A planet is a terrible thing to waste.
Horizon Zero Dawn’s world is not the typical post-apocalyptic setting: There are no blood-soaked apartment complexes populated with zombies or alien invaders, and you won’t find the drab monochromatic remnants of a nuclear holocaust, or the sterile plastic-and-metal environs of a mysteriously abandoned colony ship in outer space. Instead, Horizon Zero Dawn takes place on Earth in the 31st century, following a millennium during which this planet was just as inhospitable as the other seven in our solar system.
The cataclysm that rendered Earth a lifeless rock was not cosmic in origin, like the asteroid impact that wiped out the dinosaurs 66 million years ago. Rather, one man and his boundless greed caused Horizon Zero Dawn’s apocalypse. And one compassionate, selfless woman saw to it that the flame of life on Earth never quite went out.
[Warning: The following contains major spoilers for Horizon Zero Dawn.]
GAME OF THE YEAR 2017
#8: HORIZON ZERO DAWN
For Game of the Year 2017, Polygon will be counting down our top 10 each weekday, beginning on Dec. 4. On Dec. 18, we'll reveal our favorite 50 of 2017. And throughout the month, we'll be looking back on the year with special videos, essays and surprises! Previously: #9 - Everything
Horizon Zero Dawn begins a thousand years after a plague in which sentient machines consumed all organic matter on Earth. Many years after that apocalyptic catastrophe, an extant artificial intelligence oversaw the creation of a new series of robots, which revived the barren world by seeding its ecosystem from scratch.
Plants and small animals now flourish, and Homo sapiens once again walks the Earth. Over the centuries, civilization has developed enough for humans to split into distinct tribes based not on ethnicity, but on culture and geography. These factions live off the land; some survive as hunter-gatherers, while more advanced societies — having unearthed knowledge and technology from pre-apocalypse humans — undertake farming. The animal-like machines in their midst are docile, and the people hunt them for parts.
No matter their existence, these primitive civilizations are predicated upon a mutually beneficial relationship with nature. Their environment can be harsh and forbidding, from snow-capped mountains to sun-scorched canyons, but it is consistently breathtaking — and pristine.
I’ve played more than 65 hours of Horizon Zero Dawn, and I’ve probably spent an hour or two in the game’s photo mode, which I’ve used to capture nearly 120 images of the world and its people. Guerrilla’s choice to set Horizon Zero Dawn in the western U.S. certainly contributed to my infatuation with the scenery, with its renditions of real-world natural landmarks such as Bryce Canyon in Utah, Monument Valley on the Arizona-Utah border and Bridal Veil Falls in Colorado.
I’ve never seen those places myself, but this summer I visited California’s Yosemite National Park, which offers stunning vistas of mountains, canyons, waterfalls and meadows. You have to crane your neck up from the Yosemite Valley floor to see the sheer cliff face of El Capitan, and then you realize that those little black dots are people making the vertical ascent. Glacier Point offers a commanding view of the valley floor, two waterfalls and rock formations like Half Dome. It’s the kind of place that leaves you awestruck. Horizon Zero Dawn’s designers wisely eschewed photorealistic graphics for embellished, hyper-real visuals that effectively capture and convey the wordless wonderment of Earth’s natural splendor. And the game’s story focuses on just how precious it all is.
A frightening vision
Horizon Zero Dawn’s progressive politics are obvious, and beyond its feminist core, its backstory offers an incriminating commentary on current political skepticism and ineffective policy around global warming. If you scan the right “datapoints” (aka text, video and audio logs), you can connect the dots to get an alarming picture of the decades that led up to the game’s world-ending disaster. Indulge me while I delve into the lore for a bit.
In short, Horizon Zero Dawn presupposes that anthropogenic climate change caused disasters in our near future. During the 2030s, more than a billion people lost their lives in events that came to be known as the Great Die-Off. Humanity spent the subsequent decade trying to claw its way back from the climate crisis, led by the “green robots” that Dr. Elisabet Sobeck, a renowned robotics and AI expert, developed at a company called Faro Automated Solutions.
The consequences of a global calamity like this would ripple outward butterfly effect-style, and indeed they did. Sobeck’s detoxification machines turned Faro Automated Solutions into a tremendously successful mega-corporation. But the company’s founder, Ted Faro, wanted more — and he saw an opportunity in the political response to the 2030s upheaval.
Governments around the world were struggling to deal with climate refugees, and environmental catastrophes caused even more conflict. In 2048, Faro did a 180 and pivoted his robotics firm to producing automated military defense systems, even amid a growing unease over the ever-increasing prevalence of AI in people’s lives. It was Faro’s hubris and recklessness with the AI in his war machines that ultimately caused the plague that would bear his name, which swiftly eradicated all life on Earth in the mid-to-late 2060s.
I finished Horizon Zero Dawn on Sunday, the night before President Donald Trump announced that his administration had decided to scale back two federally protected natural and cultural landmarks in Utah. The Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments — each of which happens to have been established by a Democratic president — lost 85 percent and 45 percent of their respective land areas.
Supporters of the monuments’ current borders, which include conservationists and local Native American tribes, believe they are necessary to preserve the ancient ruins and natural beauty of the region. The monument status protects these lands from potentially harmful activities such as mining, drilling and agriculture. But groups like fossil fuel companies and Utah politicians, including the current governor, Gary Herbert, have long argued that the monuments are examples of egregious federal overreach.
The Trump administration and Republicans in general tend to favor business interests over environmentalists’ objections. Shortly after taking office in January, Trump signed an executive order to approve construction on two controversial oil pipelines, the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines. In June, the president announced his intent to withdraw from the Paris climate accord, an internationally negotiated agreement with the goal of limiting the global temperature rise during the 21st century. As of early November, the U.S. is the only country in the world to reject the deal. Opening up protected federal lands to energy production could damage the environment: Last month, a leak in the Keystone pipeline spilled more than 200,000 gallons of oil in South Dakota.
No, I’m not saying that our current government is putting the world on an irreversible track that will lead to the sixth mass extinction in Earth’s history within this century. But I’m not not saying that, either. Climate change has the potential to cause immense — if not outright cataclysmic — harm to the planet and its population, both directly and indirectly. That might be the most plausible element of Horizon Zero Dawn’s story.
The power is yours
The records of 21st-century life that the player character, Aloy, comes across illustrate a world turned upside down by climate-driven conflict, where trillion-dollar corporations pit governments against citizens and robots against humans. But while Horizon Zero Dawn presents a bleak vision of the future, it ultimately celebrates the unique and persistent power of the human spirit.
Ted Faro, the world’s first trillionaire, essentially brought about the apocalypse by himself. And when he realized the enormity of what he had done, he called on his company’s former chief scientist, a genius who had left the firm in protest of his decision to start making sentient robot weapons, for help. Sobeck, on her own, took just two days to outline Project: Zero Dawn. The plan wouldn’t save humanity — there was no stopping Faro’s killer robots — but would preserve life on Earth, along with millennia of human history and culture, so that an AI entity could shut down the machines and revitalize the planet centuries later.
Horizon Zero Dawn takes pains to point out, every step of the way, that it was humans who did all of this. Human beings put Earth into these dire circumstances, and humans undertook a long-shot effort to save the planet.
Sobeck could not have foreseen that Faro would torpedo one of Zero Dawn’s key initiatives — Apollo, which would have educated future generations of humans about the world before the apocalypse — and murder the project’s leaders, in an effort to give humanity a clean slate. (And in the process, wipe out all archived records proving his culpability for the apocalypse.) These two opposing figures represent the age-old conflict between selfish, thoughtless opportunists, who care only about profits and the privileged few, and truly altruistic individuals, who try to use their talents to make the world better for everyone.
A datapoint of an audio recording plays over Horizon Zero Dawn’s final cutscene. In a conversation during the early days of Zero Dawn with Gaia, the aforementioned master AI, Sobeck recalled a childhood lesson from her mother. “Elisabet, being smart will count for nothing if you don’t make the world better,” her mother told her. “You have to use your smarts to count for something — to serve life, not death.”
The lesson, and hope, of Horizon Zero Dawn is this: Humans can impose their will on the planet. We have the capacity to unmake this world. But with enough care and ingenuity, and a dollop of luck, we can remake it, too.