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The Philosophy of Horizon Zero Dawn

A warrior aims her bow at a dinosaur-like robot.

Content Note - The following article has spoilers for both Horizon Zero Dawn and Horizon Forbidden West.

The Horizon video game series is set in a post-apocalyptic future. The earth has been terraformed and repopulated after a horde of self-reproducing, AI-powered military robots escaped human control and consumed the earth’s organic matter. These robots were created by Faro Industries at the instruction of CEO Ted Faro with exceptional encrypting and no back door to regain control.

When the environmental scientist Elisabet Sobeck learned of the Faro Plague and realized what would come of it, she worked with leading researchers to create Project Zero Dawn. Together, they built an underground, AI-controlled terraforming system that would repopulate the earth once the robots could be neutralized, which could only happen after all life outside was destroyed.

The main character of the series, Aloy, was created as a clone of Sobeck so that she could access the Zero Dawn facilities to save the terraforming system from an external attack with an unknown source. The attack threatened to destroy the earth’s ecosystem by separating and agitating the part of the AI designed to abort failed terraforming attempts.

Both the first and second game are rich in storytelling, worldbuilding, and a variety of philosophical themes around technology, religion, identity, and community. I won’t be able to do all of these themes justice, but here are some of the central philosophical themes of the series that I’ve enjoyed thinking about:

📱Techno-optimism, techno-pessimism, and techno-realism

We can separate at least three general philosophical theses about the role of technological advancement in our lives:

1. Technological advancement will necessarily improve our lives.

2. Technological advancement will necessarily make our lives worse.

3. Technological advancement will create powerful tools that can make our lives dramatically better or dramatically worse, depending on how humans design and use them.

Despite being a story about how a robot plague destroyed life on earth, the Horizon series does not make sweeping pessimistic claims about all technology. Some technologies, such as GAIA, the terraforming AI that brought back the earth’s atmosphere and ecosystem, can do great things for humanity. Others, such as the Faro robots, present grave, existential dangers.

Technology also plays a smaller, yet still impactful role in the series. In the day-to-day life of the people living in the post-apocalyptic world, technology helps in hunting, learning about the past, weapon-making, decorative arts, and other human pursuits. Sometimes technology is used for good, and sometimes for ill.

What emerges is a view that technology can be anywhere from existentially good to existentially bad, subtly good or subtly bad, or even neutral. It all depends on how the technology is structured, what purposes it can be used for, how easily it can become corrupted, and how humans tend to interact with it.

🤖 Malicious and beneficial AI and the character of their creators

In Horizon Zero Dawn, the Faro Plague results from Ted Faro’s short-sightedness, overconfidence, and dictatorial rule, while GAIA is the result of Elisabet Sobeck’s sober and dedicated efforts to preserve humanity. There is a clear parallel between the characters and the artificial intelligences they created.

At the end of Horizon Forbidden West, Aloy discovers that the external attack which threatened the terraforming system came from an artificial intelligence, Nemesis. This AI was created by a set of the world’s wealthiest people who escaped earth in a spaceship when the Faro Plague struck. Nemesis was built to digitalize and immortalize the minds of these people, but it grew sentient and vengeful, destroying the space colony.

While even the best-intentioned designers can create systems and train artificial intelligences in ways that still lead to harm, the Horizon series suggests that the characters and purposes of AI designers have a clear and direct impact on whether the AI is beneficial or detrimental to humanity. Selfishness, recklessness, and a lack of humility are a poor basis for designing anything well, let alone systems that could impact millions of people.

💵 Ego, financial incentives, power structures, and negligence

Character alone, however, is not enough to explain the events in the Horizon series. Notably, most of the negative, large-scale impacts of technology in the series are caused by large corporations, the exceedingly wealthy, and those who are least likely to directly face the consequences of their actions.

In the game, CEOs seek out wealth, sometimes ignoring key ethical problems. Those CEOs tend to be seen as geniuses when their technologies become commonplace. With their prestige, wealth, and position, others find it harder to speak up against them. Or, if they do, their warnings are unheeded or directly covered up. This cycle demonstrates a failure to properly respond to concerns beyond the immediate future, supported and upheld by corporate power structures.

At the same time, the game asserts that those in power can choose to do the right thing, even if it’s hard. The conclusions seem to be that certain power structures can impede accountability but that individuals must still act to hold themselves and others accountable for their actions.

📖 Religion, meaning, and integrating technology into human storytelling

One of the most striking features of the Horizon series is the complex worldbuilding of each distinct tribe. Each group has their own central narrative, borne out of their experience with the technologies that have shaped their lives.

The Nora are matriarchal and worship the All-Mother, who is incarnated in a sacred mountain. That mountain houses a GAIA facility that the Nora came out of when the earth was repopulated. The Utaru worship the land-gods—the machines who tend their fields and bring them crops, singing songs in their honor and caring for them when they are malfunctioning.

While Aloy discovers the origins of these various religious traditions by uncovering ancient ruins and relics, Aloy often helps return central artifacts to religious practitioners and finds herself shaped by Nora traditions in her search for her mother. Religious meaning is central to many of the game’s core characters, including Aloy herself.

At the same time, the different religious traditions are not treated as infallible. The Carja’s Red Raids to collect human sacrifices were deeply immoral, and the Utaru leaders are too slow to act to preserve their community because of their religious commitments. Even still, these sins are contested and atoned for through religious reckonings and a rearticulation of core beliefs.

The game’s conclusions seem to be that technology does not mean the end of religion, that human storytelling and meaning-making is a basic part of our humanity, and that religious thinking does not guarantee good or right action. Like technology, religious structures and communities can do great good or great evil depending on their leaders, their beliefs, and their power structures.

🧬 Human free will, genetic makeup, and the importance of community

Another theme that emerges more clearly in Horizon Forbidden West is that of human free will. As Aloy goes about her journey, learning more about Elisabet and the differences and commonalities between them, she also encounters Beta, another Elisabet clone made by the people who escaped the Faro Plague in space.

Beta is markedly different than Aloy. While Aloy is brave, decisive, and relentlessly determined, Beta is scared, indecisive, and afraid to act. The two have deep conflicts over this gulf in character traits, with Beta wondering why she can’t be more like Elisabet.

There are key differences in the histories of the two Elisabet clones. While Aloy was an outcast in the Nora tribe because she did not have a mother, she was taken in by Rost, who loved her deeply as a father and trained her as a warrior.

Beta, however, was created as a pawn to be used to acquire GAIA. She was largely left to herself and was not treated as an equal by those around her. Beta only begins to change and find her courage once she learns to trust and rely on Aloy and her friends.

These characters suggest that genetic makeup does not determine who we are as people and that our communities and relationships are integral to the development of our identities. Loving, supportive people and communities can make a huge difference in how our lives turn out.

😇 The unsettling nature of a character who does everything for everyone

While I was playing Horizon Forbidden West, I noticed a theme that the game only partially touched on. In the main quest, Aloy tries to bear the entire burden of saving the world by herself. Her friends intervene to try to help her, but she brushes them off again and again. By the end of the game, however, Aloy has learned to let her friends help her.

This theme fell flat in just about every other quest. Aloy travels around the world by herself, helping every soul who has a problem and doing all the leg work for the personal quests of other characters. This is the general structure of open world games, and it’s hard to create the right player experience without a host of smaller quests and errands.

After a while, I was mildly horrified. Why aren’t there more people coming to help Aloy? Why can’t some of these other people stick their own necks out to help? It really feels like Aloy has an unhelpful savior complex which compels her to help everyone she possibly can. But that’s an unachievable, inhuman burden that leaves Aloy without adequate support herself.

🌍 Conclusions

If the Horizon series has a central critique, it’s not a critique of technology itself but instead of the tech industry and of the moral character of the wealthiest among us. If there is a call to action, it is not a call to return to primitivism but to instead to harness the power of technology to meet human needs and even remediate the problems we have caused, notably those we are now facing and will continue to face related to climate change.

The series concludes that technology can change the world dramatically, for better or for worse. We need to think carefully about the potential impacts of the technologies around us as well as what safeguards we should put in place to prevent harm. Once we recognize that harm has been done, we need to take responsibility and act to repair that harm.

What other themes did you find in the Horizon series? Let me know in the comments.

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