There’s no denying that Horizon Zero Dawn is a stunning game. Even by today’s standards, each rock and tree and waterfall in every sweeping panorama is a work of art. As gorgeous as the graphics are, though, the true beauty of the game lies in its fierce, fearless heroine: Aloy.
If you haven’t played the game yet, the basic premise is that humanity was nearly wiped out by dinosaur-like machines which now roam the land, and civilization has returned to a more primitive state mired in superstition regarding the “Old Ones”, the technologically-advanced creators of the machines. Aloy’s tribe, the Nora, is a matriarchal society of hunter-gatherers. As the story opens, Aloy is an infant who was branded an outcast due to the mysterious, motherless nature of her birth. She is given to another outcast, a man named Rost, to raise.
In the opening sequence of gameplay young Aloy stumbles into a cauldron, an extensive and technologically-advanced bunker left behind by and superstitiously regarded as the domain of the Old Ones. With no way to climb back out, Aloy must navigate the cauldron and find another means of egress. Unlike the tribal Nora who fear the cauldrons, Aloy is fascinated by the subterranean environment. In the cauldron Aloy finds her Focus, a triangular earpiece that allows her to scan the world around her and identify otherwise-hidden creatures, highlight tracks, and other useful functions related to gameplay. She doesn’t shy away from technology based on the superstitions of the tribe. From our first introduction to Aloy she is fearless and inquisitive. She is already shaping up to be the video game heroine young gamers need to see and play.
During the tutorial sequence the mechanics of gameplay are explained through Rost teaching Aloy how to safely navigate the world outside of the tribe’s protection. Aloy must hunt and gather – no such thing as traditional heteronormative gender roles in the Horizon universe! Individuals of both genders are strong warriors, and no one is above gathering medicinal herbs.
The main conflict of the game is called “the Derangement”, the term used to describe the machines turning violent and attacking humans without provocation. Aloy goes on a quest to determine the cause of and solution to the Derangement, along with the truth about her mother and the mysterious circumstances of her birth. To aid her in her quest Aloy is given the distinction of Seeker, a title that marks her as a Nora with special permission to travel beyond the Nora lands – and that has never been granted to an outcast. Throughout the game, NPCs (non-playable characters) from Nora and other tribes react to Aloy’s unique standing in society in various ways. They express curiosity, amusement, sometimes even outrage.
Aloy doesn’t rest on her title, however. Over the course of the game she builds a reputation of herself that begins to proceed her: a skillful fighter, a formidable opponent, a survivor. And yet, Aloy refuses to let others define her. She responds warily when the people she encounters say they’ve heard about her. She claims her accomplishments truthfully, not boastfully, and refuses their attempts to place expectations on her. She accepts side quests for other characters and altruistically performs tasks for even those characters who treat her with derision due to her status as an outcast. Although their closed-mindedness and ungrateful attitudes frustrate her, she doesn’t let that deter her from giving aid where it is required.
Without devolving into spoilers, Aloy is the tough-yet-tender video game heroine that gamers of all ages need to play. She meets obstacles with determination and doesn’t let herself be limited by others labels, perceptions, and expectations. She is resourceful, independent, and compassionate without being a pushover. It’s no secret that videogames have a long way to go in terms of representation of women, people of color, and gender and sexual minorities, but Aloy is a step in the right direction. The previous generation grew up on Laura Croft and Samus Aran. Today’s young gamers will grow up with Aloy to show them what a badass female heroine can do.