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Walk the Dinosaur

The brilliant new video game ‘Horizon Zero Dawn’ taps into two powerful human interests: dinosaurs and dystopia

(Horizon Zero Dawn)
(Horizon Zero Dawn)

Dinosaurs occupy a special place in the imagination. Who didn’t go through a dinosaur phase? Anywhere you find children, you invariably find plastic dinosaur toys — pointy, plastic skin-impaling domestic anti-personnel mines, lurking in the plush carpet and sofa cushions. Why dinosaurs?

There are other extinct creatures worthy of interest. The wooly mammoth is, in my opinion, pretty dope. The docile dodo bird getting clubbed into oblivion as an entire species is a particularly sad tale. The megalodon is the stuff of nightmares. Passenger pigeons were once so numerous that their flocks dimmed the sun and drowned out conversations. But only dinosaurs are the subject of such a pervasive and long-running childhood indoctrination campaign.

As children, the dinosaur is perhaps our first introduction to the concept of pop culture — a set of common reference points that bond people together. A conversational knowledge of dinos is a vital childhood skill and an important criteria for friendship. The cultural artifacts come in the form of toys, books (pop-up, coloring, and standard), museum exhibits, movies, cartoons, sports teams, clothing, vitamins, and, of course, video games.

Maybe it’s because the creatures are so cool looking just like a thing a kid clutching a crayon would dream up — they seem like they should never have existed. God, think about one of those beasts actually walking around. And walk and fly and swim they did, for hundreds of millions of years. Earth teemed with the damn things. And who knows what they were up to all that time.

Horizon Zero Dawn, released last week for the PlayStation 4, is a game that effectively leverages our childhood astonishment at dinosaurs. The game was developed by the Sony-owned, Amsterdam-based studio Guerrilla Games, which is best known for its PlayStation-exclusive first-person-shooter Killzone franchise. Horizon Zero Dawn is the studio’s first new IP in over a decade and its first open-world RPG game. It’s set in a postapocalyptic future, many years after humanity has lost control of technology in an unnamed cataclysm. Nature has retaken the land and the ruins of civilization are barely visible under centuries of vegetation. And dinosaurs, once again, walk the earth. Only they’re robots! Video games! How these great mecha-beasts came to be is one of the riddles you can uncover. Humans hunt the robots, scavenging their chassis for resources needed for the local economy and for survival. Well, at least they hunt the smaller ones — the android dinos come in a variety of shapes and sizes, with vastly different offensive abilities.

There’s the watcher, a bipedal reptile bot the size of a pony with a long tail and a telescope lens for an eye. The strider and the broadhead, which can be hacked and used as transportation, are analogous to horses and cattle, respectively. Sawtooths are sabretooth tigers. Stormhawks are birds of prey the size of small aircraft. Tallnecks are docile brontosauruses with flat heads and climbable necks. Rockbreakers are worms the size of cruise ships that erupt from the earth and spit boulders at you.

You play as Aloy (voiced by Ashly Burch), an outcast member of the Norah, a matriarchal tribe of hunter-gatherers based in the mountainous Sacred Lands. Aloy was named and raised by another outcast, Rost, a male Norah and a capable machine hunter and survivalist. Why Aloy and Rost have been ostracized from the tribe is just one of the many mysteries that the player must uncover.

Aloy interacts with the world by hunting the machine dinosaurs. Every video game is built around a core feedback loop that, designers hope, is compelling enough to drive players through the arc of the game. Horizon Zero Dawn’s loop is: travel, stalk dinosaur, fight dinosaur, repeat. And it is fluid and fun. A human fighting a gigantic robosaur with a bow and arrow is a pretty ridiculous idea. Guerrilla drew on its decade-plus experience of building frenetic action games (specifically the Killzone series) to design a responsive and simple control scheme that lets the player feel the scale of the task in front of them without being overwhelmed or (the worst outcome for a video game) confused by it.

The graphics and art design are top-notch. It’s as playable of an experience as you’ll find on a console. The landscape is beautiful to look at, ecologically diverse, and freaking enormous. I would guess that traversing the entire map on foot might take 30 or 40 minutes, assuming you didn’t get in any dinosaur fights. Which you definitely would. There are snow-capped mountains, forested valleys, grassy plains, high desert regions, all rendered with mind-boggling detail. There are real-time weather effects, too. Air currents send wisps of terrain-hugging mist across the screen, bending grasses and rustling the leaves.

Guerrilla uses the seductive, feedback loop of the gameplay with the awe-inducing spectacle of dinosaurs walking the earth as a passport of sorts into some of the game’s most interesting themes: matriarchy vs. patriarchy, the pace of technological progress, and what happens after the end of the world.

Which is not to say that Horizon Zero Dawn is some sort of hifalutin, artsy game. Again: It is a game about robot dinosaurs. But there’s subtle circularity to the game’s motifs. It’s set in a dystopian future after a cataclysmic event — the titular Zero Dawn — devastated human civilization. Humanity was nearly wiped out. And yet this world seems, in many respects, objectively better than the one which it replaced. Pollution is nil, the environment is pristine, and while these tribal humans act brutally toward one another — and still grasp for power over their neighbors — there is widespread racial and gender equality. Dinosaurs, those great and terrible wonders of earth’s far-flung past, live again — only as technologically advanced living machines with barely more than a wild animal’s instinct driving them across plains. Human civilization as we know it has receded so far into the past that we have become extinct to ourselves. Technology — and all remnants of it — are viewed with an almost religious superstition.

Antitechnology themes in fiction are nothing new. But in the context of the video game medium, where nothing at all would exist without the computers and software that create and run the games, I find them fascinating. It speaks to a particular feeling of being a thinking, feeling person in 2017: that even as we revel in the boundless diversion of the modern world, something fundamental about technology’s pervasiveness feels wrong.

These are tantalizing ideas, wrapped in razor-sharp graphics, intuitive design choices, and our own childish fascination with creatures who might still be here if not for an asteroid and some bad luck.