Post-Apocalypse, Post-Race: Cultural Erasure in ‘Horizon: Zero Dawn’

The video game Horizon: Zero Dawn is set in a post-apocalyptic world, where humanity survives by hunting and scavenging from machines. The megafauna of our world are replaced by robotic counterparts, with creatures ranging from horse-analogues to mechanical Tyrannosaurus Rex.  The world’s origins are gradually meted out as the player delves further and further into the story, and the player as Aloy discovers more about the apocalypse that changed the planet.

Aloy grows up as an outcast of the Nora tribe, and through a series of events must leave the Nora homelands and engage with the Oseram, the Carja, and the Banuk. Each of these tribes has their own territories and cultural markers, yet every tribal society is racially diverse. The appearance of multiple different races within singular unified communities at first appears optimistic, as the post-apocalyptic world is in fact a post-racial one. The communities appear to have no history of our world’s racial oppression. This does not mean the new tribal societies lack these histories entirely; they have their own brutal history of wars and oppression, but it is along tribal guidelines, not based on racial differentiation. The communities have their own cultural histories, beliefs, behaviors, and traits. These tribes emulate aspects of existing human cultures, but appear to have arisen de novo.

The communities of Horizon: Zero Dawn erase racial difference, which can seem initially a positive thing; however, it remains fundamentally problematic. Each character in the game world is thus no longer culturally bound. While there are people of color in positions of authority throughout the game, and as fundamental narrative drivers, they are literally just people of different colors. The stripping away of cultural history means the characters are not representing diversity, but different colored pixels.

Yet, this issue of cultural erasure is not simply a fault on the part of the Guerrilla Games team. While they have been effectively critiqued (See here and here.) for their inclusion of tribal language and indigenous cultural markers with no visible indigenous characters in the game, the erasure of cultural history and the flattening of the diversity in the world is actually an aspect addressed in the narrative.

The world of Horizon: Zero Dawn, Aloy discovers, is a reboot; the planet’s biome was destroyed by destructive machinery, and the Horizon: Zero Dawn project was designed to restart life after that destruction. The process resulted in a complete erasure of life as humanity knows it, as the planet was stripped bare. The reset, however, was intended to be a rebuilding of life on the shoulders of humanity’s history; Horizon: Zero Dawn, designed by Dr. Elisabet Sobeck, sought to collect humanity’s achievements, languages, cultures, and stories. The APOLLO team, a subset of the H:ZD project, created archives to pass on the collectable body of human knowledge to the new generation of humanity. The archival holograms of the H:ZD team highlight the multiple cultures, expertises, histories, and spaces that are included in creating the next world. The focus on collecting languages, recording art, passing on ideas, and sharing stories is at the center of the GAIA project. While the physical aspects of survival are important, the greater focus in what Aloy finds is the need to preserve and pass on knowledge. The apocalypse is not supposed to result in a clean-slate, with cultural history and identity erased.

That denial of cultural difference is the result of Ted Farro, a key player in the global destruction and a primary funder of H:ZD. He is both the cause of the downfall of civilization, and the stunting of its growth the second time. Farro is the head of Faro Automated Solutions, which creates robots that live on biomaterial, can replicate, and lack a kill-switch. A series of events leads to the swarm going rogue, and thus leads to the robots swarming across the world and destroying life as we know it. Farro, in asking for Dr. Sobeck’s help, signs on to fund H: ZD and remains involved in H:ZD, despite his role in the problem it is trying to answer. At “The Mountain that Fell,” Aloy discovers voice recordings from Ted about his discomfort with the APOLLO segment of the H:ZD project. “What are we going to plug into their heads, Lis? A whole lot of history. A whole lot of so-called truth. A whole lot of noise. It’s not pablum, Lis. It’s poison.” His discomfort with history and humanity’s knowledge is effectively an absolving thought; he fears that anyone faced with the body of knowledge that he had access to would make equivalent mistakes, suggesting he takes little responsibility for the utter destruction he has wrought.

His solution, again left as a voicemail for Elisabet, lays out his plan; Aloy discovers this message before finding the Control Room and the dead Alpha staff inside. “In the end it’s simple. It’s clean. It’s clear. It’s erasure. It’s addition by subtraction. I can make it better, Lis. With a single stroke, make it all go away.” The "all" he speaks of is culture, history, and knowledge. He wants to remove any information from the past to clear future generations of the poison of information or history. This clean erasure is a sweeping denial of cultural identity beyond his own, as the powerful white male who doesn’t see value in passing on culture and traditions. He doesn’t see race, or the purpose of identity, reminiscent of the calls that “all lives matter.” His denial of cultural complexity and the value in difference shows his own narrow world-view. He only sees his own mistakes and presumes their universality. Horizon: Zero Dawn shows a post-racial world, because a white male decided it was better not to have cultural identities or histories.

His final brutal act, when he inflicts his plan and kills anyone who could undo his decision, solidifies him as Horizon: Zero Dawn’s villain. While HADES is the threat, Farro is the villain. He overrides the system that the team has made under Elisabet’s guidance, erases a large component of GAIA, and then kills the Alpha team members. His speech to the gathered team in the Control Chamber points to his egotism and sense of self-righteousness; he does not take into consideration any mind, and opinion but his own.

“I can’t stop thinking about the ones who’ll come after us. Those innocents. Those blameless men – and, and women. We’re going to give them knowledge? Like it’s a gift?! […] It’s not a gift, it’s a disease! They’re the cure and we’re going to give them the disease? Our disease?! No. We can’t. And it’s not too late…if we’re willing to sacrifice.”

His planned speech is interrupted by Samina, head of the APOLLO team, yet he carries on without answering her, continuing on. He classifies knowledge as a disease, seeing danger in information; again, given his own utterly destructive failings, this language of an external force corrupting and damaging the otherwise blameless man points to the mental gymnastics he has taken to absolve himself of fault. His single-minded thoughtlessness led the world into destruction, and his single-minded overthinking cripples the next generation of humanity, as Sylens declares after the hologram finishes: “This is why we’re trapped in benighted ignorance. For an 'innocent future.' 'Blameless men!' He never saw the slaughter in the Sun-Ring. Everything these people achieved, all the knowledge of the Old Ones – evaporated! Turned to dust, scattered to the void. Like the Alphas themselves.” Ted’s act of erasure is a collapse of difference, a removal of history, and a flattening of the world. While tribes rise in place of the diverse global communities, there is still a sense of loss.

The game points to the importance of diversity. Aloy interacts with other cultures and communities and tries to draw Nora out and into the wider world; Elisabet chooses researchers and scientists from across the world and ensures representation in her H:ZD team. The dangerous, damaging, and single-minded figures of the world tend to be white males: Ted Farro, Travis Tate (designer of the HADES protocol), and Helis, leader of the Eclipse, the human followers of HADES who seek the world’s destruction. This casting asks the player to think critically about the complexity of the world, the forms of power, and the importance of diversity in both the pre- and post-apocalyptic worlds. By creating a future world without those cultural distinctions, Horizon: Zero Dawn asks us to think about cultural erasure and how important diversity is.

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