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Horizon Zero Dawn - Aloy with Tallnecks in the background Guerrilla Games/Sony Interactive Entertainment

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Horizon Zero Dawn’s true heroes are the women in the background

Amid robot animals and threats to the entire world, there is a space for normal women and their worries in this AAA game

Horizon Zero Dawn’s protagonist, Aloy, is written as an exceptional person, set apart from others by her task to save the world and the heavy responsibility that comes with it. She’s inspiring and captivating, but for all her flawlessness, she’s not particularly relatable.

Gradually, big video game publishers are warming to the idea that a hero doesn’t have to be a bulky, bald man. But while we’re seeing more women in leading roles, we aren’t seeing a great deal of depth. Heroines like Aloy are more superhero than human: Aloy is pragmatic, strong and has little to lose. She’s destined for greatness and has access to a power that those around her can’t fathom, let alone control. Aloy’s adventure — like that of so many heroes and heroines — rarely mirrors the more common struggles people experience in their day-to-day lives.

Instead, Horizon’s nonplayable characters examine womanhood in a way the hero cannot. Both the main story and the side quests include female characters who are heroic in their own unexpected ways, and these characters help to flesh out the world and make it feel lived in, rather than a cold backdrop for Aloy’s grand quest.

Horizon Zero Dawn - Stormbird above trees Guerrilla Games/Sony Interactive Entertainment

Survival is its own battle

Horizon’s post-post-apocalypse is a reset civilization in which modern prejudice around gender and race are reimagined. Humanity is grouped by tribes in which both men and women share power, and feuds largely stem from conflicts of geography and spiritual belief.

Women are equally represented throughout the game’s world, as friends, antagonists, leaders, paupers and merchants. Where in so many video games women serve as love interests or sex objects, Horizon captures a lifelike diversity of identities. Their status is not determined by their gender; raw skill is everyone’s prime asset in a world where the first goal is survival.

Perhaps most striking are the characters in search of justice.

The side quest “A Daughter’s Revenge” depicts Nakoa, a young woman out to avenge the murder of her father. Nakoa isn’t uniquely skilled as a fighter, nor does she have the special technology that allows Aloy to be a hero. She is simply brave and self-assured. To leave her tribe to search for her father’s killer means banishment, but she willingly accepts this punishment.

There’s an undercurrent running through Horizon, particularly in its stories involving women. Society has been rebooted, and yet certain biases and bigotries have returned alongside the new villages and kingdoms.

Midway through the adventure, Aloy meets Petra, a woman who wishes to hone her talent as a steelworker rather than get married. Petra converts an old camp into a settlement for others who don’t fit their predetermined roles. She is strong enough to take care of threats to the camp herself, but she is also not afraid or ashamed to ask Aloy for help. Petra possesses the leadership qualities games often attribute to men: She knows how to delegate, prioritize and keep others safe.

Horizon Zero Dawn: The Frozen Wilds - Aloy discusses strategy with an ally Guerrilla Games/Sony Interactive Entertainment

The game’s writers smartly introduce women who face challenges across the spectrum from serious to silly. They aren’t universally good or evil, righteous or malevolent. Nor do they easily fall into the game’s good-versus-evil plot. The spy Vanasha protects people during a civil war that has split her tribe. Vanasha cares about people regardless of the side they fight for.

Vanasha doesn’t wield physical strength, but uses her connections to ensure the safety of others. Her role is small, but as a part of something greater, it’s powerful. Vanasha can get lost in the story of Horizon, and that’s a shame. She’s more relatable than Aloy. She uses her mind and the limited resources available to her to gradually enact and sustain change. She’s an inspiration, but she’s hardly a traditional, brawny video game hero.

The complex representation of women in different social spheres throughout Horizon Zero Dawn is one of its best features. Players aren’t only given a single female hero to look up to, but a complex collection of women that reflects so many corners of our own world. Aloy doesn’t have to be the lone woman in the game representing all women, all at once.

Horizon builds on games like the Tomb Raider series and BioWare’s role-playing games; it shows that women in video games don’t have to be superheroes to be significant. With all of their worries, strengths and ambitions, these characters are changing the world — even as they live their lives in the background.