*Spoilers for Horizon: Zero Dawn follow*
Horizon: Zero Dawn’s world does something other games rarely do. The overgrown post-post-apocalyptic setting is nothing new; in fact, it is already on its way to trope status. What makes Horizon: Zero Dawn’s world so engaging is that it is the setting for a narrative in which its depiction of the human is saddled with new, hybridised meaning.
Horizon presents a civilisation ostensibly knocked back thousands of years, yet strands of modernity and postmodernity remain in the vocabularies of its inhabitants, their crafting and building materials, and their linguistic structure. The game’s societies (the hierarchical structures of human tribes, how they cohere or do not cohere with each other, how their settlements are lived in) are not a simple regression. As in every video game apocalypse, the remnants of the previous world remain. Language has remained intact, though its signifying structures have shifted in certain aspects, and the technology of late-capitalism is hybridised with the weaponry of the prehistoric hunter-gatherer. The material phenomena in the game world imply this hybridity everywhere you look, most obviously in the machines which populate it.
The machines, for the most part, are animals. Their insertion into the game world creates a constructed ecosystem which complicates the relationship between human and animal. The late great John Berger illustrates this relationship well when he claims that ‘[t]o suppose that animals first entered the human imagination as meat or leather or horn is to project a 19th-century attitude backwards across the millennia. Animals first entered the imagination as messengers and promises’. Here, Berger notes the secondary nature of the animal as material; its primary significance was as an atavistic marker of wider spiritual concepts. The machines fulfil the same function, but their signifying matter has shifted to messengers of a post-industrial machinic warfare. Flesh and bone animals are present in Horizon’s world, but the boars and foxes and rabbits which sparsely populate the environment fulfil only the second, material function, as resources for the game’s crafting and bartering.
The machine-animals, however, are both material and promise. In envisaging Aloy as simply hunter-gatherer we not only diminish her heroic status in the game’s science-fiction narrative, but also project 19th-century attitudes forward, furthering the spectative aspect of the human/animal relationship (that nature is a force to be dominated, appropriated, and finally only contemplated), and eliding the wider significance of the machines. Their zoomorphic form is in fact anomalous to the human/animal distancing Berger outlines when he describes the historical division which separated man and beast:
The decisive theoretical break came with Descartes. Descartes internalized, within man, the dualism implicit in the human relation to animals. In dividing absolutely body from soul, he bequeathed the body to the laws of physics and mechanics and, since animals were soulless, the animal was reduced to the model of a machine.
On the surface, the machine animals thus present the ultimate concrete manifestation of this mind/body dualism which has dominated (and hindered) much of Western thought. The machines’ ‘soullessness’ distances them from the human, their alienation from ecological normativity exemplified by their uncanny animal forms. Those machines least resembling animals, Ted Faro’s Corruptors, Deathbringers, and Metal Devils, typify the machinic mode of existence since they serve only to aid in annihilation. Their distancing, however, doubles back on itself, since their design is wholly human. The machine animals (Sawtooths, Stormrulers, Grazers, etc), designed by the artificial intelligence GAIA and her industrial node HEPHAESTUS, present a hybridised form blending purpose, design and time period. As the threat from humans grows, the machines are designed in ever more varied and dangerous forms; as dinosaurs and prehistoric birds. The animal and the war machine blend together as a means of making earth fit for natural life forms to inhabit it and as a means of defence against the post-collapse human tribes. The well-trod binary of human vs nature is complicated and hybridised as nature becomes a hybrid itself.
This new intertwining of human and nature is both a step forward and a step back, and neither step is wholly positive or negative. This new relationship springs from a system of intelligent design produced by an autonomous machine. GAIA, the game tells us, is a multi-faceted AI designed to see, feel, know, and do more than humanity ever could. She strives iteratively for perfection, designing new forms of machine life to a degree of utility humans cannot achieve. Why, then, are her designs so familiar? Leaving the meta commentary on the limitations of game designers aside, it is simply because Gaia’s origins as a human-designed algorithm make her new ecosystems always inherently flawed. The machine animals her HEPHAESTUS node creates will never achieve true perfection (always unknowable and unattainable), since they will always carry the trace of the human which makes a utopian vision seem impossible. The Enlightenment-influenced distancing between the human and the new machine animal begins to weave itself together; the human appears now in the animal, as the animal has always appeared in the human.
What are the consequences of this human trace for the rest of the game? HADES, the failsafe mechanism, will always be necessary to wipe the slate clean and allow the eco-evolution to begin again, correcting even the most minor anomalies. HADES is introduced as ‘the ultimate killer app’, threading together technocratic dominance and planetwide extinction with alarming ease. Its creator, Travis Tate, is its human equivalent, the father of this ‘badass’ AI weapon modelled on the worst atrocities in history. Recordings in-game show Tate insisting on the inclusion of torture videos in the Apollo Archive, a collection of all the history and knowledge humanity has gained, to be taught to future post-apocalyptic generations. Tate is every man-baby asshole you’ve ever met online, glorifying death and violence, subjecting others to its displaced effects through a misguided sense of rational superiority.
Small wonder, then, that his project is pure extinction. Concern over whether to censor this violence pervades the Apollo Archive’s in-game development, which shows its creators debating what to include. Where do we draw the line? It draws a sketch of humanity’s origins; its sources of knowledge, and the reasons for its destruction. The hubris of humanity is everywhere in the game world, presented in the traces of the human found in every machine animal, and in the corrupted machines and humans who disrupt the ecology. The remnants of the world’s near total mass extinction reside in recordings and scraps of communication documenting humanity’s struggle against itself. The Apollo Archive’s gamified approach to learning suggests a reification of the technocratic system so troublingly empowered in the 21st century. The Tree of Knowledge proudly presented by the Alpha scientists would, as Deleuze reminds us, simply retrace the structures which always lead to power exercised by the strong over the weak. What hope is there for humanity, the game implicitly asks, when its methods for its own renewal are the very means of its inevitable self-destruction?
The Apollo Archive’s deletion, Faro’s ‘cultural obliteration’, is a loss, but it is more than a simple denial of historical repetition. A new narrative path opens in which life (social and ecological) can grow in a mode more in line with Ursula LeGuin’s vision for science fiction:
If, however, one avoids the linear, progressive, Time’s-(killing)-arrow mode of the Techno-Heroic, and redefines technology and science as primarily cultural carrier bag rather than weapon of domination, one pleasant side effect is that science fiction can be seen as a far less rigid, narrow field, not necessarily Promethean or apocalyptic at all, and in fact less a mythological genre than a realistic one.
Horizon does not let scientific and technological superiority alone ensure victory. Aloy is a vision of a new kind of science fiction storytelling in games; one in which our cultural carrier bag has been deliberately emptied, and a new culture can grow. Aloy’s status as outcast at the game’s opening is due to her lack of a mother. Lack of origin is an alienating device in Horizon’s story: the machine animals also are without perceived origin. Even the deletion of the Apollo archive is in effect a deletion of an origin: the future human race becomes motherless. Cold technocracy destroys its base, perpetuating a cycle of destruction, as Sylens realises too late when Aloy presents him with an alternative in which affect and empathy matter more. Aloy is the face of the new cultural carrier bag; the tank-grown child of a scientist’s genetic code and the simulacrum of a goddess. Her origin is thus human displaced a thousand times, a distancing whose removal from late capitalist domination gives it space to choose a different path.
Yet, on every possible path there remains an echo of the human. The ecosystem is the product of a human project, the machine-animals its perpetuator. Berger’s vision of the capitalist appropriation of nature has been realised, but in the world of Horizon there is no capitalism (as we know it). Nature is not subjected to the technological whim; technology is now another manifestation of the natural. The appropriation is thus complete in the rebirth of the world, but it has also set nature free. There is no distancing between man and animal because the boundaries are once again blurred; tiny traces of human and animal experience becomings everywhere. The machine is never truly present; in the face of every Intelligence or machine is the face of the human staring back. The game world’s blank slate is a palimpsest, drawing a new narrative over the faded engravings of the old, though the path of its evolution is no longer foreseeable.