Building a Believable Apocalypse: Clarke’s Laws and ‘Horizon: Zero Dawn’

This article contains minor spoilers for Horizon: Zero Dawn

Famed sci-fi author Arthur C. Clarke once posited three laws, the last of which stated, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” This was a theorem I pondered quite often while playing through Guerilla Games’ sprawling sci-fi RPG Horizon: Zero Dawn, particularly when it came to Horizon’s post-post-apocalyptic world building.

As it turns out, Clarke’s laws were also on the mind of Horizon’s narrative director and Fallout: New Vegas alum, John Gonzalez, as he worked on designing the different societies found within the world of Horizon. In an interview with Glixel, Gonzalez said that he and the team at Guerilla really wanted to investigate the idea of how a pre-industrialized society would interact and understand a world of seemingly impossible technological advancement.

Working off ideas found in American anthropologist Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fate of Human Societies, Gonzalez and company constructed Horizon’s tribes geographically first – determining how each tribe’s surrounding geography would affect their lifestyle, cosmology, and aesthetic. For example, the Horizon team wrote a tribe settled in a deep valley. Their geological situation made it historically difficult for them to communicate with tribes beyond the valley. Because of their geological solitude, they became the least technologically advanced and the most distrustful of outsiders. Using this method of geographical development, an extra level of narrative depth was added to the tribe’s of Horizon Zero Dawn.

For those unfamiliar with the premise of Horizon, the game takes place in a world where human tribes-people coexist with herds, flocks, and packs of highly advanced animal-like robots. At a rudimentary level, all of Horizon’s tribes interact with these machines the same way: hunting them for resources and for sport. The machines’ metal plates are used for armor and their power cores are often re-purposed into any number of quality-of-living advancements among the tribes.

Each tribe was constructed to have an understanding that the machines inhabited the earth before humans did, and as such they all have varying cosmologies about the origin and purpose of the mechanical beasts. Some believe the machines have souls, and that for each machine killed another machine is constructed to act as a fresh vessel for the creature’s soul. Others believe them to be the constructs of a bitter god, sent to judge the actions of it’s unfaithful servants.

Additionally within Horizon’s world of are the ruins of an older one, full of mysterious machinery of unknown purpose. Some tribes view these sites as cursed ground, not to be trod upon by human feet lest they be made unclean. Others are seen as holy places, sites that can be used to speak to the old gods. It was particularly during these latter moments that I was reminded of Clarke’s Third Law.

For example, early in the game we learn that the old king of the Carja tribe had been deposed after rounding up neighboring tribes-people to use as sacrifices the the sun god. His attempts at genocide had been prompted by the emergence of new breeds of combat machines across his kingdom. Taking them as harbingers of the Sun’s displeasure, he felt he needed to atone with the blood of others. His instinct was that these new machines were the constructs of a divine being, and aggressively acted on those instincts.

Another group of more fanatical characters misinterpret the modern computer power-on symbol as the sign of their deity. Their first encounter with that symbol is in the context of an old artificial intelligence, an intelligence they assume to be a god.

The prime example though of Clarke’s Third Law in action is among the Nora Tribe’s “All-Mother Mountain,” the holiest site in the whole of their territory. On the peak of the mountain are the ruined tendrils of a massive machine the Nora understand as a “Metal Devil,” defeated by All-Mother before the dawn of man. Amid a chamber of hollowed out rock resides a metal wall partitioning the Nora from the All-Mother. The Matriarchs speak directly to All-Mother via this wall – and sometimes All-Mother speaks back.

From our modern perspective, we can look at things like talking metal and recognize that most of us carry around an equivalent object in our pockets. To us, SIRI is a neat tool on our phones, but out of context it wouldn’t be unreasonable to think that she could be mistaken for a distant deity.

The highlight for me of Guerilla’s world is that it all makes sense. When I figured out why these people – who were obviously living in the ruins of today’s world – didn’t have any knowledge of the people they were descended from, I bought it. It made perfect sense in that universe. The thing that convinced me to pull the trigger on purchasing Horizon: Zero Dawn was a wonder of how the developers intended to explain people with bows and arrows existing alongside huge robo-dinos. And I was not disappointed. I think I was most surprised by how unpredictable the reveal was. Once I knew that major plot point I was able to predict a handful of other story points, but not enough to feel like the story lacked depth and creativity.

It takes a several hours of gameplay before Aloy, the protagonist of Horizon and outcast member of the Nora tribe, discovers the machines’ true origins and the purpose behind the myriad ancient technologies scattered throughout her homeland. But her newfound enlightenment doesn’t send her off on a crusade to discredit the Sun-god or All-Mother – the former a celestial body and the latter a non-sentient pre-programmed voice attached to the access door of an old bunker. She understands that there are some things she’s seen that other people won’t understand, at least not for a while anyway.

The ruins within All-Mother Mountain

There’s a lot that can be taken away from Horizon’s big picture world building, but there’s also a great deal of work done in the dialogue and how the world is continually being built through the characters. One of my favorite moments in the game was a tiny one, but it spoke volumes about the history of the world. Aloy is led to an old world structure, the former site of a robotics corporation.

Now, as the player in modern day 2017, I have a perfect understanding of what a robot is, what a corporation is, and how those two might relate to one another. But Aloy only knows one of those things: robots. Her guide has to define for her what a corporation is, since that’s not a concept that exists in the world of Horizon. The exchange of dialogue for this explanation takes maybe 20 seconds, but revealed a lot about Aloy and the world she grew up in. Great performances from Ashly Burch and Lance Reddick really help to sell the development of Aloy and her guide, Sylens.

But beyond the cosmological explanations of Horizon’s universe, it’s the sci-fi elements of Horizon’s narrative that really shine. It’s obvious that a great deal of research was done in regards to how Horizon finally goes about explaining it’s wild premise, and from a layman’s perspective it all seemed pretty believable scientifically and anthropologically. And while enough of my questions were answered in major cut-scenes and in character dialogue, lots of the meaty details were found in the ancillary emails and voice recordings found scattered around the main story areas. So, if you’re not usually a completionist, I would suggest you become one just this once. I was surprised at the emotional impact wrought by some of these minor collectibles, particularly a collection of messages between a husband and wife during the husband’s tour of duty.

If you value well-crafted narrative in games, I’d suggest taking a look at Horizon: Zero Dawn. If you can get past some tedious side activities that need to be completed to move the main story along, the payoff is well worth it.