The following contains spoilers for Horizon Zero Dawn.
About an hour into the post-apocalyptic robot dinosaur hunting simulator Horizon Zero Dawn, the protagonist, Aloy, commences a coming of age ritual. On the cusp of The Proving, the trial which will elevate her from despised outcast to proud Brave of the Nora tribe, Aloy and the other hopefuls light a lantern to seek blessings from their patron deity, the All-Mother. The hopefuls are told by their Matriarchs that they also light these lanterns to honour their own mothers, who gave them to the world.
Aloy doesn’t have a mother; at least, not one we know much about at this point. The story has alluded to her mother being either missing or dead since Aloy was a baby, leaving her to be adopted and raised by fellow outcast Rost. Inhabiting the traditional Obi-Wan role, Rost spends the opening hour of the game – which spans the better part of two decades in-universe – teaching Aloy how to hunt, gather resources and survive in the world. The player follows this bonding journey between surrogate father and daughter, culminating in Rost pushing Aloy into undertaking The Proving, despite knowing that once she becomes a Brave he will never see her again. With this in mind, the Matriarchs prompt the hopefuls to dedicate their lantern-lighting to their mothers. The game then gives the player three dialogue options about who to dedicate the lantern to. The obvious choice for Aloy would be to dedicate hers to Rost. After all, he raised her to be a hunter and a survivor despite never knowing why Aloy was cast out. Aloy wouldn’t be undertaking The Proving if not for him. The player also has the choice of uncertainly offering the lantern to Aloy’s absent mother, even if Aloy has no idea whether her mother still lives.
The final option is for Aloy to dedicate the lantern to herself. This option doesn’t disregard all that Rost has done for her – the game makes it clear throughout that his love for and upbringing of her is never far from her thoughts – nor is it played as a vain or selfish choice. Aloy simply states that she will find the answers she seeks, taking charge of her own destiny. Rather than honour a parental figure, Aloy chooses to honour herself, stating that “This is for me, for all I did to get here, and the answers I’ll get after I win The Proving”. Noted feminist author bell hooks argues that ‘[i]f any female feels she need anything beyond herself to legitimate and validate her existence, she is already giving away her power to be self-defining, her agency’ (2000, p. 95). Though hooks was referring more to the sexual liberation of women from men and society in that particular passage, the core idea is one that affirms the kind of self-affirming choice that Aloy makes.
Aloy’s simple, assertive choice – affirming her sense of agency – foreshadows a lot of the feminist qualities which make Horizon Zero Dawn such a fantastic game.
When I use the terms feminist and feminism here, I’m ultimately referring to the ideology of advocating women’s rights in order to secure equality for all genders. In her paper ‘Defining Feminism: A Comparative Historical Approach’ (1988), Karen Offen investigates how feminism is a term ultimately situated in a history of female protest against male-dominated control. After exploring some of this history, Offen comes to a historically-influenced definition of feminism (pp. 151-152), seeing that:
[F]eminism emerges as both an ideology and a movement for sociopolitical change based on a critical analysis of male privilege and women’s subordination within any given society… Feminism is necessarily pro-woman. However, it does not follow that it must be anti-man… Feminism makes claims for a rebalancing between women and men of the social, economic, and political power within a given society, on behalf of both sexes in the name of their common humanity, but with respect for their differences.
With this in mind, I want to take a look at how Horizon Zero Dawn is an inherently feminist game, which aims to quietly and effectively depict the kind of gender rebalancing Offen describes without drawing obvious attention to it, and to normalise that equality.
Though there’s a lot to be said about the game’s narrative in general, its inclusive nature deserves special attention. This is the first time in a long time where I’ve played a game which takes these equalising factors as read, rather than spotlighting them as subverting real world social norms. There are a host of NPCs and background characters from a diverse range of ethnic and gendered backgrounds, and outside of one or two minor examples there isn’t a substantial focus on distinguishing or discriminating against characters based on their race or gender. Not only is Aloy a feminist protagonist who is empowered by her agency, but equality is ingrained in the social fabric of the game’s world.
It’s made clear early on that women possess significant authority in the world of Horizon Zero Dawn. In broad strokes, characters worship the powerful All-Mother. Aloy’s tribe, the Nora, is governed by female elders, and is referred to as a respected, if isolated, society. The Nora are led by a trio of wise Matriarchs, their lands are all named after parts of the Mother (Mother’s Heart, Mother’s Crown, etc) and their rituals, including The Proving, are dedicated to honouring the life given to hopefuls by their maternal figures. In terms of micro details, the game’s world is populated by numerous empowered female characters. Of particular note is the stern and martially-proficient Sona, the military chief of the Nora. Sona is an intelligent, bold and strategic leader, who possesses agency and is itinerantly respected by other characters.
Female characters are rarely undermined or questioned because of their sex, and when they are the implications are positioned as negative. The player doesn’t encounter the kind of boorish characters who feel the patriarchal need to assert control over or objectify women, characters who are common in many other video games. Aloy herself is not overly sexualised, wearing various tribal armours which do not work to objectify her physical attributes or render her an object of the male gaze. According to research conducted by Hillary Pennell and Elizabeth Behm-Morawitz in 2015, viewing the heroine of a narrative as sexualised or objectified ‘is associated with decreased egalitarian gender role beliefs’ (p. 213). By avoiding this pitfall and not making Aloy and the majority of the female cast into objects of sexual objectification – a fate which has befallen a number of prior video game heroines – the narrative maintains credibility as an egalitarian, gender-equal game.
By and large, Horizon Zero Dawn does not try to distinguish Aloy’s power as notable for anything other than her talents and abilities as a Seeker of the Nora tribe, as opposed to singling out her gender. Although the virtues of being a woman are nonetheless highlighted and revered by the game, Aloy is seen as a strong person, rather than a strong woman, as the latter is seen to be commonplace rather than an exception. On the rare occasion that somebody does slight Aloy – usually for her prior status as an outcast – their behaviour is swiftly condemned. A male guard reports an ambush to his commander, who then asks (rather than tells) Aloy to investigate. The guard gives his report to the commander while ignoring Aloy, prompting the male commander to swiftly chastise the guard and tell him to look at and speak to Aloy as the person who will be conducting the investigation. A male war-chief earlier in the game similarly belittles Aloy as an outcast, before she immediately asserts her Seeker authority and puts him in his place.
On the subject of outcasts, the one major exception to Horizon Zero Dawn‘s egalitarianism is in the area of class. The idea of class separation – between the Nora inhabitants and the outcasts and between the Nora and the other tribes of the world – is a recurring theme which is unpacked and criticised throughout the game. This is seen mainly through Aloy’s status as an outcast within the Nora, with many characters refusing to talk directly to her when the player attempts to interact with them. One could also interpret this theme as having racist overtones, seen when several characters view the Nora as a somewhat backwater tribe in comparison to others. After Aloy arrives at the Aztec-themed city of Meridian, she ascends the steps of the palace to meet the city’s leader, the Sun-King, while an array of nobles look on and complain about a Nora tribe member – seen by them as a primitive society – being allowed within their walls. One of the first things the player sees the Sun-King do when he meets Aloy is to decry the assembled aristocracy as a host of immature and ungrateful brats, welcoming Aloy to Meridian with open arms and requesting her assistance.
The most potent quality of Horizon Zero Dawn‘s depiction of gender equality and inclusion is its quiet nature. The game’s narrative rarely trumpets the interaction between men and women in different levels of authority as anything other than normal. Gender infrequently enters the narrative’s discourse, and in the rare instances where it does there is little doubt that the game does not favour using gender to depict inequality. Social (and, by the game’s end, a degree of cultural and political) inclusion is an assumed process rather than something deserving of a spotlight.
Ultimately, Horizon Zero Dawn excels in its depiction of gender equality. Though there is power in a text signalling its intentions as a polemic against social and cultural exclusion and inequality, there is also potency in a text deciding the affirmative, ideal result of that polemic as something assumed rather than foregrounded, something illustratively shown rather than didactically told. In this way, the game seeks to normalise equality. Aloy embodies this equality well, from the game’s opening moments – when she attempts to connect with all the Nora despite her outcast status – to its closing ones – when Aloy manages to unite the world’s inhabitants in a final battle against evil. Horizon Zero Dawn is already a fantastic game, but thanks to its gender-positive subtext, it becomes something far more special – and, crucially, far more rebalanced.
hooks, b. 2000, Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics, Massachusetts: South End Press.
Offen, K. 1988, ‘Defining Feminism: A Comparative Historical Approach’, Signs vol. 14, no. 1, pp. 119-157.
Pennell, H. & Behm-Morawitz, E. 2015, ‘The Empowering (Super) Heroine? The Effects of Sexualized Female Characters in Superhero Films on Women’, Sex Roles no. 72, pp. 211-220.