Ecofeminism and Gaia Theory in Horizon Zero Dawn
woolbrightle [at] alma [dot] edu
Communication, New Media Studies
(Published October 24, 2018)
The 2017 video game Horizon Zero Dawn represents a unique version of post-apocalypse, one thousand years after a planet-wide environmental collapse caused by out-of-control technologies. The game’s protagonist, Aloy, must fight increasingly aggressive machines made in the image of earth’s megafauna as well as the narrow-minded societies of the new earth. Her quest is both a journey of personal discovery and for the betterment of her community, and coupled with her role as a female video game protagonist—which are few and far between—she represents both gender progress and ecological thinking, making her, I argue, an ecofeminist protagonist. Game reviewers, players, and critics have also praised Horizon Zero Dawn for its beautiful graphics, which depict the American West and Southwest. Significantly for an environmental reading, the plot involves scientists creating an AI to terraform Earth’s destroyed environments: the AI is named GAIA, invoking James Lovelock’s Gaia Theory, and thus the game pits nature against technology at the same time that it figures the two as deeply intertwined and presents players with another female figure to consider in relation to ecological themes. This video essay discusses whether Horizon Zero Dawn depicts the world as it “should” be in terms of either gender or ecology, according to ecofeminist theories, and whether Aloy represents an intersectional character according to theorists Patricia Hill Collins and Sirma Bilge. If so, this game could be interpreted as activist in more than just a feminist way. The game’s message of maintaining hope through personal and cultural hardship through strategies both violence-based and based in ethics of care—for others regardless of ethnicity, for the environment—is much-needed in these precarious political times.
Editor's NoteThe video essay is embedded below followed by a transcript for accessibility.
The coded worlds of video games have received a fair bit of mainstream media attention in the past decade or so, most of it negative, whether from the specious correlation between violence and gaming or the harassment stemming from the misogynists of GamerGate. In particular, the issue of representations of women in games continues to rage across the internet. So, too, in the past decade, has debate over the reality of climate change intensified across cultural spheres. Yet rarely have these two worlds collided, in spite of their sharing similarities: both depicting meaningful diversity in media and taking action to solve environmental problems are deeply controversial in American culture.
Gaming communities have seen players, journalists, developers, and scholars raise tough questions about representations of race, gender, sexuality, and violence in games, and while the industry has made some effort to alter course, mostly such attempts have managed only tokenism at best, and the state of triple-A gaming remains much the same. Lead female characters are still seen as a risk to game developers, and women and minorities are woefully underrepresented in the design process, as well as in the games themselves. The industry is in dire need of change, and it’s coming, but slowly.
Conversations—and yes, shouting matches—involving social justice tend to loom large in gaming communities interested in these issues, and so the non-speaking elements of game worlds are far less often considered; I’m talking about environmental justice questions games raise in depicting digital landscapes, environmental processes, and coded creatures. As scholars such as Alenda Chang have noted, these rarely matter much beyond their aesthetics nor exist except to make a space feel more realistic.
Despite this apparent indifference to environments in games, recent years have seen numerous animal simulation titles emerge, and some games have begun to explore play as animal avatars beyond mere simulation, such as the Shelter games, which deal with questions of motherhood and survival as well. The genre of survival games and survival modes in open world games have also become much more popular. In some cases, players can even modify games that lack such features to make environmental effects matter to their survival, as in mods for the open-world game The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, for example. It would seem that players are interested in environments that matter, but generally speaking, games have not been doing much to deliver them.
Conversation focused on depictions of the natural in digital worlds across media is much-needed, as is continued exploration of female characters in games. As such, ecofeminism will be a crucial lens for this project.
While many games allow players to design their own protagonist, numerous successful titles lock in not only their protagonists’ stories and personalities, but even their appearance, as in Uncharted’s Nathan Drake or Tomb Raider’s Lara Croft. One new game that follows this model is Horizon Zero Dawn, and, unlike famed Lara Croft’s questionable strong femininity, this game’s heroine is unambiguously feminist and is the subject of exceptional story-telling by any measure from character design to human believability. The game has also been widely praised for its gorgeous rendering of natural environments; its setting is the American West, specifically Colorado, Arizona, Utah, and recently-released DLC in Yellowstone.
For this essay I propose standing at the intersection of gender and environments in games, focusing on the female protagonist in Horizon Zero Dawn—her name is Aloy—and her complex relationship to the ecosystems and technologies that make up her world, which may provide insight into the environmental and gender problems our society is facing. My central question here is whether Horizon Zero Dawn depicts the world as it “should” be in terms of either gender or ecology, according to their respective theories, and whether Aloy represents an ecofeminist character. If so, this game could be interpreted as activist in more than just a feminist way.
An Intersectional Protagonist
Horizon Zero Dawn stands out among post-apocalyptic game narratives in its setting in a world that has bounced back from apocalypse, roughly a thousand years after the end of human civilization as we know it, placing players beyond the initial catastrophe and not allowing them to witness it. For a large portion of the game, the apocalypse that led to the collapse of civilization is a mysterious one Aloy must investigate as her story and the wider world become increasingly entwined. Through play, the player learns that saving the world means preventing its re-destruction, a task which, it turns out, only Aloy can accomplish. Horizon Zero Dawn also stands among few others in having a pre-set female protagonist, in its many female-centered narrative elements, and possibly in its conception of the human relationship to the natural.
There is no question that Aloy is a feminist character. Hayley Williams writes in Gizmodo, a tech and games reviews site, that Aloy goes beyond what we have come to expect in “strong, female characters,” who are, according to her, mostly just trying to make their way in a patriarchal society and prove their worth against a hypermasculine ideal. Aloy by contrast “can do her thing without the script calling attention to her femaleness again and again… Horizon is unapologetic about putting a woman in a position of power and prestige” (Williams). And it’s true; Aloy’s gender is hardly ever brought up. Non-player characters tend to remark on her outcast status in the Nora tribe or that she is a “savage” once she leaves Nora lands rather than on her gender. In short, her ethnicity and social standing are far more at issue, and her well-developed, snarky personality shines through in her responses to people’s comments about her.
Because of this, I believe that Aloy is more than just feminist; she is an intersectional heroine. Her whole identity is what drives the game, not merely one piece of it, and that, not surprisingly, is a rare thing for female characters in any medium, but particularly in games. Making Aloy’s femininity a matter of fact and not conflict is a subtle push toward the ideals of many scholars and activists alike.
But scholars and activists are not always easy bedfellows. In their 2016 book Intersectionality, Patricia Hill Collins and Sirma Bilge explain the schism between higher education and political engagement, how both reinforce fictions (such as the "ivory tower" myth or that activists don’t have the “luxury” of critical thinking), and these undermine the intersectional progress that would interlink the two (32). Collins and Bilge write, "Rejecting this scholar-activist divide suggests that intersectionality as a form of critical inquiry and praxis can occur anywhere" (32), including in video games.
Aloy isn’t the only strong woman around; Horizon Zero Dawn features female leaders, fighters, guards, generals, gun-makers, sisters, lovers, and mothers all over the place; in the Nora, at least, and frequently across the other tribes as well, women and men are given access to all social roles; Aloy’s male friend, Teb, for instance, becomes a stitcher instead of a fighter. Gender is far less at issue in these future societies than it is in our own, an unfortunately important difference for players to note. In spite of its being post-apocalyptic, this game is a picture of how things could be.
Aloy’s character development through social interaction in the game encourages players to see her not just as a woman, but as a complete and complex person. She is unafraid of deadly adversaries or of her own emotions. Between the game’s writing and Ashly Burch’s portrayal of Aloy’s wide-ranging emotions, Aloy’s design could certainly be considered an enactment of intersectional theory. The only piece overtly missing from this schema is nature, ground extensively covered by ecofeminists.
Ecofeminists claim some of the first attempts at intersectional feminism, although both terms rose to prominence in humanities and social sciences disciplines roughly around the same time—in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. As Greta Gaard writes in 1993, “ecofeminism’s basic premise is that the ideology which authorizes oppressions such as those based on race, class, gender, sexuality, physical abilities, and species is the same ideology which sanctions the oppression of nature” (1).
While Aloy and the peoples inhabiting her world are certainly tied to their land—which now includes the ruins of our technological civilization—most of their discussion of nature revolves around the machines, which appear to stand in for the larger animals one would expect to see in the American West. There may be turkeys, fish, foxes, rabbits, and rats, which the player must occasionally kill in order to get ingredients necessary for crafting items, but there are no bison, birds, coyotes, or wolves here; instead, players find machines made in the shapes of the megafauna of our current ecology and that of pre-history. Horizon Zero Dawn depicts a world not only of cities overgrown, but overrun with animal-like machines ranging from the human-sized, birdlike Watcher to the towering, saurian Tallneck.
What are these machines doing here? What is their purpose? Are they participating in the ecologies of the earth, or just superimposed on top of them? And, for Aloy, why have they begun attacking humans? It takes some time for any of these mysteries to be answered. For the beginning part of the game, all the player knows is that within the past decade, machines began to be increasingly hostile toward humans; where they had been indifferent and docile before, they now stalk and kill. Lead writer for Guerilla Games John Gonzalez comments in this interview:
“in terms of their observable behavior they appear to be more or less equivalent to wildlife, to the animals of our world...there’s also “real” wildlife in the game...why is it that these machines have shapes, forms, that remind us of the wildlife we see in our world or sometimes in the history of our world is another thing that we factored in when imagining this ecology.”
In order to learn how the machines were made and what their purpose is, we need to follow Aloy on her journey.
Aloy’s story begins with her mysterious birth. She evidently has no parents, but is found in the heart of the mountain worshipped by the tribe called the Nora. Nora society is matriarchal, led by a triumvirate of female elders and they worship the goddess they call All-Mother. Because one’s mother is the key marker of Nora social station, Aloy is cast out from the tribe for being motherless. She is raised by another outcast, a man named Rost, who teaches her to fend for herself in the wilds on the edge of Nora civilization.
Aloy demonstrates many of the markers of the female trickster of folklore from around the world. Of the trickster heroine, whom she terms “trickstar,” Marilyn Jurich writes, “Marginality is another one of the singular traits that characterize the Trickster, a condition ‘in between’ time and culture, during which the individual comes to occupy two worlds at one time… Woman by virtue of gender alone has been marginalized; and trickstar is a twice-marginal figure” (34).
Aloy does indeed come to inhabit two worlds and sit between two times and two cultures: the earth’s current condition and that of its past, the Metal World, the Nora call it. Often underground, these spaces operate much the same as the hero’s descent into the Underworld, a place of forbidden knowledge whose trials end up bringing the hero face-to-face with their “other,” often their dark side, or making them confront their own death, ultimately revealing that their true self is a combination of the self and the other.
This could not be more true of Aloy. As a child, due to an accidental fall, she finds herself in an ancient ruin—a ruin from our future, a time of high technology—and as she navigates her way out, she comes across a corpse wearing a small, triangular object. It glows, so she picks it up and puts it on her own head and finds her view of the world utterly changed.
The technology she’s found is called a Focus, we learn, and it is a kind of augmented reality (AR) device that can overlay relevant information onto the existing world. Aloy uses it to track, to spot and target enemies, to find objects, and, eventually, for wireless communication. From a design standpoint, it’s a unique version of a heads-up-display (or HUD), and it would be impossible to complete the game—for Aloy to complete her quest—without it. Wearing it, she becomes a kind of humanimal-cyborg, as hybrid a creature as Donna Haraway could have imagined.
But this reliance on ancient tech, this need to enhance reality, to show what is otherwise unseen, for that to be possible only through technology, and for the game to be deliberately designed this way complicates an ecocritical reading of the game. It demonstrates how inextricable we are from our tech—Aloy’s weapons are tech, after all—and in a way, it brings Aloy closer to us, the players, who are, ironically, enjoying this fully digital experience of these gloriously beautiful—and completely mediated—landscapes. Her reliance on technology mirrors ours.
So Aloy earns her tribe’s respect by running in their coming-of-age ritual which they call the Proving, but during the trial, an unknown group attacks the young people and tries to murder Aloy. In the aftermath of the attack, Aloy is granted the right to become a Seeker, which will allow her to travel outside of Nora lands on her search for answers. Where her quest begins as a simple, personal one—who is my mother? Where did I come from?—the more puzzling questions of who the attackers are and why they would want her dead bring her into the wider world. In terms of the Hero’s Journey, this is her Call to Adventure.
Aloy’s quest maps pretty evenly onto the Hero’s Journey, and she fits the archetype of the warrior maiden as described by Valerie Pinkola Estes in From Girl To Goddess: The Heroine’s Journey Through Myth and Legend. Aloy quests to discover her origins and prove her worth, first struggling against a society that shuns her for being motherless, then against societies that look down on her for her tribal affiliation. Through seeking the truth of her birth, she seeks her purpose, which lies not in marriage and motherhood, but in saving the world.
A.B. Chien writes in Waking the World: Classic Tales of Women and the Heroic Feminine that “When goddesses embark upon heroic journeys, it is to restore what has been broken or injured” (qtd. in Frankel). For Aloy, her quest is both a journey of personal discovery and for the betterment of her community—in spite of their reticence or downright hostility towards her.
Aloy follows the tradition of heroines like Brunnhild in her status as one of the most gifted fighters in the world—and it should be noted that the game encourages play strategies that are smart and not merely forceful. Rather than simply shooting adversaries, players will find that combat is easier and a lot more interesting if they set traps, craft bombs, use stealth kills, and target enemies’ heavy weapons, which Aloy can break off, then pick up and use herself, especially in fights versus machines, which have special attacks that can be devastating. The design of gameplay here facilitates creative solutions for our hero, and tactics such as these have been the trappings of trickster heroines throughout the history of folklore.
On her quest to discover her origins and why the world is the way it is, Aloy uncovers the mystery of the apocalypse. She learns that in our future, a corporation called Faro Automated Solutions led by a man named Ted Faro developed AI-controlled robots that were purchased and deployed by US military forces across the world to aid their operations without needless expenditure of human life. However, as in so many science fiction tales, the robots’ AIs detached themselves from human controls and began multiplying on their own at an alarming rate. The possibility of this actually happening is corroborated by Facebook’s recent test launch of an AI program they had created that soon began developing its own language, at which point it was hastily shut down.
The Faro robots could sustain themselves through consumption of biomass, and they began to replicate millions of themselves, covering the earth. The codes to regain control of them could not be hacked, and so, with the complete destruction of our planet and our own extinction imminent, the military called in scientist Elisabet Sobeck to lead a team to develop a way for life to continue. They called it Project Zero Dawn. Thus the ecological purpose of the machines is revealed: to purify the earth as it is terraformed. They are made in the numerous cauldrons governed by the Project Zero Dawn system HEPHAESTUS, while humans are grown and raised in ELEUTHIA.
By creating a network of systems to ensure successful terraforming of the devastated planet, putting GAIA in charge of it, Elisabet Sobeck essentially realizes the tenets of Gaia theory as imagined by James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis starting in 1972. The theory views the earth as a single, self-regulating, network of systems that is therefore a lifeform in and of itself. Gaia Theory is usually taken as a metaphor, but in Horizon Zero Dawn, it is literal—though significantly, it’s not natural per se, but technological.
Project Zero Dawn jumpstarts the habitability of Earth, which may have naturally occurred down the line, but not for millions of years, and only if the Faro robots were destroyed through time and exposure to the elements, unable to reawaken and “eat” any new biomass that had appeared.
There is tension here between the AI-made environmental elements that are machines and the terraformed natural world, wilderness as we typically conceive of it, that has grown up in the wreckage of the American West, but this tension resides mostly in players who recognize the distinction our cultures have drawn so securely between the natural and the technological; Aloy and the peoples of the new earth see them as synonymous.
The game turns our conception of what is natural on its head in the precarious situation the earth is now in: the planet’s interwoven natural systems no longer function without the life support system that is Project Zero Dawn; GAIA-as-AI, in that its primary objective is creating livable conditions for the living things it makes, works very much as the Gaia hypothesis posits. Both Gaias rely on sub-systems that also have sub-systems, and destruction is always part of that equation, for AI-GAIA, in the form of HADES.
The interplay of destruction and creation is the natural order that keeps the earth in balance, but as we will see, problems in the balance between GAIA and HADES are the reason for the machines’ recent turn to violence. Knowing that technology run amok is what caused the apocalypse in the first place does nothing to reassure us that HADES can benefit the earth.
The game also casts suspicion on the technologies of the Old Ones through Aloy’s Focus, which fills the role of the folkloric magical talisman. It helps her get through quests, find lost artifacts, solve puzzles, and locate the best path through, but it is also a vulnerability in that it can be hacked and used to spy.
It is a window into her experience, one exploited by the mysterious figure, Sylens, who contacts Aloy through her Focus at the same time that he shuts down the ones worn by the cultist attackers. It gives him access to her. All the data she scans throughout the game that is lost when the cultists capture her has been downloaded by Sylens for his own use. He uses it to monitors her progress through each of the ruins, and he has a greater understanding of what she is hearing than she does, as he has been trying for years to access the bunkers Aloy’s identity mysteriously allows her to enter with ease.
Sylens has a vested interest in stopping the Eclipse cult as they try to raise HADES to power in that he simply wants more time—time to live and gain more knowledge of the world for its own sake, though he expresses guilt for being the one who set the cult on its course.
Here, Sylens demonstrates his bitterness at having lost knowledge while Aloy focuses on hope. The scene leaves players pondering this question: would the Nora matriarchal culture have been possible if earth’s new children had been fully educated? Would they have learned from the past or worshipped it and used it to create more suffering?
The fact remains that these “innocents” needed no history lesson to come up with terrors of their own; humankind, of course, remains essentially unchanged by the apocalypse. In Sylens’s case as well, it is by no means clear that he would have used knowledge to better society. Sylens falls very much into the figure of the scientist ecofeminist Marti Kheel discusses: “The patriarchal mind has managed to look, but not see, act but not feel, think, but not know” (257). Continuing, she quotes scientist Claude Bernard, often credited with normalizing the use of animal testing, who writes that the physiologist, “does not hear the cries of animals, he does not see their flowing blood, he sees nothing but his idea, and is aware of nothing but an organism that conceals from him the problem he is seeking to resolve” (qtd. in Kheel 257).
In this way, Sylens is no better than the bloodsport-enthusiasts of the Sun Ring, craving knowledge not for the betterment of all, but for his own experimentation. Like the classic sci-fi scientist, he only asks whether or not he can, never whether or not he should. Without APOLLO, his is the last best collection of data, and he means to hoard it for himself and vanish into the mountains with HADES.
GAIA is voiced by actor Lesley Ewen and is depicted as a toga-clad black woman. My first reaction to GAIA was excitement to see an alignment of ecology, feminism, and folklore in a single figure, followed by suspicion that GAIA’s racialized depiction unfortunately classes her with the all-too-familiar trope of the Magical Negro, the token black character of page and screen who possesses mystical insight and selflessly aids in advancing the white protagonist’s plot. Elisabet created GAIA’s avatar as a black woman, and race is a relevant condition for Elisabet in her cultural context, as in ours. On the one hand a white GAIA would feel like a whitewashing, one whose “body” reflects her creator’s image and the dominant race of the creator’s culture, but making GAIA a black woman dangerously perpetuates the Magical Negro trope.
I do not wish to undermine GAIA’s heroic self-sacrifice to save the world, which is possible because of Sobeck’s insistence on the importance of teaching GAIA not only to function, but to feel, a capacity that sets her starkly apart from the monstrous Faro robots and which led to Aloy’s birth. Elisabet created GAIA to be creative, quick to learn, and empathetic so she could effectively and ethically go about the work of rebuilding the world—but as a consequence, she also made her persistent, motherly, and ultimately heroically self-sacrificial. Both Aloy and Sylens think of her self-destruction without questioning, as many of us probably are, whether emotions, love, or altruism are truly possible for a machine. Those questions are rendered less important because they are irrelevant to Aloy.
I want to see GAIA as more than a token character, and if she is a trope, then I hope she is the mother/goddess/spirit guide of folklore who gives the maiden the strength and information she needs to succeed in her quest (Frankel 288). The Nora may have essentially been worshipping a door and a female computer-voice, but behind it was a true nature goddess worthy of praise.
In The Revenge of Gaia, which was published in 1998, Lovelock revisits Gaia Theory with a much firmer view of climate change than in his previous work, which had been criticized by many ecofeminists, such as Marti Kheel, for thinking Gaia was too big to be bothered by human development. In The Revenge of Gaia, he emphasizes that to combat climate change, Gaia Theory could help us re-conceptualize society into an environmentally-friendly framework by voicing what he sees as a reality that is deeply intuitive.
If it resonates with enough of us, he argues, it can become embedded in us as unconscious thought, which could change our entire cultural attitude toward the world around us (140). He explains, “The concept of Gaia, a living planet, is for me the essential basis of a coherent and practical environmentalism; it counters the persistent belief that the Earth is a property, an estate, there to be exploited for the benefit of humankind. This false belief that we own the Earth, or are its stewards, allows us to pay lip service to environmental policies and programmes but to continue with business as usual” (135).
Kheel criticizes Lovelock’s belief in Gaia’s resilience, bringing up the notion in her essay “From Heroic to Holistic Ethics: The Ecofeminist Challenge,” noting that scholars from across numerous disciplines are “in search of a theory that can serve to bring [environmental] destruction to a halt.” She explains that, according to the hypermasculine, patriarchal model, such a theory “must, singlehandedly, rescue the ailing body of ‘Mother Nature’ from the villains who have bound and subdued her… but is a heroic ethic a helpful response to the domination of nature, or is it another conqueror in a new disguise?” (243). (I imagine many a fairytale heroine has wondered the same thing after being rescued.)
Kheel thinks Gaia Theory—or something like it—alone is not enough to “save the world” because “graft[ing] a new image onto our current conception of nature fails to challenge the underlying structures and attitudes that have produced the image they seek to supplant. The underlying tendencies toward aggression that exist under patriarchy are thus left intact” (251).
This is a danger in Horizon Zero Dawn. While she is a person, not a theory, Aloy certainly is heroic, and she does save the world, mostly through grueling physical combat, but in her historical context, “Mother Nature’s” body is not ailing—though of course it is under threat—and from predominately male antagonists enacting an all-too-familiar patriarchal tale of domination and destruction. The Carja cultists who do HADES’s bidding are led by another man, Helis, who is blinded by his pursuit of power, never thinking about what his actions will reap in the world or questioning what HADES really wants from him.
The threat is therefore immediately accessible and solvable by the hero, unlike our own environmental challenges, which—as Amitav Ghosh, Rob Nixon, and Timothy Morton all explain at length in their works—stretch through space and time and do not have the element of the spectacular of a typical game—or fictional tale in any medium—that might spur most of us to action.
Aloy is the only person who can accomplish HADES’ defeat because she is a clone of Elisabet Sobeck, created by GAIA just before her self-sacrifice in hopes that Aloy will at some point be able to reboot GAIA, since by virtue of her DNA, she will have access to all the Project Zero Dawn facilities.
But once the world is saved, the more important question for Aloy’s people—and by extension, for us—may be this: can humankind, which is at times driven by greed and cruelty, prevent themselves, by undertaking an environmental ethic, from destroying the world (again) for profit, knowledge, and convenience, just as we continue to do? In other words, are there any environmental ethics in this game? Or is it just another beautifully rendered, anthropocentric game whose naming of the AI ‘Gaia’ was a matter of narrative convenience?
Many game reviewers, players, and critics have praised Horizon Zero Dawn for, among other things, its sheer beauty, using the much-beloved “photo mode” to the fullest. But it turns out that as central as GAIA is in this narrative—she’s the very basis of human survival after all—in fact, the re-formed world where Aloy finds herself is figured more background than protagonist, and there is still the nagging fact that GAIA is a piece of technology, created by humans to counteract the destructive technologies we also made. To do this, the machine breed more machines to fight the bad machines, and after GAIA’s self-sacrifice, all machines are a threat to life and none do as they were intended to do: facilitate the survival of nature.
Thus the game pits nature against technology at the same time that it figures the two as deeply intertwined. Certainly the new human civilizations perceive no boundary between them. They fear, revere, harvest, and exploit both physis and techne equally. If anything, the machines loom so large in their lives in the same ways as weather, seasons, and geographical features, they have become nature. Treating the natural as object rather than subject has not gone well for our societies ecologically speaking, and perhaps as only Aloy can see, it will not go well for these new ones.
In response to the exploitation of women and environments Lovelock and Kheel both discuss, Kheel offers the possibility of holistic ethics, which relies on a collective undertaking to, as she puts it, “weave new stories.” Maybe in the end that is something we can consider here, which would be an argument for an eco-ethical interpretation of the game, whatever its anthropocentrism. How do we remake the world from here, given what Aloy has learned? Like the philosopher king who leaves the cave and returns to describe what he has seen to those who remain chained, will Aloy be able to communicate our lost history to others?
The developers already understand well what games can do for players emotionally, so whatever story they choose to weave, it has a good chance of resonating with players. Katherine Isbister explains in How Games Move Us: Emotion by Design that, more than any other medium, games have the ability to influence audiences emotionally precisely because of the complicity of play: games’ stories could not be told if players did not make choices, and we take those choices personally and watch carefully to see how they unfold game narratives (1-3). That is the power of play.
Isbister goes on to say that “games reveal these emotionally positive qualities over time through the act of playing… Yet most people don’t have the time to immerse themselves in play and develop enough mastery to fully experience the emotionally transformative aspects of games” (xvii-xviii). She’s right. Horizon Zero Dawn is a difficult, time-consuming game to play, as it needed to be, in order to richly and rigorously confront the questions it raises. Most people will not put in the time and energy to complete this game; most will not even buy it. As a PlayStation exclusive, it is only available on the PlayStation 4, so in spite of its critical acclaim, access limits the number of people who will experience it. Designers often find themselves in constraints like these, and no matter how amazing a game is, the conditions of a game’s release determine how many players get exposed to it.
So while we may, if able, undergo emotional transformation through playing Horizon Zero Dawn, many others are left out, or only experience the game by watching Let’s Plays and streams, meaning its messages are not as widespread as ecofeminists might like. Even so, Guerilla Games may decide to continue developing games in this world, which seems likely given its positive reception and successful DLC set in Yellowstone. Aloy is going to have a lot more trouble on her hands between Sylens and Hades, not to mention the fact that we still don’t know who sent the transmission that severed GAIA’s subsystems from her control.
Whether it is truly weaving new stories or simply rehashing old is up for debate, but regardless, the game’s message of maintaining hope through personal and cultural hardship through strategies both violence-based and based in ethics of care—for others regardless of ethnicity, for the environment—is much-needed in these precarious political times.
The game ends with Aloy’s search for Elisabet’s body, which she finds at the ranch where Elisabet grew up. In wrapping up with Aloy’s search for her mother, rather than her epic defeat of her enemies, Kheel’s message of weaving new stories comes through. Aloy’s hybrid hero’s journey—part epic tradition and part intersectional identity quest—helps her story resonate with a broader audience than it might have had it kept to only one style.
The takeaways from her intertwined quests are clear: If we, like Aloy, refuse to give up hope, we environmentalists, we intersectional thinkers, we ecofeminists can do better than falling into a trap of perceived heroism, routes trod by Ted Faro, Helis, and Sylens. In seeing our very extinction looming, we still have the chance to internalize ecofeminist ethics of care and act before we stumble over the edge.
Thanks for watching.
Frankel, Valerie Estelle. From Girl to Goddess: The Heroine’s Journey through Myth and Legend. Macfarland, 2010.
Gaard, Greta. "Living Interconnections with Animals and Nature." Ecofeminism: Women, Animals, Nature, edited by Greta Gaard, Temple UP, 1993, pp. 1 - 12.
Guerrilla Games. Horizon Zero Dawn. Sony Interactive Entertainment, 2017.
Isbister, Katherine. How Games Move Us: Emotion by Design. MIT P, 2016.
Jurich, Marilyn. Scheherazade’s Sisters: Trickster Heroines and Their Stories in World Literature. Greenwood P, 1998.
Kheel, Marti. “From Heroic to Holistic Ethics: The Ecofeminist Challenge.” Ecofeminism: Women, Animals, Nature, edited by Greta Gaard, Temple UP, 1993, pp. 243-271.
Lant, Karla. “A Facebook AI Unexpectedly Created Its Own Unique Language.” 16 June 2017. Futurism. https://futurism.com/a-facebook-ai-unexpectedly-created-its-own-unique-language/
Lovelock, James. The Revenge of Gaia : Earth's Climate Crisis & The Fate of Humanity. Basic Books, 1998.
Williams, Hayley. “How Horizon Zero Dawn Moves Beyond the Strong Female Character.” 9 Mar 2017, Gizmodo. https://www.gizmodo.com.au/2017/03/how-horizon-zero-dawn-moves-beyond-the-strong-female-character/