The God in the Machine: An Anapnoic Critique of Horizon

Cover Image by James Gurney

Introduction

In recent weeks, I’ve greatly enjoyed my time with Horizon: Zero Dawn, the post-post-apocalyptic open world game by the people at Guerrilla Games. While its name isn’t all too clarifying, here we find a world flourishing long after the fall of our own civilization, an artificial wilderness made possible by the terraforming powers of biomimetic machines. Amid this future masquerading as prehistory, you play as Aloy, a quite literal descendant of the ancients who’s tasked with uncovering their legacy and saving it from corruption. Along the way, you see how various new cultures have reacted to this strange lifeworld, from jealous ignorance to tentative investigation. Overall, it’s quite a journey.

Given these various factors, it’s no surprise that I took to exploring this world with a fervor equal to Aloy’s own. Beyond its stellar worldbuilding and aesthetics, I was generally impressed with its quality of writing, which was at least a tier above the kind I’m used to from this genre. The writers’ knack for depicting apocalyptic despair was particularly remarkable. While I’ve explored a thousand virtual ruins in my day, including those of a futurist America, the audio logs I found here still managed to feel fresh and interesting. That’s quite the achievement in such a saturated field. Taken together, I’d favorably compare Horizon to Bethesda’s Fallout, the Tomb Raider reboot, and perhaps even The Witcher. One prominent element it shares with the latter is that Aloy is anything but a silent protagonist. She’s never afraid to give her take on events, and her perspective is generally sympathetic from a leftist perspective. While she’s not a revolutionary, she’s no respecter of kings or matriarchs either. If anything, I wish her idiosyncratic streak was emphasized a little further, so that she doesn’t just exist to save the world from its obvious troubles. A bit of politics never hurt any setting.

Anyway, the reason I would bring up Horizon to begin with is its basic narrative genre. Though entirely unintentional, this setting is about the closest the AAA gaming space has gotten to the genre of anapnoic fiction. As its original codifier, I see it as my duty to make this connection explicit. While the notion of the anapnoic carries no normative force, I believe it may still serve as a useful rubric for getting at some of Horizon’s own shortcomings. In short, by being more anapnoic, this setting could more fully realize its own narrative potential. Or so I believe.

First, a refresher. What is anapnoic fiction to begin with? Roughly speaking, an anapnoic setting is one which has transcended the bonds of what we might call civilization, or else state society. However fraught this notion of civilization might be, it gets at the deep history of hierarchy and repression which marks the past few millennia. By opposing this legacy, the anapnoic gets at a far deeper tradition of autonomy and creativity, a lineage which long predates the first inklings of statehood. One must be careful in engaging with this history of statelessness; far too often, anti-civilizational sentiments results in nothing but a simplistic inversion of the hated enemy. Such a mode of thought would merely glorify the pictures of primitivity and wilderness which civilization itself produces. Instead, we should take note of the authentic existence of those who have sought to escape or subvert the influence of state society, including folks who are anything but ‘primitive’ (a nonsense term in any case). The anapnoic thus describes anyone and anything that might survive and flourish beyond the leviathan of state, capital, and patriarchy, not to mention a bunch of other pernicious kyriarchies. Whatever image this ends up eliciting in you, so long as it treats anarchy as a good thing, it can rightfully be called anapnoic.

This brings me back to Horizon: why would I call that world anapnoic? As noted before, my reasons are more aspirational than analytical. As it is, I would not call this setting anapnoic by its own merits. However, I do believe that this framework can help to refine its worldbuilding, to resolve some of its unsatisfying or implausible aspects. This work begins at the end of the world; what does Horizon try to say about the collapse of civilization? Should it present that differently? From there, we can move into what follows. Are we satisfied with Horizon’s portrayal of the post-post-apocalypse? By the standards of the anapnoic, it leaves much to be desired. As we will see, its depiction of future primitives is especially problematic. In order to move beyond these issues, I hope to reincorporate the old and new, the pre- and post-apocalypse, into a more deliberate and self-conscious whole. Only when the troubling pitfalls of this kind of story are transcended, can we see the potential that was there all along.

Part One: The Start Of The World As We Know It

As far as science fiction apocalypses go, the backstory to Horizon is quite a doozy. Whereas most AI uprising scenarios would be content to merely exterminate the human race, Horizon’s death machines aren’t satisfied until they’ve gobbled up the entire ecosphere. This naturally presents an additional challenge to those trying to survive the robots’ onslaught. Instead of merely surviving the attack until the AI can be shut down (itself a matter of centuries), they’ll also need to reboot the Earth’s ecology from scratch. Ultimately, their solution is almost as techno-optimistic as their original quandary; in short, they’ll need to build a bigger bot. More specifically, by engineering an artificial terraforming intelligence called Gaia, humanity can hopefully resume its civilization in a millennium or so. This is the titular project known as Zero Dawn, and it mostly works as designed. Only a last-minute deletion of the cultural and scientific archives throws a spanner in the works, and ensures that the new crop of human populations will have to build their societies without ancestral guidance. In the end, this is what produces the exotic status quo of Horizon’s present, a world where robots are hunted for parts, empires scour ruins for technology, and sun-kings reign from atop old Utan mesas.

The way it’s depicted in at least the first game, Horizon’s backstory gives ample reason for both praise and critique. First of all, we might regard its basic conceit—of a world brought low by robotic ecocide—as a potent parallel to our present climate crisis. Even if the creeping of climate change is solved by ‘green robots’ in this universe, the company that built these miracle devices then goes on to cause the AI apocalypse. If this reveals anything, it’s that technological solutions to societal problems will only make more trouble in the long run. In general, the writers of Horizon seem rather skeptical of global capitalism. The world which immediately precedes the total apocalypse is already a hellscape of corporate governance, a place where swarms of drones duke it out in various capital-colonial ventures. Considering the rapacious history of The Netherlands, the country which most of its developers hail from, I’m sure it’s no coincidence that the eventual AI uprising starts with a rogue swarm in insular South-East Asia. In the end, the same colonial crimes which started capitalism have now resulted in its self-destruction.

But here’s where things get tricky. From a certain point of view, it would seem that the ‘solution’ to the world’s end is as techno-optimistic as the regime which caused. Would the biosphere really be helped along by a centralized terraforming authority? This is the kind of ecological hubris that only a resident of The Netherlands—perhaps the most artificial country on the planet—could come up with. Still, if we can look past this surface-level silliness, the specific development of this premise shows a deeper awareness of what’s at stake. As the first game argues, what sets Gaia apart from her ecocidal cousins is that she has the capacity to care about the biosphere. Beyond her raw power as a cybernetic system, it is her concern about the Earth and its creatures that will help to revive our world. Even if this conclusion seems a little schmalzy, it’s still a nice corrective to the usual ‘tech will fix it’ attitude which otherwise pervades this genre. Indeed, by founding this caring attitude in a notion of old mother gods, the writers are already hinting at the anapnoic. But this brings me to my next section.

Part Two: Everything Old Is New Again

Here we come to the world after the end, where people are forced to rebuild society in the absence of any imparted tradition. In a narrative sense, this is usually a device for the writers to show what they think humanity is like ex nihilo. Freed from the burden of ancestry, who knows how this new world could develop? As it turns out, unfortunately, this potential doesn’t stretch too far beyond our stereotypes about real history. Many have already noted how some of Horizon’s cultures consist of problematic misrepresentations of Indigenous American peoples. In practice, this amounts to arbitrary matriarchies, ignorant superstition, and a seeming absence of active ecological management (quite unlike the actual Americas). Then, when the game shows what it thinks are more ‘advanced cultures’, the result is a kind of swords-and-sandals pastiche of benevolent kings, haughty priests, and out-of-touch nobles. What is especially egregious is the essentialist connection between city dwelling, agriculture, and despotic rulership. As many recent accounts of ancient urban history will show, this connection is anything but necessary; its recurrence here is nothing but a waste of worldbuilding.

If it seems like I’m being rather hard on the game here, it’s only because I believe it’s capable of so much more. What holds it back ultimately comes down to a single notion: ignorance. Used in moderation, ignorance can be a powerful narrative tool, used to create such elements as mystery, tension, and tragedy. Unfortunately, Horizon seems to use ignorance as the basis of its worldbuilding, thus poisoning the setting with an inherent instability. To put it plainly, most of the cultures on Horizon can only exist in the absence of any proper knowledge about their forebears. Their objects of worship and methods of understanding are entirely dependent on a foundational ignorance regarding the old world. This constitutes a nasty misrepresentation of analogous lifeways, which are always based in something more than superstition. Presenting them as such casts Aloy in the unfortunate role of an enlightened civilizer, someone who’ll bring the Light of Reason to these ignorant savages. Taken together, this approach largely hampers any attempt to immerse oneself in the setting. It’s hard to feel part of these cultures when your protagonist doesn’t seem to take them seriously.

And this is only half the problem. For even as the peoples of Horizon misunderstand their relation to the past, they also seem remarkably uncurious about the present. For all the marvelous machines which roam the lands, humanity’s relation to them only seems to consist of periodic hunting and gathering. Even then, it’s not clear whether the use of machine components has had any significant impact on society or technology. Besides a few nifty weapons, the entire world seems trapped in the usual medieval stasis of fantasy. This contrasts with classic anapnoic works like Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, where the use of relatively advanced technology like airplanes and gas masks is vital to an otherwise rustic setting. In the context of Horizon, just imagine the kind of societies you could see with more elaborate forms of human-machine interaction.

For example, imagine a community which still hunts machines, but does so at the confluence of various herding patterns, thus allowing them to maintain a sedentary lifestyle. The parts they take from these bots are then used for all kinds of things: heat, power, clothing, shelter, weapons, tools, weather forecasts, navigation, night vision, laser measures, and so on. The options run from low to high tech, in a pattern which could only make sense in this environment.

Or else, consider a society which has more thoroughly integrated these machines into their lifeway. Whether you call this domestication or symbiosis, there are plenty of ways in which these beings could be utilized. Most of these are similar to those of actual animals, of course: mounts of war, agricultural aides, airborne messengers, and so on. But their mechanical nature also affords more unique opportunities. From tall-necked environmental scanners to mobile biofuel generators to autonomous machine recyclers, these beings could be put to many different uses.

But here we run into another aspect of the setting, and it’s an important one. Any society that would tame these artificial creatures would also need to contend with the origin of their artifice. All these various species are the product of an intelligent design, of the terraforming efforts set in motion by the AI known as Gaia. Even if she seems to afford her creations some considerable autonomy, it would not escape her notice if some humans started putting them to their own ends. At best, some kind of bargain would have to be struck. What would such a relationship look like?

Part Three: Do Nora Pray To Electric Gods?

This leads me to my note on religiosity in Horizon. As mentioned before, most of the spiritual beliefs of this world’s peoples are put down as a result of superstitious ignorance. The Nora may worship an ‘All-Mother’, but this figure is just a faulty interpretation of the facility which originally spawned them. In this example, and many others like it, there is ultimately no difference between religion and misapprehension.

Ironically, this equation itself misunderstands the way in which various peoples stake out their spiritual positions. In truth, religious doctrine is rarely about divining the literal, scientific truth about the universe. More often, they’re focused on structuring a given lifeway, and providing the underlying philosophy. Even where specific historical claims are made, their meaning is usually not dependent on their ultimate accuracy. In this context, the Nora’s beliefs are actually far more factual than those of some real religions (again, not that this really matters). As should be obvious by now, the All-Mother they worship actually does exist in the form of Gaia. Even if they don’t understand the technical particulars, it is surely metaphorically true that they and their lifeworld are being protected by a caring mother goddess. Hell, despite her artificial origins, the character of this supposed ‘goddess’ is far closer to that of a personal divinity than any kind of machine. All in all, the only things that seem to stand in the way of a spiritual interpretation are Aloy’s insistence on the one hand, and authorial fiat on the other. I think that’s an unfair obstruction.

As with these other areas of its worldbuilding, Horizon could be so much better if it learns to appreciate its religious aspects. Beyond the simplistic and tiresome dichotomy of ‘science versus superstition’, there’s a wondrous variety of potential knowledge systems. In a spiritual context, this can run from watchmaker deism all the way to omnipresent animism. Their relation to the technical side of this world can be literal or metaphorical, as long as it’s clear how the practices of various faiths inform their associated lifeways. If done properly, it will no longer be adequate to simply ‘prove’ the infidelity of a given belief system to ‘scientific reality’; such an attempt simply presumes a person’s commitment to the latter. Instead, these games could immerse us in the belief systems of its different societies, and so learn to appreciate or critique them on their own terms. This approach would certainly be better than its present stereotypes of Indigeneity, and the scientistic crusade it mounts against them.

Conclusion

As I have argued throughout this piece, I believe the Horizon setting could be greatly enhanced by embracing the principles of anapnoic fiction. Above all, this means a different approach to epistemology, to the way that people understand their world. As it is, the post-post-apocalyptic Earth is merely a lesser configuration of the one we know. Sure, there might be cool machine animals governed by supercomputers, but you as a person are doomed to live out your days in a pantomime of earlier histories. Whether you choose to be a machine hunter or a city-dwelling nobleman, your existence will be defined by your ignorance of what’s really going on in the world. To me, this is a gross misrepresentation of how people would really exist in such an environment. It’s also just bad worldbuilding.

If Horizon is to live up to its own promise, some core concepts will have to be retooled. In summary, this ‘soft’ rework would consist of a greater symbiosis between man and machine-animal, a self-conscious understanding of the Old World (along with a deliberate rejection of its civilization), and a sensibly spiritual approach to dealing with the all-powerful AI gods. Taken together, this would allow the peoples of this setting to be more themselves, and less the derivatives of previous imaginations of the ‘primitive’. For some particular inspiration, I would point the developers to Always Coming Home, an impressive post-civilized ethnography by Ursula K. Le Guin. This work is the closest that anyone has previously gotten to ‘pure’ anapnoic fiction, and it’s well worth reading regardless.

It is when Horizon starts leaning more in this direction that I believe its true potential could be realized. Consider, for instance, the relation between this setting’s denizens and the biomimetic machines which surround them. Given their own frame of reference, what difference is there really between these machines and their original animal templates? Sure, you can’t eat a metal beast, but the same goes for many biological organisms. It just makes sense to me that among Horizon’s cultures, the category of ‘animal’ would include the native machines. Heck, why stick with what we already know? Given the technological prowess of the pre-apocalyptic world, you might as well through some mutant or android species in there. Give us some dinosaurs! If what matters is the way that runaway technology has produced a new kind of ecology, then surely we could afford a bit more variety.

With that, I think I’ve said my piece on this remarkable series of games. For all my complaints, I do believe this setting has a lot of potential, which just needs the slightest bit of anapnoic insight to realize. I would encourage you to check out these games if you can, and should you be more interested in the particulars of the anapnoic genre, check out my various writings on the topic. See you in the next essay!

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