Storytelling Analysis: Horizon Zero Dawn
As open world action games go, Horizon's storytelling is well above the average. At times, it's some of the best game storytelling there is. Aloy is a textured protagonist, a refreshing change from the gruff, angry men who dominate the genre. The apocalypse is rooted in deeply and frighteningly human failures and insecurities, and the new humanity that has sprung up in the wake of the old is plagued by those same fears, ambitions, and desires.
Nevertheless, after playing Horizon in March I was struck by some key areas that held the game back and kept me from becoming as fully attached to its world and protagonist as I would have liked, and I put some thought into how I would improve it, mostly as an exercise in thinking about game narrative.
1. Early game pacing.
For me, the problem wasn't that the opening leading up to the Proving (the plot's first big event) was slow, but that all the stuff between the Proving and reaching the city of Meridian felt directionless and uninspired. The path to Meridian is lined with people missing lost relatives who are discovered in ways that play out pretty much exactly as you might expect. There are no surprises, no moments that make you think "Wow, this was way bigger or more interesting than I first thought."
A good example of this is the way one of the game's side activities is introduced in the beginning. The Hunting Grounds are actually really good ways to learn helpful tricks for taking down the game's mechanical wildlife, and they happen to tie into one of the game's few big side quest chains. But the way they are introduced early in the opening area, the game itself seems bored by the concept of them. "Here's a gamey thing you can do for gamey points, I guess," (I paraphrase.) There's no indication they're tied to anything wider, or even of how helpful they are.
Possible Solution: This is a tricky one to solve without undermining the sense of just how far away from home Aloy is by the time she reaches Meridian, but I might have considered pulling the Witcher 3's trick of treating the Nora area as a small starter area and then handwaving the journey and moving the player to another part of the map, to skip some of that filler entirely and spread the material worth keeping around the rest of the world. It'd ensure that the player still gets the sense that Aloy has travelled a long way from home while also getting her to Meridian faster.
2. The game can't decide who Aloy is.
At some point, the decision was made that Aloy's leading characteristic would be "curiosity," but not the sort of curiosity that ever becomes a blinding flaw (that's left for another character); just the sort of idle curiosity that leads her to get involved in everybody's errands and ask lots of questions in question hubs.
When Aloy shines is when the game takes a stronger authorial hand, as when she corrects someone who calls her Aloy of the Nora by pointing out that she was an outcast, so she should be "Aloy despite the Nora." This Aloy is great, but she doesn't show up nearly enough.
This is, I think, what critics are getting at when they levy the vague critique that they don't understand why Aloy is taking these quests. It's because they are sensing the space between these two versions of Aloy, and they want to know why the authored version--the one who has spent her life as an outcast and developed very strong opinions about people and the world she lives in as a result, the one who is on a quest to learn her very origins--doesn't seem to feel anything or have any opinion about these chores she's doing. Instead of responding to these quest givers like a character, like a person hearing of someone's deeply felt need, Aloy reacts in many of these quests like a video game protagonist. "I guess I'd better start looking," she says without giving any sense of why this particular plea moved her, or what she hopes to learn from taking on this task.
To be clear, this doesn't affect all of the side quests equally. There are some that do appeal to Aloy's character, or that she actively resists getting involved in at first, and I think these are, not coincidentally, some of the more memorable in the game.
Possible Solution: Give Aloy a stronger voice and stick with it even in side quests. Use choices to let players flavor that voice, or ditch the choices entirely. Don't accept the dialogue for a single side quest if you can't answer the questions "How does Aloy feel about this quest-giver, how does that feeling change as the quest proceeds, and how does the player know?"
3. Story pacing within quests and quest chains.
This is an area where I see the desire to be a quick-moving action game is holding back Horizon's storytelling. Most quests play out in the exact minimum number of beats necessary for the plot to unfold, which unfortunately leaves the non-player characters very little time to make an impression.
This is in contrast to how Mass Effect introduces you to your crewmates over multiple character-centric conversations and missions, or how the Witcher 3 keeps bringing you back to the Bloody Baron again and again throughout that questline to ensure that he makes an impression on you as you're grappling with the depths of his violence and hypocrisy. Horizon doesn't take this time with any character, and as a consequence, I can't imagine I'll still be thinking about any of them in a year's time, the way I still talk about Wrex or Liara or the way I get chills when I think about Gaunter O'Dimm.
Perhaps the worst victim of this is the cult leader villain, Helis. He appears briefly in the story's inciting incident and then disappears for the next 40 hours entirely. In the third-to-last quest, he shows up and delivers a monologue that seems like a desperate attempt to make up for the previous 40 hours' complete lack of development by explaining his entire fanatical personality. This monologue continues for roughly 3 minutes beyond Aloy's asking him whether his plan was to bore her to death. Aside from these appearances and the fight in which Aloy defeats him, he gets 5 brief audio logs worth of characterization.
It's not that every villain needs to be well developed, but you need to commit to a course: either your cult leader is a visually terrifying figurehead who shows up every now and again, or he's meant to be a character and you commit to actually creating the quest beats to characterize him. Either way, it's unacceptable to suddenly try to make the player hate him when he hasn't appeared for the last 80% of the game.
Possible Solution: More quest beats or fewer characters. Optional conversations that check in with allies. Side quests that dig deeper into the villains and their motivation. When creating side quests, always ask, is there a way we can add depth to an existing character or lore, instead of introducing entirely new characters?
4. The story of how the world ended is more interesting than Aloy's story. Or, at least, the game is more interested in telling that story.
I'm not sure which is cause and which is effect here. The story of how the world ended (and how it was saved) is the animating mystery of the game, and nothing that happens in the tribes is anywhere near as interesting. This essentially means that most of Aloy's quest isn't to do or solve anything herself, but to find all the right movies about the past to watch. What saves it from being completely without emotional stakes is how closely Aloy's personal story connects to these events, which was a smart choice.
But the size and scale of this past event is also such that, in order to compete, Aloy's quest also needs to be of a world-saving scale, rather than being a strictly more personal tale.
I don't think this particularly hurts this game (except for the fact that it possibly contributes to the weak emotional stakes), but it certainly hurts sequels. Aloy has saved the world once--where will she go from here? It's not an insurmountable obstacle, but it's certainly a creative challenge for the team going forward.
Possible Solution: I'm stumped on this one. Nothing that could threaten Aloy's present could compare to what happened in the past, so I think the threat in Horizon is the right one for the story.
I think what would be interesting in a Horizon 2 would be to see Aloy find herself in a mother role, having to mentor someone the way Rost mentored her, and not getting to be the chosen one to save the world this time. I think it would test Aloy in interesting ways, while allowing a revisit of the save-the-world plot that doesn't cast Aloy as "that girl who saves all of existence very five or six years."
Another approach would be for Aloy to have to actually conscientiously build the kind of coalition she sort of accidentally built in this game, and to have to go further afield and deal with more resistance to do it. This would test the outcast's diplomatic skills and pit Aloy's sense of only being able to rely on herself against her need for others to succeed.
These are just off the top of my head, but I think it's clear that threat escalation alone won't be interesting enough. We need to see Aloy's personal challenges and how they collide with her mission.