If there’s one thing to say about gaming as a female-bodied person, it’s that seeing yourself represented on screen is a rare sight. Feminist Frequency, a non-profit organisation focused on analysing the relationship between society and media, found that only 5% of video games shown at E3 2019 presented a default female protagonist in comparison with 22% male default, and 65% optional gender. The choice of either is something, but those characters often lack the depth and nuance that come from a unique female-led story. So when you finally find that story, and that character, something special happens.
Guerrilla Games’ Horizon Zero Dawn is one such title. Aloy is a fierce hunter surviving in a world where mysterious metal beasts vastly outnumber the human population. An outcast of the Nora tribe, she journeys out as a Seeker on a mission to discover the truth about her birth. Hers is a story that delves deep into the lore of the Horizon world, and yet remains incredibly personal.
I hadn’t heard much about Horizon Zero Dawn prior to playing it. After my A-Levels ended, I treated myself to my very own PlayStation 4 and was looking for some exclusives to dive into. As an open-world RPG encouraging stealth over all-out combat, I knew it was the game for me. I was right. It took me no time to complete and became an instant favourite as I soon as I did. It featured a vibrant open-world, with beautiful cutscenes and an emotional story I held onto tightly. But at the heart of it all was Aloy.
Upon first glance Horizon’s heroine may appear as a Mary Sue (a frankly sexist term used to describe, almost exclusively, female characters who are deemed absurdly competent or perfect). After finding a high-tech device as a child, she adapts to its workings and proves herself as the best warrior despite her lack of training. She speaks logically yet has empathy, and we get to see her grow into this person and help her learn by upgrading her equipment. We see her fall and get back up, and her skills are celebrated in a way that few female characters are often afforded.
Aloy is strong, but her greatest power lies in her compassion. Her character is one that would normally be fuelled by rage. She was an outcast, a wild kid to throw rocks at and call names. Her anger is always present, and through the game’s dialogue options, you’re able to let Aloy speak with this resentment. But knowing what it’s like to be treated like that, she asks you turn to empathy instead. Everyone she meets, from the eccentric shaman Brin to the ruly Avad, is greeted with this kindness.
Putting down the spear and picking up a conversation is sometimes the best way for Aloy to gain the information needed to complete her journey. Her genuine earnestness to learn about people, the world and herself marks exactly why she is so compelling. She simply wants to understand everything and help those she can. Not only does this make her such an engaging character, but it also changes the way you play. The option of subduing enemies rather than killing them fits in line with this motivation, while the side quests are memorable and make a lasting emotional impact.
This is culminated perfectly by Ashly Burch’s moving performance, carrying all the spirit and care the part requires. Aloy’s feelings are complicated, and this is where Burch really started to hit something with me. There’s so much going on that even after taking her on this monumental journey for dozens of hours, it doesn’t scratch the surface of who she truly is. Aloy is given depth and crafted with passion. She is allowed to be vulnerable without surrendering her strength. By giving us a fully realised character who is both adept and flawed at the same time, Horizon Zero Dawn creates a character who is as real as it gets.
To put it simply, Aloy surprised me. Horizon Zero Dawn was the first game I’d ever played with a female lead. But even before that, I hadn’t seen a character who exhibited such kind, clever, and understanding behaviour while also standing up as a true bow-wielding badass. People may call her a Mary Sue, but why shouldn’t she be incredible? Horizon doesn’t sacrifice any aspect of her character for the sake of plot or a better audience reception, instead it celebrates her and asks you to look closer to see she’s not as perfect as she might seem. And that makes her perfect.