Aloy walking through the grass

Representation in Horizon Forbidden West


“Horizon Forbidden West” is an exciting action role-playing game released in 2022 on the PlayStation. You take on the role of Aloy, a female hunter who has to venture into uncharted lands and battle against mechanical monsters to uncover the origins behind a terrible blight which will annihilate all life on the planet.

We explored the game’s unique mythology, engaging characters, and enhanced combat systems in our comprehensive guide to “Horizon Forbidden West” and genre. Since this post-apocalyptic world is set around 1,000 years in the future and beyond the cultural context of the 21st century, we want to critically assess the representations of ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and social class, including their impact on the contemporary audience.


Many commentators have praised the developers for including a diverse cast of characters, especially the representation of groups who are often marginalised in the industry. In terms of ethnicity, you will immediately meet a broad range of faces in Meridian and around the Daunt:

A collage of ethnicity in Horizon Forbidden West

There is an impressive authenticity to these non-playable characters (NPCs). The Lead Character Artist at Guerrilla, Bastien Ramisse, described how his team wanted to “improve the quality and fidelity of the models” to make them more “believable and inspirational”. The artwork is certainly realistic, but the script writing and terrific performances by the voice actors also ensure each character is more than just a presence in the game.

This positive approach to representation is important because computer games have been criticised for normalising power imbalances in society by underrepresenting and stereotyping minority ethnic groups. For example, Williams (2009) and his team analysed characters from the 100 best-selling computer games of 2005. Their results highlighted the overrepresentation of white males compared to other demographic profiles. In her study of top-selling game magazines and a sample of 149 computer game covers, Burgess (2011) concluded that “minority females are virtually absent in game representations” and “minority males” are overrepresented as aggressive “thugs” and “athletes”.

George Gerbner argued there was a correlation between our perception of violence in the world and our consumption of violence on television. In his research, heavy media users reported higher levels of threat compared to lighter users who watched fewer aggressive behaviours on the screen. He called this effect mean world syndrome.

If computer games are a socialising agent, then players are being trained to believe these stereotypes of “thugs” and “athletes” are true. The social learning theory suggests we copy the behaviours we see in the media through a process of symbolic modelling, so it is vital games offer positive role models rather than the racial bias and harmful stereotypes evident in older titles.

Decoding Positions

Stuart Hall identified three theoretical decoding positions. A dominant reading of “Horizon Forbidden West” could praise the representations of ethnicity encoded by the game’s designers. However, some critics have taken a negotiated or even an oppositional reading of the text and accused Guerilla of relying on racist tropes and cultural appropriation.

bell hooks encouraged audiences to be “enlightened witnesses” and think carefully about the representations we see in the media. Although we can appreciate the diversity in “Horizon Forbidden West”, we also need to evaluate those meanings.

The Self and Other

The Carja are one of the largest tribes in “Horizon Forbidden West”. Throughout much of their written history, they positioned themselves as the superior force in the world and represented outsiders as “primitive” and “savage”. According to scripture, for example, they migrated from the “Savage East” to settle in Meridian and cultivate the land.

In the game’s first interlude, Marad tells Aloy “the west is called ‘forbidden’ for a reason” – the Tenakth are a “tribe of ferocious warriors” who will hunt her on sight. The Sung-King, Avad, then warns the protagonist “that tribe is renowned for its brutality”. Later in the story, Fashav says “violence is the native tongue of the Tenakth”. Aloy is being taught to fear the Tenakth so it is no surprise she calls them “killers”.

Screenshot of Marad talking to Aloy

As Aloy makes her way to Chainscrape, Studious Vaudis refers to her as a Nora “savage”. Even allies of the Carja are reduced to cruel and untamed animals.

This binary opposition between the powerful Sundom and the “primitive” tribes they tried to conquer, especially during the Red Raids, is similar to the discourse European imperialists used to justify their civilising missions.

Does Avad challenge this essentialism with his attempts to deliver a lasting peace with the Tenakth? Is Aloy expressing a post-colonial perspective when she labels Fashav a “raider” rather than a “solider”? We should also ask if the Othering of “primitive” tribal identities in “Horizon Forbidden West” positions the player as the powerful and modern Self when we work our way through the quests on our high-definition television screens.

Cultural Cosplay

The Tenakth dress in leathers and furs, wear ornate headgear, and cover their skin in heavy warpaint and tattoos – an aesthetic that seems to be inspired by Native American cultures. This design is epitomised by Hekarro, the charismatic and fearsome chief of the tribe:

Hekarro from Horizon Forbidden Dawn

The character is modelled and voiced by Geno Segers, an actor with Cherokee heritage. Here is a production still from his performance in the film “Bone Tomahawk” (2015) where he plays a cannibalistic cave dweller:

Boar Tusks from the film Bone Tomahawk
“Bone Tomahawk” (2015)

Guerilla Games are clearly not the first production company to be accused of exploiting indigenous cultures and identities to entertain a modern audience. The creator of the Horizon franchise, Jan-Bart van Beek, responded to the criticism, saying they tried to “honor, respect and celebrate” our “shared legacy” in their depictions of the tribes and their cultures.

He also described the games as “sort of like a Western story” with Aloy “riding on horseback traveling over the Great Plains”. The producers intentionally romanticised the narrative of the American cowboy venturing into the wild west to bring order to the frontier and ignored the people who already called that landscape their home. Some commentators believe the redheaded Aloy reinforces the white saviour trope.

The Representation of Gender

Liesbet van Zoonen (1996) believed media representations “symbolically denigrate women, either by not showing them at all, or by showing them in stereotypical roles”. The computer games industry has certainly been criticised for many years for underrepresenting women. When a woman did appear onscreen, they were often stereotyped as the damsel in distress who needed rescued by the male protagonist. In our analysis of Lara Croft in “Tomb Raider: Anniversary” and Samus Aran in “Metroid Prime 2: Echoes”, we recognised the significance of having games being driven by strong and adventurous women, but we also explored how both of these heroines had been objectified for the male gaze.

In an interview with Polygon, Shuhei Yosida, acknowledged the company debated whether or not it was “risky to do a female character”. Taking the concept of “Horizon Forbidden West” to their marketing groups, he was reassured when the “focus testing reaction was positive”. Judith Butler argued subversive representations of masculinity and femininity drew attention to gender as a social construct reinforced by the media. Perhaps the developers behind “Horizon Forbidden West” were worried about causing gender trouble.

The representation of Aloy has been welcomed by players because she is a fiercely independent woman who makes her own choices in this open world game. The game’s director, Mathijs de Jonge, wanted to make her “personality really interesting” and we have to admire her determination to help everyone in the side quests and errands. Although we might denounce her outfits as cultural cosplay, at least she is dressed for exploration and combat rather than to tease the player with the controller.

If the mass media shapes our behaviour and values, narrow representations of gender naturalise the imbalance of power between men and women. Van Zoonen emphasised women were active consumers of the media and, just like Aloy, more than capable of constructing their own identities, but she did express concern about the unrealistic stereotype of the “superwoman” who is an “independent and assertive career woman”, a “successful wife and mother”, and is “still beautiful”. Should we be concerned with the unrealistic expectations set by the representation of “no-mother” Aloy who was “made by a machine” to save the world?

The world in “Horizon Forbidden West” feels alive with characters who have their own stories, and the players get to see representations of identities often ignored by developers. Everyone should get a chance to experience meaningful and positive versions of themselves on the screen.

During “A Soldier’s March” side quest, Aloy meets Wekatta, the leader of the Sky Clan. Their face paint is light blue, pink and white – the three colours of Transgender Pride Flag. When they tell Aloy “I chose to wear a woman’s armor, people thought I was crazy too”, it is important to recognise the character was voiced by Rebecca Root – a transgender actress.

This interaction with Wekatta can be a liberating experience for some players because they might find comfort in the representation of a trans identity and feel empowered to find their own “path on the Wings of the Ten”.

There are many moments of same-sex love, joy and struggle in the story as well, including a Flashpoint with the protagonist. In 2023, Guerilla Games released “Burning Shores”. The downloadable content (DLC) followed Aloy into the dangerous ruins of Los Angeles where she meets Seyka – a tenacious and skilled warrior. They work together to defeat the last remaining member of Far Zenith and, at the end of the game, Seyka reveals she “wants to be with” Aloy. If you select the heart option from the dialogue wheel, Aloy returns the affection, and they kiss.

The romantic cutscene was praised for expressing Aloy’s sexual orientation and for Guerilla Games choosing to “stand behind a queer protagonist”. It was also resisted by some players who began review-bombing the game.

The variety of gender identities, backgrounds, and orientations in “Horizon Forbidden West” is a step in the right direction. An open world game should be open to everyone.

The Representation of Power

The worldbuilding in “Horizon Forbidden West” is impressive with the developers constructing a vibrant history and culture for each tribe. For example, the Carja is an absolute monarchy ruled by Avad, the 14th Sun-King of the Sundom. His golden headdress is large and wonderfully ornate, signifying his position of power in society. The sharp rays emanating from the centre link to the tribe’s worship of the sun and probably alludes to the halos surrounding paintings of Christ and the saints throughout the Middle Ages.

The arrival of Avad in Horizon Forbidden West

More progressive than the previous rulers, Avad abolished slavery, opened opportunities for women to enter the military, and is trying to build better relationships with the other tribes. When Aloy bows and then thanks the Sun-King for his gift in the interlude, the developers are positioning the player to react favourably to his authority.

However, they do poke fun at the bigoted Studious Vuadis. He is the character who said the Nora were savages. After he uses the word “girl” as an insult and labels Aloy as a “scallywag”, the player will immediately appreciate her telling him to “shh”.

His headgear is similar to a monk’s hood and his outer garments look like the vestments worn by an important priest. By representing Vuadis – sorry, Studious Vuadis – as arrogant and thoroughly unlikeable, the developers are challenging the old Carja patriarchy.

It is interesting to explore the imbalance of power between the elite and the working class.

In Chainscrape, for instance, Ulvund is bitter towards the “fine silks and wine of Meridian” and describes the Carja magistrate as a “fancy robed parchment pusher”. He wants a “fair deal” for the “good” and “honest” Oseram folk who do all the “back-breaking work” in the mines only for the Carja to “reap the rewards”.

His “concession decree” is an attempt to grab a share of that prosperity, but Ulvund is also exploiting his “fellow laborers” by making “unreasonable” demands on the miners, ordering “extra shifts” and “pushing too hard and too fast”. Arnuf was injured when a blast made a tunnel collapse. Working “long hours” in “lousy conditions”, he tells Aloy he may have escaped unharmed if wasn’t existing on “barely a spark of sleep”. He has no choice but to keep working.

Out in the valley, Belna says her crew are “just little cogs” and cannot “lift a hammer” without Ulvund’s permission, so she is desperate for the whistle to sound and get back to “digging stones”.

When the player clears the Daunt of Bristlebacks, Ulvund’s plan to steal power is thwarted and the Carja’s ownership of the land is secured. The following screenshot is taken from the moment the citizens of Chainscrape celebrate Aloy’s announcement that Ulvund will “pay every worker their lost wages”.

Screenshot of Oseram workers

Notice how they are raising their tankards in celebration. It’s a shame Guerilla Games decided to represent the “good” and “honest” workers staggering through the streets and wasting away in the tavern. The representation of power and the powerless is important.


Science fiction texts have a unique ability to provoke debate about our values and beliefs.

Some players have reacted favourably to the game’s progressive stance towards the representation of ethnicity, gender, and sexuality. Others have accused the developers of ignorance and insensitivity. Both points of view demonstrate how “Horizon Forbidden West” can help audiences make sense of the present despite being set 1,000 years in the future.

In the words of Avad, “change will not come in a single sunrise”.

Burgess, M.C.R., et al. (2011) “Playing with prejudice: The prevalence and consequences of racial stereotypes”.
Butler, Judith (1990) “Gender Trouble”.
Deskins, Troy G. (2013) “Stereotypes in Video Games and How They Perpetuate Prejudice”.
Gerbner, George and Gross, Larry(1977) “Living with Television: The Violence Profile”.
hooks, bell (1996) Reel to Real Race, Sex and Class at the Movies
van Zoonen, Liesbet (1996) “Feminist Perspectives”.
Williams, Dmitri, et al. (2009) “The virtual census: Representations of gender, race and age in video games.”

Further Reading

Thanks for reading!