Horizon: Zero Dawn

“To serve a purpose greater than yourself. That is the lesson you must learn.”

In the first game of the Horizon series, Zero Dawn, the player controls a 19-year-old named Aloy who goes on a quest to find out why masked cultists attacked her small, isolated tribe (see neolocalism, deglobalization) that lives in a post-apocalyptic version of North America. As she ventures out of her home region—located in present-day Utah—Aloy and the player learn what caused the destruction of the human civilization 1,000 years prior (see collapse, dystopia, posthumanism). Aloy discovers that she is a clone of a brilliant scientist named Elisabet Sobeck, who put together a coalition of scientists to enact a plan called Zero Dawn that depended on a complex AI-controlled terraforming system called GAIA to reseed the world with life after the mass extinction event. Aloy learns that recently the subsystems of GAIA went rogue and one subsystem called HADES now threatens life on Earth once again. The player must thwart this second mass extinction as they learn about the first one.

Although not directly representing climate change or biodiversity loss, the Horizon games help explore post-apocalyptic futures that may be seeded by market-driven ecocide, extractivism, and environmental destruction in the present. Being a role-playing game with an open-world design, Zero Dawn allows the player to take on a character persona and roam through this landscape freely, encouraging submersion and thorough exploration of the story world. The player learns about the extinction event (see the Sixth Extinction, collapse) alongside Aloy, and the player may complete more side quests to find more snippets of information in the form of old recordings and documents. The player must also simulate the act of taking action to save the planet in order to win the game (see activism). Even though the single-player design would seem to emphasize individual action, the storyline centers how Aloy’s predecessor Elisabet Sobeck was intensely solitary but nevertheless relied on other scientists and designed a terraforming system that relied on multiple subsystems working together.

The story of Zero Dawn highlights the dangers posed by rampant capitalism and war to the environment, including the humans who live in it. Aloy discovers that the mass extinction event was caused by a corporation that invented military robots that could repair and reproduce by processing any nearby biomass (see anthropocentrism, AI, technofuturism). The egotistical founder, owner, and chairman of the corporation instructed the programmers to make the machines so perfect as to not need back door codes or fail-safes, but this meant that when the company lost control of robots they had no recourse to stop the robots from consuming the entire planet. Greed and pride meant the destruction of the world as these machines proliferated and consumed every living thing. Only through the sacrifice of the Zero Dawn project, which did not directly benefit the scientists who created it, was life preserved. The storyline therefore emphasizes the importance of collective action in the face of corporate deflection of responsibility onto individual actors. The Horizon series of games are excellent conversation starters about the value of working toward climate and environmental solutions that may not directly benefit the individual or the present day. They can also elicit conversations about the roles of individuals, collectives, and corporations in environmental solutions. Certain chapters of the main quest and certain side quests are especially well-suited to specific environmental topics, which presents the opportunity to design particular discussion questions that students could answer in a classroom setting after achieving milestones in the game at home.

©2023 ClimateLit (Emily Midkiff)

This game is currently available for PlayStation 4 and Microsoft Windows.

See more Horizon reviews: https://www.climatelit.org/series/horizon

Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment, 2017

Pages: 25 hours


Audience: Rebels (14-older)

Format: Games and Other

Topics: Activism, Anthropocentrism, Artificial Intelligence (AI), Capitalism, Collective Action, Deflection, Deglobalization, Dystopia, Ecocide, Ecological Collapse, Environmental Destruction, Extractivism, Individual Action, Mass Extinction, Neolocalism, Posthumanism, Sixth Extinction, Solutions, Technofuturism, Terraforming, War