HORIZON: FORBIDDEN WEST (2021)

My gaming comfort food during the pandemic — stupidly, I’m literally someone known for writing about comfort food games — have been open-world games; almost exclusively ASSASSIN’S CREED games. Their doling of bite-sized, mostly frictionless, quests have been a balm while trapped inside.

It’s been a while since I’ve played HORIZON: ZERO DAWN, but I recall it as being a rather concise, smaller open-world game, one that doubled-down on plot and character rather than scenery and scale, and I greatly appreciated it for that.

HORIZON: FORBIDDEN DAWN is the polar opposite: it’s absolutely overwhelming and mind-bogglingly grandiose. When I think of the hours spent to make this, I feel a bit sick. While I think it could have reeled in its scope, I did find it notable in a number of other ways.

UNRULY HAIR

Aloy is one of the most fascinating triple-A leading videogame characters of recent times. A clone of one of the most influential scientific women of the game’s fictional history, she steps up and fills her shoes, although she does so while also being petulant and impulsive, all while still missing her ‘mother’ (her search for her was arguably the focal point of her introductory game, HORIZON: ZERO DAWN).

She also has some of the most dynamic, radiant red hair in videogames. Hair is a touchy subject when it comes to tech, as it’s often a point of programmatic pride, rarely born of character motivation. While it’s a film and not a videogame, look no further than Pixar’s BRAVE for a quintessential example, which was explicitly created as a way for them to show off their hair rendering tech (and similarly features a vibrant redhead).

As someone who has had long, wavy hair for far longer than I have not, and as someone who often thinks about hair and identity and representation, seeing anyone with unruly hair (or as Guerrilla Games labels it: tousled hair) in media has become oddly strange to see, as production models for entertainment have skewed closer to generic hairstyles to maintain continuity and production costs. While Aloy’s hair isn’t exactly curly, it is remarkably distinct and, in real life, would require significant management, something most folks don’t often think about. Long hair moves, it gets in the way; it’s something you are always aware of. It’s either in your vision or in your mouth or getting caught on something or in somewhere, and how Aloy’s hair is animated — always in motion, always cascading around her — reflects that same sort of bodily self-awareness. Even if some folks seem to think the hair animation is a bug, I see it as a feature.

It’s also worth noting that, apparently, a number of people don’t realize that women have hair elsewhere.

THE FUTURE IS FEMALE

One of the most amazing things about HORIZON: FORBIDDEN WEST is that it’s all about women repairing the damage that men have wrought. Almost all of the men alive and dead are villains or sidekicks, and the game is more than fine with that, but never explicitly calls attention to it which, for a triple-A videogame meant for worldwide consumption, seems wild, which is a sad remark on the state of blockbuster videogames.

SHAPES AND SIZES

One other brilliant facet of HORIZON: FORBIDDEN WEST is its variety of character models. The world consists of people of all sorts of shapes, sizes, and hues; it’s not your standard post-apocalypse of wafer-thin white people, and the game doesn’t commit the standard narrative sin of playing someone’s girth for laughs or pratfalls. They’re just people trying to survive in a world that is constantly trying to kill them.

TALKING TO ONE’S SELF DURING THE END OF THE WORLD

HORIZON: FORBIDDEN WEST features an absolutely astounding and exhausting amount of dialogue. I can’t even begin to fathom the script, but it consists of reams and reams of lore, meant to flesh out the world that was sketched out in the first game. However, a good portion of the game features Aloy simply talking to herself. While most of that dialogue is meant to prod the player towards goals, quite a bit of it is purely observational. Aloy is depicted as a singularly individual person, one used to being alone, one used to supplying her own entertainment, of comforting herself in her own way because who else would? Who could?

A NEW MODERN

All of this culminates into a game that comes across as remarkably fresh, as opposed to the hoary male-led misery porn of most modern big budget games. HORIZON: FORBIDDEN WEST feels like a new frontier for gaming, at least with its command of characters and scenarios, even as it leans on the old model of open-world gaming, of FAR CRY-ish puzzle towers and checking off map-centric quests. It’s a world that one can luxuriate in and explore to your heart’s content, and not hate yourself for doing so.

P.S. One facet of the game that is missing is any semblance of sexuality whatsoever, so I’d like to boost this piece.

P.P.S. Even I as a very white, prior New Englander felt that a number of character designs and attributes were not what they could have been. I’m definitely not qualified to critique this game’s Orientalism, so I’ll leave this here.