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A Tremortusk and a group of Tenakth rebels approach the camera

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Horizon Forbidden West purports to be post-racial — but it’s not

Orientalist stereotypes abound

Image: Guerilla Games/Sony Interactive Entertainment

The 31st-century world of Horizon Forbidden West is supposed to be post-racial. After human civilization was fully wiped out by a plague of self-replicating machines, a terraforming AI named GAIA rebuilt life on Earth, with the genetic diversity of humanity, but without the history and societal structures that underpinned racism in the 21st century. It’s a clever narrative move to let the developers pack the game with people of all skin colors, a fact that has been routinely lauded as progressive by some critics and gamers.

[Ed. note: Spoilers follow for Horizon Forbidden West.]

This is all well and good, and makes sense within the context of the story. That is, until a plethora of racist tropes begin to emerge within Forbidden West’s world. There’s a stereotypical angry Black woman named Regalla, for example, who leads a rebel army and would rather die than seek peace. There’s also constant belittling between tribes, who call each other “savage” or “uncivilized” — terms loaded with racial undertones. There’s also plenty of Orientalism.

In a much-too-short summary, Orientalism is a type of racism in which “the West” — generally understood as Europe and North America — projects savagery and beauty onto “the East,” or the Orient. This allows Western imagination to see “Eastern” cultures and people as both alluring and a threat to Western civilization. The Orient is flexible and moves depending on European and American obsessions and war efforts; its definition really depends on who’s asking, and when they’re asking. The vague notion of “the East” can be North Africa during the colonial occupation of Algeria; it can be China before and after the Opium Wars; it can be Vietnam, Japan, Korea, or many other places, depending on U.S. militaristic interests. Examples of the West’s fearful fascination with an Orient abound.

An inside shot of the Golden Pagoda in Horizon Forbidden West Image: Guerilla Games/Sony Interactive Entertainment via Polygon

There’s both a literal imperial exploitation and an aesthetic exploitation at work in Orientalism. In the first, there are actual wars and conflicts based in Orientalist logic. If someone reasons that they are more civilized and democratic than a group of “Orientals,” conquering them becomes necessary to defend the Western way of life and prove its supremacy. In the second, “Eastern” styles (and people) are seen as redemptive for a bland Western aesthetic, and are then appropriated and fetishized to restimulate Western taste.

Orientalism is embedded at the core of Forbidden West’s narrative of exploring exotic lands. Protagonist Aloy’s Orient is the “Forbidden West” itself: the present-day southwestern U.S. and California, filled as they are with foreign tribes, religions, and customs. In this morass, Aloy is both an explorer and a (white) savior. Only she understands what is at stake in the world, and she has to spend time in the petty politics of a bunch of tribes in order to convince them that the problems she’s facing are more severe than theirs.

Orientalism is also strewn throughout Forbidden West’s world-building. Take the “Golden Pagoda” that Aloy discovers in “The Sea of Sands” quest in the main campaign. When she’s rebuilding GAIA’s system, she must recover several sub-AIs that have fled and hidden across the Western U.S. Aloy explores the ruins of the Las Vegas Strip, complete with the remnants of the Bellagio, Caesars Palace, and, strangely, a pagoda.

As far as I can tell, the pagoda doesn’t actually exist in present-day Las Vegas. However, it could be named and designed after a famous restaurant in Los Angeles’ old Chinatown, which was once called the Golden Pagoda. The whole mission brings you face to face with a gratuitous smattering of imagery that you might find in an American Chinese restaurant. There is, particularly, a lot of red: a red dragon hanging from the ceiling, red lanterns, and red decorative knots. The mission concludes with a gigantic light show, and a neon dragon flying at Aloy and the three white male excavators she had previously helped.

The quest itself is Orientalist in nature — the excavators recover “embers” to put on strobe light shows, with the intention of making the ruins of Las Vegas into a 31st-century tourist attraction. Here, the captivating aesthetics of neon and dragons represent inspiration for the excavators, and fertile ground to start a business.

The Transamerica Period in the 31st century Image: Guerilla Games/Sony Interactive Entertainment via Polygon

Later in the game, Aloy discovers the final resting place of Ted Faro (the first game’s main antagonist) below San Francisco’s Transamerica Pyramid. He’s the ruler of the “pyramid,” a survival bunker that he named Thebes, and his name is Faro. It’s a bit on the nose.

The basement of the pyramid contains a multistory metallic statue of Faro, and you find out that back during the 21st-century plague that he caused, he actually tried to prolong his life and became a monster — a mummy, if you will. Egyptian mythological imagery, including an Eye of Horus, is peppered throughout the quest, reducing religiously significant images and rituals to mere aesthetic texture for the game’s villain.

That brings us to the war elephant. When Aloy first meets a rebel Tenakth faction led by Regalla (voiced by Angela Bassett), Aloy is surprised that they have the ability to override machines. She’s even more concerned when she stumbles upon the rebels riding a Tremortusk, a massive mechanical elephant.

Terrifying machines are a hallmark of Horizon Forbidden West’s world, and the Tremortusk is one that Guerrilla Games is clearly extremely proud of. The studio highlighted it in the game’s story trailer, and included a Tremortusk figurine, complete with rebel riders, in the collector’s edition.

The elephant tremortusk machine in Horizon Forbidden West Image: Guerrilla Games/Sony Interactive Entertainment via Polygon

The elephant is a surprisingly pervasive symbol of the Orient, and the taming of elephants for use in war is common in European and American fantasies about the Orient. Peoples in India, Africa, and Southeast Asia did sometimes employ elephants in combat, but in the context of British colonialism, the West saw the use of elephants in war and in religious ceremonies as savage and irrational, and imported elephants for British curiosity about colonial India.

Consider also The Nations of the East, a sculpture group by three white male American sculptors from the 1915 San Francisco world’s fair, which actually centers a man riding an adorned elephant. The sculptures are all racial caricatures of “the East” — the elephant is flanked by stereotyped “Buddhist” monks on foot, “Mongol” men on horses, and “Middle Eastern” men on camels. The mounted elephant itself looks strikingly similar to the Tremortusk. Choosing to have these unreasoning rebels ride a Tremortusk in Forbidden West and then be outsmarted by Aloy repeats and perpetuates Orientalist tropes.

I’m not suggesting that Guerrilla Games made these aesthetic choices with malice; I’m arguing that the choices end up being impactful regardless, both in what they convey to the player, and how the resultant symbolism fits in with our world. When I played Horizon Forbidden West, the game asked me to identify with Aloy and support her mission to save the planet. But to progress in the game, I ended up role-playing different kinds of cultural violence, including Orientalism, which founds and fuels a lot of the racism I experience as an Asian American. Even though Aloy’s world is supposedly post-racial, its developers still repeat Orientalist tropes in their design choices, which paint Asian cultures, and therefore people, as perpetually foreign, mysterious, and threatening.

Horizon Forbidden West’s world is filled with thoughtful details about what a rebuilt society could look like. The microcosms of culture in each tribe’s unique temperament, rituals, and obsessions are all carefully chosen and developed. Guerrilla Games’ imagination is on incredible display in so many facets of the game that it’s all the more disappointing to see the studio fail, once again, to shake off so many of the racialized underpinnings of our world.

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