Monday, January 8, 2018

Social Justice Reviews: Horizon Zero Dawn

Remember when I said I was gonna do these all the time? Lol.

But people are STILL getting mad about that one review I did of The Elder Scrolls Online, so let's see how mad people can get at me!

First I should explain that this is not going to be a spoiler-free review. It's more like I'm grading it. If you're just looking for an idea of whether or not you might like it enough to pay for it, go find a different review. If you're looking for whether or not the game will trigger you, direct your attention to the following:

CONTENT WARNINGS

One reference to rape: A bad guy suggests he is going to rape a female character but his boss tells him he's not allowed to.

Multiple explicit references to suicide.

Mass death.

The game also gets extremely dark at multiple points. It is a post-apocalyptic fiction story. It sent me into an existential depression, but luckily the anti-depressants I'm on allow me to lift out of those pretty quickly. If you don't have that luxury while being susceptible to depressive episodes, you might want to avoid this one.

Fuck you, Ted
In general, I loved Horizon Zero Dawn. It's a really great game. It's how an open world game should be. You can tell that a ton of love went into it. There are so many little details that tell their own little stories and really deepen the overall tragedy of the fact that some goddamn rich white man FUCKED EVERYTHING UP AND KILLED EVERYBODY sorry I'm still mad at him.

I finished the game and then started the Frozen Wilds bonus content thing today, and I think I was more moved by the brief Last Girls On Earth subplot than the main story. Not that the main story wasn't good. I may be a little biased on that subject, though. I have a rather morbid love of post-apocalyptic fiction.

Anyway, social justice. Let's look at the categories.

Gender

The main character is a woman. She's brought up by a man, and the tribe she's kind of a part of is matriarchal. It's governed by three old women, and motherhood appears to be considered holy. They also worship a goddess, though it turns out to be a female-coded computer voice. There is also another character who is responsible for the incredible, genius technology that stopped all life on Earth from going extinct centuries before Aloy's birth.

Many of the characters are women. In terms of quest-giving characters and friends made along the way, the split seems to be about 50-50. However, the game's societies are not sexism-free, therefore the issue is addressed. Aloy comes across multiple misogynistic men. Multiple tribes are actively sexist, keeping women out of their religious ranks, military, and trying to tell them their "place." Aloy isn't the only women in the game who rejects this. In tribes that aren't blatantly sexist, guards appear to be evenly male-female. Considering the fact that background characters tend to be only 17% female, it is very likely that developers had to make a deliberate effort to ensure gender parity.

That being said, there is only one explicit trans character and no explicit non-binary character. The trans character is, once again, a light-skinned skinny trans man. I'm waiting for one of these supposedly progressive AAA games to have an explicit trans woman. Or a trans person of color. Anything else than a skinny white trans man.

The game has, arguably, three villains. The person responsible for the robot apocalypse is a rich white man. I would argue him to be a villain, even if he didn't mean to doom humanity and is no longer a threat in Aloy's time, because he's dead. The antagonists she does have to deal with are a big light-skinned man who is super pure evil, and the AI/computer entity thing called Hades, which is a male mythical diety and you could argue that its voice is coded as male. I'm not really sure how I feel about this because on the one hand, women so rarely get to be villains, while on the other hand, I enjoy the theme of "men ruin everything."

I do think, at least, having a rich white man doom everyone via his hubris is, ahem, historically accurate.

THOSE ABS
I also want to touch on Aloy's character. Aloy isn't the most likable person, and yet, I like her. I appreciate that the writers didn't try to force a personality on her that didn't make sense. She is brusque, straightforward, and no-nonsense. The only humor she exhibits is biting sarcasm when she's annoyed with someone. This makes sense seeing the only social interaction she had growing up was with Captain No-Fun. Many developers seem to only know how to write women one of two ways: massive ice-blooded mega bitch or super sweet caretaker. Aloy isn't sweet. She's not "spunky." They dared to make her less than likable. I respect that. And plenty of other female characters are very likable in various different ways. Vanasha, in particular, is hilarious and amazing.

And last but not least, appropriate fucking armor. With the possible exception of Vanasha's armor, actually, but I'm gonna give that one a pass because HOLY SHIT ABS. That outfit made me at least 90% gayer.

Ability

There don't seem to be any clearly disabled characters in the game, which is disappointing. Especially because the development of human society is about at the point where they're beginning to experiment with explosives. The Roman-type tribe has little grenade things, and one tribe in particular is very into working with metal and making weapons that fire explosive shit. And not one person is missing a limb or two? The developers had the perfect opportunity to have someone sport a cool metal prosthetic arm.

Age

The matriarchs I mentioned are all pretty old. They have wrinkles and all that. Other than that, there aren't many people in the game you could call old. Maybe not surprising in a world where people might generally not often live to be grey and wrinkled. But there is one weird thing. One of the quest-giving characters, a generally awesome woman named Petra, says multiple things that suggest she's supposed to be old. Like "when I was your age" type stuff, calling herself old, talking as though she's been around for a long time. But she looks like she's 25 with some sun damage, which, I mean, most of them should have sun damage.

In what universe is she old

Make old women actually look old, you cowards.

Neurodiversity

Not much to be said here, as usual. There is one quest with a character coded as schizophrenic, "hearing voices" and all that. It is, I guess, nice that this character never hurts anyone except when a bully who has been tormenting him for years seriously threatens him, and he lashes out in self-defense. That character is able to survive on his own and is left to do so with his sister supporting/checking in on him. It doesn't seem like a terrible depiction. People with schizophrenia have difficulties but can often function independently just fine. They're not actually anymore dangerous than any other person.

Race

They did something a little interesting with this. There is a surprising amount of racial diversity in this game, and within tribes. It's not like each tribe is a different race, which wouldn't make sense seeing as the entire game seems to take place in what used to be Utah. Instead, during the construction of the AI network that would restart life on Earth, the "old ones" deliberately ensure that diverse races will be represented in the human clones that would be grown ones Earth was made habitable again. So characters come in all different skin shades yet racism doesn't seem to be a thing in any of the tribes.

Hello Lieutenant Daniels
That doesn't mean there aren't racial issues in the game. The protagonist and the previous savior of all life on Earth are both white. There seem to be a lot more light-skinned characters than dark-skinned in general. I was surprised to see that the human image of GAIA that Elizabet made (I assume) is a black woman. This first struck me as a good thing, but I'm not sure and as a white person it's not for me to say. I haven't been able to find any analysis on this by a black woman. Also, an important character is a black man, but he's complicated. Very smart, but perhaps sinister? I'm not sure about him either.

Overall, it looks like some effort has been made in a race area, but it could be better. We've had plenty of white women as protagonists now. Good job. Now can we please have a fucking woman of color as a protagonist in a AAA game that's not a fucking spinoff? You devs made a big deal about sexism in this game but you didn't want to talk about race, and the game's two saviors are white women! Comes off as being pretty white feminist.

Sexuality

There are references to multiple same-sex relationships in the game. Unfortunately, they all seem to be used to deepen the tragedy of the whole "all of humanity wiped out" thing. All the relationships involved in your quests are male-female. Nobody seems to be explicitly bi, poly, or pansexual.

There is absolutely no romance for Aloy to be found in the game. Multiple characters express finding her attractive, and one basically throws himself at her, but she shows no interest in romance at any point. On the one hand, I very much appreciate this. We need more stories that don't shoehorn romance into them like it's against the law not to.

On the other hand, my pansexual ass wanted to fuck EVERYBODY, especially the HOT KING who basically throws himself at her. He's hot, and he's a king. And then Vanasha? With the abs???

I'm entirely spoiled by the BioWare games.

On the third hand, it's pretty cool that Aloy could easily be coded as ace. She just shows absolutely no interest in sex or romance, and is constantly like "hey buddy you're cool and all but I kinda have MORE IMPORTANT things to do like you know saving the world or whatever." She doesn't explicitly say that she's not and never will be interested in either and/or both, but I wouldn't be surprised if she was intentionally portrayed as asexual/aromantic.

Conclusion

I'm going to be a pretty tough grader here and give the entire game a C+.

It's better than average, but the average game is an F, so.

It tries on gender and does well on representing women, but the trans representation is bare, bare minimum. It's iffy on race and sexuality. It misses a big opportunity on ability, is weird on age, and is almost nothing on neurodiversity.

I think I covered just about everything, but as usual, if I missed something, please tell me in the comments.

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