Three Kotaku staffers have finished the new PlayStation 4 game Horizon Zero Dawn, so it feels like time to talk it all. Join me, Kirk, and Patricia for some SPOILERY talk about Aloy's wild robot adventures.
Jason Schreier: Alright, let's talk about Horizon Zero Dawn. Now that the game has been out for nearly two months, I think it's safe for us to dig deep into the story and get all spoilery. So... wasn't it crazy that Aloy was dead the whole time?
Kirk Hamilton: Right? I also can't believe she was actually Rost's father! Blew my mind.
Jason: For real, though, I want to talk about the story revelations, both in terms of content and delivery. For starters, let's talk content. What'd you guys think of the big reveal, that this world was created by a set of elaborate AIs that were built to restore humanity in the wake of an apocalyptic meltdown?
Patricia Hernandez: I was impressed that they pulled it off as well as they did. Even when I guessed what would happen, they still made it feel really cool!
Kirk: For me, with this game, content and delivery were intertwined. In terms of content, I thought a lot of it was pretty predictable. There were some cool wrinkles, but when I describe the plot out loud to people, it doesn't quite capture why I thought this game had a good story. I guessed most of the twists, like Patricia. The delivery was where it really took off for me. Which is wild, considering how much of the story is delivered via audio and text logs!
Jason: So many goddamn audio logs.
Kirk: Seriously. I think I have a screenshot, but at one point after a cutscene I found myself in this room with like, five new audio logs. I just started laughing.
Jason: I hated the audio logs because they'd keep overlapping/interfering with in-game dialogue.
Patricia: The audio logs made me dislike the game when I started out, mostly because I didn't actually understand their significance. It wasn't until later that I realised what they meant / why they were important.
Jason: For a game with so many audio logs, you'd think they would have found a better way to handle that.
Kirk: That bugged me, but I would never, ever say that I hated the audio logs. I loved these audio logs more than maybe any other audio logs?
Jason: OK, yes, for audio logs they were top-notch.
Kirk: In some ways, I even liked that they weren't accompanied by any visuals. It frequently felt like I was listening to a really good apocalyptic radio play.
Jason: But when I said "delivery" before, I was actually thinking of the pacing, which was surprisingly excellent considered that this is a massive open-world game where you can just stop and spend hours hunting dinosaurs between each quest? In the second half of the game, once I met Sylens and the real story started unfolding, it felt like there was a new revelation with every mission, and it made me want to just keep powering through the story in a way that's rare in video games of this nature.
Kirk: Yeah, it had a lot of momentum, once it got going. I played up until the final two missions, then went and did all the sidequests (pretty good sidequests!), but I just told myself, "this, uh, happened earlier."
Patricia: Yeah, compared to say, Zelda, where the bulk of the game lies in what you do beyond the main story beats. I could ignore Ganon for the longest time, and did ... but once I started hearing about Zero Dawn, I really wanted to know what it was and how it worked.
Kirk: While both were definitely different, Zelda and Horizon did tell their story similarly, in some ways. (Along with all the other surface-level similarities between the games.) Like, the world is this way now, but the main meat of the story happened a long time ago. I do have to say I was more into the story of the Zero Dawn initiative and the end of the world than I was into Aloy's personal story, the Carja, Hades, and all that.
Patricia: Yeah, the politics of the world felt a little distant to me. The building blocks for something cool are there, but they definitely weren't the main attraction.
Jason: I've never seen a game that does such a good job of vividly capturing characters who have been dead for hundreds of years!
Kirk: Right? Like, I knew who Travis Tate WAS, man.
And Margo Shen <3 <3 <3
Patricia: Elisabet Sobeck is a badass ...and it says something that she can feel so vibrant when you're playing as a woman who literally kills robot dinosaurs.
Kirk: With the same voice actor playing both! I didn't want to get into that with Ashly last week on the podcast because we weren't doing spoilers, but she did a great job playing two different versions of the same person.
Jason: You guys didn't like the tribal stuff? I enjoyed learning about the politics of the Carja/Oseram/Shadow Carja, although the info overload could get a little heavy.
Kirk: Nah, I didn't say I didn't like it. I just liked the flashback stuff more. The big-picture tribal politics could be interesting, but I was much less engaged by all of it. Whereas I found myself eager to listen to the next update from the Zero Dawn initiative. I think it really was that the apocalyptic stuff all let you use your imagination, while the tribal/modern day stuff was limited by what they could show.
Patricia: I liked the idea of the tribes more than the actual execution, and I think that's partially because the different groups didn't feel distinct enough. Sure, they looked different. But it felt like I was doing the same things in every city, even if they were pulling me in different directions.
Jason: Yeah, and Sun-King Avad was a snore. Although Erend was a cool character.
Kirk: I did enjoy the part where Avad awkwardly hit on Aloy.
Patricia: And then later when he realises he's just lucky to have known her, that was pretty good too.
Kirk: Yeah, I enjoyed how much respect all the characters had for one another, in general. Kind of hard to articulate, but an overall thing that was nice. People take one another seriously in this world.
Jason: Kirk, that almost felt like a meta-joke, like how in most video games (or stories in general) we'd end with Aloy marrying Avad and kissing and having some lovely romantic moment, but nope, this isn't that kind of game.
Kirk: Ha, yeah, maybe.
Jason: Aloy doesn't have time for that shit.
Kirk: I very much enjoyed how much she and Sylens would bicker. He was such a dick, and she was never having any of it. Their relationship was consistently written, and it will be fun to fight him in the sequel, or whatever that post-credits tease was hinting at. It's such a video game trope, the mysterious guy on your radio who tells you what to do next, but like with many things in this game, the writing and execution elevated it.
Jason: Fun fact: Ashly Burch told us on our podcast that she and Lance Reddick (who played Sylens) never met or interacted. She was just talking to herself while recording. Keep that in mind next time you play the game or hear the two of them have a conversation!
Patricia: Damn, you can't tell.
Kirk: Yeah, I kept thinking about how they recast Scarlett Johansson in "Her" after they'd already shot the movie. Modern entertainment is weird.
Jason: I imagine the DLC will revolve around Sylens restoring HADES, which would be cool. But yeah, one thing I keep thinking is how much I'd love to play another game set in this world. If you told me that Horizon 2 would have the exact same mechanics, just putting Aloy in another part of the world with a brand new story, I'd be lined up at midnight.
Kirk: Yeah. It feels like they could do a LOT with these core mechanics that they haven't done yet, too. It sounds like they spent a long time just getting the dinosaur fights working. Now that they have got that as a foundation, they could do so much more, with so many more kinds of enemies. And even this, as a first outing… man. There were fights in this game, especially against Stormbirds and Thunderjaws, where I had to remind myself that the shit I was seeing was being rendered in real-time in a video game.
Jason: Yeah, god, the number of intricate moving pieces! Shrapnel flying everywhere, fire and smoke and electricity... It's really astounding.
Patricia: Give me a cooler iteration of Hades (that last boss battle was kind of boring), some more dinos, and more types of traps and I'd be game for Horizon 2 in the same world. I think, by the end, as much as I enjoyed the mechanics, your toolset started to feel a little limited.
Kirk: I liked doing the hunting challenges, since they forced me to really push myself. Otherwise I did get kinda locked into a single set of moves and gear. Rope, rope, rope, rope, arrows! Rinse and repeat.
Jason: Right, there's plenty more they could do — more with the bow, maybe more with the spear, and all sorts of shit that I'm sure they're already discussing — but everything in the game just clicked so well that I hope they stay in this world for a while. It's such an incredible combination of mechanics, story, atmosphere, world, aesthetics... It's still hard to believe that this game was developed by the people who made Killzone.
Horizon is also evidence that diversity can make for a more interesting, better story — think about how boring it would be if Aloy was yet another gruff dude, and if everyone in the world was white.
Kirk: In fairness, there were some good Killzone games! Guerilla has long had a knack for a certain kind of chaotic combat. But yeah, this was a real step up. I did appreciate the diversity, too - I also enjoyed how, for the sorts of people who get up in arms about game developers "forcing" a racially diverse cast, the racial hodgepodge is actually backed up by the story.
Patricia: I thought it was funny how I kept feeling shocked at how diverse the game is, because really, that's my real world too. I live in NYC. All sorts of people live here, but you don't often see stuff like that reflected in a game.
Kirk: Yeah. I also enjoyed how, while almost every character in the game had some sort of strong tribal allegiance (and the attendant prejudices), no one seemed to care about race as we understand it. They didn't even seem to notice, as far as I could tell. But then, why would they? They're procedurally generated lab experiments who all wound up living in Utah.
Jason: That's an interesting point - race is literally irrelevant to them, because they don't have millennia of history involving racial oppression and segregation, because they all just wound up blended together in the same area. It makes you wonder what other areas of the earth are like, no? Are there people in Horizon's version of Europe or Asia? What are their cultures like?
Patricia: There must be some places that didn't lose all their history.
Kirk: Yeah, I have a feeling we'll get to see all sorts of interesting stuff like that if we get a sequel. New areas, new cultures… maybe even some remnant of Apollo that wasn't destroyed! (Ted Faro, I swear. This fucking guy.) I appreciated that they managed to make me excited to hear more stories from this world, while also feeling like I got a complete story. I can't imagine there won't be a sequel, but if there isn't, I'm satisfied by the story we got.
Jason: I don't understand how anyone can be as simultaneously evil and incompetent as Ted Faro.
Kirk: I liked that the underlying message was: Tech People: They're Bad! (But Also Good?) Truly a video game for this modern age.
Patricia: I bet Ted Faro is friends with the man bun villain from Watch Dogs 2.
Jason: Anyway, the more I think about it, the more I think Horizon is up there with my all-time favourite video games. I really think it's special. Any closing thoughts from you guys?
Kirk: I liked it a lot. Fun to play, obviously. But more than that, the world I was exploring got more interesting the more I learned about it. And the ways I learned about it, audio logs and all, were unusually riveting. The acting, the writing, the way those old accounts sparked my imagination — some mix of all that, with a consistent focus on the psychological effects of watching the world end. It all felt unusually believable to me. One more noteworthy achievement among several.
Patricia: Yeah, Horizon has definitely helped 2017 feel like a killer year for games. I'm itching to know what the DLC is going to be, which is a feeling I almost never have for big budget games.
Jason: I just hope you get to play as Ted Faro!