Despite its gorgeous world, creative monster designs, and an epic sci-fi tale, what I’ll remember Zero Dawn most for is its side-story of a recovering Indian-American addict who goes for one final road trip before the end of the world. Oh, and this is told entirely through unlocking collectibles.
Game collectibles are often tied to the environment the player inhabits. Think cigarette cards in Red Dead 2, or audio tapes in BioShock. Rise of the Tomb Raider featured notes; these stood out to me for their quality of writing and the tie-ins to the story. On other occasions, these can be bizarre to say the least, with little connection to the main plot or played for laughs (Playboy magazines in Mafia II or Oysters in GTA: SA). Once in a while, there comes along a game that uses collectibles to enhance its narrative or tell a self-contained story. By attaching a story to the collectible, even players who are interested solely in narrative will have incentive to stick around and explore the map for longer.
Spoilers for HZD collectibles (and The Green Knight, apologies for my train of thought) follow
TW: Mentions of suicide and overdosing
The story I mentioned earlier is told through a special type of collectible called Vantage Caches. Scannable chips embedded in specific spots across the map a thousand years ago by Bashar Mati tell the story of overcoming loss and making peace with the end. In a weird way, it reminded me of the ending to The Green Knight – both of these stories share the common thread of finding the courage to face up to an inevitable end, though how they get there is quite different.
We learn of Bashar’s life from his childhood, growing up as the son of a first-generation Indian immigrant from Kolkata. After going through a terrible loss and a troubled childhood which culminated in an overdose, he resolved to pull himself together for his mother’s sake. As his story progresses with each collectible discovered, we learn that he unexpectedly found out about the end of the world after a demotion at work (going into more detail here would mean spoilers for HZD) and hit rock-bottom to the point of committing suicide. A final walk before the planned act was the turning point for him where he discovered the beauty in life, deciding to instead face up to the end, embark on a final road trip (dubbed the Apocashitstorm Tour), and leave his tale behind for progeny.
The story itself is crafted with exquisite care, and the prose genuinely makes you feel every moment of Bashar’s story to its fullest. The world of HZD is all the richer through side-stories such as these, as they tell us about other lives outside of the protagonist and those that physically appear in the game. In the case of Horizon, they also make up for the side-quests which are often formulaic (go there /hunt this monster/find the missing person/go back & report).
Poetry in Zero Dawn
For all the poetry lovers out there, Horizon also has poetry! Snatches of famous poems can be collected by looking for metal flowers that grow in the wild. Even though I haven’t actively read poetry outside of my high school textbook 4 years ago, I could find pieces that I appreciated for their literary beauty; I’m sure an avid reader would find a lot to obsess over here. You can read a full analysis of the poetry in the game here.
Though it has a few shortcomings – the world has little life to it once separated from the graphical beauty, and I was plagued with audio issues – the very fact that this game aspires and succeeds in creating an original, gripping narrative along with fast-paced action more than makes up for these.
Besides everything I talked about already, I have to admit a part of me was also secretly pleased at some semblance of Indian representation here. This is one of a handful of occasions where, even in a side-story, a character of Indian descent is written as a fully-fleshed character, free of stereotypes and not just for laughs. And then I felt sad, for this barely qualifies as representation (his mother’s immigrant background is mentioned in a throwaway line (‘…Compared to what you went through getting out of Kolkata in 2037, simple poverty probably seemed like a cake walk’). It says a lot about representation in media, or more specifically the lack thereof, if even a single line alluding to shared origins makes the story seem more special to me. Despite this, Zero Dawn is already a step ahead of most titles with a female lead and an inclusive cast of in-game characters in its primitive yet post-racial future society.
I’ll leave you with a couple of stanzas from one of my favourite poems in the game:
Life, believe, is not a dream
So dark as sages say;
Oft a little morning rain
Foretells a pleasant day.
Sometimes there are clouds of gloom,
But these are transient all;
If the shower will make the roses bloom,
O why lament its fall?
Thank you for joining us at Gamer’s Waypoint. What did you think of Horizon’s collectible story? Drop us a comment and let us know if you recognize the poem above!
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