Talking only of Breath of the Wild has made us miss the Horizon
This past year was absolutely stacked with exceptional games, like 1998 all over again. That notoriety breeds contention though, and there has been a massive amount of comparison between very different things purely for the sake of argument. For me personally, that echo chamber has become insufferable.
If you haven’t been privy to the garbage fire of critical discussion surrounding games recently, Welcome! It’s a circus. In spring 2017 Nintendo released their latest console since the failure of the Wii U: the shiny new Switch. This promptly caused buyers to lose their minds and the ‘Nintendo seal of quality’ to glaze over the eyes of every lost adult trying to find their way through a hellscape of rekindling the memories of nostalgia’s past (I kid… sort of). Now it may sound like I’m throwing shade, I’m not: I like the Switch and think it’s a neat venture, albeit a confused one. Is it for kids? Adults? The price point says somewhere in between, the hardware isn’t immensely sturdy or forgiving like the 2DS, pointing to it being a hobbyists product. But the games and marketing continue to point towards a system being geared towards families and kids, so I remain befuddled. I digress though, because this is exactly the sort of confusion surrounding all of these discussions that I’m trying to avoid. I have one main point:
Two of the best open world games ever released came out in the last year, and the community and media storm surrounding them has turned what should be a shared celebration of achievement into a petty console war.
I want to put it out there that I enjoy and appreciate both Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Horizon: Zero Dawn, but personally feel one of those has been tremendously under-represented. This year, for all of the love and wonder that was (deservedly) thrown Zelda’s way, it was the obvious homerun over the categorical underdog Horizon. “How ever could this indie Nintendo darling succeed?” you ask. It’s a tried and true installment to an almost 40+ year franchise. It debuted on exciting new hardware with massive hype. Zelda had a ton going for it and certainly delivered. Yet it’s more than worth taking some time to introduce you to the journey Horizon took me on, in hopes that this can inspire even more people to not just take my word for it, but for those who missed it to try for themselves.
Around 2012 the studio that developed Horizon, Guerrilla games, held an internal competition to come up with bright new ideas. They wanted to make a shift from the Killzone series of shooters they were known for and try something wildly different. It ended up being so outlandish that they put the concept on hold and split the team in two: one to flesh out a shooter for the new generation of consoles and one to develop the engine on which these dreams would run: deemed “The decima engine” it’s tuly a thing of beauty. IT was intended originally to piece together the linear elements of level within a bustling cityscape, but was adapted into a living environment that actively makes decisions on placement of plants and animals based on topography, climate and terrain.
Horizon: Zero Dawn triumphs at displaying one of the most stunning game environments ever committed to screen. Crepuscular rays, chromatic aberration, foliage that extends into the horizon, dust that floats in the breeze and catches the light, and ridiculously: in deep snow the grass is rendered underneath.They made a living, breathing world that entices you to dive deep into its biosphere without ever really needing to give to a specific task to goad you into exploration. From the snowy mountains and forests, to the desert wastes and lush jungles, and even the future-tech machinery of the cauldrons; it offers a massive variety of climates to familiarize yourself with. Often I found myself hunting, taking photos with the camera mode, or provoking dangerous critters because the gameplay laid it out for me to interact in that way, because it was there.
This game fluidly meshes dynamic combat with observing your surroundings in a way that I’ve never seen before. Much like the Witcher 3, understanding of the world and how prepared you are going into an encounter matters greatly and depends on your wits as a player. Do you have enough supplies and ammo to see you through to the end, or the right balms to survive a little bit longer? Thankfully in practice the fights flow smoothly and are far more forgiving than to leave you in a lurch if you fall short. You can craft more ammo mid-roll, smother your opponent in sticky bombs, or observe their walking path and lay electrified tripwires in their way. More inspiring though is the way the environment reaches out to you outside the scope of combat. You’ll never have enough medicinal herbs as you pick apart the carcasses of your successful hunts, hoarding supplies so you can trade in for cash or always have barely enough to craft more arrows in a pinch. A watchful eye and innate familiarity that grows from spending time in that world starts to shape the paths you go down and the waypoints you keep in focus. Scanning the clouds for the constant presence of a massive floating Stormbird, or feeling the earth shake from a stampede of Grazers (easy alone but a challenge in numbers). I will say there’s nothing quite as exhilarating as facing down a Thunderjaw, and that’s a joy for you to discover on your own.
Yet none of this matters if not viewed through the lense of the main protagonist: Aloy. A techno Amazon for a new age, she is cast aside at birth forever known as an outsider (although less ‘Ponyboy’ and more ‘badass robo Xena’). Every experience she encounters, and every hardship she overcomes she does so through action. She doesn’t say that she’ll do something, she does it. Aloy communicates with her world through direct interaction, and you as the player get to guide that tinkering through the color of her personality. Her running dialogue of inner thoughts, paired with your agency to decide her approach to different decisions, creates a rewarding interplay. There’s a charming bond that forms as she speaks out loud at every development to inform you of her personality, bolstered by being able to tweak how she enacts that personality on the people and events around her.
Most impressive might be the narrative thread that ties this all together because against all odds… it actually works. The leaps in logic and historical fiction required to make a timeline where humanity has lost its history and shares the world with mechanical dinosaurs, are there. For the sake of not spoiling any aspect of this I’ll only say that there’s elements that are terrifying, heartbreaking, and even playful. To follow that path along with Aloy and see as she tries to discover her place in a world that continues to toss her aside was surprisingly multi-layered. It paints a bright future, one worth experiencing the full weight of the story to see.
This game deserves praise for being a brand new IP — being a first time exploratory foray into this saturated landscape of third person open world games, and from a studio that’s traditionally only made first person space shooters. It deserves recognition for taking a brilliant game engine developed for linear experiences and translating into something that built this dense living world (and will be shared with the likes of Kojima in his upcoming project Death Stranding).
[Here is a sample of the environments from “Killzone: Shadowfall”]
These successes and adventures that our best and brightest are taking risks on have unfortunately been tremendously overshadowed. And it’s okay for master-class games like Breath of Wild (winner of 3 awards at the 2017 Game Awards alone) to get the attention and love they deserve. This can lead to the unfortunate side effect of all the air being sucked out of the room. Discussion is stifled which leads to the tiresome massive exclamation of “BUT WHAT ABOUT — “ every time that a different perspective presents itself.
“An ancient world full of robotic creatures, a mysterious hero with access to technology that helps them understand the mysteries around them, a vast open world full of materials and crafting, and a dependence on player wits and understanding to succeed.”
This could describe both games, which lends to the dilution of discussion around them. But that’s really where the comparison should end, and an open space for us to view them separately, but critically, begins.
We should strive to show each other the things we are passionate about without it leading to a heated debate about which one of those things we have the right to admire more. Strive to share in these improvements and explorations that influence the artists of this industry we care about to continue to push boundaries, rather than get dragged down but something as petty as what box you can play said art on. Take the time to form your own impressions and analysis instead of collecting what sounds best and presenting it as your own convictions, especially if you haven’t given that game a fighting chance.