VIDEO | The Philosophy of Horizon: Zero Dawn (SPOILERS) | The Philosophy of Horizon: Zero Dawn (SPOILERS)

We’re trying something brand new this week folks. Not only is this fancy new video format fresh out the oven, this post takes a slightly more relaxed, pensive look at its subject. That’s at least a 10% reduction on barking nonsense into the ether by way of the caps lock, you lucky thing. There’s a transcript below if you’d rather a standard article sort of affair, and hopefully I’ll be back with more of these in the near future. Drop a comment here or on the YouTube vid and let me know what you think of this style, and whether Horizon got your cogs going too. In case you didn’t figure this one out already: SPOILS AHEAD!

And Away We Go…

Despite a penchant for never ever having enough time on my hands, and forever trying to squeeze more hours into a day than my constitution can cope with (i.e. I’m always outrageously tired) I don’t seem to be able to stay away from enormous, sprawling, life-consuming open world games that I can’t hope to finish.  

On the bright side, my latest such venture has at long last come to a conclusion,and not only was it one of the best, it’s also one that’s got me doing that dangerous thing that everyone tells me not to bother with for my own and everybody else’s safety – and it’s not writing insanely long sentences because who even needs to breathe. (It’s thinking, okay? They say I shouldn’t think).


Horizon: Zero Dawn is a masterful game. A rich, open world experience with genuinely awe-inspiring visuals both in design and execution, an addictive gameplay main hook, and an arresting, mysterious plot that will have you main-mission binging like a British person in Benidorm.


There’s something enigmatic about uncovering a mystery, as opposed to solely watching the events unfold before you. In Horizon, you’re launched into a world and it asks you to find out how it came to be as it is – the excitement, the urge to know what’s gone on ramps up as you discover more hidden truths about the game world’s history.

As well as exciting though, Horizon is satisfyingly thought-provoking, and laced with an abundance of overarching philosophical ideas and questions. I made a few notes while playing, but its story really lingered, jamming its forefinger into my skull while I was trying to get back to Dark Souls; so here, in all their likely way-off-the-mark glory, are some musings on the Philosophy of Horizon: Zero Dawn.


There’re a couple of ideas that I think are central to the landscape Horizon gives you; the questions the writers wanted to explore when they sketched out a future that is actually disconcertingly plausible in some ways.

Firstly we have the circumstance of the dissolution of knowledge in the modern age – what if humanity lost everything we’d learnt about science, religion, politics over the last few millennia, and life as we know it now had to begin again from scratch?


In Horizon’s vision, we see humans in primitive style tribes that have mythicised the remnants of the digital age, (the ‘metal age’ as it’s referred to diegetically), appending religious ideologies to the existence of the ruins in the world. Various conflicting religions have sprung up across the new world and are a dominant, driving force of the cultural paradigm.


We all have a seemingly innate desire to imbue our lives with meaning in one form or another. For much of history, the main outlet for this desire en masse has of course been religion. Guerilla posit the worship of and narrative surrounding a greater being than ourselves pulling the strings is in someway inherent to human nature. That we, as a collective, are bound to gravitate toward this idea, even in circumstances where the current religious climate and its history has been torn up and thrown away. If we started again over and over, would we create some form of religious narrative, and base our lives on the worship of an imagined greater being, every single time?

I’ve wondered if thinkers and philosophers like Dostoyevsky would be religious, or as religious, were they alive today, and mostly presumed not. Partially perhaps out of hope. Horizon potentially argues that in fact, if religion is so inherent to the human condition, maybe the greatest thinkers would still utilise religious ideas to power their examination of existence in some way, even in the modern age of knowledge, science and subsequent skepticism.

Notably there are skeptical characters, such as Aloy herself, but, mirroring the modern world in some senses and on a different scale, they are much fewer in number. Non-believers are outsiders, as the human condition demands we band together under the notion of one or many deities and argue about it forthwith. If we weren’t fighting each other about religion, would we merely find something else to kill each other over, or is fighting about religion in fact etched into our DNA indelibly?

Elon Musk

Another central notion Horizon tackles is, quite overtly, Artificial Intelligence.

It’s a particularly poignant subject right now as we seemingly teeter on the edge of a breakthrough in AI. As cars that drive themselves and social algorithms that learn to understand you as a person become more prominent, the people at the forefront of these breakthroughs are already beginning to argue about its potential stability.

Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg recently took to Twitter to publicly engage one another in a spat about the potential dangers of AI development, with Elon Musk warning that it is currently a greater threat than what’s happening between North Korea and the US.

In Horizon, we see a future where AI development has essentially lead to the downfall of humanity. A greed and lust for bigger and better arms manufacturing eventually supplanted our ability to cope with what we’d created, and rogue, militarised robots that could self-replicate proceeded to wipe out the human race.  


We are always racing toward the future. It seems there is little that could stop the powerhouses of this age from developing to the most ambitious and voracious standard possible. We are always hungry for what is next. So are we right in these endeavours? If we endanger all of humanity simply by pushing the limits of what humanity can do and create (a form of life itself, in this case) does that make human advancement and progression wrong?

I tend to disagree. Elon Musk recently commented that like many things, AI must be regulated. These regulations must, first and foremost, safeguard us, while allowing the full extent of our creative ability to be excavated. Is that possible? Maybe not.

If we can create life – if we can build something which thinks and feels like a human, then do we have a moral obligation to do so? Even if that means building something better, greater than ourselves? Similar ideas, more focused on this subject specifically, are being posited in HBO’s excellent Westworld.

Toward the end of Horizon, we learn that that loss of knowledge was actually a decision made by Ted Faro, the man essentially to blame for the robot uprising. He struggled with the idea that giving the next generation of humanity a cache of all the wisdom we had amassed, the technological discoveries and the scientific breakthroughs, would in turn lead them to make the same mistakes.


It’s a rash, seemingly panicked conclusion, but poses a fascinating dilemma. If you knew the world was about to be wiped out, would you want to pass on everything we’d learnt? That would be all the art, all the music, all the wonderful things humanity has accomplished, but also, nuclear technology, weaponry, war and the tools of division that are and long have been so prominent. Ted posits his decision as giving the next generation a fresh start – so would it achieve that? In Horizon’s vision, the decision has done more harm than good, with many of those undesirable, belligerent aspects resurfacing independently – another potential comment on human nature.

Good and Evil

With GAIA, the AI created in the final days of humanity to control the life cycle; repopulation and the ecosystems necessary for human life to continue, and HADES, the AI created to reset and wipe the slate clean, killing off humanity if things go wrong, we end up with a typical ‘good’ and ‘evil’ conflict, through the corruption of the systems. Even the initial arrangement though, contains a number of interesting layers.

With HADES the destruction component to GAIA’s creation, we might ask how these two opposites are so reliant on each other. There’s a Nietzsche quote from ‘Thus Spoke Zathura’ particularly poignant here: “And, whoever must be a creator in good and evil, verily, he must first be an annihilator and break values. Thus the highest evil belongs to the highest goodness: but this is creative”. Is destruction truly necessary for creation?

This duality is only touched upon briefly, but it’s posited the ultimate creation is that of life in whatever form that takes, and subsequently destroying in order to create is another central subject Horizon identifies.

While GAIA recreates her own creator, Elizabet Sobeck, in the form of Aloy, in order to guide the world through another form of corruption (both literal, inside the system itself, and metaphorical, ending the in-fighting of the people, allowing them to come together to fight for their collective survival against the now malevolent HADES), we are reminded of the potential power of Artificial Intelligence; and that we may one day hand such significant and meaningful decisions over to a computer.


There are numerous philosophical ideas that permeate the story of Horizon, most of which I’ve not even picked up on here. There’s a touch of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, in the dramatic irony that the people of the world are unaware how they came to be, why robots roam an otherwise primitive landscape. The player, in that sense, steps foot outside the cave and sees a truer picture.


Similarly Aloy’s virtuousness, her dissent of tribal rituals that fly in the face of what she has learnt to be common decency, in part of course due to her creation as a version of Sobeck, has a Nietzschean-esque air of self-exploration – a rejection of religion and a promotion of finding meaning within the self.

If you’ve not played Horizon and I’ve just spoiled it all for you, well, you were warned. Even so, the game has an addictive hunting gameplay mechanic that is fun throughout, and its story is entirely worth seeing and experiencing for yourself. Perhaps you’d have a different perspective on many of the ideas that wouldn’t leave me alone after playing.


More on Respawn soon you lot.


Author Description

Rob Vicars

Rob is a writer, wearing many hats that do not belong to him. When not scribbling ardently for his games blog Respawn in... 5, he pretends to be a musician, a videographer, a game developer and an alright guy.

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