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Horizon: Zero Dawn Design Analysis

A look at different facets of Horizon: Zero Dawn and what Guerrilla has done to create a wholesome, engaging experience.

The following is a collection of videos (all have CC) and transcripts from my channel Farlands. If you enjoyed the content, please consider supporting my Patreon campaign.

Special thank you to:

  • Commissar Doggo
  • Douglas Gregory
  • Leanne Taylor-Giles
  • Paolo di Stefano
  • Stefan Borac

DYNAMIC DIALOGUE SYSTEM OF HORIZON: ZERO DAWN

Imagine you are playing Horizon: Zero Dawn. You see a side quest marker. After getting to it, you hear the following introductory dialogue: 

[...]

However, unbeknownst to you, many other players don’t actually hear that dialogue. They will hear this instead:

[...]

Horizon: Zero Dawn has a dynamic dialogue system in place to always keep narrative consistency regardless of which order you are completing the main and side quests in.

So, broadly speaking, each mission has a default dialogue. Completing main quests can affect the dialogues of side ones, changing the context. But there are also a lot of cases where side quests change dialogues of main missions. In addition, completing certain prerequisites while exploring will also change dialogues where it makes sense.

This is a pretty complex narrative system the whole goal of which is for players to not even notice it exists. It is more impressive when you add the Frozen Wilds DLC to the mix.

Frozen Wilds is an absolutely separate series of main and side quests that you can access at any point in time you deem fit. All quests within it have the same types of interconnections as the main game.

However, depending on what main game quests you have done, you can have different knowledge regarding the important lore and history of the world, and be at different parts of professional relationship with a man named Sylens. Not only that, but the DLC reveals even more important information about the lore, Sylens and his tribe. ALL that is taken into account.

Main game dialogues will be affected by knowledge you gained in the DLC, Frozen Wilds dialogues will be affected by what you know from the main campaign, and the most important part is that as a player going through the game you never notice any trickery is going on with the dialogues at all. Which really is what this is all about: to provide a consistent narrative experience to players, regardless of what they are doing and when.
 

LUDONARRATIVE COHESION IN HORIZON: ZERO DAWN

 

Every feature has two facets - mechanical (what the feature is actually doing) and contextual (how it makes sense within the game). When taken together they become integral building blocks for creating a cohesive experience.

Many video games of the same genre can share a similar set of features. For example, there are many open world experiences that have towers uncovering the map, skill trees, crafting systems, detective vision, all those sorts of things. But not every title connects it together as well and carefully as Horizon: Zero Dawn. Let’s talk examples.

Scavenging and crafting? Makes sense when you play as a character who lives in the wild and that’s how she survives.

Skill trees make sense when your initial motivation is training to win a proving trial. And it also makes sense for it, for example, to have a bunch of unlockable abilities related to fighting humans, as the character has never had that kind of experience before.

UI itself is connected to a Focus augmented reality device that Aloy finds when she is a child.

However, in their goal to create a cohesive experience, the developers of Horizon have went further than making sure it’s just the systems that are contextualized. 

For example, players don’t know anything about the world of the game, and so their knowledge would match - neither does Aloy. And there’s an in-game reason - she has been an outcast her whole life, of a tribe that doesn’t let people out of their territory. The latter part is also contextualization of the design decision to keep players locked in a small pocket of the open-world at the beginning, to not overwhelm them with new information.

It’s important to understand though that it’s not something Guerrilla just came up with from the get go. It was a collaborative and iterative process that would take all the things that have been planned, prototyped or written for the game, and then either cut them, modify them, or maybe add a missing link. All with a purpose of connecting together a complicated puzzle that is a game which provides a wholesome, cohesive experience.
 

THE MUSICAL LANDSCAPE OF HORIZON: ZERO DAWN

Music in video games needs to serve two purposes. The first one is, of course, the aesthetic pleasure. Music needs to enhance the experience and immerse you deeper into the world of the game through smart use of leitmotifs and instruments.

The 2nd purpose of music is feedback. It needs to provide information about gameplay state changes. Horizon: Zero Dawn is a wonderful example of musical design and implementation in video games, so let’s crash course through its wide musical landscape.

The most known tune from Horizon is probably Aloy’s theme. 

[play Aloy’s theme]

It is used for the most part in cutscenes, representing Aloy and her quest to uncover the secrets of her past, as well as of the world she lives in. This leitmotif pretty much exists purely for emotional payoff.

There is a lot of ambient music in the game, diegetic including, and its goal from gameplay perspective is to signify that you can explore without worries. Aesthetically, this type of music is used to represent different cultures and locations. The Nora, Carja, Oseram, Banuk, all have different music related to them, and you will hear different type of ambience depending on the biome you are exploring.

Now, however, let me play you some music that I’m sure is going to make everyone who has played Horizon go instantly alert.

[play machine music]

This is part of the machine themes you will hear in the game. Not only is it used to represent machines aesthetically, but it’s got a clear design intention - alert players that there is danger nearby. The player can be in different states - unseen, in combat, hiding from alert machines. All that is signified by different tunes representing different states of the game.

So, with smart usage of leitmotifs, instruments, and gameplay states, Horizon: Zero Dawn not only creates immersive music that showcases the wide variety of cultures and landscapes of the world, but also serves direct gameplay purpose of providing necessary information to the player.
 

QUEST VARIETY IN HORIZON: ZERO DAWN

 

An important aspect of any open-world game like Horizon: Zero Dawn is variety. You can have the most polished combat system, the most beautiful world, the best designed enemies, but if you don’t change things up - people will get bored. And this doesn’t mean that you have to include something that’s absolutely unrelated to your gameplay, just that you need to put it in different contexts and situations.

For example, Horizon keeps variety going through the use of quests. It’s got two types of those: open-world and dungeon ones.

Open-world quests in Horizon are less about designers controlling the environment and pacing, and more about creating interesting situations that allow players to figure out how they would like to handle those. And even this category of quests has a couple subtypes.

The first one is a fully free-form area, like Bandit Camps or Corrupted Zones. You need to clear it from enemies any way you want to in the location set up for this particular task.

The second one are quests with more of an arc - where you need to go from place to place to complete additional objectives, with the pacing somewhat more controlled by designers, but still the gameplay being fairly freeform. Also it’s very easy to just stop doing this quest and try something else.

But then there are also dungeon quests. Those are much more linear in structure, and each focuses on providing a particular experience. Some focus on a number of combat arenas, some are related to navigation and platforming, and there are some being a mix of things too.

It is also worthy of note that many important narrative developments happen in these more controlled dungeon-like situations. From a design perspective, this helps players to focus on task at hand and provide a concrete goal. But, like the things I have mentioned in the ludonarrative cohesion video, this is also contextualized through dungeons mostly being the remains of the old civilization, so it makes sense that there you will uncover secrets that are important for the story.

By varying these types of quests throughout the experience, Horizon: Zero Dawn can make sure that what you are doing in the game never becomes truly stale, thus avoiding monotonous gameplay.
 

ENEMY PROGRESSION IN HORIZON: ZERO DAWN

Horizon: Zero Dawn at its core is all about hunting machines. There’s a fantastic narrative and world surrounding all this, but machine combat is what you will be experiencing most of your actual playtime. Naturally, it is very important to create a proper progression curve, which Horizon does very gracefully.

The first machines you encounter are Watchers and Striders. Both aren’t that armored and don’t have a complex structure - just one weak point. The eye in case of Watchers, and the blaze canister in case of Striders. More than that, Striders are the more docile of the two, rarely attacking, while Watchers also teach stealth through their detecting behavior.

As you go through the game, more and more machine types appear - with different behaviors, abilities, strengths and weaknesses, eventually culminating in very complex and high-tier machines like Thunderjaws, Stormbirds and Behemoths.

What is interesting throughout this progression is that many machines are put in different contexts depending on players level and skill. For example, the Fire Bellowback is a boss battle in the very first cauldron players might visit. And at that point it is indeed a challenging robot, with new elemental behaviors, frontal armoring, and stuff like that. But later on they are treated as normal common enemies, and players themselves will not have too much trouble dealing with them thanks to new equipment and knowledge of the game.

One other subtle thing Horizon does is that the first types of every machine you will encounter are actually a bit less protected - with their weak points being more exposed. This lets players more easily get the hang of how to deal with that particular machine. And then the game at one point adds additional armor that has to be taken care of first.

So in the end, by starting simple and then gradually becoming more complex, as well as by contextually placing machines in different areas depending on expected player skill and level, Horizon can ensure a steady progression curve for its main hunting core gameplay.
 

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