It’s no secret that there are a ton of moving parts in Horizon Zero Dawn which collectively works together to weave an intricate universe into one of the best post-apocalyptic stories in video games. While I’m still quite not quite done my first playthrough as Aloy, I can’t help but appreciate how much effort Guerrilla Games put into telling the story of human civilization before the machine apocalypse. Like every good downfall, the story behind Horizon’s apocalyptic world isn’t told to the player immediately — it’s littered around the entire game world, woven into dozens of quests, data logs, and holographic projections. And the best part? Well, quite simply, you get to connect the dots of humanity’s struggle to survive against increasingly aggressive machines yourself while adventuring out into the world for the first time as Aloy.
Like both BioShock and Dead Space, Horizon Zero Dawn works to tell a single story amidst a universe of interesting characters by following Aloy over the course of her journey to the truth. Like any good protagonist, Aloy has her motivations and her personality quirks, but more importantly, she has her curiosity (which almost always seems to get the better of her). In almost every situation, when someone Aloy knows and trusts tells her to avoid a specific location for her own good, she’s more inclined to explore it than she originally was. If someone warns her of a dangerous new machine she should look out for, well, she’s just more interested in learning how it works rather than taking it down.
This aspect of curiosity is at the very core of Aloy’s character, and boy does Horizon Zero Dawn do a great job of distilling it through plot and dialogue throughout the beginning of the game’s story. Whether running through a set of forbidden metal ruins with an ancient technological device or learning how to eliminate an old war machine with a bow and arrow, the prologue of Horizon Zero Dawn has one goal in mind: to peak players’ curiosity. By doing so, Horizon opens the door to a detailed archive of information which can then be used to solve the greatest mystery of the entire game: What exactly happened to the human civilization who came before the machines?
To find out, you’ll have to spend hours exploring the world in search of both collectibles and datapoints, which provide valuable insight into the world which existed before the post-apocalyptic landscap. Like logs from Dead Space and audio diaries from BioShock, datapoints are essentially short newspaper clippings which can be found across the landscape. You just need to activate your Focus and scan them into your personal notebook, where you’ll be able to access them at any time you like.
These datapoints are editorials regarding the privacy the holo-net or encrypted military communications from military leaders to their men in the field, and each entry provides a tiny glimpse into how the world worked before everything went to hell in a hand basket. What’s great is that while largely disconnected, every datapoint you uncover has a word or phrase of valuable information which you can actively connect to another datapoint, successfully bridging the gap between the two to establish a greater understanding of the past.
For example, while exploring the ruins of Devil’s Thirst, I came across a text datapoint which went into the details regarding a police SWATbot raid during which over 700 homes across the United States were raided for basically using the internet. Throughout the article Metallurgic International was mentioned, which I later uncovered more information via a set of text logs from a completely different ruin. Turns out, they were involved in the political corruption of the United States government leading up to the events which began the end of civilization, but as to what end is, I still don’t know.
Piecing together the lore behind Horizon’s universe makes me feel like I’m standing in front of a gigantic evidence board, continuously uncovering new details about a mystery that I don’t even know is worth solving in the end. I’ve easily spent five hours of my first playthrough scavenging through old ruins with my Focus on to pick up any clues I can find, and just when I’m starting to grow tired of looking, Guerrilla pulls me right back into the hunt with a scenic view complete with a set of audio and text diaries that I can fit onto my pinboard.
Honestly, the process of filling my entire evidence board has been the best part of my experience with Horizon Zero Dawn so far, consistently encouraging me to fit together seemingly impossible pieces of a puzzle to uncover something greater about the history of Aloy’s world. By putting the task in the hands of the player, Guerrilla Games brought back the sense of self-accomplishment and wonder we haven’t seen in video games for the past few years.