Flipping power dominance in more ways than one: A quick look at power politics in Horizon Zero Dawn.

The recent release of Guerrilla’s Horizon Zero Dawn was arguably a fairy tale-esque outcome both for publisher Sony and Developer Guerrilla Games. Aside from slight controversy / antagonism within fan communities between fans and fans of Nintendo’s The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (why this conflict even occurred, I don’t know – but that’s an article in itself) Horizon Zero Dawn achieved critical acclaim, successful sales figures and widespread fan appreciation.

While Horizon Zero Dawn could be argued to be ‘good’ for the video game industry at large, such as it’s fresh take on the open-world genre, higher than standard release quality and attempt to avoid some of the current (and nasty) trends in the development cycle, it is the conceptual and thematic freshness in Guerrilla’s machine-slaying action game that I would like to focus on today.

For anyone who hasn’t been following the game, Horizon Zero Dawn is an open-world action game set on Earth long after the ‘fall’ of humanity as the dominant power in favour of robotic beasts known as Machines. The story centers on eighteen(?) year old Aloy, a seemingly orphaned girl who was considered an outcast and given into the care of long-time outcast Rost, who trained her in combat and various other survival-handy arts.

From the game’s beginning it presents a complex and varied power structure; the player fits firmly within a faith based tribe culture known as the Nora, who are currently in the midst of recovering from a series of attempted genocides from a neighboring tribe / nation.  The Nora tribe rapidly establishes itself as a matriarchal society, in which the throws of nature are attributed to ‘the all mother’ a divine being said to dwell within a large mountain on the edge of the tribe lands. Human governance within the Nora tribe falls to figures called ‘matriarchs’, who establish their power by virtue of ‘speaking for many generations’, that is, power  is gained through having offsprings and continuing the Nora line.

It is in this construction of power that a subtle exploration of power and gender politics can be seen; Horizon Zero Dawn at once portrays females as inherently powerful, but similarly draws parallels between the Nora tribe’s matriarchal society and the patriarchal society many cultures in reality function under today. Through this parallel however, Horizon Zero Dawn arguably offers a veiled critique, questioning the power that males are attributed under patriarchal rule.

This can be seen in a conversation protagonist Aloy has with High Matriarch Teersa, in which Aloy questions the matriarch’s right to rule as achieved purely by having grandchildren and great grandchildren. Teersa in turn incredulously questions if a better way exists, refraining from offering a direct answer. While this conversation could be seen as undermining the power of the matriarchy, and thus questioning the political power of women generally, there is an implicit parallel between Teersa’s power and ‘traditional’ patriarchal negotiations of power, which in turn offers this question to viewers regarding the power of patriarchal societies in reality. Through Aloy’s questioning of the arbitrary nature of the matriarch’s power, there is similarly a veiled questioning of the arbitrary power attributed to patriarchal power organisations; is being male really adequate credentials for having power over society?

Horizon Zero Dawn instead offers an alternative negotiation of power, one based in individual ability and skill. While Aloy questions the matriarch’s rule generally, High Matriarch Teersa is presented as a highly capable and compassionate leader, by virtue of her persuasive and motivational skills, and her skills as a conflict arbiter. Similarly, the power structure of the neighbouring Carja clan – an imperial rule – is depicted as foreign, ineffectual and – in light of past atrocities committed in the name of said empire  – undesirable. In contrast to these power systems, Horizon Zero Dawn instead offers Aloy as a paradigm of female agency, but moreso, of individual agency. Frequently in conversation Aloy is discredited by virtue of her gender, which invariably is either refuted by Aloy’s actions, or dispelled by a third party. Instead of dispelling her association with her gender, Aloy presents a model of agency, in which her gender is secondary to her skill and compassion, both of which demand respect from characters across many cultures. In this respect Horizon Zero Dawn could be seen as offering post-feminist ideals; rather than Aloy necessarily distancing herself from the concept of ‘woman’, the concept of woman itself is presented as having no baring on Aloy’s assessment of herself.

Anyway, thanks for reading, this ended up far longer than I expected! I should stress this is purely one perception, and I would love to see what other people think of Power in Horizon Zero Dawn!

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