Horizon: Zero Dawn’s Conflict Resolution

I now own a Playstation 4, which is a good thing because PC gaming is too much of an effort to keep up with. One of the games which tempted me toward the Playstation platform was “Horizon: Zero Dawn“, which is an exclusive release. The game looks good, features a diverse cast, and throughout the very early stages of the game it appears that the narrative conflict resolution is designed by people who aren’t sociopaths.

This game is an open world action RPG set a thousand years in the future after contemporary Western civilisation has collapsed into a pre-industrial state. Robot dinosaurs roam the land and the people of Aloy’s tribe are warned away from the ruined cities and underground vaults which contain pre-fall technology. Accordingly there is a main thread of story punctuated with dozens of optional side-quests.

The side-quests are always the best part of an RPG.

Recently I finished one called “Insult to Injury”. The mechanics of it are dull. The resolution of the story though the options I chose lead to decent, not murdering, behaviour being displayed. Insult to Injury starts with Aloy arriving in a village not long after a vicious battle with the game’s primary antagonists. There she finds a healer tending to a dying warrior. The warrior is in pain and will die from their injuries. You are tasked with finding Dreamwillow, an analgesic so that palliative care can be given. Searching the map happens, but eventually you end up at the home of a recluse who has been locked in their home by outcasts[1], exiled members of Aloy’s tribe.

You chase the outcasts up the mountain and rescue them from robot dinosaur attack, and here is where the good conflict resolution starts. Aloy chastises the outcasts for their theft of healing supplies, but acknowledges their need for them and sympathises with their plight since no one in the tribe would trade with them for vital medicine.

The band of outcasts then acknowledges that they took too much Dreamwillow and deprived others who needed it of vital pain relief. They give Aloy part of the stash which she returns down the mountain with to the recluse. The recluse is a bigot. He wanted the outcasts murdered and despises them due to their status. Aloy, through the player, is then given a choice: act violently, intelligently, or compassionately towards the recluse.

As in all choices presented towards in games (and hopefully real life) I acted with compassion. Aloy then reminds the recluse that it was her, a former outcast, who rescued him and retrieved the Dreamwillow, so that a dying man could die better. The hermit is alone, an outcast in all but name, because of his attitude towards others, Aloy tells him, before ordering him to take the medicine down to the village with a stern warning.

The vignette described above stands out to me in a number of ways. Firstly, these short narrative moments are what I enjoy most in games. The intelligently structured and provoking eruptions of complex humanity, which is often lacking from contemporary media, even in the reduced form that “Insult to Injury” demonstrates, are what I play for. Secondly, the game as designed didn’t force me into unreasonable, violent retribution against individuals.

I live in a society which rewards the othering and dehumanisation of antagonists, both fictional, personal, and political. And I would argue Western culture [2] has primed me/us to get off on the idea of physically hurting other people. Within purely fictional contexts it is hard to absolutely condemn this. In stories no one is really
injured. Those that stand in the protagonist’s way are rightly slain by their swords and lasers, for great justice, or something.

This is tiring. Physical violence is the default narrative fallback in computer games and in fiction, especially genre fiction. I am weary of these escapist fantasies of constant murder. Might isn’t right. There has to be a better way! Horizon: Zero Dawn is one demonstration that there is. People can fight with their words and feelings, even in an action video game where you hunt robot dinosaurs with a bow.

This is a good trend. May games continue to lead the way in providing genre fiction based sometimes on compassion instead of always being about beating the shit out of other people. Horizon: Zero Dawn isn’t perfect. The main thread of the story is framed around ideas of vengeance, and I suspect ultimately I will be forced to make Aloy stab a naughty person in the face, repeatedly.

That won’t be a disappointment, as part of the game’s implicit contract due to both its narrative and ludic genre (science-fiction *action* RPG) has me primed to expect that. I want that experience from this game. However, I welcome and appreciate the moments where the game lets me act out a fantasy of conflict resolution through dialogue and doing the right thing for a change.

[1] – Aloy herself starts the game as an outcast and, so far, I have encountered a lot of these alleged outcasts, which makes me even more suspicious that the social group Aloy is aligned with has deep issues.
[2] – I can only write from the perspective of a British citizen living within the anglophone world and with connections to individuals from other Western societies. I’m not a pacifist, but neither am I hawk. Let’s just say that my feelings on violence in all its variations is best summed up by saying it’s complex and
mostly undesirable.

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