Taking place just six months after Aloy defeats the corrupted Hades AI in Horizon Zero Dawn, Horizon Forbidden West is a direct chronological sequel that expands on Zero Dawn‘s groundwork. Forbidden West is bigger in every possible way, from the narrative ambition to map size to collectible items to the number of machines, weapons, and mechanics. More often than not, this works to its detriment. In multiplying the scope of the world, Horizon Forbidden West also magnifies the problems inherent in its narrative. Because it reproduces real-world politics in a way that is at odds with what the story is trying to say, Horizon Forbidden West presents a disjointed story with incohesive worldbuilding.
Compared to Horizon Zero Dawn, Horizon Forbidden West offers dozens of outfits, weapons, and cosmetics that give players an illusory sense of authorship over the game’s narrative. Forbidden West also includes new types of weapons and combat skills, status-boosting foods, and the ability to grapple, glide, swim, and fly across the terrain. Hunting down various collectables and gathering upgrade materials will send players to the farthest reaches of the map; between these tasks, completing the main and side quests, and the challenges scattered throughout the world, Forbidden West could keep players busy for dozens, if not hundreds of hours.
This more-is-more approach is not uncommon in games, especially now. Open world games in particular are getting longer, with more playable content to keep players immersed in the world. But while a well-crafted sidequest can support the game’s overarching themes or create intrigue in a game’s worldbuilding, chasing down collectables and running dozens of fetch quests can detract from a game’s urgency and pads a game with tasks that add little value to the narrative. This was something that I appreciated about Horizon Zero Dawn when I first played it: at 22 hours, the main story felt focused and urgent, the sidequests relevant to keep me engaged without losing sight of the plot.
Horizon Forbidden West was significantly less successful in this regard. While a few of the quests let Aloy recruit or check up on friends and allies from Zero Dawn, the majority of Forbidden West‘s sidequests felt tediously repetitive, but necessary to complete because they granted valuable or necessary upgrade materials. Even the more story-intensive sidequests reward Aloy with gear and do little to add depth to the worldbuilding.
The collectables and sidequests aren’t the only place where the Horizon series values style over substance; it’s a problem with the story at large. Guerilla Games, the Dutch studio behind the Horizon series, has built their world on a dichotomy of the indigenous and the technological (indeed, as though the two are mutually exclusive), borrowing from each to serve a purely aesthetic purpose and simultaneously reinforcing racist tropes.
Aloy, whose Focus (an augmented reality device) and lineage give her a unique perception of the world, is one of the rare few who understands machines and the technology behind them. As such, Aloy represents a certain enlightenment: able to resolve problems and disputes because she alone can see the objective truth amidst the tangles of conflict. Evil AI aside, much of the series’ day-to-day conflict arises from the friction of a low-technology society existing alongside aggressive, high-tech machines without the resources to understand how the machines work. Occasionally, conflict will also arise from things like inter-community misunderstandings and land disputes.
These are the types of conflict driving Forbidden West‘s many sidequests, and thus, many of Aloy’s interactions with non-player characters. But the notion that Aloy is one of the few who can transgress these boundaries or the only person who can solve these problems explicitly positions her as the white savior of the game’s diverse cast, which is constantly reinforced by characters frequently referring to her as “Savior of Meridian.”
Because Aloy is often the person who is able to resolve these conflicts, Horizon Forbidden West continually emphasizes—unwittingly or not—Aloy’s role as the white savior.
Guerilla Games has clearly taken pains to be inclusive with these characters, who represent a variety of races and sexualities. As others have pointed out, though, these characters exist in a post-racial society that appropriates almost all of its aesthetics from real-life indigenous groups. None of the inter-community conflicts are ever racially motivated, but the fact that the communities in the Horizon games are called “tribes,” that their members are called “savage” and “primitive” serves only to reinforce a racist caricature of indigenous people that was created and perpetuated by colonial powers.
Even the name “Forbidden West”—part of the game’s title, but also how many characters in the game refer to the western lands occupied by the Tenakth clans—evokes a sense of Manifest Destiny, a belief in American exceptionalism that was used to justify violent westward expansion in the 19th and 20th centuries. This reliance on racialized tropes to add flavor to a post-racial world creates an uncomfortable, inescapable friction in the experience of playing Horizon Forbidden West. To be clear, these problems originated with Horizon Zero Dawn, but have remarkably become even more prevalent in Forbidden West, especially in other character’s reverent deference to Aloy as their savior.
As many of Forbidden West‘s themes focus on Aloy’s own journey of self-discovery, the stereotyping is all the more discordant with the narrative. It compresses communities into a set of monolithic tropes, beliefs, and behaviors only a few ever break out of, and also undercuts anything interesting Horizon Forbidden West might have to say about Aloy’s identity. This also contributes to a world that, though vast, is not particularly deep. It’s all well and good to present a diverse cast in a video game, but to recreate conflicts that mirror real-life struggles for racial justice and equality in an entirely different context trivializes those issues. And because Aloy is often the person who is able to resolve these conflicts, Horizon Forbidden West continually emphasizes—unwittingly or not—Aloy’s role as the white savior.
It’s a shame, too, because the tropey-ness of Forbidden West‘s aesthetic design also undermines some of its more interesting criticisms of current American tech bro culture, which players experience in the main quest, Faro’s Tomb. This quest takes Aloy to San Francisco, where a group called the Quen has set up a digsite around Ted Faro’s pyramid-shaped survival bunker, Thebes. (Faro was responsible for the plague that turned machines violent and effectively ended the world.) The Quen, who idolize “the ancestors” (including Faro and the others behind the Zero Dawn project) are there to learn more about Ted Faro, while Aloy needs Faro’s security clearance to fix the Zero Dawn projects terraforming AI Gaia and save the world.
Thebes, as the name implies, is heavily inspired by ancient Egypt. The spacious interior is dark and sleek, decorated with artifacts, obelisks, and a two-story statue of Faro himself. It is, of course, both tacky and wildly appropriative, effectively signaling Faro’s colonialist, domination-focused mindset. I also read this as a criticism of the tendency of the obscenely rich to look after their own comforts over the wellbeing of others. Above all, the Faro’s Tomb quest works as a critique of ego: Faro was all ego, to the point of allowing it to drive him to violence against the hand-picked survivors in his bunker and his eventual ruin. This is also reflected in the Quen leader, an arrogant but incompetent white man who has, believing himself the reincarnation of Ted Faro, adopted the title of “the Ceo.” His frothing idolatry of Faro causes him to recklessly explore and eventually trigger a meltdown that destroys Thebes, and the Ceo is killed, rather poetically, by the collapsing Faro statue.
This isn’t the only time in Horizon Forbidden West when the player’s familiarity with our present culture is played against the characters’ ignorance for a moment of lightheartedness. There are moments where Aloy’s friends discover rock music (“Now that’s music!”), chocolate frosting (“a ration all soldiers should have access to”), and more. This is also reflected in the food Aloy can buy from cooks at various outposts, which includes dishes like “Sunfall Maizemeat” (tamales), “Fireclaw Stew” (chili), “Ruby Sunrise” (shakshuka), and “Blood Bread” (…pizza).
And while I did enjoy some of these interactions, I do think they are less effective than they could be because Horizon Forbidden West so often uses culture as set dressing elsewhere. Rather, they highlighted how in-game culture had been cherry-picked from its real-world counterpart, particularly in regards to language. Horizon Forbidden West presents a culture full of characteristics that emphasize the tension between the past and the future coexisting, but that don’t contribute to any greater cultural meaning within the world. Why does Aloy’s society call cactus “desert spikestalk” but know the word “cheese”? These types of compounds—blastsling, slaughterspine, purgewater, boltblaster, shellsnapper, fiberzest—are everywhere, to the point that they became a running joke in my apartment.
Eventually this style of nomenclature grew grating. (Greenswell, snapmaw, spikesnout, metalbite, stickpaste… there are so many examples.) Perhaps there is an in-game reason for this that has to do with the humans who occupy Earth being born in a cryostorage and child-rearing facility. However, the naming conventions and its characters’ lack of knowledge also felt like a joke at the expense of their ignorance that reinforced the idea that these communities are “primitive.” I felt like Horizon Forbidden West never earned these tongue-in-cheek jokes, not in the Faro sidequest, the food, or otherwise; rather, it created a sense of dissonance in that the game was taking itself too seriously and not seriously enough. The gravity with which Horizon Forbidden West treats its story is frequently at odds with the way it treats the culture that it relies on to carry its worldbuilding.
It’s frustrating that Horizon Forbidden West has doubled down on its racist tropes and white saviorism, because in doing so it also undercuts the credibility of anything it might be trying to say with its story. All of the choices in the game—both narrative and mechanical—present conflicting ideas of authorship and identity, resulting in worldbuilding that flattens its populations into a series of generalizations. It’s a shame, too, because Guerilla Games has clearly taken care to treat side characters with compassion and to include and portray nonwhite features respectfully. It’s too bad that this care doesn’t go further than skin deep.
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.