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Sunday, April 14, 2024

We Need to Talk About That Character in 'Horizon Forbidden West'

The reviewer’s guide to Horizon Forbidden West has a number of details about what plot points to avoid spoiling. This includes one character “whose relationship with Aloy forms the heart and soul of the game,” according to Sony. It’s still early days for such a huge game, but it’s time. We have to talk about this.

Major spoilers for Horizon Forbidden West follow.

In the first game, Horizon Zero Dawn, Aloy is largely isolated. She starts the game as an outcast from the Nora, and just as she gains some acceptance from the group, she leaves the valley of her birth to venture out into a world where she’s even more of an outsider.

This makes Aloy an interesting protagonist, allowing us to learn about the people, customs, alliances, and rivalries of this world through her eyes. But it also gives her a bit of what you might call Commander Shepard Syndrome: She becomes a character who muscles through everything from firefights to political conflict with little more than a sidearm because, well, she’s the main character.

From the start of Horizon Forbidden West, the game’s narrative asks us to question this dynamic. Well, a bit, anyway. This is still an open-world video game, and those are never going to have massive, intractable conflicts between rival groups that can’t be easily resolved by pounding a table really hard or putting an arrow through one bad person.

But on a personal level, Forbidden West forces Aloy to confront her “I can do it on my own” mindset. Varl, one of her friends from the previous game, follows her as she travels the wilderness looking for a new GAIA, the AI-powered terraforming system that can heal the world. In exchange, Aloy repeatedly tries to ditch Varl during the night, a tactic he’s grown tediously used to at this point.

At one point, I had to pause the game to take a screenshot of a line of Varl’s dialog that was so blunt I could smoke it. Varl, trying once again to get Aloy to accept help from the characters that are already helping her a ton anyway, says, “Look, allies—friends—can help.”

Forbidden West is also the kind of game that doesn’t let you go too long without offering a hint about what you’re supposed to do next. Within seconds of facing a puzzle, Aloy will frequently say something like “Maybe I should use my Focus.” The hints are so incessant it feels like the game is terrified I might not immediately pick up on something.

When I heard Varl’s line, I worried that the game’s storytellers were just as afraid I might miss the point as the designers behind the game’s mechanics seemed to be. Fortunately, there’s another element to this story that makes the whole thing much more interesting.

Aloy’s Not Alone

Relatively early in the story, when Aloy first encounters the Far Zeniths, this game’s antagonists, we also meet Beta. She’s following the Zeniths less as a companion and more as a prisoner. She has short red hair, green eyes, dark, thick eyebrows, and—you get it by now. It’s Aloy.

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Or, more accurately, it’s yet another clone of Elizabet Sobeck, the scientist from pre-apocalypse Earth that Aloy was also cloned from. It’s the kind of reveal that comes across as a bit of a “duh” moment. Most of the tech from the previous game, including GAIA, is locked behind Elizabet’s biometrics. If anyone wants to access it, another clone of Elizabet would be the easiest way to get it.

However, Beta is only like Aloy in appearance. In demeanor, she’s a meek, quiet woman who follows orders. She seems perpetually frightened, dragged along by the Zeniths, instead of fighting them. Where Aloy is defiant, capable, and takes no shit, Beta seems so devoid of independence that, at first, I genuinely assumed she was being controlled somehow—chemicals, genome editing, something to make her more pliable.

Instead, it’s just old-fashioned psychological conditioning. She’s been with the Zeniths her whole life and is even physically addicted to the simulations they forced her to exist within. She’s known nothing but captivity and isolation. She’s smart because the Zeniths forced her to learn many of the scientific subjects Elizabet learned, but she seems pathologically incapable of defying anyone.

This sets up a much more interesting contrast with Aloy than is apparent at first glance. Plenty of sci-fi stories have dealt with the dichotomy between two sides of the same character. Franchises from Star Trek to Animorphs have had a good-and-evil-twin story, where one version is aggressive, hasty, and confident while the other is cautious, timid, and calculating. The moral of the story is almost always that you need both, in some measure.

But this story is different. Aloy isn’t some exaggerated half of herself. She’s a whole, complete person who made it through the first game and saved Meridian. Moreover, she’s frequently compared positively to Elizabet, who also fought for what she believed in, defied people more powerful than her, and cared about saving the world more than just saving herself.

So … what makes Beta different?

Genetically, all three characters are identical. Aloy and Elizabet lived very different lives, but they came at them with the same tenacity. Characters who know anything about the two of them frequently remark on how similar they seem. Prior to Beta’s existence in the story, the idea that genes are what make a person who they are would’ve been a reasonable read, given the scenarios we’re presented with.

Forbidden West throws that theory in the garbage. No, having the same genetic code as a confident person doesn’t make you confident. In one particularly emotionally charged scene, the game even goes further to point out (with more characteristic bluntness) that Aloy and Beta were both “shunned and isolated,” so it’s not like Aloy came from some bastion of privilege. So, again, what’s the difference?

There’s such an obvious answer here that the game has been practically screaming it since the intro: friends! Friends make you strong! Other people! Community! Support! It’s what Varl and Erend and every other NPC with above-average detail on their character models have been drilling into Aloy since the intro.

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Instead, Aloy pulls out a hologram of Rost, her adopted father—the one who died early in the first game. Despite their, let’s say, complex relationship, Aloy says “He loved me in his own way.” And having someone to help provide strength and support, especially during her early years, made all the difference.

I still haven’t decided if this fully lands. On the one hand, it’s a powerful moment, identifying nurture, not nature, as the thing that gives Aloy her confidence and strength, and in doing so freeing Beta to believe that maybe somewhere down the road, she can have that strength, too.

On the other hand, it mythologizes a singular character, one that even the game acknowledges wasn’t a super great dad, and seems to imply that having such a father figure enables Aloy to be the Super Special Person the world needs. Meanwhile, the rest of the game goes to great lengths to show how much the rest of the community she has (grudgingly) built enables her to be far more of a hero than she could be alone.

The ideas seem almost at odds with one another. We repeatedly see Aloy encounter people who now know her as the “savior of Meridian,” only for Aloy to downplay her sense of importance. Building a team out of a diverse group of people, all with strengths that Aloy doesn’t have, reinforces that message. Driving home that she’s capital "S" Special because she had a (relatively) good childhood almost undercuts it.

And yet, I feel like I’m perhaps being too nitpicky. Despite the tonal dissonance, I still found myself tearing up at this scene.

See, I’ve had those moments with myself, too. Sometimes I’m that confident, capable person I feel like I am. And other times I feel isolated and broken, like there’s something wrong with me, something fundamentally broken or missing that makes me incapable of being the kind of person I want to be.

There’s something deeply comforting about seeing Aloy tell Beta that she’s not broken, that she just lacked the love and support that other people have. So, sure, maybe I can pick nits about whether Rost is the only support Aloy gets, like a Twitter reply guy upset that a minute-long scene didn’t contain every possible variation of nuance.

Or I can accept what happens next. Aloy sits down with Beta and gives her a choice: She doesn’t have to go on the deadly mission they’re about to embark on. But if she does, Aloy will protect her. After spending most of the game up to that point trying to avoid feeling responsible for another person, Aloy offers that support to someone else.

And it makes all the difference. Beta has the confidence to go through with the mission now. She has an opportunity to trust someone again. It’s a risk, but also—as my therapist likes to remind me—it’s the first step in healing.

“Heart and soul of the game?” Yeah. I see where you’re coming from.


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