When Horizon Zero Dawn first released five years ago, its biggest draw was the protagonist Aloy exploring post-apocalyptic America and fighting robot animals with just a bow and various arrows. That, plus the mystery surrounding the machines and the larger world, drew fans deeply into Guerrilla Games’ open world action-RPG at a time when the PlayStation brand was more typically associated with guided cinematic experiences like Uncharted and The Last of Us.
As Horizon’s story begins proper, Aloy’s been an outcast for her entire life. Found as a baby by the High Matriarchs of the Nora tribe, she was placed into the care of the outcast Rost because the Matriarchs believed that since she didn’t have a human mother, she would be a curse on their people. Combined with Aloy’s obsession with finding out where she came from, it’s a solid hook to set up a story of a girl becoming a hero and travelling the world (well, post-apocalyptic Colorado and Utah). But it’s the way that the story handles Aloy’s isolation from her peers all the more interesting.
Before the climactic battle against the rogue AI HADES and his Eclipse cultists in Zero Dawn, Aloy finally gets the answers to her parentage that she’s been looking for: not only is she a clone of Elisabet Sobeck, the woman who gave the planet a second chance at life during the original machine uprising hundreds of years prior to the events of the game, her birth only came about to as a plan to restore the other AI and stop HADES. The revelation feels a bit overdone, but it does its job in underlining just how alone Aloy she truly is in this world.
Being alone and an outsider is something the game never lets you forget. With her advanced Focus earpiece and the ability to convert machines to her side, Aloy’s regarded as an odd, albeit useful tool for those who need her help. (Other times, her isolation is treated as a small gag, such as the recurring bit where NPCs flirt with her and she just shrugs it off.) The only person in her travels she could possibly relate to is Sylens, but it’s clear through Lance Reddick’s pompous performance that he just can’t stand other people, and doesn’t even try to form a rapport with Aloy. Their relationship is purely transactional, as he only regards her as the final key to the answers he spent years searching for.
So many open world games and RPGs in the AAA space don’t really let you be alone, even if they’re single player affairs. Mass Effect and Final Fantasy always let you bring party members along for the ride; From Software’s beloved Souls games, while relishing in the despair brought about your player character’s often solitary trek through their unflinchingly harsh worlds, are equally built around the idea of community, and forging solidarity in that connection to other players. Even Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, a game with quite direct comparisons to Horizon, keeps Link constantly connected to the souls of his dead friends who aid him in battle. The moments where you’re gone from your party aren’t terribly long, and allies are often just a button click away.
Horizon considers Aloy’s loneliness as important as the machines she faces. The feeling of being an outsider is constant, whether it’s due to her aforementioned technological prowess in a world that is otherwise no longer equipped for it all, or just by the simple act of her constantly moving from one new settlement to the next, seeing and leaving behind the families and friends that interact with one another the. The game never outright states it, but you get the sense that while Aloy enjoys meeting people and exploring new settlements, she feels more at home being away from them, out in the wild with just her bow and spear. There’s something freeing that comes from exploring the lands after exiting a settlement, calling a mount to gather resources and explore technological secrets lurking underground, left with only your thoughts as the player, and Aloy’s, for company.
While the next game in the series, Forbidden West, will bring over many of Aloy’s companions from the first game, it’s not as simple as having them by her side changing that tone. “She still feels like an outsider,” said narrative director Ben McCaw in a PlayStation Blog. McCaw would later tell Game Informer for its cover story on the sequel how she would “discover that it’s lonely being a saviour. It actually winds up being a big part of her arc as a character… this idea of carrying the world on her shoulders.” What’ll be interesting to see with the second instalment of this saga won’t be if Aloy discovers that friendship is magic, but if it’ll commit to letting her feel at peace on her own while also having the support system she’s needed her whole life. It’s nice to have friends, but sometimes, you just have to get away from it all and take some time for yourself.
Horizon Forbidden West releases on PS5 and PS4 on February 18. Zero Dawn is out now on PC and PS4.
Editor’s Note: Release dates within this article are based in the U.S., but will be updated with local Australian dates as soon as we know more.