While I love Horizon: Zero Dawn, it’s left a strange taste in my mouth.
I am playing, or am about to be playing the three following games simultaneously: The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Horizon: Zero Dawn, and Nier: Automata and they all have something in common. And it’s not that their nomenclature is structured as Name: Subtitle.
All of these games are set in a future where things didn’t go quite as predicted. They’re preoccupied with the notion that the things we make, our own artifice, will not just be our undoing, but what will outlive us. While I haven’t finished any of these games, they wear that sentiment on their sleeve.
These three titles channel our inner anxiety about the direction humanity is heading. That incidents like the meltdown of Fukushima Daiichi aren’t just something that happen (and still hasn’t been fixed, five years later) but that will continue to happen at an exponentially increasing rate. That AI is rapidly approaching a singularity. That self-driving cars will start running Uber drivers off the road as they learn from taxi drivers doing the same. Well, not so much on that last one.
We as a species are aware that our own lack of foresight about the growth of our technology is rapidly outpacing our ability to ask “should we make these things.” That sentiment isn’t a new one, and has been explored in depth in every kind of media, both fictional and not. What I want to look at is what Horizon: Zero Dawn theorizes will happen to us next. I haven’t played enough of Breath of the Wild’s story, and zero of Nier: Automata’s, so I don’t feel qualified to bring those to the table quite yet.
Horizon supposes that humans will carry on after whatever calamity ends our present timeline.
That in the far future the last remaining humans will rebuild and repopulate. Moreover, It says that we’ll revert to a tribal societal structure and return to deifying nature and the world around us. That’s fine, but what strikes me about Horizon’s vision of our far future is that it suggests that we’ll never learn our lesson. Humans look to the machine-beasts around them that the “old ones” made as a means to create new weapons, build cities, and even use parts of their bodies as currency. That you trade with merchants using “metal scraps” is telling – even in our hypothetical devastated future-state we see technology as the most basic element in commerce.
The machines you encounter throughout Horizon’s world are worshiped as gods by your tribe, the Nora. Your tribespeople even wear parts of their bodies as headdresses, crests and armor. This seems to be meant to mirror First Nation people’s use of animal parts as a totemic force – that if you wear parts of the animal you slay, you are imbued with their power and strength, if only spiritually. My read, though, is that Horizon admits that we as sentient beings with comparatively high levels of intelligence will never not worship our artifice. That we’ll always look up to it as something greater than us, something we want to replace us, so much so that we wear their “body” parts while obscuring our own.
The notion that humanity will always be driven by our desire to increase our technological capabilities, even if it results in our demise, is pretty scary to me. But it seems to be in line with how our world is presently progressing. From those that deny humans have any influence over our quite obviously changing climate to the increasing mechanization of contemporary warfare, we seem to be following the path that we know isn’t good for us.
So what part of us is so inherently designed to want to make new tools and machines? Technology, for most of human history, was designed to make life not-fucking-awful. Instead of hunting a boar with your hands, which will most certainly result in your death, and therefore the death of your family through starvation, make a pokey stick. Pokey stick didn’t work out so well? Tie a sharpened stone to the end of it. That sort of growth through experimentation is what has lead us to the success as a species that we’ve experienced. But at what point does that lust to invent, grow, and manipulate the world around us leave us vulnerable to our own makings? Even if in some way we as a global society decided to deescalate our dependence on technology, or a catastrophe forces us to, how do we not follow the same path that led us here in the first place?
I’m no neo-ludite. One of my greatest passions in life is video games. That being said, I try not to enact that passion in a vacuum. I go outside. I talk to my girlfriend. I don’t use Snapchat. Most importantly, after a Saturday in which I sit in my own filth and play games for eight hours straight, I don’t exactly feel great about myself.