As I’m sure you’ve all seen, critics and players alike are fawning over Guerrilla’s new open world epic. Spawning a seemingly endless parade of near perfect scores, having me simply state that the game is good would be redundant and a waste of space. Incidentally, that seems to be how a number of developers create their open world ‘adventures’ nowadays.
As of late, there has been a worrying trend of open-world games operating under the assumption that they can forgo having a strong, coherent narrative so long as the gameplay pulls enough of the weight. And at first glance, this may seem to be accurate.
For example the Batman: Arkham series. Anyone who has played these games knows that the story is simply the thread to tie everything together, and the main draw of the game is getting to swoop around the city of Gotham, engaging in the satisfying combat and stealth mechanics that have become staples of the series. The plot really only serves to throw interesting villain encounters at you in service to the gameplay. But I would argue that if you took away everything that had to do with Batman, and everything you know and love about the characters and the universe in which they reside, the game would not have performed anywhere near as well as it did. All the combat, exploration and stealth mechanics could have been absolutely flawless. But if Rocksteady had placed you in the shoes of ‘John Smith’, fighting the thugs of a vaguely Godfather-esque mobster, the game would have flopped. Because we play the Arkham games to play as Batman, and everything that comes with the character. And as much as people like to say that story doesn’t matter as long as the game is fun, mechanics without context can make an open world game seem drab and lifeless.
Thusly we come to Horizon Zero Dawn. From the outset, the game makes its intentions to deliver a compelling narrative clear as day. After setting the stage of intrigue concerning Aloy’s mysterious origins, Horizon did something I did not expect. The game did not immediately jump to her adulthood, eagerly throwing mechanics at the player for fear that they would become bored in the ten seconds without an explosion. Rather, the next scene we see with Aloy is her as a child, exploring her social status as an outcast. As the game progresses, we see her grow from an inexperienced girl eager to prove herself. to a remarkably capable hunter ready to take on the world. In addition, we learn more details about this post-apocalyptic society that has sprung up since the downfall of humanity, building a world that feels genuine and detailed. When the game finally does open up into the vast, robot-filled sandbox we were promised, every action carries weight to it, whether we realize it at the time or not. When we defeat a mighty robotic beast, we rejoice with an immense sense of pride, remembering a time when downing a single Watcher seemed a daunting task.
In comparison, the opening of Far Cry 4 is a far cry (kill me) from Horizon’s in terms of world and character building. In Far Cry 4, the game opens in a rushed, confusing blaze of characters you don’t know or care about, and a setting that doesn't even try to establish a sense of curiosity. Even at a leisurely pace, the game takes a mere ten minutes to thrust a gun into the player’s hand, establishing the absolute bare minimum needed for what could be loosely referred to as a plot. You are Ajay, there is a war going on, and you are going to overthrow the government of a developing nation because your mother implied it might be a swell idea. We don’t see or hear about Ajay undergoing any military training, but he can somehow handle a multitude of advanced military weapons and tactics, create drugs from random plants, perfectly skin anything on four legs, and has no qualms about slaughtering half of Kyrat’s population en masse. But the gameplay’s fun, so who cares? That’s the thing. Nobody cares about Far Cry 4. You can see the end of the story from the very beginning, and the only fun lies in the explosive missions it will take to get you there. Sure it’s an enjoyable ride, but the fun is fleeting. And after the credits have rolled, you’ll never think about it again.
Horizon puts actual effort into its story, using the unique setting to propose a number of questions before the game even begins. What event caused the near extinction of humanity? Were the machines involved somehow? Why are so many machines based off of existing animals? Who is Aloy's mother? As the game progresses, even more questions arise, as cultists and corrupted machines and a faceless villain named Hades serve to keep a sense of curiosity and unease present throughout the plot. And we care about them
Even the in-game currency holds weight in terms of story and gameplay. In the world of Horizon, goods are exchanged through shards, bits of metal taken from the corpses of defeated machines. This not only is a realistic twist on the barter system that might be created in such a hostile world but also serves as an interesting risk-reward mechanic for gameplay.
Not only are shards used for purchasing goods, but they are also used for crafting arrows and other weapons. This means that every time the player is forced to craft additional ammunition for their weapons, they are knowingly giving up that coveted piece of armor they might have been able to afford otherwise. You could safely take out that Scrapper from afar with an arrow to the eye-socket, but you might be able to afford those health potions if you take the risk and down it with your spear. You could use that animal meat to craft a fast travel pack, but then you'd have to hold off on that storage upgrade for your traps. Tiny details like this may seem unimportant, but tying the lore of the world to the mechanics used by the player creates a sense of immersion and ownership that too many games seem to just leave by the wayside.
I could keep going, but all in all, you get the picture. Horizon Zero Dawn is fun, but unlike Far Cry 4, it will be remembered for its fun. Because Guerrilla didn't just give us some interesting mechanics to toy around with. They gave us a world that fit those mechanics, that reinforced them in our minds, and tied it all together with a story that sometimes borders on The Witcher 3 levels of brilliance.
I will remember Horizon Zero Dawn. Will you?