In addition to being about saving the world from an incomprehensible environmental threat, Horizon Forbidden West is a game that is deeply concerned with identity. Born a motherless outcast, protagonist Aloy begins Horizon Zero Dawn trying to figure out what her place might be within her matriarchal community, the Nora. Instead, she’s thrust into an adventure during which she alone must prevent a malignant AI from destroying the world. Throughout Horizon Zero Dawn, Aloy’s search for her place in the world becomes a major theme, something that persists throughout Horizon Forbidden West. The focus on Aloy’s identity is discordant with Horizon Forbidden West‘s ideas about authorship, creating an overall disjointed experience.
At the climax of her journey in Horizon Zero Dawn, Aloy learns that she is a clone of Elisabet Sobeck, the scientist who led the Zero Dawn program. As such, she is essentially a genetic key; her gene print, the same as Elisabet Sobeck’s, is what has allowed Aloy to access Zero Dawn facilities scattered throughout the world.
Because she is the only person who can access these facilities, most of the responsibility for saving the world falls on Aloy. Being one of the few humans who understands technology and carrying the daunting burden of saving the world further isolates Aloy from the various tribal communities that populate Horizon’s apocalyptic world. Though she meets allies and receives help along the way, by the end of Zero Dawn Aloy only barely begins to form an identity outside of (or to use her word, despite) her lonely upbringing.
Though Forbidden West presents a more self-assured, focused Aloy who wields her spear and problem-solving skills with equal precision and power, her identity is wholly tied to the mission at hand and defined largely by Aloy’s “sole savior” mindset. Still, identity is something both games are deeply concerned with. In the most literal sense, Aloy, born from an artificial womb and left for the Nora to find, knows nothing about her ancestry. In a less tangible sense, Aloy also struggles to determine her place among communities that value familial bonds, religious observance, and compliance. She is often ascribed an identity: Savior of Meridian, Slayer of Metal Death, Aloy of the Nora, Outlander, She Who Sees the Unseen, Flame Hair. We, as players, witness the events that shape Aloy’s worldview and others’ perception of her, but the true Aloy—whoever she may be—feels incomplete.
In some ways, this feels consistent given the events of Forbidden West, which are a gauntlet of challenging problems with risky solutions and dangerous new enemies. Aloy pursues her mission with single-minded focus because everyone left in the world will die if she doesn’t; there’s not much time to pursue leisure. Forbidden West is clear about its place in Aloy’s story, and the end of the game ensures the player in no uncertain terms that humanity’s execution has been delayed but not entirely prevented. Aloy’s story is still a work in progress. Look for the sequel.
On the other hand, though, this feels like the result of a problem with Forbidden West at large, which presents conflicting ideas of identity and authorship in the game’s very design. In a game context, authorship is the idea that each player interacts with the game’s world differently, creating an experience that’s unique to them. While this can include things like customizing a character in a character creator, it also extends to dialogue choices, outfits and cosmetics, even the weapons a player might use.
In his review for RogerEbert.com, critic Brian Tallerico writes, “Everything in this game is designed to make you the author of the experience.” This is true, to an extent; Forbidden West offers players almost three times as many weapons to choose from as Zero Dawn and more than twice as many outfits. With the addition of dyes and face paints, there’s no shortage of ways to change Aloy’s look, and weapon coils and outfit weaves allow players to customize and enhance different attributes. Though Forbidden West still primarily caters to ranged combat—of the ninety-two available weapons, only a scant handful are designed for melee or close combat—it offers plenty of skill tree options to learn useful melee, stealth, and mounted techniques.
Because these decisions carry no weight in the story overall, they serve only to reinforce the idea that any control the player has over the game is illusory, and Aloy’s identity is little more than set dressing.
Like its predecessor, Forbidden West also gives players limited control over the dialogue. Occasionally, the player will encounter “flashpoint” choices that determine whether Aloy will respond with compassion, intelligence, or aggression, but they really only impact the conversation’s tone, not the game’s narrative as a whole. Only one choice has a consequence that extends past the end of the dialogue scene, and the consequence is the character dying later, in a different location, instead of immediately. This feels like an attempt to give the player a sense of authorship or control over what is ultimately a very linear narrative, as well as an attempt to develop Aloy’s personality. However, because these decisions carry no weight in the story overall, they serve only to reinforce the idea that any control the player has over the game is illusory, and Aloy’s identity is little more than set dressing.
To be fair, a wide range of weapons affords players a level of comfort in the ability to find the tools that suit their play style. For example, I, as someone who favors stealth combat, got the most mileage from Forbidden West‘s sniper-esque sharpshot bows, stealth-enhancing outfits, and coils that boosted ranged damage.
However, each weapon has a specific purpose, and I found battles particularly punishing when I used the weapons I preferred over the weapons the game wanted me to use. To return to the ninety-two available weapons in Horizon Forbidden West, this is partly an issue of size: if I use my limited resources to purchase and upgrade my sharpshot bows, I’m going to have a much harder time when the game shoves me in an arena where aggression and a short range bow, not stealth, is the favorable tactic.
While I had control over the most granular aspects of Aloy’s equipment, Horizon Forbidden West, the game, never stopped reminding me that it is a game, and that I was there to play the game. The game never stopped reminding me that I was there to play because Aloy continually told me how. During combat she reminded me to target my opponent’s weak points and frequently commented on what type of arrows would (or wouldn’t) work against them. When I idled too long during a quest, enjoying Guerilla Game’s gorgeous environments, Aloy would not-so-subtly say, “Maybe my Focus can pick something up.” Despite the breadth of weapons and skills, I couldn’t help but feel that Horizon Zero Dawn expected me to play in a certain way.
As odd as it sounds, the lack of control I had in Horizon Zero Dawn was one of my favorite aspects of the game. I liked the more limited design and smaller scope because it made the story feel urgent and focused in a way I’ve rarely experienced in open world RPGs. Forbidden West‘s plot is still urgent, but a lot less focused. Often, I felt like I was on a tour where I could get off and walk around, but I also had a schedule to keep and twenty other stops to make. Quests that should have interested me felt tedious, an excuse to send me to the edges of the world. In many ways, this feels like the natural evolution of maximalist open world game design, with settlements, quests, and markers covering every corner of the map. Horizon Forbidden West isn’t shy about its lineage; the addition of a tabletop strategy game called Machine Strike reminded me of my time playing Gwent in The Witcher 3, the addition of gliding and more climbing pathways feels like it was borrowed from Breath of the Wild.
The authorship that Forbidden West extends its players has caveats: you can play the game on the game’s terms. Unlike The Witcher 3 or Breath of the Wild, where much of the joy of play comes from figuring out how to solve a problem—beating a boss, reaching a new location, discovering a sidequest—within the rules of game’s world, Horizon Forbidden West will tell you exactly how to solve the problem. The player simply needs to be skilled enough to solve it.
While there’s nothing inherently wrong with an open world game or a more linear game, Horizon Forbidden West’s attempt to maximize both created a disjointed experience between the play, narrative, and themes of the game. Forbidden West‘s attempts at extending players authorship only drew attention to how little control I had over the play style; that players are constantly told how to play felt directly at odds with the theme of Aloy’s search for identity and place in the world. It felt, as non-player characters were so eager to do with Aloy, like being ascribed an identity that never quite felt comfortable.
Madison Butler is Sidequest’s self-proclaimed jock editor. She co-founded the blog Critsumption and once got really into powerlifting via Fitness Boxing for the Nintendo Switch. She tweets at @_maddilo.