Review: Horizon Zero Dawn presents a bleak but believable picture of our future


The critically acclaimed RPG shows how humanity’s advancement could become its undoing

WARNING: This review contains a massive amount of spoilers. Proceed at your own risk.

I know I’m late on this, but I had to properly play it a few times before I could write down exactly how I felt. That, and because it’s such an amazing game. This is less a review of Horizon: Zero Dawn’s mechanics, and more of the implications of the story, and what we can learn from it. With that said, let’s zero in:

The Story

“Robots will take over and enslave us all,” is probably the most common sentence I hear when people spoke about AI and the future. I used to find it irritating, because not only do we already have AI and robots (albeit not super-intelligent), but they are also becoming the more efficient and safer option in providing a wide range of services in our society.

 

Aloy taking aim at a Thunderjaw

Then I played Horizon: Zero Dawn. Set in a futuristic, post-apocalyptic Earth, where enormous, dinosaur-like machines roam the lands like ordinary animals. You play as Aloy, a young woman who grew up as an outcast in her tribe, the Nora. At first glance, the world appears to have split up into tribes that show resemblance to a number of existing indigenous cultures in North America — sadly in an offensive way as they make frequent use of the words ‘primitive’ and ‘savage’ when referencing each other’s tribes.

Each tribe has its own unique set of religious beliefs and folklore relating to ancient technology. One of the most interesting aspects of this is the Nora’s reference to Metal Devils: colossal, dormant machines — formerly known as FAS-BOR7 Horus — that you can see cresting a number of mountain peaks throughout the world like ferrous fossils.

An inactive Metal Devil atop a mountain

Aloy journeys out of her home after it is attacked by a group of Carja warriors (who are blatantly and somewhat crudely analogous to some Mesoamerican cultures), and soon uncovers a massive conspiracy by an offshoot cultist faction of the Carja, known as the Shadow Carja, who have managed to communicate with a hostile AI — called HADES — from the past. The Shadow Carja formed an organisation called The Eclipse under the direction of HADES, and unearthed scorpion-esque robots that can turn other machines in the world into hostile animals that attack humans.

Aloy’s vengeful curiosity takes her across the different and diverse plains in the world, which are strewn with audio logs. Aloy is able to access these logs due to a device — known as a Focus — that she finds as a child. The Focus allows her to understand things about her environment, including particular machines, and most of all interact with technology from the “Old World.” The sheer amount of audio logs would be annoying to some, but the contents of each file — along with the standard progression through the story — reveals one of the most devastating and incredible pieces of information about the world: humans destroyed everything. That part was obvious to most players, but it’s the how not the what that makes HZD such a spectacular game.

Aloy discovers on her own that she is somehow at the centre of a conspiracy by the Shadow Carja to kill her and transform the world’s machines to hostile creatures. Aloy almost identically resembles a woman from the Old World — Elizabet Sobeck — who appears in various holographic images and videos that she finds whilst exploring various ruins of the Old World that humans devastated. During her journey, she witnesses the events of the past unfold in violet holograms before her very eyes.

 

Aloy watching a hologram from around 1,000 years ago

Elizabet Sobeck was a genius of her time. After earning her PhD in robotics and AI design at the age of 20, Sobeck went on to work for one of the leading tech companies in the world: Faro Automated Solutions (FAS). The company’s CEO, Ted Faro, promoted Sobeck to Chief Scientist within two years, developing environmentally friendly robots to solve the planet’s growing climate crises. After 8 years, Faro decided to bring his company into another industry: warfare.

Sobeck left the company soon after, but Faro’s correspondence with her didn’t end there. After Sobeck went on to create a purely green robotics company that aimed to solve the rapidly increasing risk of climate change. Sea levels were rising, which decreased the amount of habitable regions on the planet, whilst temperates were soaring, and various climate disasters like volcanic eruptions and earthquakes were becoming far more frequent.

While Sobeck attempted to solve the imminent threats of climate change, Faro was creating robots specifically designed for war, though he called them “peacekeepers.” These machines were given various abilities, such as self-replication (repairing and rebuilding themselves), taking control of enemy CPUs, and encrypted codes that would take at least 50 years to crack. Faro also gave them the ability convert organic matter into fuel whenever regular fuel was unavailable.

At some point, Faro contacted Sobeck and told her about an issue with his robots. They experienced a “glitch” that resulted in the robots refusing commands from humans. In addition, no option to turn the machines off was included in their operating systems. Sobeck discovered that the swam had become a completely separate entity, and started to consume biomatter on their own, killing humans, trees, marine animals, etc. whilst also self-replicating at an exponential rate. They thus threatened to eradicate all life on Earth within 15 months.

Project Zero Dawn

Dr. Sobeck created a plan, Project Zero Dawn. While she and her scientists worked on the project, the rest of humanity were told that they were developing a secret weapon to defeat the swarm — something that was spun to motivate millions of them to enlist in the military and fight the machines. It was all a lie, of course. Sobeck and her team knew that the Faro Plague could not be stopped. At least, not in 15 months. They would need decades to at least crack their encryption codes, let alone solve everything else. Humanity was doomed no matter what, so her team created a super-intelligent AI called GAIA. GAIA was an automated terraforming intelligence, which had a number of subordinate functions, all named after various Greek gods: ATHENA, MINERVA, HEPHAESTUS, HADES, etc.

Side note: notice how the evil robots were given Egyptian names, and the “good” robots were named after Greek gods? Real subtle, guys.

GAIA was designed to reverse the effects of the swarm, by detoxifying the atmosphere, the seas, the soil, as well re-oxygenating the planet. GAIA would continue to evolve, and work on deactivating the swarm. GAIA created Cradle facilities that would store human zygotes and eventually spawn the next generation of humanity, who would be reintroduced to the world once it was safe. GAIA also built machines that would perform a number of functions that would nurture the planet’s biomes in order to support life once again.

The personification of GAIA

Then there was HADES. Its job was to completely reverse the terraforming process if something had gone wrong. Not everything could be planned for, so if a glitch in the terraforming mechanics occurred, or the Faro Bots came back to life somehow, then HADES would take control and destroy all the progress they made in order for GAIA to start over. HADES could awaken the machines, but not restore their biomatter conversion systems without MINERVA — the massive tower network sub-function that initially allowed GAIA to deactivate the swarm.

However, GAIA’s first attempt was successful, making HADES redundant. 1000 years later, an unknown signal was received by GAIA, causing all her subordinate functions to separate themselves from her and become independent, rogue AIs. HADES followed its original functions and attempted to destroy all life by seizing control of the terraforming system, but GAIA initiated a fail-safe and destroyed herself in an attempt to take HADES with her. But HADES survived by using a virus to destroy the coding that kept it within the facility, allowing him to escape. Without the terraforming system, HADES turned to the Faro Bots. He posed as a god from the Shadow Carja’s religion and manipulated them to build an army and unearth more Faro Bots for him to activate.

Aloy eventually thwarts HADES’ efforts, as GAIA had also initiated another failsafe before her death, where the DNA of Elizabet Sobeck would be cloned and gestated, giving her the ability to access all the Project Zero Dawn facilities in order to restore her. Aloy manages to unite three tribes in order to protect a large tower called the Spire, which HADES wants to take over in order to send a signal to reactivate the Faro Bots and their biomatter conversion systems. Aloy manages to stop him down using an override core.

 

The Implications

This game certainly has its problems, primarily the Indigenous (mis)appropriation, which I think the producers should work on fixing in the sequel. Some of the terminology wreaks of old colonial caricatures that I feel not only don’t belong in such a game, but reproduce the symbolic violence against indigenous people, who have suffered genocide and displacement for over 500 years. However, in terms of the plot and the lore, Horizon: Zero Dawn is an exceptional take on the future of AI and anthropogenic climate change.

Many of the features in this game are actually pretty absurd (in a good way), like the metal megafauna roaming the planet. Having said that, the concept also makes sense. I’m not a fan of the whole “robot apocalypse” idea, but I do reserve a small amount of concern for the future of technology, and the increasing dangers posed by global warming.

HZD shows us a potential future. It may not be likely, but there are aspects of it happening right now, and will undoubtedly continue to worsen until humankind is thrust into a state of collective emergency. HZD shows that, before the Faro Plague, humans were already pressured by their circumstances to accelerate their developments in technology. The declining habitability and surface area of the planet caused massive migration crises, as well as disease outbreaks and warfare.

Something else really hammered in the game’s realism for me: capitalism’s role in all of this. Not only were corporations at the forefront of the climate change (something happening right now), but they took to exploiting every circumstance of the changes occurring across the globe. Sobeck’s corporation provided eco-bots to tackle earth’s growing toxification, while Faro’s corporation sold super-intelligent robots to warring governments.

Whilst we cannot predict how the development of true artificial intelligence will turn out — we could have robot servants or robot overlords, or a mixture — we do have to take into account the possibility for mistakes…or glitches. A true AI will not operate like a human. It will not think like us, or behave like us. It could come to understand the world and the universe in vastly different, more precise ways.

Furthermore, the development of a true AI portends serious risks on the political plane. What happens if one country makes a breakthrough with AI that can “slave” other countries’ technology like the Faro Bots? The development of a true AI could cause a world war in itself, let alone what happens after that.

An argument I’ve heard frequently is that a true AI might be programmed to reverse climate change, but learn to see humans as the main obstacles in tackling it. However, we also need to consider potential Ted Faros: people who undoubtedly profit off of war by selling the most advanced weapons to competing powers, nuclear or otherwise.

With growing investment and developments in fields like nanotechnology and advanced robotics today, we need to be fully aware that they are not all happening for humanity’s benefit. Whilst some scientists are working on cures for cancer or sustainable energy, others are working to create programmes that can destroy perceived enemies. That is our future: creation and destruction.

Horizon: Zero Dawn left me feeling something nearly ineffable. The best word I can think of is ‘dread’. Not an imminent dread, but an abstract dread. A fear of what’s to come. While I don’t think we’ll have enormous, tentacled robots crawling over mountains to consume our bodies for fuel, I do think the acceleration of technology has the potential to destroy us as much as it has the potential to save us. I can’t say which way it will go, but I do know that humans are in no way prepared for what could happen. Especially when we’re still ruining our world probably beyond the point of return.

Horizon: Zero Dawn also gave me a sense of wonder along with the dread. A wonder of what humans are capable of, and what we could achieve without the barriers of states, borders, and monetary systems. We may be heading for doom, but if we can learn anything from this game, it’s that we still have a chance to avoid it.

One thing’s for certain: I’ll be playing this game a few more times before the eventual sequel drops.

PS: Ted Faro was a complete dick. I’m still not over how badly he messed up.

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Xain Storey

Xain is the co-founder and editor of BroFeed. He spends most of his time researching bioculturalism, building epic fantasy worlds, and wondering why people still trust their governments.

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