Horizon Forbidden West and the Four Horsemen of Bad Characterization

Recently I did my Horizon Forbidden West ZP review, and there was one specific point that I’d like to go into detail on. It was on point I was rather emphatic about. Phrases like “what a selfish fucking bint” got thrown around. Yes, it’s the main character, Aloy, and how she brings the game down. She achieves this on four fronts that I’d like to go through individually. So consider these the chapter headings for this video: Aloy is boring, poorly written, ill fitting, and a complete idiot.

Chapter two: Poorly written. I guess this goes hand in hand with “boring” as Horizon has a frequent problem with what I tend to call “A to B dialogue” where every dialogue line only seems to exist to flatly establish whatever needs establishing and keep trundling the plot forward with no moment spared for characterization or chemistry. Aloy takes it a step further by being what I might call an A to B protagonist. Absolutely laser fixed on saving the world, not to the point that they demonstrate actual passion for it, just so they get blandly irritated by anything that doesn’t directly lead toward their goal. I mean, sure, saving the world should be a high priority, it’s the world, but it might help if the hero demonstrated some sort of attachment to the world they’re trying to save.

Humor me. Just going by Horizon Forbidden West, what do you think Aloy would want to do with her life after she’s finished saving the world? I couldn’t even venture a guess. She shows zero interest in anything else. This is a point where some kind of romance subplot might fill in some blanks, but oh no, the stoic hero is above such malarkey. Hell, any kind of ambition might give a character a firm grounding. Maybe they want to retire to the coast and open a tea shop. Use your imagination.

Chapter three: ill fitting. By which I mean, isn’t really suited to the game that she’s in. Same is true of a lot of the characters in Horizon, actually. I’ve talked a lot of shit about the Last of Us games, especially the second one, but on reflection it did all of this stuff I’m talking about right. Characters have romances, chemistry, interests and ambitions beyond the plot of the current game, and it makes sense for everyone to be mumbly and awkward in conversation because they’re all sad people living in horrible cramped conditions dressed in bland, muted outfits they had to take off the corpses of their family members.

Characters in Horizon have no such excuse. They live in beautiful extravagant landscapes with plenty of elbow room. They dress in elaborate brightly-coloured ceremonial outfits. They hunt robot dinosaurs for fuck’s sake. Personality-wise these characters should be loud and bombastic and larger than life to reflect the setting. But they aren’t. In conversation they’re always standing around being mumbly and awkward again, sweating under giant headdresses and layers of day-glo warpaint. And Aloy is the worst of the lot.

Then there’s gameplay. The wonderful thing about interactive narrative is that things like atmosphere and characterization can be interwoven with gameplay. A character’s personality can be conveyed by the things the player has to do as them. Bayonetta is flamboyant and confident and that’s enforced by the game’s focus on stylish combat. Garrett from Thief is cynical, measured and soft-spoken because he spends all his time slowly creeping through dark hallways bopping guards on the bonce. Aloy’s personality, what there is of it, is unexpressive, modest, quietly confident, sure of herself, yeah there’s robot dinosaurs outside but no biggie, we’ve killed like nineteen of those since breakfast. Absolutely bugger all of which comes across when combat starts.

Combat in Horizon is a desperate, frantic affair in which Aloy has to constantly dodge roll left and right, screaming as she’s smashed fifty feet by a tail whip from a speeding robot monster, having to scarf down healing berries hand over hand to keep herself alive . If you or I got through a battle like that, we would be fucking fizzing on an adrenaline high equivalent to three buckets of uncut coke. We would be panting and sweating and hopping up and down going “OH GOD OH GOD OH BLIMEY OH GOD.” We wouldn’t be going “Oh guess that’s the last of them let’s go to the next objective marker.”

But as for why Aloy is stupid. It follows on from the fact that she’s always having a rough time in combat. You see, Aloy is constantly and often unnecessarily walking a knife edge of mortal peril. When she’s not starting punch-ups with Mechagodzilla she’s free climbing on icy ledges five hundred feet above jagged rocks. Pretty stupid already but sort of a necessity for an exciting action game protagonist. What really boggles the mind is that in context Aloy is the only person who can save the world. Her genetic profile is the only thing that can open the old world bunkers where the world saving instructions are kept. If Aloy dies, the entire future of humanity is fucked. Aloy knows this. Aloy’s friends know this. And what does Aloy do? Gallivant around the wilderness by herself picking fights with herds of stainless steel cassowaries. It’s like if the courier transporting the only known cure for a deadly global plague decided to blow it off and spend the afternoon running back and forth across a busy highway.

She doesn’t even tell people where she’s going. She could die alone in an underwater cave and be lost for generations. She actively sneaks away from her friends so she can be alone again. Usually saying “Oh but it’s too dangerous for them.” WHY? Why isn’t it too dangerous for you, then, little miss “Whoops I’m Dead Goodbye World?” Aloy doesn’t have superpowers. Other people can fight robot dinosaurs just as well. She’s just the person holding the keys to the fun bunkers. If I were her I’d ride up and down the land with a fucking megaphone explaining the situation and recruiting help from anyone who offered. Because going it alone when literally everyone’s very lives are invested in your success isn’t nobility, it’s narcissism. It’s stupid, and it’s STAGGERINGLY inconsiderate.

Again, yes, possibly a necessity of the format, but it would be so much less annoying if a character would just acknowledge it in dialogue. If someone in her post-apocalyptic mumblecore support group sat her down and said “What the fuck are you doing? Every time you go out the rest of us spend the whole time grinding our teeth to powder from the stress. Next time you find a fun bunker, wait outside, and we’ll go in and solve the ancient puzzles, okay, right after we’re finished nailing your feet to the floor.”

Here comes the part where the defenders flock to the comments to go “Nngh actually the reason why Aloy is introverted and bad at communicating and keeps her motives to herself is because she was raised as an outcast and isn’t used to dealing with people. ” Yeah, I know. My issue is not that the story doesn’t adequately explain why Aloy is insufferable, my issue is that Aloy is insufferable and I want to play as someone else. They could have written the story so that she had a different personality and explained it just as easily. If you ask me, having been raised in isolation would be as likely to make you very outgoing when society finally accepts you back. You might be excited and full of nervous energy at the prospect of being around people at last. You might even be a bit TOO friendly. Talking too much and getting in people’s faces because you’ve got no grasp of social boundaries.

You know what I mean, we’ve all been to gaming conventions. We’ve all met people who seriously don’t get out enough. Aloy should act like one of those. Maybe that’s how we could work in that romance subplot I was talking about. Aloy tries to seduce someone by standing way too close and telling them their hair smells nice.

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