I'm now just a little shy of 10 hours into Guerrilla's new blockbuster title, and while I've been loving every minute of Horizon Zero Dawn's beautiful open world, its hugely interesting mysteries and its invigorating gameplay, the thing I'm enjoying most about it is how the game is handling diversity.
On the game's hype train in the months leading up to its release, one thing I kept hearing over and over was how it was going to have a female protagonist. While I heard the usual drivel about "what that will mean for the game and the story and how players would relate to the central character?", I was silently hoping that Horizon wouldn't fall into the trap that many artworks do. This is the trap of catering too much toward the fact that their main character is a woman, a man, gay, straight, black, white – put simply, their character is "something". Before I continue let me stress the fact that I totally believe in representing all types of people, and above all, let me stress that I am a feminist, and I am actually overjoyed that Guerrilla chose to make this game the way they did. Let me explain why...
In Horizon Zero Dawn you play as a young, ginger woman who has been a social outcast her entire life. No, that's not because she's ginger. More importantly, it's not because shes a woman, either. I am in love with the way that this game is handling feminism. The dystopian world that the game is set in is very religious, and the heads of the tribes I've experienced so far have been led by "the matriarchy" who believe in a deity of some kind, known only as "The Mother". So to say that females are well represented in this game is an understatement. In fact, in a lot of ways they're much more important to the world than men are. While some feminists would argue that it's a little too much, the significance of men and paternal figures is also vastly important to the game, with the main character being raised by a male outcast who cares for her like he would his own daughter. The thing I love so much about the gender neutrality of the game is that it's just there. It seems so many game developers choose a female main character because female is all they want that character to be. In Horizon, Aloy's (dumb name, but I'll let it slide) gender isn't a crutch; it's just what she happens to be. Her character doesn't hinge on the fact that shes not a male, and as far as I can see, she's not more important in the game's world because of her gender. That's why it's so great!
"Aloy's gender isn't a crutch; it's just what she happens to be. Her character doesn't hinge on the fact that shes not a male, and as far as I can see, she's not more important in the game's world because of her gender."
Horizon handles diversity so well because it includes so much of it and doesn't shout about it. Aloy is such a great protagonist simply because she has a character and a story to tell; there's so much mystery surrounding her that I can't wait to unravel. That's why it works: Guerrilla has given us a female main character without jumping up and down about it, and they aren't looking for extra credit because of it. All the diversity is there, but because the game isn't gloating about it, it makes it so much stronger. That is the best way Guerrilla could have handled having a female protagonist and it needs to be done like that more. A "female character" simply becomes "a character" because all of a sudden, it doesn't matter what gender they are. That is the equality that people should be looking for in art.
The common misconception is that we as humans must relate to the characters we see. We must look at a story, a movie, a game, and see ourselves otherwise we can't enjoy the story in a meaningful way. I've always found that so stupid. It's never been the reason I've played games. It's not why I watch movies. Most of the time, I just want to observe the story that's being told to me. People who have to see themselves in every character are way too egotistical about how they consume art. Instead of not being able to relate to a character because of their gender, why not focus on the fact that perhaps you just can't relate to their dystopian world overrun by weird animal-machines that want to kill you?
I should stress again that it isn't about representation. I think, for example, that there needs to be more games – particularly first person shooters – with campaigns that focus on female characters. There are simply not enough, and women in the military aren't being represented in that way. Having said that, and more to my point, If a Call of Duty game had a female playable character, I would want to be able to see that they're a female, and I'd like to be able to understand how their role in the game is affected as a result of their genre. But that's it. I wouldn't want the characterisation to lean on the fact that they were a woman and were either so "butch" that it became ironic, or so "girly" and "feminine" that it was laughable.
Horizon Zero Dawn's Aloy is the perfect balance. She's a woman but that isn't her defining feature, and she doesn't fall into any typical stereotypes – although you definitely feel like you are experiencing the game from the perspective of a woman. An example of Guerrilla dealing with this well is male hunters looking down on Aloy. They look down on her toward the start of the experience, but it's never because of her gender – it feels more like it's because of her status as a social outcast.
"A 'female character' simply becomes 'a character' because all of a sudden it doesn't matter what gender they are."
Another great thing about Aloy is that she isn't sexualised at all. That's a huge step for females in games – and to be honest, it's a huge step for gamers. Once again, the brilliance is in the subtleties. Aloy isn't unattractive, but her appearance isn't a main focus. Sexualisation just doesn't matter to the plot, or the game, and it just isn't there.
So what can we learn from Horizon Zero Dawn? Well for one, I believe this should be a much more common method in showing diversity in art as a whole. I'd love to see gay or transgender characters in games, where their sexual orientation or gender isn't simply a mechanic or 'unique selling point' of the game. I want to play as a black woman, and I want to see that they are just that, but never want to hear any mention of it. Because at the end of the day, none of that should ever matter. Characters are interesting because of their traits, their imperfections, their behaviours, their relationships, and most importantly, who they are, not what they are. We as humans are incredibly diverse by nature, and video game characters should be too.