Dawn of a new era: why the best video games are not about saving the world

Horizon Zero Dawn is a beautiful and exciting adventure, but its most interesting element is that it focuses on the intellectual curiosity of its hero

Something has only just occurred to me about Horizon Zero Dawn. The PlayStation 4 action adventure game, set in a post-apocalyptic world dominated by robotic dinosaurs, is thrilling and beautiful – that much is obvious right from the start. Also obvious is the fact that it borrows a lot of mechanics from the Far Cry series, and that it lacks the sheer depth and scope of role-playing adventures like Witcher 3 and Zelda: Breath of the Wild. But what dawned on me much more slowly was the fact that its wonderful lead protagonist, Aloy, is not so much motivated by some grand mission to save humanity (though that sort of comes into it), she is motivated by intellectual curiosity. She is fascinated by the mechanised monsters roaming the landscape and the ruins of an ancient technological culture that she first discovers as a child, and she wants to learn more. Her interactions with the world, the characters and the wider narrative within it, are all personal rather than heroic. In short, she acts like a human being.

For a very long time, a huge percentage of action-adventure games were about saving the planet – sometimes even the entire universe – from some monstrous invading evil. The stakes were almost always that high. There were many intermingled reasons for this. Partly, there’s the huge influence that fantasy and science-fiction masterworks have had on game developers – the overbearing presence of Lord of the Rings and Star Wars in the collective imaginative canon. But also, a lot of early video games drew their story-telling approach directly from mythic sources – the great legends, folk and fairy tales – because with limited visual and narrative story-telling tools available, these primal tales were the easiest to communicate. Hence, a lot of games about lone heroes triumphing against the odds – rendering Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces into interactive life.

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