Aloy with her bow and arrow

Horizon Forbidden West and Genre

Introduction

“Horizon Forbidden West” was developed by Guerilla Games and released on PlayStation consoles in 2022. Players assume the role of Aloy, a skilled hunter and archer, to battle against mechanical beasts in a quest to save the world from another apocalypse. The combat sequences are exciting, and the game world is full of fascinating lore, compelling characters, and stunning visuals, so it no surprise Sony sold over 8 million copies of the title worldwide in its first year.

We are going to explore to what extent genre and narrative are important to the critical and commercial success of this popular game.

Genre

Combining the physical challenges of real-time combat with a highly developed story full of interesting characters and rich landscapes, “Horizon Forbidden West” is a hybrid of action and role-playing conventions. Quick response times and good hand-eye coordination are essential to battle the deadly machines, but you will also need plenty of wit and patience to solve the puzzles and save the world.

Action Mode

The action genre emphasises real-time gameplay and combat with the player taking control of the hero to overcome challenges and defeat enemies. During the tutorial mission, “Reach for the Stars”, Aloy tells Varl she “ran into a lot of trouble” on the way to the ruins and “lost a lot of… gear”, so you start the sequel with just the basic hunter bow and spear in your inventory. Make sure you forage for ridge-wood to craft hunter arrows before you clash with any enemies.

Most action games feature an enhanced targeting system. “Horizon Forbidden Dawn” has its own concentration mode which slows down time and zooms towards your target to help you release the perfect shot. This combat mechanic is particularly useful when you are trying to shoot the Soundshell or Resource Container off a Burrower for future upgrades.

Alloy aiming for a machine in concentration mode

You could try sneaking up on a machine to perform a stealth kill with your spear. Or simply hack and slash your way to glory by connecting basic melee attacks into longer combos. Both strategies will require sharp reflexes.

More weapons, upgrades and powerups become available as you progress through the story. The elemental bombs launched from Blastslings are good for hitting distant targets whereas Spike Throwers are better at inflicting significant damage at shorter ranges. The legendary Brawlbreaker is a Boltblaster that promises to “silence all enemies” with 39 Impact Damage and, if you complete “The Way Home Mission” and work through some final challenges, you can access the Skykiller and make “enemies fall out of the sky like streaks of burning light”. This impressive inventory of weapons delivers a great mix of combat events to keep fans of the genre entertained.

Boss fights are another convention of action games. At the end of first mission, for example, you have to destroy a Slitherfang. It’s not easy hitting the machine’s weak spots while trying to dodge sprays of acid and its huge whipping tail, but you will be rewarded with a Skill Point and an additional +10 to your Max Health.

There are fourteen main boss fights in “Horizon Forbidden Dawn” – each with their distinct attack patterns and phases to test your combat skills. Importantly, these encounters help drive the game’s storyline.

Role-playing Games

Role-playing and adventure games are defined by the interplay of narrative codes, dynamic characters, and a highly developed game world.

The Open World

“Horizon Forbidden West” is set in a post-apocalyptic United States about one thousand years after a plague of self-replicating robots almost wiped out all life on the planet. Humans now live in primitive tribes scattered across the land. Most of the lore is established in the first game, “Horizon Zero Dawn”, but Aloy still has plenty to discover in this “immersive open world, filled with adventure, culture, and opportunity”.

The Lead Living World Designer, Epsen Sogn, described how his team at Guerilla worked hard to make sure the game world was “authentic and alive” so that “everything should feel like it belongs there”. Taking advantage of the PS5’s incredible processing power, the textures and assets which were part of the background in older games are now “elevated into actual objects”. Even the non-playing characters “move and exist with purpose”.

The day-night cycle and the dynamic weather system add more variety to this stunning game. You can watch the icy glow of the sun disappear behind the snow laden Sheerside Mountains or listen to the gentle rainfall from the comfort of a shelter in No Man’s Land. It really makes the environment feel more alive and responsive to our actions. As you move through this vast world, you can scale up the six Tallnecks to unlock new map areas, take in the mesmerising views, and plan your next route.

From the Sacred Lands of the Nora tribe to the uncharted regions beyond the Daunt canyons, “Horizon Forbidden West” offers plenty of landscapes for players to explore and experience. In open world games, you have more choice over which order you complete the quests and errands. For instance, at Chainscrape, you can ignore Mildif’s request for Wild Meat and Bitter Leaf and continue on with the primary story. However, the game encourages you to discover hidden locations and uncover secrets by rewarding you with optional items and powerups. You will gain 830XP, 1 Skill Point and unlock the Food Pouch for completing “A Dash of Courage” and helping the cook satisfy his customers’ appetites.

Open worlds can leave players feeling disorientated and confused. Although “Horizon Forbidden West” contains an impressive 28 side quests and 20 errands, the 17 main story quests and 3 interludes provide a clear structure and narrative for you to follow. Players can also track their progress in the useful quests screen:

The menu interface in Horizon Forbidden West

Additionally, if you selected the Guided mode, your heads-up display (HUD) places icons on the screen which direct you to your destination and the distance you need to cover so you won’t get lost on your journey to save the world.

The HUD in Horizon Forbidden West

Of course, some players will prefer the freedom and challenge of the Explorer setting which does not offer these tips.

When you want to climb an obstacle, use your Focus and yellow markers will identify the cracks and holds you can use to reach the top. These faint lines and crosses are also helpful when you want to jump from one platform to the next.

In terms of the Uses and Gratifications theories, players will engage with “Horizon Forbidden Dawn” because it offers diversion. The game is supposed to be fun. That is why it is important for the developers to deliver a good balance between the freedom of an open world with more linear gameplay. They don’t want players to become frustrated and switch off their PlayStations.

Character Development

Aloy is the red-haired protagonist of “Horizon Forbidden West”. Exiled from the Nora tribe for being a “no-mother”, she was raised by another outcast, Rost, who trained her to survive and prepared her for the life-changing journey to uncover her true origins and the mysteries of the past.

At the end of “Horizon Zero Dawn”, Aloy killed the Deathbringer that was guarding HADES and purged the Extinction Protocol. The horde of corrupted machines were no longer a threat to the tribes.

In the cutscene before the sequel’s tutorial mission, Varl calls her the “Saviour of Meridian” and the “Anointed of the Nora”. Despite rejecting the praise, Aloy believes she is “the only one” who can complete the “sacred task” and save the planet.

This character trope is often called the chosen one. Another obvious example is Link in the “Legend of Zelda” franchise because he is the only one who can wield the master sword and defeat Ganon. In film, Luke Skywalker fulfils his destiny and kills Darth Vader, and the protagonist in the “Matrix” is called Neo – a clever reworking of the word “one”.

Chosen by some sort of prophecy or supernatural force, only these characters have the power and skill needed to bring order to the world. Aloy is a clone who was “made… by a machine” to restore GAIA and save humanity from “a new extinction”. She is a “champion for all humankind”.

Compelled to “fix” the world, she neglects her own needs and finds it difficult to build relationships with other characters, so many of them view her as cold and arrogant. Varl says she has a “sharp bite” and, in Chainscrape, Petra is disappointed her friend has “bigger gears to grind” and won’t join her for a “cold beer” in the tavern.

As the story unfolds, Aloy begins to fully appreciate the importance of friendship. During “The Wings of the Ten” quest, she encourages Zo, Erend, Alivia and Kotallo to combine their strengths to strike back against Regalla and Zenith.

In another cutscene, she sits with Zo beside Varl’s grave. Zo buried him on the spot where they used to “sit and watch the sunrise” over Plainsong. It is an incredibly poignant moment, especially when Zo sings wistfully for her beloved.

Role-playing games emphasise character development more than most other computer game genres, so it is crucial to represent Aloy as a vulnerable and dynamic character who is capable of change. In this scene, our hero expresses her regret for not thanking him for saving her life and being a steadfast friend – her anguish is clear in her facial expressions and body language.

The Dialogue Wheel

This depth of character is reinforced by the Flashpoints where you are able to choose how Aloy interacts with other characters. For example, in “The Point of the Lance” interlude, it is clear Avad is disappointed his affections for Aloy are not returned. You can choose to reply with compassion, intelligence, or aggression. If you select the heart option, Aloy says she hopes to see him again, but she has to “stay focused” on her “mission”.

Dialogue options in Horizon Forbidden West

Although these choices do not impact the story, they are an opportunity for the player to shape Aloy’s personality and develop a stronger emotional connection to the character.

Clothes

Clothing in “Horizon Forbidden Dawn” also helps players engage closely with the protagonist.

You begin the game in your Nora Anointed armour, but you can purchase, for example, The Oseram Explorer outfit from the Stitchers in Chainscrape to boost your Critical Stike and Power Attack skills by one point each. If you like to avoid melees and prefer using stealth attacks, you should acquire the Utaru Gravesinger because it will suit (pun intended) your gameplay.

The outfits can be upgraded at the workbench and by unlocking weaves to increase their damage resistance and boost the skills. This stats system in “Horizon Forbidden Dawn” is another key convention of role-playing games.

Aware that players enjoyed wearing certain outfits, the developers added a patch to the game called the transmog feature which enables you to keep the stats of one set of armour while wearing another. This is a great option if you need the stealth benefits of the Utaru Gravesinger but prefer the aesthetics of the Oseram Explorer outfit when you are sneaking up on a machine.

It is worth noting having a female protagonist does not prevent male players from bonding with their role-playing identity. In fact, MacCallum-Stewart (2008) argued gender switching is “standard practice” in the gaming community.

Her research is supported by the Gamer Motivation Profile which found “29% of men prefer playing female characters” and “about 60% of female avatars… are played by a male player” in a typical PC/console game. You can complete the survey at Quantic Foundry and get your own customised report.

The Third-person Perspective

Another convention of action role-playing games is the use of the third-person perspective with the camera positioned outside of the protagonist, giving the player a clear view of Aloy and her surroundings. Just rotate the right analog stick to pan and tilt the lens in any direction. This will help you navigate through the complex textures of the open world with a better sense of distance and depth. You are also able to make more effective strategic decisions during combat events because you can assess the battlefield and enemy positions, especially when you are low on health and need to find cover from a vicious attack.

The dynamic third-person perspective increases the visibility of Aloy – an important aspect of the game’s key selling point and branding – and makes the transitions from gameplay to cutscenes and scripted events seamless. “Horizon Forbidden Dawn” is not just a game – it’s a cinematic masterpiece.

Science Fiction Codes

“Horizon Forbidden West” borrows heavily from the language of science fiction. The game is set in the future long after the Earth was ravaged by self-replicating machines which were supposed to act as peacekeepers but obliterated the planet’s biomass instead. Elisabet Sobeck, a roboticist and engineer, led the development of Zero Dawn – a project aimed at deactivating the machines and terraforming the “barren rock” by reseeding the planet with DNA stored in its systems. GAIA was the artificial intelligence built to oversee this new world.

The sequel introduces the players to Oswald Dalgard who is the public face of Far Zenith. He describes the consortium’s ambition to build a spaceship to send settlers across the galaxy to another star system, Sirius. Again, the colonisation of other planets is a popular theme in science fiction, especially alongside the threat of a global environmental catastrophe.

It is no surprise the game relies on the iconography of the genre. In first quest, you have to find your way through the “wilds” to the spaceship on the launchpad in the distance. There are plenty of remnants of the old world hidden among the trees, plants, and undergrowth – the ruined buildings with exposed metal girders, automatic doors glowing with futuristic colours, electronic shutters on the windows in the viewing gallery, and even the turnstiles into the auditorium. It is a stunning vision of a post-apocalyptic world.

The Horizon series plays on our fears regarding climate change and the use of artificial intelligence. It is a pleasing sort of fear because we get to play the saviour in this alternate reality.

The screenshot below is taken from a cutscene in the “Reach for the Stars” quest. The holographic projection of Dalgard, data screens, constellations, and the orbit of an exoplanet are all typical signifiers used in science fiction films:

Aloy listening to Dalgard's plan

Perhaps the best example of futuristic technology in the game is the Focus. It is an augmented reality device worn by Aloy to help her process objects in the environment, target weaknesses in the machines, and decode other datapoints for information. In terms of gameplay, this “second sight” makes a great user interface to experience the world. The pulse of sound coming through the controller’s speaker when you use the Focus draws the player further into the story.

The machines are another obvious signifier found in science fiction. There are 43 types, including the small Burrowers and huge Slitherfangs we have already mentioned. The representation of these mechanical monsters is important for the game’s age rating because the graphic violence and intense combat events mostly contain fantasy elements with only occasional melees against human enemies. Small splatters of blood are depicted when you kill animals and people. The amount of combat does place the action firmly in the PEGI 16 category.

Narrative

Aloy has been “searching for months” for a “backup of GAIA” to save the world from the blight. Her “only remaining lead” has taken her to the Far Zenith complex in the valley. This desire to repair the lack is established in the opening cutscenes before the player takes control of the character and then continues in the tutorial section of the game.

The inciting incident occurs when Aloy realises Sylens stole HADES. The opening credits roll while Aloy rides a machine through the wastelands towards the region referred to as the Forbidden West.

Searching for a repair makes up most of the gameplay experience – embarking on exciting quests, revealing secrets, making choices, and developing new skills and abilities. The promotional material for the game challenges players to overcome new enemies, uncover the mystery behind the blight and “restore order and balance to the world”. This would be the new equilibrium according to Tzvetan Todorov’s narrative theory.

“Horizon Forbidden West” can be classified as genre of order, but there is always room for a third instalment!

We have already argued the game is a diversion. By positioning the player as the saviour in this narrative, “Horizon Forbidden West” also appeals to our personal identity because we can learn to work through stressful situations and negative emotions more effectively by solving puzzles and destroying the deadly enemies in the game.

Roland Barthes and Narrative Codes

The chronology of computer games rely on proairetic (action) codes to sequence actions and events in the narrative. For example, Aloy and Varl realise they will not be able to defeat the Slitherfangs so they devise a plan to crush them with the old spaceship. Or you need to gather ridge-wood to craft arrows. This simple causality ensures players follow the progression of the story and understand how events are connected.

There are also plenty of hermeneutic (enigma) codes in “Horizon Forbidden West” to create suspense and prompt the player to uncover secrets. What is causing the blight? And why does Sylens want Aloy to journey into the Forbidden West?

The level of detail in the game is incredible. Pick any beat of the story and you should be able to analyse the semantic codes which help communicate meanings to the player in that moment. For example, the dress codes for each tribe carry connotations of their environment and culture, such as the way Nora outfits are made with animal hides and fur and are designed for hunting in the wilds.

Consider the following screenshot from the cutscene between Aloy and Varl:

Aloy and Varl standing outside the Far Zenith facility

Players will immediately recognise the braided wire and the sentry tower in the background. These signifiers suggest the characters have entered an area which was once restricted and secure. This creates intrigue and we are eager to find out what was being protected. When you are playing the game, look out for the semantic codes the developers use to “show” meaning and develop the sense of history and intent in the game.

For symbolic codes, there are plenty of binary oppositions to analyse. The central conflict in the game is between the natural world and advanced technology. The robots destroyed the biosphere, Aloy is trying to save the planet despite being a clone developed by a machine, the blight is killing plant life and animals, and our salvation depends on artificial intelligence.

Of course, these issues are also cultural codes because climate change does pose a real danger to our planet and we are increasingly concerned about our reliance on technology, such as the harmful effects of playing computer games and the impact AI will have on the economy. The interplay between these oppositions makes the game more engaging and thought-provoking by adding depth and complexity to the narrative.

Another binary opposition worth considering is Aloy’s desire to be a lone hunter but needing to form alliances with other characters and factions. This internal conflict links to the tension in our own lives between the individual and our responsibility to society. In other words, the representation of Aloy in “Horizon Forbidden West” can help players shape their personal identity.

Taking a structuralist approach, the binary opposition between the Aloy and the machines could draw our attention to the wider theme of good versus evil found in cultures around the world. By battling the Burrowers and Slitherfangs, we can better understand our own internal struggles and contemplate our actions and reactions, especially when it comes to moral dilemmas and making difficult decisions which might have negative consequences.

Character Types

We can easily apply Vladimir Propp’s character types to “Horizon Forbidden West”. Computer games have often reduced female characters to the role of princess – a damsel in distress who needs rescued. However, Aloy is obviously the hero who embarks on the quest to repair the lack.

During the opening tutorial, Varl is a helper who assists the hero on her initial journey.

Sylens stole the HADES system – an action typical of the villain. However, we should classify this major character as the dispatcher who sends Aloy into the uncharted territory in search of answers and sets the story in motion. In fact, we could label many of the minor characters involved in errands as dispatchers.

Aloy receives the Shieldwing from Grudda, the Tenakth rebel, after beating him in single combat. He fulfils the donor’s sphere of action. Again, there are plenty of donors in this complex narrative, such as Thurlis who gives Aloy the Tripcaster

You will just have to play the game to find out which character can be called the villain.

Neale and Genre Theory

Steve Neale (1980) described cinema as a “series of signifying processes” and genres were “specific variations of the interplay of codes”. The same semiotic framework can be used to explore computer games.

First, we can evaluate the narrative modes to classify games. Action role-playing games usually have violent and physical disruptions and repairs. This is certainly true in “Horizon Forbidden West”, Sylens steals Hades and then Aloy has to defeat a final boss to bring order to the world. By contrast, strategic life simulation games, such as “SIMS FreePlay” and “Animal Crossing: New Horizons”, follow a “process of desire” because you focus on the emotional and social needs of the avatars while building their worlds.

We have already discussed how action and enigma codes form the chronology of “Horizon Forbidden West” with an effective mix of narrative and spectacle. This mode of address is typical of the action role-playing genre whereas older platform games relied heavily on action codes and a simple linear gameplay.

Neale also argued discussions around genre should refer to “matters of expression” – the technical codes. Dynamic camera movement, HUDs and advanced combat systems are conventions of action role-playing games. “Horizon Forbidden West” moves effortlessly between the gameplay and cutscenes as well. The level of detail in the diegetic sound is incredible and epic quests also require the sort of epic orchestral score often found in Hollywood blockbusters.

Finally, the mode of authenticity is crucial to role-playing games because audiences really enjoy the lore, character backstories, costumes, representations of cultures and different environments. It is no surprise the Horizon series already has a dedicated fandom who engage intensively with the text.

Conclusion

Steve Neale believed “pleasure lies in both the repetition of the signifiers and the fundamental differences” in films. This argument is also true with computer games. “Horizon Forbidden West” follows the conventions of action role-playing games but delivers its own unique world for players to enjoy.

Games need to be commercially successful, so it makes sense for developers to offer consumers similar experiences to previous formats which have turned a profit. The “repetition” makes it easier to market new titles as well because genre provides the audience with a “coherent and systematic set of expectations”.

If you are interested in the deption of gender identities, ethnicity and power, you should read our guide to “Horizon Forbidden West” and representation where we argue this open world experience is open to everyone.

Barthes, Roland (1974) “S/Z: An Essay” (trans. Richard Millar).
MacCallum-Stewart, Esther (2008) “Real Boys Carry Girly Epics: Normalising Gender Bending in Online Games”. https://septentrio.uit.no/index.php/eludamos/article/view/vol2no1-5.
Neale, Steve (1980) “Genre”.
Propp, Vladimir (1968) “Morphology of the Folk Tale” (trans. Laurence Scott).
Schatz, Thomas (1981) “Hollywood Genres Formulas, Filmmaking, and The Studio System”.
Todorov, Tzetan (1971) “The 2 Principles of Narrative”.

Further Reading

Thanks for reading!