If you were to break down Horizon: Zero Dawn into a list of gameplay, presentation, and narrative features, it would look like one of the most generic modern big-budget AAA video games in existence. It is chock-full of so many well-tread ideas from Far Cry, The Witcher, Mass Effect, and every crafting game ever on Steam, that it took me a good ten hours of gameplay before my initial bitter disappointment wore off and I began to see H:ZD’s value. Not only is H:ZD a fine game in its own right, but it stands as a prime example of exactly what AAA developers should be doing with their boatloads of money and manpower.
All video game fans want innovation. We want video games to evolve over time. We want the medium to move forward mechanically, graphically, and artistically.
But we should also recognize that innovation requires risk. Regardless of the medium, good ideas tend to be greatly outnumbered by bad ideas, and usually the only way to differentiate between the two is to test them out and see what works. For every one Papers Please or SUPERHOT there are dozens (or hundreds) of random titles which are tried and quickly disposed of by adventurous Steam spelunkers, and end up fading into obscurity. Only occasionally do innovative games or game designs become accepted by audiences and reap financial and critical rewards for their creators.
Speaking of Steam, it’s no secret that the bulk of video game innovation over the last decade has come from the indie market, or at least the budget level right above the indie market (think Bastion and Demon’s Souls). This makes sense, and not in a “big companies like EA and Ubisoft are evil and stupid” type of way.
Rather, from an economic perspective, small is agile and big is cumbersome. Small games can afford to take risks because the costs are lessened. In contrast, big-budget games obviously have a lot more to lose. But on top of that, their profit potential is inverted. Small budgeted games can only lose their small budgets, but can potentially earn many multiples of their budgets. For instance, FTL: Faster Than Light cost a little more than $200K and has made well over $10 million. Meanwhile, even the most successful big budget games cannot hope to reach such multiples.
Thus, innovation tends to be inversely correlated with budget size, and understandably so. As much as I would love to see EA and Ubisoft dramatically change up their franchise models, I also recognize the rationale behind their conservatism. Gigantic companies cannot consistently roll the dice, especially since the video game industry already has low margins, lots of competition, and is fraught with bankruptcy (what other industry sees the sudden collapse of THQ-market sized companies?). But at the same time, we also shouldn’t expect the big video game developers to stagnate. They must continue to develop quality titles and innovate or else smaller companies will rise up and take their places.
A balance must be struck. If AAA developers try to be too innovative, they risk collapsing themselves when the occasional dud or string of duds comes along. Imagine if Grand Theft Auto V had failed and Rockstar didn’t recoup their $265 million investment – there wouldn’t be a Rockstar anymore. But if no innovation occurs within top companies then you end up with, well… pre-2016 Ubisoft. Or rather you end up with a company which ostensibly produces games with wildly different contexts like parkouring over Renaissance churches, engaging in brutal insurgent combat in Nepal, and getting hacked by Anonymous in Chicago, yet they all somehow look and feel the same.
That balance between safety and innovation is perfectly personified by Horizon: Zero Dawn.
Horizon: Zero Dawn has precisely the right amount of new ideas overlaid upon tried-and-true game design to create a satisfying $60 title which is pretty much guaranteed to make a financial return for its developers.
When I first started playing H:ZD, all I knew about it was what I saw from screen shots and trailer clips. I bought into the hype and was genuinely excited to play such a cool looking and original game (robot dinosaurs!), that mediocre early hours left me disheartened.
Make no mistake, nearly all of the mechanics of H:ZD are closely cribbed from other AAA video games. Its movement and human combat design is that sludgy stealth-action mishmash first pioneered by Uncharted but now reduced to the most basic template of “action game” design. It has an open world design and map strongly reminiscent of Far Cry 4. It has a conversation system, voice acting, and character animations strongly reminiscent of Bioware’s Mass Effect and Dragon Age. It has a massive check list of optional collectathon tasks reminiscent of every open world game ever (with the ironic exception of Grand Theft Auto, the originator of modern open world design). It has an initially confusing, but actually quite simple crafting system which requires the player to constantly loot enemies, pick plants, and hunt animals to upgrade your equipment, a system which goes back at least as far as Red Dead Redemption but is now practically a genre in and of itself in the indie scene. And even the game’s title, Horizon: Zero Dawn, is a pathetically obviously marketing-based title shoddily crafted from three buzz words that probably tested well with the 18-30 male demographic.
And on top of all of its derivativeness, H:ZD honestly isn’t very good at copying all of these designs. I suspect this is a product of Guerrilla Games, a company known solely for the Killzone franchise, operating in new design territory. Everything I just listed is done better in the games they were copied from. This is especially true of the Bioware-style conversations which are frankly outdated in H:ZD, with stilted animation, average writing (for the most part), and often sub-par voice acting.
But of course H:ZD also has a cool post-post apocalyptic setting, a genuinely interesting story, and robot dinosaur combat! And that’s really all it needs.
None of H:ZD’s innovations or bright spots are revolutionary. The robot combat mechanics and setting won’t be adopted by future games and improve the video game medium as whole. But they are conceptually sound and well-executed within the game. The robo-combat is different enough from anything else I’ve ever played and the robots themseleves are wonderfully designed. The setting is intriguingly different from typical video game fare (what other game has a city with Aztec-ish culture and aesthetics?) and sets the stage for a genuinely engaging plot which not only slowly reveals how the world fell, but also provides satisfying sci-fi explanations for everything I could think of. Even the mediocre dialogue and characters are ameliorated by a few bright spots, especially a particular character played by a Wire alum I won’t spoil.
Without these strong elements, H:ZD would be an aggressively mediocre game. But without well-worn game designs as its foundation upon which the innovative elements could be built, H:ZD could never exist. Maybe the story and setting could be repackaged into a book or dramatically scaled down for a small indie title, but they could never be realized with such scope and beautiful graphics. Likewise, the dino-combat isn’t strong enough to stand alone in any substantial way, but it’s a perfect addition to a huge open world sandbox with the setting and lore to give it meaning.
I don’t know if there is any way to quantify a game’s level of innovation, but H:ZD hits the sweet spot that most AAA games should aim for.