How Horizon Zero Dawn Moves Beyond The Strong Female Character

How Horizon Zero Dawn Moves Beyond The Strong Female Character
Image: Kotaku Australia / Guerrilla Games

Horizon Zero Dawn is an unequivocal 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, from her practical, unsexualised character design to the pivotal role she plays in the story. Hell, she even comes from a shamelessly matriarchal goddess-worshipping society.

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

Warning: Some minor spoilers follow for events leading up to (and including) Meridian. This post has been retimed following Horizon’s release on PC later this week.

“Is it risky to do a female character?”

The strong female character has long been a hallmark of supposedly 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 donning some highly questionable outfits. Horizon lead with its intention to add another strong woman to these ranks very early on, even though the decision to focus on a female lead character was sadly still seen as a ‘risk’.

Shuhei Yoshida, President of Sony’s Worldwide Studios, revealed in an early interview that they had 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 turned out the desired outcome in the end.

Aloy is a great character. There’s no denying it. She’s intelligent and curious, but can kick ass when she has to. She wears practical outfits that are still filled with personality, and has a unique 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, frequently questioning the status quo. She’s a redhead. She’s a progressive herself, breaking taboos and changing tradition where she sees fit.

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The devs behind Horizon Zero Dawn have indicated that this was very much their intention. 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,” director Mathijs de Jonge told Gamespot in an early interview. “Make her personality really interesting.”

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For years now, the latest console generation has been coasting on the idea that more raw power means better games. The PS4's newest exclusive, <em>Horizon: Zero Dawn</em>, is the rare game that delivers on that promise.

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But Horizon has something that sets Aloy aside from the rest, and sets itself aside from most female-led games. Guerrilla Games have unshackled Aloy from the tired ‘strong female character’ cliché – a woman trying, struggling to make her way in a man’s world. Instead, Aloy gets free reign to be more than just an icon for her gender.

She 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

To break this down, let’s start at home with the Nora tribe. The Nora are traditionally matriarchal, placing a heavy emphasis on the role of mother and resting power in the hands of a council of matriarchs, yet beyond this the Nora don’t seem too fussed about gender at all. Young men and women run alongside each other in the proving 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.

While female gamers deserve to see themselves reflected in strong warriors just as men do, the Nora are all the more remarkable for their embrace of the feminine as they are for the toughness of their female warriors. 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 first encountered when his complete 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 he seems to both enjoy and take pride in. For the Nora it’s not only acceptable for a woman to assume traditionally masculine qualities, but also for a man to embrace feminine-coded ones.

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Aloy’s surrogate father Rost also embraces traditionally non-masculine roles, telling a story that is surprisingly rare in any kind of fiction.

While stories of both father-son and mother-daughter bonding are common enough to be tropes, barely any 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 far too long meeting various Nora and finishing sidequests inside the Embrace, I realised something. In more than ten hours of gameplay 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”, the kind of dialogue I’ve sadly grown accustomed to through years of female-led games. This time, everything was focused on Aloy’s accomplishments.

Outside The Embrace

Sadly this disregard for gender norms isn’t as overt once you cross the border into the wider world of Horizon Zero Dawn. The Nora’s problematic neighbours, the Carja, do come across as 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 it’s disproven almost immediately when you’re sent to find a female hunter named Talanah, tasked with trying to 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. Janeva is strongly hinted to be either trans or non-binary – a group rarely represented in AAA games.

“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 voice any curiosity about her genitals.

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

Women On A Mission

Horizon Zero Dawn ticks another box in female representation when you realise that all of the women in the game are distinct and different. They are incredibly diverse racially for one, running the gamut of racial features from African to Asian to Hispanic and more. The scope of diversity in Horizon perfectly reflects the fact that Horizon’s future world would realistically have much the same mix of races as we have today.

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Beyond racial diversity, Horizon’s women all have interesting personalities and traits beyond just ‘being a woman’. Even the most minor female characters encountered have their own motivations and ambition to make their mark on the world in some way. 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.

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

Challenging Tradition

Even among the Carja women there exists an attitude of change, a resistance to stifling traditions. With this year birthing huge female-led movements like the Women’s March in January, the simmering undercurrent of revolution among Horizon’s women reflects something very real for most of the women who play it.

While plenty of characters appear to mourn the old Carja regime of terror, most of those characters are men. In most cases the characters who 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 worked for many years to blaze a trail for female hunters to join.

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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.

While Aloy is symbolic of resistance in many ways, she never feels bogged down in sexism. Horizon is unapologetic about putting a woman in a position of power and prestige: no ifs, ands, or buts required. Aloy earns the reputation she carries throughout the game, but 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.”

With women in both the games industry and the world at large demanding to be heard, developers can look to the example that Horizon Zero Dawn has set. Female protagonists are important, but they need to be raised up by women around them, by the very world they move through. This is how you make an icon.


  • 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 had the same thought. Don’t get me wrong, I totally enjoy the diversity, but 1000 years of a closed culture is going to lead to some pretty strong blending. There shouldn’t be significant racial diversity with all the interbreeding. Any tribe that tried should have died out centuries before the game was set, thanks to the low genetic turnover.

    • 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.

        • Yeah the lore was some of the best i’ve seen, the fact that there was a reason for the genetic diversity was good, but just the grimness of the back story alone was particularly bold. I cared a lot less for what was happening in the present day than I did for the awesome story that led to the world you play in.

          Part of me wants a prequel game, that could even be a drastically different genre to Horizon (maybe it would make more sense closer to the Killzone model?) but part of me knows that story’s likely better left as an expertly written retrospective.

          • All those audio logs, all those snippets of story… I STILL find myself thinking about them, a year later. Watching the world die. The biosphere, lost. The acceptance of extinction… the futile fight.

            And yeah. It probably is best left.

    • 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.

    • I am currently playing Zero dawn. here’s a 20 second review.

      World, epic and diverse. Character and enemy modelling fantastic. Quests engaging and fun. Combat, dull and terrible.

      Expanding on the last point, the game is about a stealthy hunter and it clearly encourages that approach, yet you do next to no damage to any medium or large enemy and with three or four coming at you at once I just keep running.

      Once I found the quickest way to kill anything is to just shoot fire arrows into them as fast as possible without really aiming I became quite jaded with it. I will finish it but for me the combat is just terrible.

      • Yet I found that after a while you could absolutely Rambo it up if you felt like it and ignore being stealthy should you choose to…

        Some of the weapons and/or ammo variants are absolutely there to kill things in the loudest and most explosive ways imaginable. Fire arrows have nothing on some of the ammo you get your hands on.

      • The combat is very much about planning a toolset and setting a trap.

        When it comes to a larger enemy, you have to watch it to figure out where it goes, then set traps and set up your weapon/perk loadout to suit. Then you wait for the right time and hit it as hard as possible, all at once. KNock pieces of armour off, incapacitate its offensive weapons, stun it, or even bait it into chasing you where you can get it to run through tripwires that will knock it down so you can stab it in the belly.

        The combat is super varied and tactical. It relies on different weapon/trap/tactics combos to be an efficient hunter. It’s genuinely one of the best open world combat systems I’ve ever seen.

  • 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^^

    • Aloy doesn’t have a father. Nor does she have a mother, in the traditional sense. (Trying not to be too spoiler-y.)

  • Game looks great and plays well – really refined aspects of the genre it conforms to.

    Do prefer more open world games these days however.

  • I know this is an old article, but I’ve just replayed the game so I feel like commenting on it.

    I think there tends to be two types of “strong female character stories”. The first is what I’ve always thought of as the Mulan story, where you have a patriarchal society and a woman has to prove herself to them, with her gender constantly being questioned along the way. The second are the stories that take place in a setting where gender just doesn’t matter at all, with female soldiers and leaders etc standing alongside the men and no one says a word (personally I’ve always preferred this type of story to the Mulan type of story).

    Horizon has elements of both, and it works really well. And the article is right that the setting has a large part to do with that, with Aloy journeying from a matriarchy to a patriarchy to places that aren’t really either, allowing the story to examine gender roles from different perspectives.

    But I also think one of the reasons it really works is because there’s a willingness to both praise and criticise all those different societies, and a willingness to both praise and criticise men and women. It doesn’t fall into the trap that some other strong female protagonist stories fall into where they sort of overcompensate on their message and end up treating all women in society as perfect, as though afraid that giving them negative traits would undermine the feminist message of the story.

    The Nora are a great example of avoiding this. A matriarchal society that doesn’t bring up gender at all when people wants to be hunters or warriors or whatever. Yet as progressive as their views on gender might be they’re also shown as being incredibly ignorant about the world, and incredibly cruel in some of their tribal practices.

    One of my favourite lines in the game is Aloy saying that she shouldn’t be thought of as Aloy of the Nora. She’s Aloy despite the Nora.

  • Apparently I missed this article the first time around…

    Loving all the adoration shown for this game in the article and comments (particularly the lore, the lead, and the combat). This game fucking owns! Best of the generation for me 🙂

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