So… Horizon Zero Dawn Feels Really Important.

So buckle up, birdies, because this post is going to be a little… all over the place. I don’t quite have my thoughts fully sorted on this matter, nor have I finished the game yet… but the bottom line is that Horizon Zero Dawn feels really important to me and I feel like I need to tell someone.

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As far as video games go, it’s pretty impressive for all the typical reasons games can be impressive. The visuals are beyond beautiful, the soundtrack is great, the battle mechanics are interesting and unique, the enemies are legitimately terror inducing, and even on the easiest difficultly level (because while I love video games, I’m super bad at them) still pose enough of a challenge to keep the fighting exciting… The game is critically acclaimed for all the usual stuff.

And yet it still just feels so much more important than that to me.

The main character Aloy has a lot to do with it. The fact that she is THE scripted main character matters. She’s a fixed element in the story, as opposed to a player character that is chosen and sculpted by the player… and she’s a she.

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As a female who has been into video games for a long time, this still seems pretty revolutionary to me. It shouldn’t, but it does. While I can think of a handful of other games where this has been the case (Tomb Raider, for example), the fact that even now, in 2017, this still feels important is indicative of a much broader issue within the gaming world. Having a female protagonist is still seen as a risk, and as a result, it’s not often done.

This shouldn’t still be a risk. Women make up at least half (according to some numbers, more than half even) of the gaming demographic, and we’ve been playing as and relating to set male characters for years, so I really don’t see why having male players play as and relate to a set female main character should be a risk for the industry. And that’s a problem that goes well beyond gaming and into plenty of other media – starting with children’s books even… But that’s a matter for another post. That I’ll probably never get to.

So anyway…

It’s not just the fact that Aloy is a girl that makes it feel important. It’s the fact that Aloy is female, and yet in the context of the story that doesn’t matter. Her gender is completely irrelevant, and is left as such. Her character design is practical, as are her outfits, and we are not constantly reminded of the fact that “oh shit, Aloy has ladyparts,” whether that be through a sexualized character design (*coughLaraCroftupuntilRiseoftheTombRaidercough*) or constant reminders that she’s filling a role that’s not typically female (e.g. comments from NPCs in surprise over her gender, or deriding her gender). As a gamer who also has lady parts and identifies as female, it’s kind of an awesome experience, to be honest. It’s revolutionary because of the simple fact that it doesn’t present the decision to have a female player character as different or revolutionary. It just simply is. And that fact alone is striking me as unique, and – if I haven’t said it enough yet – important.

Because it’s something even the best, most inclusive games sometimes miss the mark on when writing strong female characters. Even my beloved Bioware occasionally misses the mark in their super-progressive Dragon Age series. Despite culturally existing in a world that has seemingly eliminated most gender norms (and in the places they’ve been kept, they’ve often been flipped – for example the “church” of the world is matriarchal instead of patriarchal) while playing as a female Warden, Hawke, or Inquisitor there are still these moments that crop up where your character’s competence and fitness to lead are questioned on nothing but the basis of being female – bits of dialogue and implications in the way things are voiced that play out very differently when playing as the male counterpart. They’re moments that can feel very out of place in a world as egalitarian with regards to gender as Dragon Age seems to set itself up to be – moments that sometimes feel to me like reality is bleeding in and upsetting the world-building a little.

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In Horizon Zero Dawn, I haven’t yet had one of those moments. Not one. There were a couple moments where an NPC would flirt with Aloy a bit, but everything is written in such a way, and the world is set up in such a way that I’m confident that those moments still would have happened regardless of her gender – because that’s just normal human interaction. And somehow that makes the lack of super set gender roles even cooler?

And all of this is to say nothing about the seemingly effortless diversity of the NPC cast. Which also feels super-duper important to me. I mean, I don’t think I’ve ever before encountered a game that is this nonchalantly racially diverse, and I freaking love it. And it really is the nonchalantness of it that gets me. It’s not mentioned, questioned, commented on, or fussed about… it just simply is. And oh my goodness, it’s so amazing.

I could easily go on for several more pages about the things in this game that feel important to me, but I think at this point I’ve gone on long enough for one post that’s basically just a rambling brain-dump. Additionally, I have not finished the game yet – I’m taking my sweet time and being a bit completionist, so I’m only about half way through. It might very well be that the impressions I’ve gotten so far don’t maintain themselves through the rest of the story, but I guess we’ll see. I just needed to gush a little over how awesome this game is.

Have you played Horizon Zero Dawn? Did you notice any of these things? Or do you see them differently than I did? Are there actually plenty of games out there like this already, but I’ve just managed to miss them because I’m picky about gameplay mechanics? Is there something big and glaring that I’m missing in my enthusiasm? (*Since originally writing this post, I’ve read several interesting commentaries by Native American authors on both sides of the “is it cultural appropriation?” debate, which I must admit is not something that would have even occurred to me had I not happened across it on Tumblr.) I still haven’t finished the game (so try to avoid spoilers), and am still formulating my thoughts. I feel like I’ve sort of danced around points here… like they’re on the tip of my tongue but I just can’t find the words to properly convey them – so I would love to hear how other people see it. Maybe it will help clarify this overwhelming bubble of nebulous “this is important” that’s bubbling up in my chest as I play (but please keep it respectful)!

(Clicking on the photos will bring you to their source)