Some spoilers for Horizon Zero Dawn are ahead…
The last few days I’ve found myself completely immersed in Guerrilla Games’ Horizon Zero Dawn – a terrific action title that I recently reviewed.
One thing that continues to stand out out to me in Horizon Zero Dawn is its use of religion as an impetus for drama and plot-movement. This isn’t a fleeting element of the story: it continues to run throughout the plot as a recurring theme that has significant sway over many of the central characters. From Rost’s devout followings of the Tribe’s ceremonies despite his status as an Outcast, to the High Matriarchs attempting to make sense of the misfortunes that eventually befall their tribe and beyond, the construction and understanding of their own version of the Creation Myth is a fascinating aspect of the story. I believe that this focus on the tribe’s spiritual beliefs lends itself to building a more vibrant universe; that your adventures begin to slowly peel away the layers of this belief system provides a more profound journey than your typical “Adventure goes into the wilderness to make a name for themselves” archetype.
First, take a listen to the creation myth that Horizon Zero Dawn utilizes in explaining the role of their God, the All-Mother, as well as the chief antagonist of their world – The Metal Devil.
The tale contains many common themes of a creation myth. You have “good” creatures borne of the All-Mother such as the Nora tribe and other faithful followers. Pitted against them are the Faithless – humans who turned away from All-Mother and created the machines, which are ultimately overtaken and ruled by the malevolent Metal Devil. The creation of these machines was the result of the Faithless tapping into taboo & forbidden knowledge, unsatisfied with the world of beauty and bounty the All-Mother provided. Following the climactic clash of good and evil, the faithless face a harsh consequence for abandoning the All-Mother after her hard-won victory over the Metal Devil. Unlike your standard post-apocalypse setting, Horizon Zero Dawn takes place many hundreds if not thousands of years after the collapse of civilization, which has given this religious system plenty of time to take root. Aloy’s exposure to the remnants of the Old World in her early years helps her peek behind the curtain of a ruling system that has been a pillar of society since the fall of mankind as we know it. Armed with knowledge of the other world and an insatiable curiosity, you begin to dismantle the theocracy that has ruled your land for centuries.
An early scene that really struck me was when High Matriarch Teersa reveals the place that Aloy was discovered in the Womb of the Mountain. Standing before a giant metal door and amidst technology Aloy had seen some years earlier when she found her focus, she is unmoved when a red laser scans her and a voice booms from beyond. “The All-Mother speaks!” Teersa cries in awe. Aloy, however, is not impressed by the presence of the “All-Mother”, recognizing the voice as a foreign technology, but certainly nothing supernatural or other-worldly. Aloy’s unique position as a woman with a foot in both worlds (though she begrudgingly belongs to The Tribe, as she’s happy to point out) provides gamers with a fascinating vantage point on the belief system that cast Aloy out in the first place. The High Matriarchs, being uncertain if Aloy was a gift from the All-Mother or a curse from the Metal Devil, decided to cast her out to be safe. The result of this being years of living as an outsider for seemingly no reason – which, as the gamer quickly finds out, is a pretty accurate take on the whole situation. Confronted with technology and elements they do not understand, the High Matriarchs and other leaders of the tribe provide a supernatural explanation. While it certainly seems to be open season on religion in the early hours of the game, there is another striking scene that encourages your curiosity…and it comes from a very unlikely place.
After Aloy is made a Seeker and given the divine task of venturing outside of Mother’s Embrace to discover the truth, she and High Matriarch Teersa have an extended conversation about the cursed technology that lies in the ruins scattered throughout the Embrace and beyond. When Aloy tells her that the technology in the ruins is very similar to that in their holiest place, the Womb of the Mountain, Teersa is incredulous at first. How could that be? Certainly Aloy was mistaken. However, Aloy does not let up and confirms that she knows what she saw. Teersa’s response to this is unusual, and would no doubt be deemed borderline heretical by her fellow Matriarchs. She essentially concedes that Aloy could be right, entrusting her to expand their knowledge. “Well, perhaps you will reveal the truth to us in time.”
With Teersa’s blessing, you are essentially tasked with helping them comprehend the incomprehensible. Aloy, to her detriment, is almost too eager to shatter their illusions of the All-Mother and laughs in the face of the “Demons” that plague the vast wilds. She openly mocks other members of the tribe as her knowledge of the outside world grows, and she challenges a lot of peoples’ beliefs throughout her journey. In an early quest a brother, concerned for his sister, pleads for Aloy to go looking for her. When Aloy confronts him and asks why he doesn’t go looking himself he responds “And risk leaving All-Mother’s eternal memory? Never!” Despite the game’s less than ideal character models, you can almost hear Aloy rolling her eyes any time she’s engaged with one of these enthusiastic believers.
It’s been argued before that your battle in Horizon Zero Dawn is not only against machines, but against religion as well. While I would agree with that sentiment, I would also add that the game would not be half as interesting if Horizon Zero Dawn had not created such a robust religious system against which your character could crash against. It’s not a mere backdrop – characters are motivated to fight, die, turn against one another and lend a helping hand, all with the motivation of this belief system behind them. This makes your procedural dismantling of this system all the more interesting, creating a sincere interest in what comes next as you dive deeper into the ruins of the Metal World.