In 2007, I and thousands others read the hit nonfiction book The World Without Us. Unlike most human extension speculation, the reporting of Alan Weisman was more fascinated in what happens to the world following a cataclysmic event, rather than to its population. How long would it take for any proof we ever existed to disappear?
Two years later, a small team at a video game developer known exclusively for first-person shooters began work on Horizon Zero Dawn. Announced to the public this week at E3, the game is described by its creators as a post-post-apocalyptic game, an adventure set over a thousand years after the fall of civilization as we understand it. A handful of concept art pieces decorated the E3 event hall, and you can see Weisman's inspiration. This is a new Stone Age with water, forests, and fauna overgrown on the few bits of concrete skysrapers that haven't been eroded into dust and mud.
Think 'The World Without Us' crossed with robot dinosaurs
Because this is a video game by a company that's hitherto focused on a science fiction war between humans and a Nazi-like race called Helghast, this isn't an Ozymandias meditation on the futility of human progress. In this pristine land wait heavy weapons, explosions, and machines that resemble the potential offspring of a dinosaur and a cell phone tower.
You play as Aloy, a woman who seems to have broken from her tribe. She has a gift for hunting these creatures who, and here's where it gets weird, are actually machines. They look like deer and elephants and snakes and all sorts of beasts, if those beasts were designed with the leftovers from the Killzone art department. It works. You wouldn't think so, but the design is beautiful.
Now, the folks from Guerrilla Games won't talk about the machines, but it seems pretty obvious that this is a version of Earth in which artificial intelligence has taken over the planet and replicated animals with robots as a mean to preserve planet Earth. When Aloy kills one of the creatures, she apologizes but she couldn't allow it to call for help. She then harvests it for parts.
The game hints at a 'Fern Gully'-esque message
As the demo rolls forward, Aloy crafts the newfound materials into special arrows, and sets three traps with cable-triggered mines. She herds a pack of "grazers," which look like robotic deer, to their explosive deaths. The green liquid-filled packs on the creatures backs, we learn, need to be harvested for some larger purpose.
A very large creature called the Thunderjaw attacks, and the demonstration stops so they can explain the scope. This single creature, we're told, has 550,000 polygons and computational tricks that will be meaningless to anyone without a background in programming. It has heavy weapons, metal shields, and razor mandibles. In battle, we see it fire mortars from its sides. It's futuristic for sure, but it has weak points like every boss in every game. The character shoots off the launchers, then uses them against the machine.
With some well-placed explosive arrows, the Thunderjaw falls, ready to be scavenged. These materials of the machines combine with natural materials to make the weapons and clothing of the world. There's an abundance of bold colors spread across woods, cloths, and metals.
Concept art shows a more robust city that almost looks like a Mediterranean villa meets a Game of Thrones palace. It's unclear how much of civilization has been preserved or recreated over the thousand years between now and this game's adventure. And it's doubly tough to tell, thanks to the developers' hint at some untouched parts of Earth, never before seen by humankind.
Horizon Zero Dawn is a welcome departure from Guerrilla Games' Killzone franchise, which at their base level play like beefy, masculine, deathfests. The demo hints at game with a grander message about life, preservation, and the thin line between life and artificial line. I suspect the final product won't have the subtlety or grace of The World Without Us, but it's encouraging to see a potential compromise of smart, powerful, speculative thinking about our planet and the expectation of AAA games that we should blow it up.