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Horizon Zero Dawn’s racial diversity is no mistake

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It’s all explained in the lore

The Art of Horizon Zero Dawn - Carja Sun-King
Concept art of Sun-King Avad, the brown ruler of a multi-racial nation.
Austin Pikulski/Vox Studios

There’s a frequent phrase that we hear when criticizing some of the biggest brands in entertainment: “It’s explained in the lore.” From The Witcher to Game of Thrones to Metal Gear Solid 5, you can’t even lovingly suggest that the creators might have done a better job of reflecting real human diversity without the phrase cropping up.

This excuse is used in an effort to invalidate certain angles of criticism. Could a game’s female characters have been less disproportionately sexualized? Well, it’s justified in the story. Could a fantastical setting have had better racial representation? Well, it makes sense in the lore. Sometimes we hear this argument from fans. Sometimes we hear it from creators. Sometimes we get the excuse’s little cousin, “It’s based on [an actual, assumed-to-be-less-diverse-or-tolerant time period and place].”

[Warning: This post contains spoilers for Horizon Zero Dawn.]

Horizon Zero Dawn did the reverse of its contemporaries: It tricked me, a person who actively seeks out diverse fantasy settings, into hand-waving the racial diversity of its NPCs as a valuable but slightly nonsensical artistic choice. Then, hours into the game, it gave me quite a shock.

The game revealed that its racial diversity actually made sense in the lore.

Horizon Zero Dawn - Helis of the Shadow Carja
These are the Shadow Carja. They speak English just like everyone else.
Guerrilla Games/Sony Interactive Entertainment

Suspension of disbelief

Horizon is just as much a hard-science, post-apocalyptic tale as it is a fantasy epic. But in between the robots and the holograms and the data points full of ancient emails, the game lulls even the most experienced player into thinking of it as just a fantasy story — and not a science fiction one.

If you squint, the stout, forge-loving Oseram become fantasy dwarves. You recognize the empire of human-sacrificing sun-worshippers, the mystics from the frozen north, and the mountain-worshipping machine hunters as serviceable fantasy tropes. You know your place in this Campbellian hero’s journey: Aloy is the outcast turned chosen hero turned prophesied demon-slayer, descended from an ancient savior. She has magic weapons that give her a supernatural advantage over other warriors. She speaks with gods and wrestles with demons.

It’s easy for a player to shrug and suspend their disbelief rather than to expect a scientific explanation. I remember the willprecise moment that I realized that Aloy’s Focus was teaching her to read actual English words, which meant that the characters in the game were speaking English as well.

I’d deduced, from scraps of documents here and there (and a bit of math) that human civilization had been wiped out sometime around the 2060s, and that the main events of the game took place a full millennium later. The English of the year 1000 is almost unintelligible to the modern reader. Why establish that Aloy could read thousand-year-old spam emails?

Aloy inspects a datapoint in Horizon Zero Dawn
Aloy inspects a thousand-year-old digital device.
Guerrilla Games/Sony Interactive Entertainment via Imgur

Ah, well, I thought to myself. Gotta have your collectible lore text somehow.

Then there was the matter of the rainbow of NPCs I ran into. Don’t get me wrong — I loved playing a game where tribes broke down on purely cultural lines, not racial ones. It would have been easy for Guerrilla Games to have done as many fantasy epics before it and code each of its fantasy tribes with a distinguishable racial identity. Instead, I ran into NPCs with brown, black, white and Asiatic features in equal regularity, no matter whose lands I was traipsing through.

But I did wonder: If everyone I saw was descended from the survivors of an extreme population that died off in the area of Denver a thousand years ago, why hadn’t everyone’s genes bled into a racially ambiguous average?

Ah, well, I thought. Guerrilla Games clearly wanted Aloy to be a redhead quite badly. And a rainbow of NPCs was a good way to sidestep the minefield of ascribing a specific racial identity to the “mystic tribe” and the “sun-worshipping empire” and the “mountain people,” even if that wide range of races didn’t make complete sense.

The lore

It’s quite late in Horizon Zero Dawn that we finally find out exactly how human civilization met its fate — and it’s even later that we find out the game’s darkest truth.

The people of Horizon Zero Dawn’s setting aren’t directly descended from anyone alive in the 2060s. They’re the descendants of machine-grown embryos that were preserved by a massive network of artificial intelligences. Those programs themselves were feverishly created in the waning days of our civilization by human scientists and cultural experts, who knew that the apocalypse couldn’t be stopped; it could only be delayed. The human race wasn’t smashed back into a tribal state by a global catastrophe — all life on Earth was driven extinct, down to the microbial level.

Those scientists pinned their hopes on the creation of machine intelligences that could someday cover the globe in terraforming machines, nurse the planet back into a life-sustaining biosphere, and seed it with plants and animals. Only then would this network finally clone, rear and educate a new generation of human beings.

A holographic record of scientist Elisabet Sobeck speaking with an early version of the Gaia artificial intelligence.
A holographic record of scientist Elisabet Sobeck speaking with an early version of the Gaia artificial intelligence.
Guerrilla Games/Sony Interactive Entertainment

Horizon Zero Dawn’s characters don’t represent a thousand years of genetic and cultural development from the survivors of a Western metropolis. They’re descended from a batch of embryos that were purposely compiled to preserve the diversity of the human race. They were taught to speak English by the artificial intelligences that functioned as their first guardians — and that first generation is only 700 years old.

There was my explanation. Given that genetic pool and that somewhat shorter genealogical timeline, it’s easy to imagine that distinct racial features would have survived over less than a dozen generations of drift. And without any other human languages around, it stands to reason that English would have shifted less over time as well.

I was shocked, but pleasantly so. What would you call that? Oh, right.

Impressed. But more than that, I was tickled.

“It makes sense in the lore” is a bad excuse for a lack of diversity in the fantastical. If you can imagine the War of the Roses with dragons and zombies, but not black and brown people, you should take a hard look at your priorities.

I’ve spent so much time watching people use “lore” as reason to forgive uninspired writing or character design that I was unprepared for Horizon Zero Dawn to invert the familiar formula. It’s the only time I’ve ever seen a fantastical story that set up “implausible” diversity and then followed through with an explanation. (Oh, Aloy’s recessive gene for red hair surviving 700 years of genetic drift? Explained.)

So take heed, folks. If you can make up some lore that explains why everybody’s white, you can also do as Horizon Zero Dawn did:

You can make up some lore that explains why everybody’s a different color.