From Tiresome Dickishness to Open World Play – What Horizon Zero Dawn Gets Right

What Horizon Zero Dawn Gets Right 

I know I’m a few years behind on the Horizon Zero Dawn train, but the reality of the matter is that it’s never too late to highlight points of inspiration from a text. After all, us academics still quote Plato and Marx centuries after their deaths, so I don’t feel all that guilty talking about a game that was released in 2017. 

Horizon Zero Dawn is an open world action RPG that reminds me very much of the gameplay for Witcher III, but lacks the tiresome dickishness that the Witcher series brings. Rather than surprising the player with gratuitous titties and humping rabbits, Horizon Zero Dawn’s story centers on cultural, racial, class, political and technological conflict without appealing to the male gaze in the way that Witcher does. Instead of the game making the player watch cutscenes of characters cutting down ‘weaker’ people with little recourse, Horizon Zero Dawn allows the player to eventually overcome and seek retribution through a multitude of ways – either by dismantling the evildoer’s operation, bringing them to whatever legal system is in place to handle them, or by doing the good ol’ back alley beatdown. Too often, I find games reveling in conflict that the player has little to no agency in intervening, and at this point, I’m beyond playing those games. While I don’t always follow the belief that “games should be an escape from reality”, I do follow the belief of “it’s time we stop glorifying games that glorify abuse”.  

The game also cuts no corners with its set and color design. While playing, Wren noted how diverse the landscapes were in the game as we went from a wooded forest, to an open field at the base of a mountain, and then underground to a cyberpunk-style bunker that had been long abandoned by the character’s ancestors. Visually, Horizon Zero Dawn is one of the most stunning games I have ever played and the fact that there is a gameplay mode that is ‘story only’ cements my belief that the game developers are inviting players to choose that option to explore the world without fear of character death even if they are the kind of gamer that enjoys playing on the most difficult settings.  

Wren and I discussed while playing the misconceptions of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ ways to play open-world games, since I said that I typically like to explore the places that are most visually appealing, gather up every resource I can find, but then never use those resources appropriately to take down the tougher enemies. After all, isn’t it more fun to shoot a weak, little arrow at a gargantuan machine and run for your life as it chases you down? Regardless, the many ways that open world games can be played is a conversation worth having – and how player identities might factor into how one chooses to play a game as vast as Horizon Zero Dawn. Scholars like Melissa Kagen have done similar and better work than I can give justice in a blog post, so you can follow the link here to see her work on gendered play. 

Lastly, although Horizon Zero Dawn has plenty of room for improvement in terms of accessibility, the original PS4 release was criticized as not being entirely accessible due to its lack of ability to remap control settings and how the gameplay demands the player to use every button on the controller during combat. In its PC-based re-release, it was redesigned to be more accessible and a full review can be seen here. 


Casey James

One Comment

  1. I enjoyed this post, Kelly. It makes sense to frame it, in part, as following from our experience with The Witcher III, and I particularly like how you articulate the contrast through how conflict is scripted in HZD to allow intervention and multiple approaches.

    The comment about the “Story Only” mode stood out to me and I’d like to hear more, both about how it works in this game distinctively to accomplish what you suggest, but also how doing that contributes to the ways in which HZD pushes back against some of the structural sexism we talked about for The Witcher III.

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