Having been a bit late to the PlayStation 4 game, it took me a while to buy, much less play, Zero Dawn. It was one of the few games I went into unspoiled; usually, I read a synopsis or watch a playthrough to gauge whether or not a game would suit my interests and playstyle. I hadn’t seen much advertisement or noise about it aside from a couple of mind-blowing cosplays, but the promise of open-world exploration and dozens of side quests promised to scratch my Skyrim itch, and I dove in excitedly.
Zero Dawn‘s success wasn’t just due to the impressive graphics or immersive score. Its true triumph is worldbuilding. The phrase “show, don’t tell” is thrown around a lot, and though it’s easier to show using a visual medium like a video game, building a game’s setting isn’t so simple.
My first playthrough took me a long time as I explored the map and hunted down every side quest I could to learn more about Aloy’s fascinating world. Over time, I began to piece together the story through Zero Dawn‘s environmental storytelling.
Beyond the information you uncover as part of the main plot, you’re treated to a visual canvas, showing this isn’t set on a distant planet or fictional reality — it’s Earth, thousands of years in the future. You scale decaying skyscrapers and vault over rusted cars; you loot valuable resources from defunct bunkers and listen to voices of the Old Ones whose time has long since passed … and the whole time, there’s a strange melancholic nostalgia to it.
Immersing yourself as Aloy while you listen to the hopes, dreams and regrets of the people who destroyed — and saved — the world long ago is a unique experience I wasn’t expecting because Horizon Zero Dawn is so different from many post-apocalyptic stories.
We aren’t playing under scorched skies where the sun barely shines; we aren’t fighting through barren wastelands inhabited by roving brigands or mutant creatures. We journey through a world previously on the brink of extinction but saved by the same hands causing its downfall.
At the core of the narrative is a promise of hope for the future. If given a chance and enough time, humanity and nature can recover from even the worst odds. The environmentalist approach doesn’t feel heavy-handed or pessimistic. Rather than preaching doom and gloom about how humans will destroy the planet they depend on through selfish pursuits, Zero Dawn tells us there will always be someone out there who believes future generations should be given a chance.
The audio recordings and text files Aloy scans with her Focus device give us glimpses of the Old Ones as we piece together the apocalypse that destroyed the world in the early 21st century. Overdependence on technology and artificial intelligence bred autonomous machines that determined humans were the enemy.
Yet, even as the few survivors waited for the end, knowing they wouldn’t live to see the world renewed, we’re treated to emotional farewells and reflections on the good, simple things in life. Aloy’s world looks very little like ours, but we still see the impact of our actions and inventions withstanding the tests of time.
Zero Dawn‘s narrative is unique in that it doesn’t dwell on the past yet shows us that we can rectify our mistakes. The immediate future may look bleak, but that’s because we aren’t looking far enough ahead. Things often get worse before they get better. Even if our current efforts don’t bring about immediate change, the lasting repercussions can redirect the trajectory of those who will follow in our footsteps.
Now that Forbidden West is coming out, we’ll get to see even more of how the world has changed for Aloy. New mysteries wait to be revealed, new snippets of the past wait to be discovered and the people that inhabit what we left behind will be challenged anew.
The replay value of Horizon Zero Dawn’s story never loses that unique spark, even when you know what’s going to happen and understand how the world died and came back. As I played through it once more in anticipation of Forbidden West, I felt the same excitement as I did the first time I began Aloy’s journey.
Article written by Aysel Atamdede
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