Nicholas Silcox
Prof. Kimon Keramidas
Science Fiction: Humanity, Technology, the Present, The Future

Essay 3: SF Media In Context — Horizon Zero Dawn

In recent years, there has been an increase in concern with the nonhuman in both popular culture and within academia. The primary motivators for the increased relevancy of the nonhuman are the emergence of two simultaneous phenomena: the ongoing climate crisis and our increasing reliance on ever-evolving technology. Both of these phenomena are commonly found in science and speculative fictions and have historically been areas of thematic concerns for s-f, even before concern for them became ubiquitous, structural formations for our culture. One recent example of a speculative fiction text that addresses both climate crisis, technological concerns, and their intertwining nature is the 2017 video game Horizon Zero Dawn. The game explores a world in which technology and the environment are understood as interdependent, networked or ecological, and systematic features of the world. This framing of the relationship between technology and the environment and their potentially apocalyptic nature reflects several key sentiments of our contemporary period. In particular, the game explores the realities of an eminently networked world, one in which there are conflicting anxieties, ambivalences, and ideas about ecology and technology. Influenced by several key theoretical discourses, including cybernetics and the recent works of Bruno Latour, the game reflects the intellectual context of our period, as well. HZD considers these various ideas within the narrative of the story, but also within the gameplay and the ways the player is made to interact with the world.

Released in 2017, Horizon Zero Dawn is a role-playing, adventure game that explores a distant, post-apocalyptic future Earth. Set in the 31st century in what is now the western and southwestern United States, the world is one in which humans live in fragmented, tribal communities with limited access to technology in the contemporary sense. The tribes are primitive in their belief systems, with religious practices revolving around different environmental elements and occasionally some of the abandoned monuments. Massive machines roam the Earth and the humans and machines mostly coexist. Humans sometimes hunt the machines for parts and resources, and the machines sometimes defend their territory but the two groups coexist independent of one another. Around the planet, there are monuments and abandoned technologies scattered about from previous generations. These earlier generations are referred to by the humans in the game as the “Old Ones.” The Old Ones are later revealed to be the humans of the 21st century.

The game follows Aloy, a woman who is orphaned as an infant and found near the lands of one of the tribes. An outcast from her tribe, Aloy spends the entirety of the game attempting to uncover her personal history, where she came from, who her parents are if she has any. All the while, Aloy discovers ancient technologies, a set of political and environmental issues, and the story of how the world was once when the so-called “Old Ones” walked the planet. One such technology, simply called a “focus,” significantly contributes to gameplay as well as the narrative. The focus allows Aloy to see the world around her as a network, reveals information, and is connected to other focuses within a network. She occasionally communicates with others who have discovered focuses. She is encouraged to set out on a journey to discover the world around her and its history in part because of a shift in the relationship between the humans of the world and the machines. The machines grow increasingly violent, attacking humans without being provoked. This change is referred to as “The Derangement,” and this forces the different tribes to employ Aloy despite previous political conflict or differences. Still larger and deadlier machines begin to appear and the situation becomes dire.

Through exploring the ruins of the Old Ones, Aloy discovers that human civilization and the Earth were destroyed by self-reproducing military AI machines in the 21st century after a virus triggered their backup energy mechanism which was fueled by biomass. The heavily armed and dangerous machines consumed the environment and ushered in a massive extinction event, leaving the world uninhabitable. As the world was being consumed by the war machines, scientists, the federal government, and tech corporations worked together to extend humanity and reestablish the biosphere. They launched “Horizon Zero Dawn,” a plan to create an AI powerful enough to overwrite the machines that had overtaken the world, execute a series of programs that establish environmental equilibrium, make the Earth habitable again, create new machines that help to maintain the atmosphere, and then, eventually reintroduce humans and other species through preserved DNA. The AI is called “GAIA” and it leads the effort to reestablish the world. However, the programmers established a failsafe that would wipe the Earth clean again if anything went wrong, a program integrated into GAIA called “HADES.” In Aloy’s time, HADES has gone rogue, corrupted machines, and by working with a different human seeking knowledge of the past, manipulated a local tribe into helping to create the conditions to destroy Earth by using that group’s mythology against them. Aloy is charged with using the knowledge she has gained of the Old Ones technology to overwrite HADES and save the Earth. She helps to facilitate collaboration among the humans and can destroy HADES. Aloy’s identity is revealed as she explores the history of the Horizon Zero Dawn project — she is a clone of the founder and principal scientist behind the project. Her name is Elisabeth Sobeck. She created GAIA, and GAIA generated Sobeck’s recreation in the form of Aloy in the hopes that she would be able to destroy HADES’ efforts and preserve the world. After the game, Aloy destroys HADES and saves the planet.

Throughout the 2010s, and really over the last half-century, some of the most pressing issues facing the world have involved the growing concerns about our relationship to the more-than-human world and the rise of climate crisis, the increasing dependence on technology and computers to accomplish basic tasks and the developments in artificial intelligence, and related to both of these phenomena, our ever-increasing awareness of our existence within complex networks of relations. We have become, in several important ways, a networked society. In the 2010s, awareness of looming ecological collapse became mainstream in previously unprecedented ways as increasing numbers of storms and other weather phenomena and continued research into the warming of the atmosphere spawned global political action to address climate crisis. In 2014, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its fifth assessment report on the issue. The fifth report was by far the most damning to date, proclaiming near certainty that shifting climate conditions were anthropogenic in origin and that without immediate, swift action, devastating consequences were on the horizon (IPCC 2014). This report spawned what would become the Paris Climate Accords, an international meeting and subsequent agreement between the various nations of the planet to reduce carbon emissions and keep the rising average temperatures below the threshold mark of 2 degrees celsius. Since the fifth assessment report, additional reports and studies have been released with even more severe and dire claims about the possibility of responding. With two years of the release of HZD, there were climate marches and strikes that took place all around the world. The idea of “Green New Deal,” a policy proposal that imagines reconfiguring the economy around green energy and technology as inspired by FDR’s New Deal programs, becomes a mainstream element of American political discourse. Within HZD, the destruction of the Earth is intended to reference the anticipated conditions of climate change as the robots that consume the Earth do so because biomass is a fuel source for them. The collapse takes place late in the 21st century. This parallels the climate crisis in that the consumption of fuel sources is considered the primary motivator of shifting weather patterns and all projections suggest that the potential consequences of climate crisis will be felt by the end of our century.

In addition, the 2010s were a period of rapid technological development, including the normalization of the use of technology (particularly the internet) across all elements of everyday life, and an increased presence of AI technology in a broad array of contexts. The emergence of social media at the end of the 2000s was solidified as an element of everyday life in the 2010s. This was most clearly demonstrated in the debates around fake news and misinformation leading up to the presidential primaries and election in the mid-2010s. It became clear during this period that most Americans, regardless of demographics, get their news and opinions about the world from social media. Furthermore, there is a broader proliferation of technologically mediated services and consumer activities during this period, leading to the rise of the gig economy throughout the 2010s. Finally, AI was implemented for analyzing trends and data throughout our culture. Ranging from AI technology built into our phones and personal assistants to sentencing in courts to the rise of facial recognition software, AI proliferated through the culture during the decade. In the 2010s, AI went from a fringe science and speculative fantasy to reality and an integral element of the present. Our contemporary ambivalence about AI as either a progressive and necessary step forward or a threat to security, privacy, a mechanism for reproducing inequality, or more generally a threat to human as an identity, is represented and complicated in HZD. In a broad oversimplification, the game frames some AI as “good” (GAIA) and some as “bad” (HADES). However, AI produces and reproduces the world, establishing a flourishing ecosystem and harmony in the natural world. Further, AI produces Aloy, creating a human that is simultaneously human and technological object. However, the game seemingly does not support technology as inherently progressive and utopic. The machines of the 21st century were the cause of the mass extinction event. This event happens because of human hubris in creating machines that were incredibly dangerous and beyond their control. The game seems to suggest that there is a middle ground, a place of existing alongside technology that will improve the existence of both humans and technical objects. Aloy is seen as an exceptional human because she comes to understand the machines, knows how they work, and sees them not as a threat, inherently bad, or even only as tools, rather she understands the machines as entities with which humans should be in harmony. This seems to be a comment on the contemporary ambivalences about technology and a possible path forward into the future before catastrophic consequences emerge.

HZD explores explicitly the ideas and schools of thought associated with posthumanism, specifically at the intersection of cybernetics and ecological thinking. In her book, How We Became Posthuman, N. Katherine Hayles explores the role of cybernetics in structuring posthuman thought, specifically in the context of SF. She outlines that posthuman texts are concerned with “evolution and devolution” (Hayles 281) and that the spectrum from evolution to devolution is based on a dialectics of presence and absence, pattern and randomness (Hayles 250). HZD occupies all of the different poles of these dialectics to varying degrees. The existence of the duplicate, procedurally generated world and Aloy’s status as a clone suggest a strong relationship with ‘hyperreality,” the presence of persistence patterns that undermine the idea of an original (Hayles 249). Most crucially for the contextual argument, the world of HZD is predicated on the interplay between pattern and randomness, of which information as a central premise. This is true within the lore of the world, its status as a world that is generated by AI, but also the function of the machines and Aloy within the world. The world of HZD is a closed system, a controlled biosphere that develops through the feedback between information and the computer-generated solutions. Aloy herself is produced through the GAIA’s intake and analysis of information about the status of the Earth. Within the gameplay, Aloy explores the world through a technology that reveals the network of the world to her. Though exposing the world, Aloy via the player can then make choices about how to move through the world. The machines that occupy the world respond to the presence of humans in their area, further underscoring the relationship between information and the world of HZD.

Building on the cybernetic nature of the world of HZD, the world itself is a closed system of information and response. This construction is suggestive of Bruno Latour and his exploration of systems theory in which actors of all kinds contribute to the production of culture, knowledge, discourse. Latour’s work has been massively influential for contemporary explorations of relations between technology, the environment, and humanity and the production of knowledge.

The game explicitly established a connection with Latour through the decision to name the AI that generates the world “GAIA.” Gaia stems from a theory produced by James Lovelock during the 1970s as part of the emerging discourse of environmentalism at the time (Latour 76). The Gaia hypothesis posits that the Earth is a dynamic system, almost an organism unto itself, constructed of living and nonliving matter that is responsive to information available in the biosphere. Latour has drawn on this theory as a way of explaining the environment and Earth’s functioning to develop a response to the climate crisis (Latour 86). The Gaia principle fits within Latour’s existing paradigm of system’s theory but scales the theory to planetary proportions. This can be seen in the game when the AI named Gaia produces a clone of Dr. Sobeck based on the emerging threat of HADES to reestablish balance within the system of the Earth. Additionally, GAIA produced machines that were able to recreate and regulate the biosphere after the initial collapse of the environment. GAIA functions in much the same way as the Gaia Latour via Lovelock imagines, as a system responsive to the conditions of the biosphere and the information dispersed throughout the environment. Finally, Aloy’s journey to uncover the history of the Earth and the machines is suggestive of Latour’s epistemology: she uncovers a history and establishes knowledge that understands machines, the environment, and humans all as actors and constitutive elements of the system of knowledge.

HZD, like all good SF, is ostensibly about experiences, events, and ideas entirely foreign to our world, but is an utterly contemporary text. The game reflects many of the conditions of our contemporary moment relative to ecological collapse, technology, and several key theoretical discourses relative to the nonhuman and posthuman.

Works Cited

Hayles, N. Katherine. How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature and Informatics. Chicago, IL, Univ. of Chicago Press, 1999.

Horizon Zero Dawn, Guerrilla Games, Sony Interactive, 2017.

Latour, Bruno. Facing Gaia: Eight Lectures on the New Climatic Regime. Cambridge, UK, Polity Press, 2017.

Latour, Bruno. We Have Never Been Modern. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 1993.

Milner, Andrew, et al. Ice, Fire, and Flood: Science Fiction and the Anthropocene. Thesis Eleven vol 13 no.1, pp. 12-27, 2015.

Morton, Timothy. Dark Ecology: For a Logic of Future Coexistence. New York, NY,
Columbia University Press, 2016.
Morton, Timothy. Ecology without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics. Cambridge,
MA, Harvard University Press, 2007.