Technology Worship, Media Archaeology, and Zombie Media in Horizon Zero Dawn

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Ian Faith is a PhD student in English at the University of Iowa. His research focuses on the ways in which video game thematics, aesthetics, and mechanics have influenced 21st century media forms, especially fiction, poetry, and performance. Follow Adan on Twitter

Little more than a year has passed since Horizon Zero Dawn’s (2017) release, and if its reception in popular venues like Polygon and Medium is any indication, we will soon see scholarship on its appropriation of Native American cultures, representations of women, its treatment of post-racial societies, and its critique of capitalism and the military-industrial complex. This essay adds to the growing body of literature on Horizon by considering its representations of not just people, but media forms and our relationships with them. To this end, I situate Horizon within the broader context of ‘meta-games,’ that is, games that comment on their own forms, histories, and place in culture writ large. Over the past decade, there has been a proliferation of such ‘games about games,’ including The Stanley Parable (Galactic Cafe, 2013), Getting Over It (Foddy, 2017), and Undertale (Fox, 2015) to name just a few. These works expect and demand a different kind of cultural literacy than metagaming as practice, which usually refers to a player’s familiarity with game mechanics, design, interface, and successful play strategies. Stephanie Boluk and Patricia Lemieux have recently observed that metagaming is an approach “in which playing, making, and thinking about games occur in the same act” and which are defined by the material discontinuities that emerge between the experience of playing video games and their nonhuman operations (8-9). While one could consider how players’ familiarity with game conventions shapes how they experience Horizon as an amalgam of Triple-A game mechanics, I am more interested in the ways in which its content pushes the player to think about games as cultural objects. Horizon is less a game about games than a game about media. Like much twenty-first century science fiction, it inherits Cyberpunk’s anxieties about humans’ simultaneous enhancement and corruption by technology and the loss of individual autonomy, and finds utopian possibilities by recasting agency as collective and embodied (Flanagan 1-5). As a work that is self-aware of its material and cultural realities, Horizon combines its subject matter with media-specific effects such as player identification and the human-computer interface to examine the material costs of new media objects and their inextricability from ourselves and our environment.

‘Primitive’ Peoples as Conscientious Consumers

To emphasize the role our media play in a broader ecological context, Horizon’s post-post-apocalyptic setting combines the familiar speculative image of a world in which nature has reclaimed the urban spaces of fallen civilizations with the self-sustaining and self-evolving ecosystem of machines that resemble Earth’s now-extinct fauna. The result is a hybrid ecology in which the distinctions between synthetic and organic life become arbitrary, and the processes of natural and artificial selection become nearly indiscernible. Humans uneasily coexist with the machines within this cyborg ecosystem, to use Haraway’s parlance, living in tribalistic societies that are often coded as ‘savage’ by the game’s own language. Warriors prove their worth by hunting the machines, and the visual designs of clothing, items, and weaponry use every part of the ‘animal.’ Tribes use tubes, wires, plastic composites, and metal plating alternatively as jewelry, crafting material, armor, bows and arrows, and even symbolic currency. Horizon’s people practice a symbiosis with the machines in a new media landscape in which production and consumption are moderated with little waste. This has a distinct political resonance in an era characterized by climate change denial, non-repair design, and planned obsolescence. Despite their primitive coding, the people of Horizon are far more conscientious consumers than we are. Indeed, each year some 50 million tons of electronic waste is produced globally (Hardy, 2018), the cost of which the U.N. has valued around $55 billion (U.N. 2017).

At the same time, Horizon’s people and cultures are characterized as superstitious, with their religions playing a significant role in naïve understandings of the machines and world around them. The protagonist Aloy, who was raised as an outcast from the Nora tribe, holds a rational, practical, and secular worldview that aligns her skepticism and bemusement with the twenty-first century player’s. In one critical scene, Aloy corrects a matriarch who worships the metal bulkhead with a computerized voice interface the tribe calls ‘All-Mother,’ insisting, ‘This isn’t a goddess. It’s a door.’ Aloy and the player see such technology worship and the accompanying fear of ‘metal world’ forbidden sites as fundamentally misguided and ignorant. Aloy is thus marked as exceptional both by her outcast status, agnosticism, and her alignment with technology, and it is that critical distance from Horizon’s cultures that allows her to explore, analyze, and understand her environment in ways others cannot.

The Interface as Content and Media Archaeology

As a child, Aloy finds a Focus, a piece of wearable tech that can access software files, examine and catalogue items, detect various life forms, identify machine patrol paths and weaknesses, and communicate over distances. When activated, the Focus projects a digital layering onto Aloy’s surroundings, acting as an augmented reality that makes her world legible.

A screenshot from Horizon: Zero Dawn showing the heads up display in the game.

Aloy examines a series of locks using the heads-up display of her Focus

Like the panoptic visions of other stealth-based games such as the Arkham (Rocksteady Studios, 2009) series and Dishonored (Arkane Studios, 2012), the Focus allows Aloy and the player to read the environment at the level of encoding. This, in effect, allows the player to switch between the mediated vision of the Focus and Horizon’s Sublimely rendered natural beauty, complete with vanishing HUDs and a photo mode.

A screenshot of Horizon Zero Dawn showing the landscape and skybox.

Aloy stand before a rugged, arid landscape with dramatic skies overhead

Here, it may be tempting to invoke Bolter and Grusin’s concepts of immediacy, the representational style that makes users forget the medium, and hypermediacy, the style that reminds the user of the medium (272-273). But, rather like Metroid Prime’s (Retro Studios, 2002) Varia Suit HUD, the Focus is both a game mechanic that highlights objects with which the player can interact, and a lens through which Aloy accesses Horizon’s archival narrative and explores its expansive environment. For this reason, I would agree with Kristine JØrgensen’s recent contention that new media do not oscillate between interface and content as Bolter and Grusin suggest, precisely because the interface itself must be understood as content (10).

The bildungsroman of Aloy’s self-discovery and her resemblance to the long-dead Dr. Elizabet Sobeck tie her past to Horizon’s world, and the exposition is enacted through the Focus as a search for lost data and technology. As such, Aloy becomes a media archaeologist, one who attends to the temporal and spatial materialisms of media culture to construct an alternative history and genealogy that calls into question the linear advance of technology and culture from primitive to complex apparatuses (Parikka 2012, 10-14). Her journey through dilapidated skyscrapers and military bunkers reveals that the robotics conglomerate Faro Automated Solutions had lost control of autonomous machines used as ‘peacekeepers’ in developing nations. Aloy discovers Sobek’s Project Zero Dawn, a U.S. military endeavor which created a complex A.I. that was to wait out extinction, break the encryption of the Faro machines, detoxify and terraform the planet, and then reinstantiate archived life forms. With this revelation, Horizon turns Aloy’s (and the player’s) assumed superiority over the Nora’s religious practices on its head because they aren’t actually wrong. The bulkhead the Nora worship as the life-giving ‘All Mother’ turns out to be the facility responsible for cloning, raising, and educating humans from genetic stock. Deus ex machina yields humanus ex machina, and all life in Horizon becomes subject to intelligent design.

But the utopian possibilities of Horizon’s artificial creationism are countered by the sub function Hades, which was tasked with overtaking GAIA’s operations and resetting the terraforming process in the event of evolutionary threats or errors. Aloy learns that the so-called derangement of the machines, wherein the once docile automata became violent and new attack-types began appearing, was initiated by Hades as part of its protocol. The Eclipse, a cult of former Carja fanatics, worship and serve Hades, believing it to be a god from their scriptures. On one hand, it is difficult to see Hades as evil or a ‘metal devil’ because it is doing exactly what it was programmed to do. On the other, the Eclipse enact Lev Manovich’s fear that new media would not extend human sensation and perception, but rather relegate the body to an extension of technology and along with it, individual agency (110). Similarly for Friedrich Kittler, new media are autonomous and never neutral because media are not given to purpose by the way they are utilized, but rather dictate how we use them (1999). In this sense, the Eclipse are victims of religious and digital protocols demanding that they work toward their own extinction. But Horizon goes one step further in privileging secular rationality over religious belief when Aloy emerges from ‘All-Mother’ and berates the Nora for worshipping her as an extension of the goddess.

A screenshot of Aloy emerging from the All-Mother, an important figure in Horizon Zero Dawn

Aloy emerges from the ‘All-Mother,’ the mechanical structure at the centre of the Nora Tribe’s belief system

For her, a critical examining of their relationships with Horizon’s tech-infused world is more important than the theocracy which alternately exiled and revered her for being born of unnatural means. Horizon insists on critical embodied practices with media in the absence of its cultural histories, which now remain as corrupted data files and the inert metals.

Conclusion: Zombie Media and Horizon’s Anxieties about Media Waste

While media archaeology is the driving logic of Aloy’s journey, the primary threat of Horizon lies in a similar thrust, that of resurrecting discarded machines and their histories. The Corruptors and Deathbringers the Eclipse excavate and reactivate with Hades’ guidance were not designed and manufactured by GAIA for terraforming, but were part of the Faro Plague that destroyed Earth’s ecosystem some 700 years prior. These machines, which feed on biomass, are fundamentally the fear of our media consuming us.

A screenshot of Horizon Zero Dawn depicting the remains of an ancient machine

Aloy examines the dilapidated remains of an ancient, deadly machine

Horizon, for all its techno-utopianism as represented by GAIA, is a parable about the threat of automation, artificial intelligence, and media waste. Jussi Parikka and Garnet Hertz (2012) propose a useful concept they call ‘zombie media’ to describe how two-thirds of the estimated 250 million TVs, game consoles, computers, and smartphones discarded each year remain perfectly functional, but rendered useless by technological advancements and marketing (Parikka 2015, 142). Parikka reminds us that the way we think of our media is backwards: we believe our digital content is permanent and our hardware is ephemeral, but the opposite is true. Data degrades over time, and the precious metals that make up our hardware remains in landfills for centuries. Horizon dramatizes this concept of zombie media, perhaps too literally. The hardware of past civilizations populates the Earth and rises from the dead to eat the living, while sub function Apollo, the archive of human knowledge, remains as useless aluminum mainframes.

Horizon laments the loss of past knowledge, but it also insists on the greater importance of embodied practices with technology. Even Aloy, who as a clone of Dr. Sobek is herself a kind of zombie media, is less interested in what that fact means for existential reflection than what it allows her to do with regard to ancient machines and biometric locks. Aloy’s agency emerges in relation to networked technologies, and expressed in terms of Galloway and Thacker’s exploit as the ability to suspend and implement protocol (115). Like all works of speculative fiction, Horizon is about the present, and it intervenes in the looming threats of global energy crises, climate change, and media waste. Science fiction author Bruce Sterling, who in 1995 feared the loss of the “centralized, dinosaurian, one-to-many media that roared and trampled through the 20th century,” proposed an archive of obsolete media in the Anthropocene (Dead Media Manifesto). Although many of the links on Sterling’s Dead Media Project site are now, appropriately, dead, his wording here has particular resonance with Horizon, which reanimates the networked technologies of the 21st century into literal dinosaurs, the wrathful cyborg embodiments of our media waste. Like the media archaeology approaches characterized by Parikka and Gitelman (2006), Horizon forefronts the materialism of media cultures and their spatial and temporal relations to our environment over our technical and biographical histories. It concludes, as Donna Haraway did that “the machine is not an it to be animated, worshipped, and dominated. The machine is us, our processes, an aspect of our embodiment” (180). Zombie media is after all, not an inherent condition, but something that happens to media (Guins 11). Horizon asks that we struggle with the embodied practices that zombify our media, and what that means for ourselves, our environment, and our future.

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