I've been thinking about Erend from Horizon: Zero Dawn.
I've been thinking about Erend a lot.
Erend, that loveable buffoon. What a guy! Erend is nice. Erend likes a drink, but who's judging? Erend screws things up every now and then, but his heart's in the right place.
Erend is great. Erend is a nice guy.
But Erend makes me feel a bit weird.
A little background info. My name is Mark, I'm 35 years old. I am heterosexual. When given a choice in a video game I usually play as a man. I'm not exactly sure why. I was a man in Mass Effect. I've been a man in every Bethesda RPG I've ever played. The only reason I can think of is this: "I am a man, I am used to being a man and I enjoy being a man so... given this choice I will probably play as a man."
But when video games don't give me that choice. When video games feature a singular female woman as a protagonist -- I'm okay with this. Very okay.
Especially when that game is Horizon: Zero Dawn.
I've been playing a lot of Horizon: Zero Dawn. It's a very polished video game set in a compelling open world with combat I adore. There's also tremendous robot dinosaurs that tend to kill me a lot. Great stuff.
But one thing that's crept up on me during my 30 or so hours with the game: the characters themselves. They're good. Compared to most video games they're very good. There's Aloy's mentor/father figure Rost, War Chief Sona, Aloy herself even.
And then there's Erend.
Erend makes his first appearance early in Horizon: Zero Dawn. He's introduced as an outsider from a rival clan who quickly calms a rabid crowd with the kind of direct, man of the people speech that has you thinking, "damn, this is a man of action. This is a guy gets the job done".
Then he introduces himself. To Aloy. To you the player. Immediately something becomes very clear.
Erend is thirsty. Thirsty. as. hell.
And Erend is low-key keen for a slice of Aloy.
But not necessarily in a sleazy way. Not in the way where you could instantly dismiss him like, "get off me Erend you creep." Not like that at all. More in a lounge lizard, "what's a pretty girl like you doing in a place like this" way. Alarm bells are ringing, but it could be a social faux pax to retort with a "back the fuck off mister".
Best to just deadpan it. Pretend it never happened and move along.
Which is precisely what Aloy does. Phew. Brilliant. Thanks Aloy.
Later -- it turns out -- Erend really is a nice guy. Spoiler Alert: he remains a nice guy for the entirety of his questline and undergoes a fairly compelling character shift. Some decent writing in there.
But Erend never really stops flirting with you, clumsily. And he never really gets the message. And that gets a little awkward.
Because -- real talk here -- I'm Aloy. I'm a gorgeous, empowered, driven woman with a keen gift for accessories. I kill enormous robot dinosaurs for a living and, if I'm being honest with myself, I'm not really sure a guy like Erend is right for me.
I'll just come right out there and say it: Erend, you're not really in my league.
I'm going to use this word now -- it's a word that plays in dangerous waters concerning men and their entitlement where women are concerned -- but I feel like it's appropriate.
I have placed Erend in the 'friend zone'.
And it feels a little bit strange.
A video game has never placed me in this situation before. A situation, I suspect, that almost every single woman has been placed in. As an unwelcome object of someone else's desire. Not in a place of danger necessarily, but a place of general discomfort. A place of "please stop hitting on me Erend because I just don't think of you that way you're uh... more like a brother".
Yes. A brother.
So weird to be in that spot.
Most men have absolutely been in that other spot. The opposite spot. Clumsily trying to hit on a girl with no reciprocation. Not really getting that clear "leave me alone" signal, unsure whether you should plod on like an awkward buffoon or head back home and sob into your pillow with The Smiths playing in background. Maybe you've developed a crippling long-term crush on a girl and you're not quite sure how to handle it. I always knew that was a bad position to be in as a dude but it wasn't until Erend that I knew what it felt like on the other side.
Oh my God. Am I Erend?
Have I been an Erend?
I am now happily married with two children, but I have no doubt that at one point in my life that I have been an Erend and that fact causes me to physically wince.
It's painful on a number of levels. First, the pain of recognition. Goddamn this situation sucks. Second (obviously) the pain of being in Aloy's awkward position. But thirdly -- perhaps most importantly -- the pain of knowing that I've also been Erend, that I may have made women feel this way in the past.
Boy does that suck.
I mean I knew. I always understood, and tried to be aware of, the impact flirting may have on someone who didn't want to reciprocate. That's part of being a normal functioning human being. But there's a difference between being aware and literally walking a mile in those shoes.
That's what Horizon: Zero Dawn did. It made me walk a mile in a woman's shoes and I learned a lot.
And the message was pretty clear. Don't be an Erend.