Horizon Zero Dawn: Imitation vs. Iteration

BY: LEWIS MEDEIROS

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Some of the people who watch BrainScratch (the ones who constantly bitch and moan about one or two specific members of the crew but don’t unsubscribe for some reason? …if you’re reading this, what are you still doing here?) might be predisposed to think I’ll “suck this game’s dick” purely because of the female protagonist angle. That’s what I predict they’ll say, although shouldn’t it actually be “lick this game’s…” you know what, just forget I said anything. Point is, people probably think I’m biased in favor of Horizon Zero Dawn and was always destined to give it glowing praise right from the off, purely because I ragged on SoulCalibur for its jiggly, busty design shenanigans a little too often or because I talk a lot about what I like and don’t like to see in a fictional female character.

Well, I’m not about to apologize for that, but it would be silly to dwell on it much in Horizon Zero Dawn‘s case. It’s not like it isn’t a marketable element, but the game is huge as hell and whatever quasi-political bickering might come out of the protagonist’s gender and character design or from criticism over cultural appropriation issues is something I’d like to put to one side for the time being. Fodder for a future BrainScratch playthrough of the game, perhaps, after I’ve researched things and actually… finished it. This is a massive open-world Action RPG, after all, and that means it’s the long haul that will make or break it. Which means game design. And oh yes, the game design. Mmmph.

I’m a huge fan of open-world role-playing games. The really massive kind. Have been ever since I experienced The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion and the original Baldur’s Gate (which was more a collection of open-world chunks, but you get the point). Even I can admit that those games have trended toward a tiresome sort of design over the years, though. You’re probably gonna fast travel around the map a lot because even if a certain effort to give each part of the map a design identity has been made, as in Skyrim and Fallout 3, there’s a definite lack of small-scale intimacy and that’s your trade-off for the sheer vastness of open space on offer. It’s a design element that also plagued other sandbox genres to a lesser extent over the years, but they’ve moved past it more gracefully since those games didn’t have to spread themselves out so much and could afford to pack themselves in more. And to a large extent, the cousin-genre of open-world RPGs — MMORPGs such as World of Warcraft and the like — often have the same problem with the insult-added-to-injury of mainstream MMO players caring too much about min-maxing and cutting down on time to give a flip about exploring much in the first place.

There’s charm in that vastness, a sense of overwhelming adventure. But in a lot of cases, it’s a novelty charm that lasts only about as long as it takes for the gamer to either decide they’re committed to an experience, or to lose interest in it. It’s one reason why many Elder Scrolls fans will point to Morrowind as a superior game to Skyrim or Oblivion. Recent games in the genre have upped the ante, though, with The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt being the obvious high-profile name to drop here. One of the reasons that game made such a name for itself was the way its open world was designed: vast enough to provide that sense of adventure and epic scale, but also intimate enough in small-scale design that players would want to explore it on an area-by-area basis rather than skipping around the map to follow their quest markers (which was still an option, and still is in Horizon Zero Dawn, but in this case it’s used to skip over backtracking, not to bypass what should be more opportunities for adventure and discovery). And it did it while minimizing and naturally disguising as much of its asset-reuse as it could. This is an expensive and highly ambitious proposition, and it’s one that Witcher 3 delivered on along with its excellent characters and storytelling. Whenever I want to talk about good open-world design, I reference The Witcher 3. It may not give you the character that you want to play as (Geralt can be a bit of an acquired taste for some) or freedom to create your own player avatar, but it’s got it where it counts, kid. It’s got it where it counts.

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It’s been almost two years since that game hit store shelves and digital marketplaces, so I was of the mind that it’s getting to be about that time for games start utilizing and playing around with what that game popularized. Not to say The Witcher 3 was the first open-world game to attempt that sort of design for its worlds, of course; it was just the first, or one of the first, to make it really, really work in a way that felt wholly confident and well-constructed rather than experimental and too-ahead-of-the-time-it-was-developed-for. Now, in 2016, with Final Fantasy XV sort of awkwardly jammed in the middle (in more than one aspect), the video game industry had graced us, inexplicably within days of each other, with two games that push that content-dense design mentality forward: Horizon Zero Dawn and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, two games that I would even be bold enough say might just be to open world adventure games what Sonic and Mario were to platformers back in the 16-bit era.

To be fair, that’s a premature assessment at this point, hence “might:” no one’s really had time, except perhaps those journalist outlets and Internet personalities who were given early review copies, to thoroughly assess the design of the games even if story, worldbuilding, basic gameplay mechanics, and aesthetic direction are all things that are easily assessed. I can tell you for certain at this point that I’m not a huge fan of Horizon Zero Dawn‘s ending (which I spoiled for myself by looking it up on YouTube), and that I think Link being able to climb any surface like he’s Spider-Man isn’t really something that appeals to me as much as the kind of specifically-designed environmental navigation that Horizon pulls off… but it might still present a unique brand of fun that I’ll grow to love as I play it. I certainly can’t give the games a score or tell you which one does what it sets out to do better than the other.

I can tell you that I’m not regretting my decision to wait until I have a chance to play Breath of the Wild on my girlfriend’s Nintendo Switch, for sure. Whichever games ends up being “better,” which may just end up coming down to what exactly you want out of a game in this genre, Horizon Zero Dawn has been an engrossing experience so far and the quality slope has been entirely uphill from the word “go.” It’s the kind of game that I’m reluctant to put down even when sleep makes my eyelids heavy and my wits dull to the point where I end up retrying the same simple stealth segment three times to get it right. I have a few niggling issues, here and there, but if the game maintains this level of design quality until the end… then even if certain story beats hit the wrong notes with me that I expect them to down the line, Horizon will probably find a place on my all-time favorite games list. And it’ll certainly join The Witcher 3 as a game I reference frequently when talking about how to do this type of game well in years 2017 on up. Speaking of which:

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…So heartwarming to see two of my favorite devs having a moment on Twitter. Anyway…

I’ve talked a lot in general terms, but what about the specifics of the game that make me feel that way? What is so amazing about Horizon Zero Dawn that renders it into this glorious advancement of an entire genre that blasts your socks off and transports you into an open world of adventure-game Nirvana?

Well, that’s not exactly what it does! That was a trick question.

If I were to describe it as anything (and it was the above Twitter exchange that sparked this entire train of thought), it would be as a game that takes a lot from other games, all of which were more original at the time, and that the only real “experiment” to be found is making all of those elements work well together as well as on their own to construct a new gaming experience out of features and mechanics that have been used before. There are a number of very visible examples of this throughout Horizon Zero Dawn. The open-world design philosophy that The Witcher 3 brought to the table is combined with the sort of vertical mobility you might associate with half of the linear adventure games of the last two generations, popularized by the likes of Uncharted. The stealth and hunting mechanics combine elements of the Tomb Raider reboot series and Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor (itself a similar kind of derivative blending of features), with the only shortfall I could name being that they probably should have taken some notes from Metal Gear Solid 3 as well; it would save a hell of a lot of stress if I could drag dead human enemies into the long grass where their companions wouldn’t spot them as soon as they turn around. Even Aloy’s “focus” ability combines some of the best aspects of Geralt’s Witcher Sense with Batman’s Detective Mode and some Metroid Prime-like scanning for certain lore objects in dungeon areas.

It’s by no means super-original. In fact, the most original element here is the worldbuilding and the characters, to say nothing of $47 million being dropped on an exclusive new IP in this age of AAA franchise-milking through sequels and endless reboots. But originality is not the only measure of worth to the gaming landscape. Were every idea totally original, nothing would ever advance outside of its franchise of origin. Games thrive off of each other’s ideas. Adventure games were fueled by The Legend of Zelda for a long time, and now that has come full circle with Zelda taking and refining what that genre produced, in some sense collecting on the debt those games owe it. And things like that happen more often than you might think.

While the industry is certainly a competitive battleground between developers and publishers, the relationship between developers is also symbiotic. What feeds most effectively into that process is developers showing respect to those ideas that they borrow by refining them into something better, something with a twist, something with an enhanced flavor that makes it feel new and interesting even if it’s constructed using certain recycled parts. This is where Horizon Zero Dawn succeeds while other titles, like Remember Me, fall by the wayside and struggle not to be forgotten by the larger gaming community. It’s also, if we’re gonna zoom out to encompass every possible derivative work in gaming, the secret ingredient to a truly stellar spiritual successor like Shovel Knight or Freedom Planet.

Jim Sterling, an Internet critic who I have a moderate level of respect for (even though I don’t always agree with his thoughts on stuff), hit the nail on the head with his description of Horizon as a “greatest hits collection of features.” But what makes that work for Horizon where it might come off as cheap for a different game is exactly what made it work in Shovel Knight: the quality of their design, the smoothness of their integration with one another. That level of quality, polish, and mechanical unity speaks to a passion for the games from which an element is being derived, and a desire to do those games and the features borrowed from them justice, as opposed to a soulless cash-in on the success those games enjoyed. Sometimes it’s out of a desire to recapture the glory days, and sometimes it’s just a means to take a more recent brand of fun in a different direction to see what other kinds of fun can be had that-a-way. In either case, the product is (usually) something special. That’s the difference between “imitation” and “iteration.”

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If I had to list a single negative out of what I’ve played so far, not counting anything I spoiled for myself and haven’t personally experienced yet? It would be the one case so far where Horizon Zero Dawn imitates instead of iterates: the inclusion of a BioWare-esque dialogue wheel. Roleplay choices are few and far between, and only exist (so far) to give you the option to add a bit more empathy, a bit more aggression, or a bit more cunning to Aloy’s ninety-percent-set-in-stone personality. All of these are characteristics that she has enough of by default, and she is so well-written and well-acted in general that what choice is given to the player feels arbitrary. This is one aspect that, wheel or not, The Witcher 3 handled a fair bit better. Yes, you were still playing the role of Geralt of Rivia, that monster-slayer from a Polish fantasy novel series, but you had the flexibility to make him your own personal flavor of Geralt. Witcher 3 had the advantage of two games’ worth of refinement to its roleplay and dialogue system, so Horizon can be cut a bit of slack here. But it sticks out noticeably as a lackluster element. The rest of the dialogue wheel’s options exist purely to give the player a choice to either ask questions or not ask questions, or else to accept or turn down a quest. If this game gets the sequel it obviously wants to have, this is one part of the game that I would dearly like to see improved on and fleshed out.

As for the rest, well, there’s a whole truckload of game left for me to dig into! But at this point, the experience has been so consistently fantastic that I’m almost sorry for keeping my expectations realistic and middle-of-the-road prior to release. It’s certainly a game that would have made the hype feel worth it.

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2 thoughts on “Horizon Zero Dawn: Imitation vs. Iteration

  1. I watch the commentaries on your channel from time to time. Enjoying reading these articles so far, but I’d say the lick joke obscures what is otherwise very interesting commentary here, not entirely unlike Starkiller Base.

    Like

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