Released less than a week before Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild in 2017, Horizon Zero Dawn hardly got a chance to exist on its own once both games were available. This is especially true given both are open-world games with plots driven by characters trying to save their homelands from ongoing disaster in a post-apocalyptic world.
Though critics reviewed both games positively, discussion of Breath of the Wild’s innovative approach to giving players as much freedom as possible dominated the conversation. Two weeks after the games were released, The Verge published an essay titled “Why Breath of the Wild is the future of blockbuster games” that called Horizon Zero Dawn’s design an “ode to the past.” These two statements each have merit, but, respectfully, I disagree with the negative connotation in calling Horizon Zero Dawn an ode to the past. (I also think it’s worth examining “the future of blockbuster games” statement more critically, but that’s an essay for another day.)
Having now played both, Horizon Zero Dawn’s strength as a game is that it’s an ode to past games. Its more limited design encourages players to interact with and explore all parts of the environment. Larger open world games may offer more to explore but are often less structured, meaning players get lost more easily. It took me a while to figure out why I was still thinking about the game months after I completed it. The more I thought about it, the more I appreciated it. Here’s why.
Limitations in Design Strengthen the Narrative
Horizon Zero Dawn builds on previous open world games to create an engaging setting with a compelling main character and story. The abundant comparisons of Breath of the Wild and Horizon Zero Dawn are understandable, but it’s an insult to Horizon Zero Dawn’s thoughtfully designed world to examine it only in light of Breath of the Wild. From the quest structure to the “meaty thunk” of Aloy’s bow, Horizon Zero Dawn is an example of exemplary game design. It’s a perfect example of how to use limitations in design to keep an open world interesting and engaging without sacrificing narrative.
The game opens with Aloy exploring ancient ruins as a child, which, in Horizon Zero Dawn, were part of a functional, technologically advanced society that existed in the 2020s. Though the prologue with young Aloy is the game’s tutorial section, it’s also an effective example of the game using mechanic as a narrative device. The player’s clumsiness in learning the mechanics and how to move are mistakes that would be expected of a child.
Gameplay Mechanics Help Tell the Story
Once players get through the tutorial section, the game starts to distinguish itself from other open world RPGs. Where games like The Witcher 3 and Breath of the Wild are known for their expansive maps, the explorable area of Horizon Zero Dawn istma smaller and more restricted. For example, it’s not always possible to climb straight over a mountain to the other side like you can in Breath of the Wild. Breath of the Wild’s design gives players an enormous amount of freedom that caters to multiple styles of play. There are multiple ways to complete just about every task, which creates an engaging puzzle-solving experience. However, the world is so large that it’s easy to become lost or lose focus on your current mission.
Horizon Zero Dawn’s more limited scope is one of its greatest strengths. Many open world games lose a sense of narrative urgency in huge environments full of sidequests, treasures, and hunts. In a game like The Witcher 3, for example, there’s so much to do that the overarching narrative is secondary to the experience of playing the game. Having a lot to do in a game isn’t necessarily a problem, but it can put the brakes on the urgency and pacing of the main quest. Something like saving the world from certain destruction should feel like it’s the most important thing you have to do, but can easily take a backseat to tasks that don’t have any impact on the main story.
With 36 side quests and errands to complete, Horizon Zero Dawn has a tight scope for an open world game. Most of the sidequests contribute to the narrative in some meaningful way, providing extra information about the game’s environment and lore. An early-game hunting quest like “In Her Mother’s Footsteps,” for example, teaches players how to hunt smaller machines and use stealth mechanics. This is another instance of the game using a mechanic as storytelling.
The other effect of the relatively shorter list of side tasks to complete is that it forces players to return focus to the main goal of Aloy saving the planet from machine takeover. Few side quests are available at the start of the game, but they scale up in frequency as the player discovers more of the world. The collectible quests take Aloy to the edges of the map and encourage exploration. While it’s still possible to get distracted (especially by the game’s incredible photo mode) fewer side quests and errands contribute to a more evenly paced game. At about 22 hours of playtime for the main quest, Horizon Zero Dawn sits on the shorter end of the spectrum for an open world RPG.
Earlier this year, video game storefront Green Man Gaming revived an industry-wide discussion about game value by adding a “cost per hour” stat next to the games in their store. Gamers who use this metric equate a lower cost per hour with a high game value in the sense that it gives them more bang for their buck, so to speak.
The amount of time you’ll spend playing a game may be one factor in your decision to buy or pass, but cost per hour isn’t a reliable measurement for judging the quality of a game at all. Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey’s main storyline, which took one reviewer 55 hours to complete, would have a lower cost per hour than Horizon Zero Dawn’s 22 hours. While I haven’t played Odyssey, my experience with open world games is that bigger isn’t necessarily better. Despite the prevalence of the cost per hour discussion, length doesn’t say anything about the quality of the narrative, worldbuilding, or characters in a game. Map markers start to lose meaning when they’re the same bandit hideouts or hunts over and over again.
Excluding the DLC, Horizon Zero Dawn’s playtime for completionists averages 60 hours, according to How Long to Beat. If you, like me, tend to dilly-dally, your game might clock in around 85 to 90 hours. I was able to earn almost every achievement in under 90 hours. Discussions of cost per hour aside, it’s a good length for an open world game. The collectible quests come in four sets totaling 60 items. There were few enough items in each set that it never felt unmanageable to get them all, and I never felt that the collectibles and sidequests took away from the game’s urgency. Instead, they gave me reasons to explore the environment when the main story took me somewhere new.°8
I feel this is one of the best lessons games can learn from a predecessor like The Witcher 3. The Witcher 3 redefined side quest structure by creating meaningful interactions with non-playable characters. Horizon Zero Dawn made each sidequest and collectible quest feel meaningful for the player by rewarding players with lore, upgrades, or valuable items. By limiting the world size, Guerrilla Games gave more meaning and value to the things in it.
Leveling Keeps Fights Balanced Until the End
Limits exist in all areas of the game, and they all serve to drive players through to the end. Horizon Zero Dawn includes a level cap at level 50, which is another thing driving players back to the main narrative. The leveling system matches the game’s pace, and Aloy gains new abilities from simple skill trees, another positive addition. It motivates players to take on sidequests, complete tasks, and explore the world. Once players have acquired all skills and maxed out experience, the game has effectively taken away motivation to continue exploring. The other benefit for players is that it ensures that Aloy isn’t egregiously overpowered for the final fights.
Another example of constraint as part of game design is Aloy’s Focus, a piece of technology resembling a Bluetooth headset but with the ability to project holograms and scan data. It’s evident that Batman’s detective vision from the Arkham series was an influence. Detective vision darkens the environment, but shows Batman far away enemies and other points of interest as bright orange shapes. In Horizon Zero Dawn, players use Aloy’s Focus to hone in on distant machines, people, data points, and other objects. The feature closely mirrors detective vision, showing machines and other objects in bright contrast to the environment even through buildings and trees.
However, where players can use detective vision and move freely in the Arkham games, using the Focus limits Aloy’s mobility. It neatly solves detective vision’s biggest problem, which is that there’s no reason for players to turn it off throughout the game. Even though it significantly reduces visibility, detective vision is a shortcut to objective points. However, in Horizon Zero Dawn, any action besides walking takes Aloy out of Focus mode. This forces players to interact with and explore more of the environment.
Alongside the collectible quests, Focus mode creates the perfect opportunity to get the most out of the game’s environment, from the its beautiful sunsets to its towering mountain ranges. This is representative of the synergy Horizon Zero Dawn has among all of its design elements. On their own, the elements that make up Horizon Zero Dawn aren’t necessarily unique, but the game is greater than the sum of its parts. Guerrilla Games’ iteration of other design elements like quest structure, world design, and character ability is an incredibly well-designed environment with a compelling story and main character.
Madison Butler writes about advertising by day and about video games the rest of the time. She can usually be found crying about Final Fantasy and Nier: Automata on Twitter @madisonrbutler.