Historically, once I beat a video game, I rarely keep playing it. What’s the point? The story is done and I don’t get satisfaction from 100 percent completion. Well, with Horizon Zero Dawn, not only have I kept playing it, I don’t want it to end. Ever. Guerrilla Games has created a world and experience that has reinvigorated my love of video games.
As a teenager, I was a huge gamer. Literally, I bought a game a week, and realized at one point that I had spent about $8,000 on video games during my high school days. It was bad. In the decades since, I’ve cut down, and now it’s just a pleasant hobby.
Almost 50 hours of gameplay and about 80 percent completion later, Horizon Zero Dawn may have ruined me. These days, I go to bed thinking about what missions I have coming up. I think about how I could have done missions differently. I try to think about how I can upgrade my weapons, sell my resources, and buy new items. During the work day, I watch the clock for that precious moment when I can sign off and turn on my PlayStation. Then I play as long as I can, dinner, work, or wife be damned.
There are a lot of reasons the game that has seeped so deeply into my life, the first being it’s a mashup of basically everything I love, both from genre and pop culture as well in a video game. Genre-wise, it’s a sprawling adventure, about a young hero with a mysterious past who has to fight her way to the truth. To do that she has to conquer a world that mixes sword-and-sandal weapons with high science fiction. It’s like Robin Hood meets Transformers wrapped around Lost and The Bible.
When you blend scifi with historical influences, you get a unique cross section of genre. There’s something undeniably satisfying and original about using a bow and arrow to shoot a robot dinosaur in slow-motion. You draw back the arrow, slow down the action, and strategically send a shot in exactly the right place. It’s a similar feeling sneaking up on the beautiful machines, overriding them, and making them your allies.
But, let’s be honest, minus the robot dinosaur thing, this isn’t that unique. What makes Horizon Zero Dawn unique is the Focus. The Focus is a small device your character, Aloy, finds early in the game that changes everything. It’s a relic of a forgotten world. A world that birthed the machines and has since been buried under the ground. Using the Focus, Aloy can instantly access all kinds of information about the world around her. It’s kind of like her very own J.A.R.V.I.S.
From a gameplay perspective, this gives Aloy an instant advantage over every other character in the game. You basically have a third eye that sees things no one else can see, and that’s very helpful in dissecting machine weaknesses or tracking bad guys.
But on a larger level, the Focus represents the game’s fundamental and universal theme: religion vs. science. Without giving too much away, the mostly primitive characters in the game worship and fear the technology around them. Technology that remains from a world long gone. Aloy then becomes a kind of bridge between that. A woman raised in a world to believe one thing, who is now in possession of the first shreds of evidence leading to the truth of that world. Basically, Aloy has found a key to the mysteries of God and you, the player, uncover these answers along with her.
That’s a pretty profound story to get wrapped up in amid all the action and beautiful graphics. So as you continue to move along and explore, using the Focus, more information is revealed about the link between the machines, the world of the past, and the world you are walking around in.
Adding to that level of interest and realism is a wonderfully diverse cast of characters. Men, women, black, white, good, evil, young, old, it just makes the world feel that much more real. You can meet any kind of person at any time and they all have a profound effect on the story. Each has a different set of beliefs and allegiances too, and Aloy can choose to side with them, go against them, or whatever you feel like doing.
One downside to all of this is the way the game chooses to give you much of this information. As you keep playing, there are several huge narrative dumps throughout the game. Every 10 hours or so there’s a segment of the game where a ton of story is dropped on you at once, and you definitely would prefer to have it spread out a bit. Thankfully, you are so starved for more information linking Aloy, the Focus, machines, and more, you gladly soak it up. Plus, if you really want to dive into it, there’s a bunch of extraneous detail provided in text files.
Then, once you beat the game, solve the mysteries, figure it all out, you can go back and continue to play. Of course, this isn’t new either. But it goes to show that as good as the mysteries are, all the gameplay stuff is just top notch too. The huge amount of areas to explore, weapons to gain, ease of travel, all that stuff. It’s all just great to explore and that’s where I am now: leveling up, doing side missions, and engaging enemies I avoided early on. You finally become one with the world.
I could go on and on geeking out about everything I love in Horizon Zero Dawn. It’s just that good of a game. And granted, I haven’t played as many games in the last several years like many of my colleagues. But I have digested a lot of popular culture. Story and content from television, movies, and yes—video games. I feel like I’m a good judge of the quality of something on that simple level and, on that level, Horizon Zero Dawn just delivers. It simply seeps into your everyday life and continually rewards you in ways both obvious and subtle. Whether or not I’ll ever get to 100 percent completion and retire the game I don’t know. But more than any other game I’ve ever played, I want to try. Not because it’ll give me some grand reward. Because I don’t think I can stop.
The problem with this is that most games aren’t Horizon Zero Dawn. Even many of the great games don’t take over your life. In the past few months I played Firewatch, Uncharted 4, Last Guardian, No Man’s Sky, and Resident Evil 7. Each is a game I enjoyed, but was fine to be done with. I’m not done with Horizon Zero Dawn. Sure I’ll put it aside to play something else, but I’m coming back. Seeing how far I can push Aloy and fascinating world. And that kind of obsession is what I was missing in video games. I’m back and it’s all because of Horizon Zero Dawn.