The following will contain spoilers for Horizon Zero Dawn and Horizon Forbidden West.
As a gay man born and raised in the Bible Belt, I’ve spent much of my life pushing back against weaponized Evangelicalism. In my teenage years to early adulthood, I was told to listen earnestly to people who said my existence was an abomination to a god I didn’t believe in. As I grew older, I came to terms with the cognitive dissonance that comes with trying to fit new information into the framework of any religion, and severed myself from the people and the debates they clung to.
Because of that distance, I’ve had relative peace with religion in my adulthood, but people using it as a weapon to halt progress hasn’t stopped. This can be socially, as those beliefs are often at the root of arguments against the bodily autonomy of those seeking an abortion, the go-to pushback against same-sex marriage, and often used to justify gun-related violence as not only inevitable but also meaningful in some grand plan by a higher being who watches it happen. It also has affected scientific and medical communities, as religion has acted as a crutch for those unwilling to explore the very basis of the world we live in beyond a certain framework. That frustration I have with the real world is similar to Aloy’s own aggression toward Horizon Forbidden West’s ingrained belief systems. Where some see an unlikeable, often outright cruel heroine stomping on people’s beliefs as she tries to save the world, I see a woman who can’t remove herself from these fights as I once did, and is willing to take a battering ram to them if she has to.
One of the moments in Horizon Zero Dawn that has stuck with me over the past five years is a scene early on where Aloy, alongside Teersa — a high matriarch of the Nora tribe Aloy belongs to — activates a door that scans her biometrics. As the machine roars to life, Teersa falls to her knees and starts praising it as a deity. The Nora believe this door and its automated voice are a Goddess, while the player and Aloy understand it’s just…a door. These kinds of misunderstandings are central to the world of the Horizon series, as well as Aloy’s place as an enlightened but isolated individual. The spirit of that scene was central to my time in Horizon Forbidden West. By the time we reconvene with her in the sequel, she’s bearing the weight of truth in a world of people unwilling to help her carry it.
In Horizon Forbidden West’s opening section, Aloy is accompanied by her friend Varl as she searches for a backup of GAIA, an artificial intelligence meant to facilitate Project Zero Dawn’s terraforming tech and rebuild Earth after humanity’s extinction. After exploring a long-abandoned facility, we find that GAIA isn’t here, but in her place is a decoy. Aloy is naturally angry, but Varl arrives in awe of the “goddess,” oblivious to Aloy’s distress. She lashes out, tells him it’s not a goddess — it’s a piece of technology and it’s not what she needs to save the world. Varl later recommends Aloy to work on her diplomacy because she won’t win over anyone’s favor by trying to tear them down for their beliefs.
But as I kept moving through Horizon Forbidden West, those same beliefs and misconceptions weren’t just disagreements I had with the citizens I came across. Instead, they actively harmed people and served as roadblocks on my mission to save the planet.
There’s a point in the main quest where Aloy must access an area forbidden by the Utaru tribe. When she goes to reason with their leaders, they stick their heads in the sand and deny her entry into a facility that can help her save them. They believe their death would have some grander meaning to gods Aloy knows are simply machines. Trying to reason with them is an agonizing moment where she is dismissed as simply being intolerant of their culture. And you know, that’s fair. For as much as Horizon doesn’t interrogate the imagery of a white woman dressed in what looks distinctly like indigenous clothing, it at least understands that Aloy’s cultural insensitivity is evocative of the same crimes against the people the game already appropriates.
These conflicts appear on a smaller scale in side quests and character stories, such as The Twilight Path quest, where a leader of a Shadow Carja group holds up his people in a dangerous area while he prays and meditates toward a crashed Stormbird. What he believed was a sign from a god is just a machine that crash landed in their proximity. Zo, a new character in the sequel, is a Gravesinger who soothes people nearing their end. When she and Aloy meet, she’s attempting this on a machine, but Aloy is able to use her technology to scan the robotic beast and address a malfunction accordingly in order to save it. For all the inner peace the religions of Horizon Forbidden West bring to its people, they often blind them from a true understanding of the world around them.
Despite its cynicism toward religion, Horizon Forbidden West does have moments where individuals are willing to take that terrifying step into enlightenment. Upon seeing what Aloy accomplishes with her tech, Zo becomes more open to learning the truth and joins her team as a result. Moments of anger I felt toward world leaders who were deluded into believing an AI was a god were juxtaposed with fan-favorite characters like Erend rocking out to 21st-century music, finally willing to let go of long-entrenched belief systems and grow curious about the world in new ways, even if it hurt to get there.
But those moments of clarity can only follow if someone like Aloy is there to push people in the right direction, and sometimes a little more than a push is necessary. In high school, I sat in a classroom where a debate about queer people’s humanity was made into a lesson plan, with one side of the room repeatedly referencing a religious text I didn’t believe in. My own family members touted the same hateful talking points over dinner while forcing me to attend church, where my lifestyle was used as a cautionary tale of a sinful life. Eventually, I started lashing out. I became resentful that people who used stories written in books I didn’t believe in held so much power over my life. Those years were some of my darkest, as I could only see these people as obstacles to my own happiness and a better world. I still fall into that darkness sometimes, but I try harder to believe in people, even if I don’t believe in the gods they devote themselves to.
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I get why some might be off-put by Aloy’s crass dismissal of others’ beliefs. But the more I explored Guerilla Games’ world, the more I understood and even sympathized with her. Aloy’s position as the only person who has any true understanding of the state of the world is what makes her compelling despite her apparent disdain for everyone around her. It frames Horizon Forbidden West as a constant reflection on how religion is so often central to the halt of progress. Plenty of games are about killing gods, but sometimes there are no gods to kill — sometimes they’re just an AI, the sun, or a door. And it’s the people who interpret them and fill in the blanks with the unprovable who hold power.
Aloy’s pushy demeanor may not make her the most likable protagonist to grace a video game, but her frustrations with the world fit neatly into my own. At some point, I decided I no longer had anything to prove to evangelicals in a middle-of-nowhere town. Even so, the harm their views have brought to the world isn’t something I can just as easily turn a blind eye to. Watching Aloy break through beliefs ingrained in a society that still tries to make an evolving world fit within a fabricated framing is full of moments of catharsis and frustration — ones that echo what we still deal with today.