Horizon: Zero Dawn is one of Sony’s biggest exclusives coming for the PlayStation 4 in 2017. At the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3), we received a briefing on the single-player story behind the title.
John Gonzalez, lead writer on the project at developer Guerrilla Games, said the open-world action role-playing game is set 1,000 years in the future, after a catastrophe has sent humankind back to the Stone Age. Humans are no longer the dominant species. Nature has reclaimed the Earth.
“The masters of this world are the machines,” Gonzalez said. “You play as Aloy, a tribal outcast searching to understand your origins. This quest puts you on a collision course with the biggest mysteries and the biggest dangers of this world.”
Aloy fights the corrupted, dinosaur-like machines in the open world with an electronic bow and a staff. She wants to find out what is causing the corruption and put a stop to it. Aloy is one of a wave of strong female heroes, and she’s further proof that the narrative for games is changing.
We interviewed Gonzalez at E3. Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation.
GamesBeat: What was the ambition for the story in this game? What did you want to accomplish?
John Gonzalez: I’m a more recent addition. I came in a little less than three years ago. But one of the things that drew me to the project — what’s going on behind this world? How do you end up with this unusual combination of elements where you have these awe-inspiring mechanical beasts and all this really lush nature, but with humans living in a tribal, more primitive state? That presented a puzzle that I wanted to figure out.
So world-building was part of it, looking for ways to make that something you could engage with and find that it was logical and made sense. As far as the storytelling ambition of the game, though, it’s vast. We wanted to tell this character’s story, the story of a hunter who’s very tough and resilient, but she’s not just hunting the machines. She’s trying to understand the world around her as well. The narrative ambition has been immense.
GamesBeat: She’s another in a line of strong women we’ve seen in games recently. Was there any particular inspiration for her?
Gonzalez: She sort of arose out of the world we were developing. There was no one-for-one reference point. But certainly some things were influences: Nausicaa, Princess Mononoke, the Studio Ghibli heroines, and other strong women action heroes like Ellen Ripley or Sarah Connor. It felt like she became her own characters, though.
GamesBeat: It’s an interesting combination of prehistoric and science fiction. I suppose you get the ability to surprise us with elements coming out of either era.
Gonzalez: That’s well put. It’s a combination of primitive and high tech. For this character, our future is her past. She’s trying to understand how our world came to an end. That, I thought, was fascinating. I previously worked on some other post-apocalyptic games. I was the lead writer on Fallout: New Vegas, where you have the post-apocalypse as a junk heap. This was something different, where you have this whole new world that’s grown over the grave of the one that came before.
I felt like there was a different sort of resonance to that, a kind of sadness, and a curiosity about our future. When we play this game, in a way we see what our future might be, where it’s going.
GamesBeat: Toward the end of your trailer you showed her going through a door that asks for identification. It seems like she’s discovered a place where high tech still works.
Gonzalez: Obviously we can’t get into the details of spoiler territory. But her personal journey does put her in the way of delving into some of those secrets, finding places that other people can’t go. There are places like that, buried secrets that you’ll bring to light.
GamesBeat: Some of the weapons they’re firing almost seem pretty high-tech themselves, if they can take down one of these big mechanical beasts.
Gonzalez: Exactly. These aren’t just cavemen shooting arrows. They’ve managed to find ways of hunting the machines, using components of old technology that create these munitions that are effective. They don’t fully understand how those components work, but it’s kind of like how a lot of us use a computer. We know how to use it, even if we don’t know exactly how it works. It’s the same thing with the components they harvest from the machines.
GamesBeat: It’s an open world, but are you also pulled into a linear story as you go?
Gonzalez: There is a central quest, which is Aloy’s tale, but there are also — each tribe you’ll encounter will have a story arc you can engage with. There are also side quests throughout the world, people you’ll meet that have self-contained stories. After the opening of the game, where we tutorialize and set up the character and the world, we turn you loose and there’s really nothing keeping you from going anywhere you want. You can pick up side quests and meet people and do things in any order you want. But there is a very crafted main story to engage with, and that builds to a kind of slam-bang climax.
GamesBeat: What do you think you were able to achieve by extending this further down the schedule?
Gonzalez: It’s really just commitment to quality. We feel like this is a game that feels fresh and exciting. We want to make sure that when we deliver this to people, they have a fantastic experience. Sony was absolutely behind that. There was no controversy in that respect. Of course we don’t like disappointing people by extending a few months, but we feel like that’s a lot better than disappointing them when they sit down with a controller in their hand.
GamesBeat: It seems like there are peaceful villages, safe villages, and then a very dangerous larger world around them.
Gonzalez: Yeah, that’s accurate. It’s a bit like points of light in the darkness you can go to. The wilds are very dangerous. That said, there are random encounters out in the wild. You might meet people who are in trouble out there and need some help. You can pick up content anywhere, potentially.
GamesBeat: Are you on a quest to make the world safer, maybe?
Gonzalez: One aspect of gameplay is this idea of cleansing corruption zones. We hinted at that in the gameplay demo, although we didn’t show that full experience. That’s an aspect of the game. The main quest itself is connected to the corruption. The corruption is a major event. But it goes a lot deeper than that and a lot farther than that.