“I saw both banks of the river — I saw that once there had been god-roads across it, though now they were broken and fallen like broken vines. Very great they were, and wonderful and broken — broken in the time of the Great Burning when the fire fell out of the sky. And always the current took me nearer to the Place of the Gods, and the huge ruins rose before my eyes.”
So wrote Stephen Vincent Benét in “By the Waters of Babylon,” a 1937 short story about hubris, religion, and a tribal society whose past has long been forgotten.
It centers on a character who embarks on a journey to abandoned places to make sense of the knowledge with which he’s been burdened. It is, in many ways, a perfect overture to Horizon Forbidden West. The protagonist, a member of the Hill People tribe, is granted permission to become a Priest, and thus, to travel to the forbidden Place of the Gods. He carries little besides a bow and arrow. He encounters wild animals. He avoids rival tribes. He pores over relics from an ancient civilization.
I first read the story as a freshman in high school, when my reading comprehension was ... subpar. My attention span was also dogshit. But still, I remember being hooked immediately and entranced throughout. Benét’s writing unfurls with the simple ferocity of great prose, and a thick fog of mystery enshrouds the whole endeavor. There’s also a surprise that I won’t spoil here — but I will say that similar twists have popped up in a handful of major stories in the intervening decades. (It’s obvious by today’s standards, sure, but it’s still a thrill to see how Benét deployed it in 1937.)
“By the Waters of Babylon” is also melancholy in the way that Horizon Zero Dawn was. Both the Priest and Aloy are solitary figures, blessed with solitude but cursed by loneliness. They were both also thrust into a scary situation with almost no preparation and even less direction. Having played about 25 hours of Horizon Forbidden West, I can confirm that the same melancholy — and Aloy’s same savior complex — is present in the sequel. As she sifts through the wreckage of the Old Ones (21st-century humans), she uncovers increasing evidence of humanity’s weaknesses, and of the last-ditch efforts they made, and failed to make, as their society crumbled.
There are no robot dinosaurs in “By the Waters of Babylon.” And you are not a priest in Horizon Forbidden West. But Guerrilla Games’ rapidly approaching sequel is as good an excuse as any to revisit one of my favorite short stories and, like an adventurer sifting through the past, relive a brief moment in time.
You can read “By the Waters of Babylon” here. It’s a 10-page PDF, and should take you about 15 minutes to finish.