming that all the houses you see are empty, rather than holding 5-15 inhabitants each, maybe more. And that the Nora have been closed off from other cultures, or didn't start with a sizeable populace with strong diversity representation. Neither of these would be true from what the game presents. With a large enough gene pool, there certainly could be a large amount of ethnic 'solidarity' with enough diversity to ensure survival.

        I'd still comfortably rule out the cultural mingling. The degree of Nora insularity is intense. With some notable exceptions, venturing out beyond the Expanse is grounds for exile. Who knows how long that was the policy? It seems well-established, and quasi-religious rather than a recent civic policy in reaction to circumstances.

        Still, even with fifteen people per hut/house and the likelihood of some untraveled areas holding farmsteads that are technically part of the tribe, we're looking at only a few hundred people, maybe a thousand if stretched? And we're not looking at just black/white levels of diversity, but recognizable ethnic groups including Asian and Hispanic, which really starts to stretch requirements for avoiding extinction-by-inbreeding while maintaining that distinctiveness.

        I'm thinking it's not really meant to be analyzed or justified in-world and is just one of those compromises that caters to our current tastes. Plus, if pressed, there's the whole genetic tomfoolery potential over there in spoiler territory. Who knows what the mother-mountain has been up to? But hey, chopping it up over fictional anthropology is my idea of fun. :)

      Actually there's an ACTUAL good reason for the diversity. You don't find it out till later in the game, but once you start really delving into the secrets of the past you realize that this was NOT without actual story purpose.

      It's one of the truly amazing things about Horizon: Zero Dawn, they don't just skimp over on the details. If you can ask 'why is this thing this way?' then there is likely a good answer to that question.

        Oh my God. I watched my GF finish it on the weekend! They really did a bloody amazing job with lore.

      the genetic archives in Gaia's cloning facilities were designed to "preserve the diversity of the human genome". the tribes are all ethnic mishmashes because the Zero Dawn scientists were indiscriminate about what kind of genetic traits the people in the future would have.

    Ive been thinking of picking up a PS4 Pro for this + Uncharted, everything I read about it makes me more interested.

    It just seems refreshingly different.

      In a lot of ways it's similar to a lot of existing AAA games, but it just... works. Like, it's taken the best parts of every other game in the genre, and put it together to make something really awesome.

      It's also the first open world game I've played maybe ever where the side quests are all really interesting and distinct, and feel like they're worth doing. Like, every time you get sent on what you think is a basic fetch quest you end up investigating some mystery and having to make a moral decision of some sort. It's really cool!

        You should totally play Witcher 3 for that same 'every sidequest is important' vibe. That was its claim to fame, too... I love that games like Horizon are learning those lessons and running with them to create quality. My only lament is that DA:I was too far along to benefit from CDPR's example in this area.

          It's been on my list for a while but mainly what's stopping me is 1) I can't stand to play the third game without playing the first and second and 2) I find Geralt soooo dullll. But yeah I have heard that Witcher 3 has good sidequests (I think I read somewhere that someone from Witcher 3 actually worked on HZD in a similar capacity?)

          I'll get around to it one day.

            You can play Witcher 3 without the previous games. Anything important will be brought up anyway.

            Anyone else talk to the Osseram woman at Hunter's rest? She didn't paint a rosy picture of her homeland.

              Yeah it's kind of interesting what the Oseram women seem to imply about gender roles in the Claim, though it comes across a little odd when most of the Oseram women you meet seem very assertive and independent, Gera more than any of them. I guess they're just the ones who decide to get out?

            The first Witcher book is excellent. Can skip all the games and just read that. ;) It'll only take like seven hours, too.
            [It's called The Last Wish, by Andrzej Sapkowski]

    Is it bad that I didn't even consider the gender or skintone of the characters in games? Especially single player games.

      Same as you man.

      I don't care what gender or race i play if the game can tell a good story and has great gameplay mechanics then that's all you need.

    I particularly like the subtle way that Dishonored 2 handled it. By showing and not telling through the world. No judgement, no proselytizing.

    The setting is littered with capable female characters, a protagonist, antagonist, and side characters like Billie Lurk.

    What's more, if you pay attention, the bluecoated grunt soldiers are almost universally male. The large majority of the redcoated elites are female.

    In one particular scene on a balcony, a redocated elite lady is talking to a serving girl whom she is implied to be involved romantically with her. The guard wants the serving girl to steal for her, but the serving girl has reservations. "Once we have enough money, we'll get out of this city," the guard tells her. They embrace and part ways.

    In the high chaos version of this vignette, the guard lady gets angry at the serving girl's protestations. The guard lady pushes her off the balcony. It's shocking, but I love that it doesn't shy away from grim realities. How powerplays can go beyond gender.

    They even snuck a non-obvious trangender character in there, with Mindy Blanchard.

    It also has many homosexual references or inferred relationships.
    Some dialogue with characters defiantly had a 'I LIKE you, Aloy' (same / different gender) and the information left behind from the old world had many same sex couples messaging each other. So, not in your face, but there.
    Over all a very well balanced game diversity wise, I actually liked how sex and partners did not become a thing. I always felt odd in The Witcher or Mass Effect getting hot and heavy... especially when my wife was watching :)

    I look forward to where it goes from here.

    Aloy even has the option of honouring Rost in a section of the Proving ritual usually dedicated to mothers

    This is the thing that actually stood out to me the most. Horizon doesn't just clumsily insert females into roles that other games have traditionally placed males in; it flips them even within the game world, to the point of radical equality. It's SO well handled.

      What's interesting is that it's a blend of tribal culture - if you look back into our own history you find plenty of cultures where there were strong matriarchal lead societies.

      But I agree. That moment really made the game for me (I tend to be more emotional than my wife) and cemented my characters father-daughter relationship. (Which is another thing I love - the game fully allows you to determine the nuance of aloy in a natural organic feeling way)

    While I agree with most if not all of these points, sometimes I couldn't help but roll my eyes sometimes....
    I have yet to find a men who is not an asshole, a coward, an alcoholic or otherwise incapable of being a good person. Save for Rost that is, but he *SPOILER ALERT* gets killed by saving you.
    Don't get me wrong, I love this game and I don't mind at all playing women or seeing strong female characters like Sona, but man...
    Nora warchief is female -> replacement man is an asshole
    Carja leader of army is female -> replacment man is an alcoholic
    Of the two characters in the proving you know the names of, the dude is an asshole and the girl is friendly and nice to you.
    And most importantly - why does no one care for Aloys' father? Fine, society doesn't care that much, due to the importance of motherhood, but not even Aloy herself? Not a single line?

    That text got big XD Still love the game and won't put it down for a while^^

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