Horizon Zero Dawn is a landmark of gender equality in AAAs. Aloy reps the cause so overtly that it barely even needs to be said. She's a strong female character in every way, with a practical, unsexualised design and a pivotal role to play in the story. Hell, she comes from a shamelessly matriarchal goddess-worshipping society.
But plenty of games have strong female characters. Horizon Zero Dawn is the first to take the next step, setting Aloy free in a truly progressive world.
Warning: Some small spoilers follow for events leading up to (and including) Meridian.
The strong female character has long been a hallmark of progressive games, from Lara Croft to Samus Aran to Faith Connors. These badass ladies have always kicked ass and taken names with the best of them -- albeit sometimes in some questionable outfit choices. Horizon Zero Dawn announced its intention to add its own protagonist to these ranks very early on -- though the decision to focus on a female character was sadly still seen as a 'risk'.
Shuhei Yoshida, President of Sony's Worldwide Studios, revealed in an early interview that they felt the need to put the game through rigorous market testing for this reason. "She's a female lead character," he explained. "That has always been the vision by the team, but we had a discussion. Is it risky to do a female character?"
Thankfully, this rigorous process must have been a good thing. Aloy is a great character. There's no denying it. She's intelligent, curious, kicks ass, wears practical (but gorgeous) outfits and has a face that looks like it belongs to a real person. She takes initiative when other characters falter and doesn't hesitate to tell it how it is. She's a redhead. She is progressive herself, breaking taboos and changing tradition where she sees fit.
The devs behind Horizon Zero Dawn have indicated that this was very much their intention -- that while they wanted to make a game with a female character, they wanted her to be an interesting character first and foremost: "what we have been focusing on is not if it's male or female, but it's more to figure out her personality. Make her personality really interesting."
But Horizon has something that sets Aloy aside from the rest, that sets itself aside from most other female-led games. Guerrilla Games have unshackled Aloy from the tired 'strong female character' cliché of a woman trying to make her way in a man's world, giving her free reign to be all these things and more. She still has to overcome the burden of being an outcast in a tribe of traditionalists, maybe, or an outsider in new and foreign lands -- but for once this strong female protagonist can do her thing without the script calling attention to her femaleness again and again. A large part of this is thanks to the way that Aloy's very world functions.
The Nora Matriarchy
Let's break this down, starting at home with the Nora tribe. While we know the tribe is matriarchal, placing a heavy emphasis on the role of mother and resting its power in the hands of a council of matriarchs, the Nora don't seem too fussed about gender otherwise. Young men and women run in the proving alongside each other to become braves. The tribe's most powerful warrior, Sona, is a ruthless woman of colour who will stop at nothing to get her vengeance.
But it's not just the women who are unbothered by gender norms in Nora lands. Another Nora we get to know is Teb -- a young man who you first encounter when his lack of physical prowess lands him in hot water with a herd of robots. Teb later reveals that he has become a 'stitcher' for the tribe instead -- a position which he seems to both enjoy and take pride in. For the Nora it's acceptable not only for a woman to assume traditionally masculine qualities, but also for a man to embrace feminine-coded ones.
Aloy's surrogate father Rost also embraces traditionally non-masculine roles, telling a story that is surprisingly rare in all kinds of fiction. While stories of both father-son and mother-daughter bonding are commonplace, you barely see any that examine the relationship between a father and his daughter. While Rost often toes the line between father and mentor, their bond is unmistakeably close. "We said nothing of love," Matriarch Lansra admonishes Rost in the prologue, but even by that time it's too late. Aloy even has the option of honouring Rost in a section of the Proving ritual usually dedicated to mothers.
After spending way too long meeting Nora and finishing sidequests inside the Embrace, I realised something. In more than ten hours of play in the Nora lands, I couldn't remember a single time someone had referred to Aloy as a woman. There was no "I can't believe a woman won the Proving," or "it's too dangerous for a woman." Instead, everything was focused on Aloy's accomplishments.
Outside The Embrace
This changes a little when you cross the border into the wider world of Horizon Zero Dawn. The Nora's problematic neighbours, the Carja, do seem to be the most gender-restrictive tribe in the game -- but even then they don't seem to stick to that restriction too strictly. Despite the hunting lodge's trader Aidaba saying that "Carja don't exactly encourage their daughters to run around hunting machines", this attitude is not absolute -- in fact you're soon sent to a female hunter named Talanah to try and become her apprentice. Even the Lodge's man in charge and resident asshole Ahsis has far more of an issue with Aloy being a 'savage' than he does with her gender.
The Carja do have some rules surrounding gender roles, evidently. A soldier posted in a remote prison in the southern jungles reveals that women are not allowed to serve in the Carja army -- although the soldier who tells you this, Janeva, is a woman herself. Kind of. Interestingly she's strongly hinted to be either non-binary or genderfluid in some way. "No woman is allowed to serve," she says, explaining that instead she "became a soldier". Though other characters still do refer to her as a she, she still doesn't hesitate to threaten you if you admit curiosity about her genitals.
Thankfully, the Guerrilla devs haven't used Carja culture as an excuse to skimp on female characters. Even when you pass the gates to the great wide world beyond, Horizon doesn't stop throwing amazing women characters at you. Aloy is not so much a woman struggling to make her way in a man's world, but is one of a world full of strong, accomplished women.
Women On A Mission
Not only are there lots of women characters, but all of the women in the game are distinct and different. For one, they are incredibly diverse. They run the gamut of racial features from African to Asian to Hispanic and more. The scope of diversity in Horizon is fantastic -- especially considering that Horizon's future world would realistically have much the same mix of races as we have today. They all have interesting personalities and traits beyond 'being a woman', they all have their own motivations and ambitions to make their mark on the world.
In fact it's hard to find a woman without agency in Aloy's world. Very early on, Horizon flips the overused 'fridged woman' trope on its head -- wherein dead wives, girlfriends and family members are used as a plot device to further a male protagonist's story. While speaking with Oseram warrior Erend before the Proving, he mentions that his sister Ersa was taken by the mad Carja Sun King's armies to fulfill a blood sacrifice.
But this isn't your classic dead-family-member-revenge-plot -- instead, Erend reveals that she actually survived, escaped, and went on to lead the army that would eventually overthrow the mad king. Ersa later became the head of the new Sun King's Vanguard, and appears to be loved and respected by many of the Carja in Meridian -- even though she is an Oseram herself.
Even among the Carja women you can find an attitude of change, of resistance to stifling tradition. While plenty of characters appear to miss the old regime of terror, most of those characters are men. In many cases, the characters that push back the hardest are women -- or, in the case of one small sidequest, a gay man. Take the hunter Talanah, for example. While she reveals to Aloy that she aims to open up the traditionally noble, traditionally male Hunter's Lodge to people of all walks of life, it's strongly hinted that she has already blazed the trail for female hunters to join.
In this context of change, Aloy is more than just a heroine -- she's a catalyst, a point of inspiration for women in the tumultuous Carja lands. While almost everyone you talk to is impressed by Aloy's exploits, many of the women seem not just impressed but inspired. Horizon depicts a world in flux, a world actively working for a better future even in the face of destruction.
But while Aloy is symbolic of resistance in many ways, she never feels bogged down by the sexist attitudes she only occasionally comes up against. Horizon is unapologetic about putting a woman in a position of power and prestige, no ifs, ands, or buts required. While Aloy earns the reputation she carries throughout the game, it isn't by having to prove herself against a hyper-masculine standard.
So is it really risky to make such a woman-focussed game? Not at all, if the success of Horizon Zero Dawn is anything to go off. It even out-sold Breath Of The Wild in the UK to take the top spot on last week's chart. The risk paid off, and fittingly Sony has changed its tune. Earlier in February before the game's release, Sony Interactive Entertainment UK’s product manager Jon Edwards sounded far more confident of their risky female character, describing her as "a PlayStation icon of the future."
Developers should be looking to the example that Horizon Zero Dawn has set -- not only with its female protagonist, but with its woman-friendly world. This is how you make a truly progressive game.