Days after Moonlight – a film about the internal struggles of a young gay black teen living in poverty-riddled Miami – won the Oscar for Best Picture, the videogame industry countered with Horizon Zero Dawn. It’s a game about killing robot dinosaurs, and takes itself seriously.
The comparison isn’t fair. Hollywood recently gave us eight Fast and the Furious movies and at some point in their muddled history, Transformers brought in robot dinosaurs too. The dichotomy between mediums is interesting though. It’s as easy to point at indies like Moonlight as it is big studio efforts such as Arrival in discussing cinema’s richness. Even Transformers bloated into a right wing exercise in anti-government paranoia. Point at high dollar big studio videogames and they never dare shake their childish escapist allure or addiction to power fantasies. If they say something, it’s clouded by their juvenile exteriors.
Horizon is among their worst, an absolutely derivative, familiar piece of technologically impressive decoration, taking 30 hours of sameness to tell a story of limited consequence. Although presenting a chronicle of self-discovery in the face of religious bigotry, Horizon’s overstetched, boring nonsense quickly drops any pretense of cerebral dialog. Collecting things takes precedent and it’s not worth collecting to see this straight-faced story through. No satire, no laughs at the absurdity of it all.
Protagonist Aloy, one letter away from a bad metallic pun, earns her credibility with scattered tribes and enters a world where walking long distances is considered purposeful play. After walking, stab/shoot robots, collect, walk some more. On the underside might be that narrative. Too often it’s lost in videogaming’s crudest illness – follow the waypoint set somewhere on a map stretched so far, a marketing team can boast about the scale whether it’s banal or not. The showmanship of alluringly real rivers and forests works only in the sense of how great this all looks in trailers. You can cleanly differentiate cloth from leather, and hair whips around strand by strand. It’s pretty.
No matter her physical textures, Aloy isn’t a sensible heroine. She doesn’t make sense in this place or this context. Her entire childhood and teenage years were spent toiling away as a cultural outsider, suddenly leaping at the chance to help those who continue to disparage her. Horizon adds dialog trees. They’re wasteful – actual narrative consequence isn’t worth the effort to be a bitch.
Barry Jekins directed Moonlight, Dennis Villeneuve Arrival, Michael Bay Transformers. Their work is recognizable by its look and style. Who directed Horizon? It’s not clear by playing. Despite the immeasurable talent and incalculable level of time involved in making Horizon, the checkmark approach to design leaves the game devoid of personality or recognizable touch. Horizon spends millions on assets (created by master digital craftsman) that sit effectively unused in a world a majority of buyers will never see in totality because there’s so much of it. Too much of it, rather, and all of it identity-less.
If there’s progress, it’s through inclusiveness. It’s as if the industry sat up in unison and shouted, “Women!” That’s good, if representation alone is not a total answer. Doing something that matters with gender or race, as a Moonlight and an Arrival did – therein lies the goal for the AAA space. Horizon remains Modern Videogame: The Videogame. Much of this review could have been written after Sony’s first E3 presentation of Horizon; it’s that predictable.
How beautifully boring and forgettable you are Horizon.