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Blog & Cultural Criticism

Clearing Out My Backlog: Horizon: Zero Dawn

Much has been written about Horizon being overshadowed by Breath of the Wild, which released one week after Guerilla Games' robot dinosaur hunting simulator. I remember going back to HZD after sinking about a months' worth of time into BotW and being shocked by one major addition Zelda made to the open world formula: being able to free climb anything, anywhere.

I have just now, this morning, in fact, completed the main storyline in Horizon after dabbling in it for a year and a half. With God of War fresh in my mind, I found myself reluctantly comparing Horizon to another game again. Whereas Breath of the Wild blew the doors off open world game design in general, God of War has done a similar feat with character-driven, linear stories.

Horizon's story is great on paper, though the execution stumbles due to the limitations of the technology. While the game looks stunning, character animation in cutscenes is stiff. Aside from Aloy and Sylens, played by veterans Ashly Burch and Lance Reddick, the performances are pretty weak. Horizon also slams headfirst into my biggest complaint with open world games: their pacing.

I don't mean gameplay pace, which in Horizon is pretty excellent: giving you a steady drip of new combat options which slowly build your confidence to tackle bigger and badder enemies. The pace of the story is all over the place due to the game's fragmented, scattered design. Because players can take hours, days, or (as in my case) months to get from one story beat to the next, there is a sense of disconnect between the Aloy you are controlling and the Aloy that appears in the cutscenes. The game also, thankfully, refuses the rush you, so even with the world at stake, if you want to spend weeks hunting for collectibles, you are free to do so.

God of War handles this nicely, in having Atreus encourage you to explore when there is time to explore, and the truly ridiculous amount of incidental dialogue between Kratos, Atreus, and Mimir filling in backstory or Atreus literally asking the two older men what the hell is going on.

Aloy doesn't really have that, even in Sylens, who is an exposition machine more often than not. So the story, although definitely on the high end in terms of video game narrative, is hamstrung by being bolted onto a game with few limits or constraints. I believe limitations are a necessity in creating meaningful art. There are plenty of great filmmakers, Christopher Nolan and Darren Aronofsky off the top of my head, who made a name for themselves with a tight budget, who drown in their ambitions once the studios give them a blank cheque. You can, and I did, garner a lot of pride from watching Aloy grow from a precocious young outsider to the confident, heroic saviour of Meridian, but the impact is lessened than it would be if it was delivered in a more concise way.

Maybe it's because I blitzed God of War in less than a week, but I do think the writers found a good way of keeping the story relevant and interesting throughout its entire length. God of War's story is also quite a bit simpler than Horizon's, for the latter is really telling two stories at once: the struggle against the machines in both the present and the distant past. It would make for a killer 8-to-10-episode series, but stretched across dozens of hours (My final time ended up being something like 45 hours) certain moments feel thinner than they should. Assassin's Creed has always had this problem, it's definitely one I've felt in Origins which I plan on finishing this week as well.

I'll be interested to see how Incomniac's upcoming Spider-man handles this. If they play it safe or if they, too, found a solution like Sony Santa Monica did with GoW. Looking further ahead, we'll see if Red Dead Redemption 2 can tackle Rockstar's pacing problem.

Colin Munch