Horizon Forbidden West Rightfully Depicts The Rich As Villains
Unpacking the biggest theme in Guerrilla Games’ Post-Apocalyptic Adventure
The Horizon series is a fun romp set in the distant future. It's ultimately about a lot of things: a post-apocalyptic adventure where you slay robot dinosaurs with bows and arrows, a narrative about the nature of humanity and AI; a feminist tale about a kickass warrior named Aloy (voiced by Ashly Burch) that goes against over a half a century of misogynistic video game tropes.
Yet, at this series’ core has always been a story criticizing the rich. In the first game (Horizon Zero Dawn), we learn that the reason the apocalypse even happened is that one wealthy man named Ted Faro (Lloyd Owen) recklessly experimented with nanotechnology for the military. The resulting "Faro plague" began converting all biomatter, including humans, into fuel, making life on the planet unlivable. Within 16 months, humanity had become extinct.
The cruelty of this rich man is further emphasized by the fact that he sabotages the Horizon Zero Dawn project — and the namesake of the first game — which was an effort to restart human civilization once the Faro plague succeeded in wiping out all life. He deleted the APOLLO protocol, a repository of all human knowledge, because he didn't want future humans to know that he caused the apocalypse, rationalizing it as a kindness. Our lead Aloy exists in a hunter-gather society because of this one rich man's ego.
We do not walk away with favorable opinions of the rich by the time the first game comes to a close, and the sequel takes this sentiment and heightens it. The rich become responsible for not only the problems of the past but also the present and future.
Horizon Forbidden West unsurprisingly takes place in a land known as the Forbidden West, a polity in post-apocalyptic Utah, Nevada, and California. There is a rich history here, as Aloy must navigate various tribal factions that are living in the shadow of a recent war — one I encourage you to explore for yourself.
In the first game, Aloy had to stop an AI named HADES from ending all life on Earth. HADES is a rogue subordinate function of the Horizon Zero Dawn AI named GAIA. It was given sentience after a mysterious signal from space unshackles it from GAIA. This led it to pursue its primary purpose of destroying all life (note — HADES was a redundant protocol meant to restart the terraforming process encase something goes wrong and should not be confused with the Faro Plague).
At the end of the first game, Aloy forestalls this ecological collapse, but only temporarily, as GAIA had to sacrifice herself to put the first game's events into motion. GAIA's absence has caused the terraforming process to break down. Hence why rampant robot dinosaurs are wandering this post-apocalyptic Earth, they were a part of the terraforming process, and GAIA used to be able to control them before subfunctions such as HADES rebelled against her.
We see in the second game that humanity is suffering from GAIA's absence: rivers are polluted, fields are failing, and an infestation is slowly creeping across the land. This ecological collapse may seem unrelated to the rich, but it is directly connected to them. You see, as Aloy progresses the Forbidden West (and I will assume that you don't care about spoilers at this point), we learn something startling about the world's megarich: they never died.
As the Faro plague was ravaging the world, the richest of the rich, who were part of an organization of immortal billionaires called Far Zenith, got into a spaceship and headed to the Sirius Solar System. Once there, they spent their years permanently plugged into virtual reality, stagnating culturally before leaving their colony hundreds of years later due to some cataclysm (more on this later).
There is a satirical wit in how Forbidden West presents to the player this abridged history of the rich's "utopia" on Sirius. Without a working class to exploit, the rich were not interested in doing anything. They had no desire to build or explore, having truly become cultural parasites. As Far Zenith member Tilda van der Meer (voiced by the peerless Carrie-Anne Moss), an admittedly biased perspective, lectures Aloy:
“It wasn’t until we were off-planet that I understood the true scope of their greed. I was grateful to simply be alive. But the others became obsessed with a kind of effortless immortality. They built a colony where machines serviced their every need, where any memory — or fantasy… …could be endlessly savored in virtual reality. It wasn’t life. It was stultifying, a pampered dream-state…”
The only "good" rich person we see in the game is Stanley Chen, a man who revived the city of Las Vegas in the 2040s by using a magical water filtration technology. He was one of Far Zenith's colonists, and even this "good apple" did nothing to stand against the oppressive oligarchy established on Sirius. He spent his days replicating a 2040s Las Vegas in virtual reality, reliving his glory days as the "savior" of the desert.
Most of the main characters do not look kindly on the rich's pursuit of immortality. As Zo, an ally of Aloy (and one of my favorite characters), says in disbelief: "I still can't believe [Beta] told [Varl] the Zeniths are… immortals. Old Ones who cut themselves off from the cycle of life and decay. I've never heard of anything so selfish. To deny our dying bodies to the Earth, to doom the life that would bloom in their place… It's despicable."
The player comes to view the Far Zenith as inept at best and diabolically cruel at worst. They are the villains the player must fight against. Having returned to Earth to mine the planet for resources, Far Zenith cruelly disregards the lives of the planet's native inhabitants, hiding behind their technology as justification for their brutality.
In a last-minute twist, the incompetence of Far Zenith is further highlighted when we learn who really sent the signal that unshackled HADES from GAIA. It wasn't the Far Zenith group, hoping to restart the terraforming process, as Aloy and company first suspected, but a force far more sinister. Far Zenith doesn't want to stay on Earth at all. It's merely a pitstop before they flee even deeper into space.
Instead, the thing that wants everyone dead is more symbolic of the problems with the rich in general. On Sirus, Far Zenith tried to create a form of digital immortality, but the project failed. A conglomeration of all their consciousness merged into a single entity named Nemesis. Far Zenith shelved this project, and let it languish for decades, maybe even centuries. Yet it eventually got out, destroying the Sirus colony and pursuing the human survivors that it blames for its imprisonment.
The rich of our time are obsessed with immortality: both digital and biological. Horizon Forbidden West lampoons this obsession by having it be the downfall of their entire civilization. Their greatest aspiration is portrayed as nothing more than arrogance that dooms us all.
Ultimately, the rich are the enemy of this game. There are so many examples that I didn't include for brevity, such as the fate of Ted Faro, the honorable "CEO" of the Quen, or the subtle sociopathy of Carrie-Anne Moss's character Tilda van der Meer. I encourage you to play through these story beats to experience them for yourself.
As we fight a similar, albeit less dramatic collapse than the Faro Plague, Horizon Forbidden West asks us to direct our rage and disgust at the people who are causing this problem — the wealthy.
And that's a message I can get behind — robot dinosaurs and all.
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