Hope for Future Pasts: The Classical Tradition in Horizon Zero Dawn (2017). By Rick Castle

Shortly after its release in 2017, I had the pleasure of playing Guerilla Games’ Horizon Zero Dawn, the tale of a heroic huntress, Aloy, and her quest to save the world from a vicious millennia-old AI (artificial intelligence). The game throws the player into a lush and vibrant landscape simultaneously riddled with advanced machines designed after animals and hunter-gatherer tribal societies. While unknown at the outset, the game takes place in the 31st century. Aloy’s journey requires her to delve into ‘old world’ ruins, and in doing so, she begins to learn more and more about the ancient civilization of the 21st century, and the machine apocalypse begun by American tech magnate Ted Faro. Through old recordings, Aloy discovers that when humans realized the machines could not be stopped, the brightest minds from across the globe came together under scientist Elisabet Sobeck to create Project Zero Dawn, a global terraforming system that would shut down the deadly machines and restore all life on earth over the next few hundred years.

Horizon Zero Dawn is not, strictly speaking, a hidden gem. It is an immensely popular game; spawning a sequel, winning awards worldwide, lauded for its narrative, and has been the subject of scholarly work on ecocriticism and feminism. Not much attention, however, has been paid to the classical influence in the game: ancient Greek and Roman myth and culture as well as interpretations of their texts. The Horizon series demonstrates a fascination with Greco-Roman myth, borrowing classical names (eg. MINERVA, Odyssey, Nemesis, etc.) to help shape Aloy’s post-apocalyptic world. I will point out here that although the Horizon series contains Egyptian references (Sobeck, Horus, etc), these are far more fleshed out in the sequel, Horizon Forbidden West, and are worth a post of their own in the context of that game. I have chosen to focus on the Greco-Roman references which are much more prevalent in this first game, Horizon Zero Dawn. As a classicist (an interpreter of the ancient past in my own right), I did not give this much thought at first since these references were initially peripheral to the overarching narrative. As I played through the game and learned more about the implementation of Project Zero Dawn however, I realized that game’s collapsing of time and use of classical references presents a paradoxical cultural commentary on classics’ influence on the United States and Canada in the past and future.1

Fig. 1. Horizon Zero Dawn.

Let me briefly acknowledge here the slippage between the historical deployment of classical material (most often for support of patriarchal white supremacy) and the academic discipline of Classics itself, which are separate, but related. Throughout this post I will often use ‘classicism’ or ‘classical tradition’ to reference the ways in which classical material has traditionally been interpreted to be used in an exclusionary capacity, typically by politicians or hate groups. This discourse has been and still is partially perpetuated by the modern discipline of Classics. I would be remiss, however, if I did not mention the work that has been done by scholars and activists since the 1970s in order to acknowledge the damage done by the discipline and to advance it in a more wholesome and inclusive direction.

Time is not as linear in Horizon as it first seems. The game places Aloy firmly in the 31st century, but she must constantly negotiate with forces from the distant past as she attempts to secure her world’s future. As a clone of Project Zero Dawn’s founder, Aloy’s genetic print proves to be the only way to gain access to the terraforming system, supervised by the maternal AI GAIA. GAIA commands numerous AI subroutines, all named after Greco-Roman divinities, and each responsible for a different task to make the planet habitable once again (eg. HEPHAESTUS builds the iconic animal-shaped machines, DEMETER is responsible for restoring plant life to Earth, etc.). While Aloy is an actor in her own era, she cannot ignore the trappings of her genetic legacy, and is thus constantly compared to Elisabet Sobeck, both by herself and others. Upon reaching various points in her quest, she views recordings of Sobeck’s work on Project Zero Dawn, allowing the player to see both heroines’ journeys at the same time, despite the characters’ separation by a thousand years. This effect, in which Aloy’s present and past collapse together, also characterizes the relationship between GAIA’s subroutines and the classical influences on modern American and Canadian culture. The player’s own positionality cannot be ignored here since they are a member of the 21st century ‘old world’ and are an active agent in shaping the legacy that Aloy grapples with. This positionality is especially important on the part of the player who knows that knowledge of history is not the same as interpretation or deployment of history.

Fig. 2. The different subroutines in Horizon Zero Dawn.

GAIA and its subroutines are the products of the most advanced technology in the history of the gameworld, a technology that Aloy’s contemporaries cannot comprehend, for reasons I’ll explain shortly. These AI were responsible for shaping humanity’s continued existence by cloning and rearing a new generation of humans to populate the earth after the threat of Faro’s machines had been mitigated. This was accomplished to a degree, and thus these pseudo-godlike subroutines become the cultural and intellectual progenitors of Aloy’s world centuries before her birth. Due to the influence of these AI ‘gods’ humanity was revived, but so too were ancient modes of living: the language spoken, architecture, and entertainment were not discovered or invented by the new race of humans but rather passed on to them by Project Zero Dawn and reinterpreted to suit the foundations of humanity’s tribal societies. Deployment of classics in modern America is accomplished in the same way, rooted in the country’s mode of government, literature, and language, to name only a few. As is well known, however, the reception of classics has developed into very different ideologies, some of which promote intellectual and cultural exploration, and others of which build power structures to monopolize socio-cultural power.

Project Zero Dawn was a method not just to preserve humans as a species, but to preserve all the scientific and cultural knowledge, accomplishments, and biases of pre-apocalypse society. My reading interprets the Greco-Roman elements of Project Zero Dawn not as a stand-in for the ancient sources, but as classicism itself – the interpretation and deployment of the ancient sources up until the end of the 21st century in the United States and Canada with all the accompanying intellectual baggage. I was intrigued by this temporal illusion, a collision of my own positionality as a 21st century classicist and as the player-character Aloy, whose quest would see her rebuild aspects of Project Zero Dawn in order to save her world. I entered the gameworld as a member of the ‘old world’ – a component of the west’s classicism looking forward a millennia into a future where classicism persists, albeit within a different societal structure. I had to wonder then: what shape would classical reception take in the gamescape? Would there be philosophers, artisans, and entertainers intellectually succeeding the likes of Plato, Phidias, and Sophocles? Or would Guerilla Games highlight the darker side of Classical interpretation? Would I encounter ‘barbarian’ tribes or oppression justified by an interpretation of these ancient texts? Would there be a single tribe that disproportionately benefitted from the knowledge gleaned from Project Zero Dawn’s classics-based infrastructure?

Fig. 3. Exploring the world of Horizon Zero Dawn.

The answer to these questions was anything but simple, and revealed complex issues of overlapping identities, both on an individual and societal level. Over Aloy’s journey, I encountered both subversions and reinscriptions of American/Canadian classicism, both progressive and traditional. Subversions in the gameworld are ways in which aspects of the game reject long-standing interpretations of ancient material, often to destabilize oppressive socio-cultural power structures (progressive use). In contrast, reinscriptions are ways in which long-standing interpretations are revived and reinforced in the gameworld, effectively perpetuating these same power structures (traditional use). Before exploring a few examples, however, I want to examine an important contextual detail in the gameworld. Aloy and I were surprised to learn that Ted Faro, the inadvertent architect of the machine apocalypse, was responsible for purging APOLLO, the subroutine that stored the collective knowledges and cultures of all human history. Fearing that future generations would repeat the same mistakes if they had access to the same knowledge, Faro unilaterally deletes the vast majority of this information, including the original Greco-Roman context behind many naming conventions in the Horizon gameworld. He is condemned by everyone for his actions and blamed for destroying humanity a second time, but I believe that his good intentions amount to an admittedly ill-fated attempt to destroy the harmful effects of the classical tradition which informed much of American socio-politics in the 21st century and ultimately led to the end of all life on Earth. It’s pointless to argue whether Faro was right or wrong in deleting APOLLO – instead, his actions allow for classicism to exist in the future without knowledge of its original context, for the interpretation of classical sources to exist without the sources themselves. This plot point encouraged me to consider anew the future of the discipline of Classics, especially in light of the recent debate to either continue efforts to change the discipline or to destroy and rebuild it in a way that recognizes and rejects its harmful history.

In whatever ways that classicism persisted, it was noticeably limited in its scope due to the deletion of the APOLLO subroutine. Information from the old world was disseminated piecemeal to the various factions of humanity and altered every aspect of their development, and knowledge gleaned from Project Zero Dawn or the ‘old world’ was considered foundational in each tribe’s religion. Here, I will stress my earlier point that the discipline of Classics and the reception of classical material are different, and neither is intellectually monolithic. Historically, classical material has been deployed in service of political and cultural oppression, and while unfortunate, this is its ‘traditional’ use. Although the discipline of Classics has originated in that deleterious tradition, progressive resistance exists in the modern work of scholars like Barnard, Greenwood, Umachandran, Eccleston, and Rankine (this list is certainly not exhaustive). The following four examples illustrate subversions and reinscriptions of the classical tradition in the tribes of Aloy’s world, both progressive and traditional.

1) Progressive Subversion – The lands of Aloy’s Nora tribe surround their Sacred Mountain, from which their deity All-Mother spawned the Nora tribe’s ancestors. As this scene (above) illustrates, however, the facility within the mountain is a facet of Project Zero Dawn, a Cradle built to clone and raise a new generation of humans. The All-Mother, manifesting as a feminine voice is the ELEUTHIA (named after the Greek goddess of childbirth, Eileithyia) subroutine and so the Nora accordingly structured themselves as a matriarchy, reflecting the authority of their ‘goddess’. In this way the Nora tribe unknowingly define their society against the patriarchy modeled by the ancient Greeks and Romans. On a metatextual level however, the choice to construct the Nora tribe as a matriarchy despite the classical influence on their origin constitutes a rejection of a history of male-dominated classical interpretation. It may even be that the Nora’s lack of knowledge of the classical context makes their matriarchy possible.

2) Traditional Subversion – Perhaps the strongest critique I have of this game is the state of humanity itself within the gamescape, which implicitly suggests that the only future in which humanity may technologically advance is one inspired by and founded upon Greco-Roman intellectualism. The tribes of Aloy’s world are characterized as primarily hunter-gatherers or scavengers who repurpose some elements of machinery for their daily life, but are largely unaware of Project Zero Dawn’s influence on their world. There is a stark difference between these characters and ones like Aloy or Sylens, who seek to understand the technological marvels of the old world and use this knowledge to bring about great change. At first, most tribes shun those who seek this ‘forbidden’ knowledge, drawing a strong parallel to Plato’s allegory of the cave (Rep. 514a-520a). This low-tech setting is partially used to create a compelling story and robust exploration, but it also illustrates Guerilla Games’ vision of a future where cultures are technologically primitivized due to their lack of classical foundation.2 This particular vision of the future reveals a blind admiration of Greco-Roman culture that exists in the present, even to the point of the game labeling ancient Greece as “antiquity’s greatest civilization.”

Fig. 4. How Ancient Greece is perceived in the ‘old world’ of Horizon Zero Dawn.

3) Progressive Reinscription – The Oseram tribe are known as the tinkerers and delvers of the Horizon world. Although they do have their own homeland, the Oseram are frequently found throughout the world in independent villages, each maintained by a council of ealdormen. These villages are loosely united into a larger nation-state, and when an issue arises concerning the entire tribe, each village’s ealdormen participate in a representative democracy like the Athenian democracy following the reforms enacted by Cleisthenes in the late 6th century BCE. Unlike most other tribes, the Oseram reject most forms of religiosity, preferring instead to collect and examine machinery of the old world – their version of material culture. They believe that the world itself is giant interlocking machine and that the humans of the ‘old world’ perished when they failed to maintain this world-machine. Considering the mechanisms of the world-machine to be the ultimate truth, the Oseram are the first tribe to delve into the ruins of the old world and retrieve artifacts – essentially the archaeologists of their time. Although they use and improve upon these artifacts, rather than simply preserve them, they are fascinated by what the artifacts might reveal about the ‘old world’, world-machine, and technology as a whole. Their efforts are not considered destructive or intrusive but synergistic – they strive to live in harmony with the world-machine rather than to bend its ‘nature’ to their will.

4) Traditional Reinscription – The Sun Carja tribe is generally viewed as the largest and most technologically advanced society in the world of Horizon. The first leader of this tribe discovered ancient documents which described solar observation leading to the tribe’s worship of the sun, but more importantly introduced the possibility of written language, in contrast to the oral transmission of the time. After a few generations, knowledge of writing cultivated both cultural success and a mentality of elitism. The Carja Sundom came to generally view outsiders as ‘savage’ or ‘barbarian’, and enslaved other tribespeople for ritual sacrifice and entertainment in their Roman-styled arena. In the context of classical transmission, the Carja parallel 21st century America in that they are both societies that identify themselves as intellectual successors of the ancients (in a continuing Greco-Roman tradition) and marginalize other groups of people due to this perceived notion of superiority. Both cultures were heavily influenced by the religious and philosophical writings of ancient societies which form their respective cultural and societal foundations, as detailed in this video (below). This parallel is reinforced by the Carja’s initial pilgrimage to the west where they would found their holy city Meridian and by their constant attempts to colonize the lands they call the ‘Savage East.’

The previous examples illustrate great creativity on the part of Guerilla Games, but more importantly, they demonstrate conceptual futures for the discipline and deployment of Classics. The game presents a wonderful paradox in which classical tradition is both subverted and reinscribed in complex ways, sometimes simultaneously. For Guerilla Games, there is no need to focus on one or the other to create a compelling narrative, and indeed the contrast makes the characters and cultural conflicts in the game that much more interesting and worth playing and researching. As a classicist myself, I realize the immense influence that Greco-Roman antiquity and subsequent scholarship has had on my present, but playing Horizon was instrumental in helping me to consider the impact that current research may have on the future. Guerilla Games has created a fascinating meditation on the classicism and its value to humanity in eras past and into the distant future. This meditation continues in Zero Dawn’s 2022 sequel, Horizon Forbidden West, which more fully fleshes out Aloy’s world, employs ancient Egyptian naming conventions, and even sees the return of humans from the 21st century who possess valuable and explicit knowledge of the old world and the classical tradition. This setting forces tension and negotiation between the old and new humanities over the legacy of western civilization. This post merely scratches the surface of antiquity in Horizon – there is far more scholarly work to be done on this series, especially with one more game needed to conclude the trilogy and the upcoming PSVR2 title Horizon VR: Call of the Mountain and I am excited to be part of this ongoing conversation.

[My mother] said I had to care. She said, “Elisabet, being smart will count for nothing if you don’t make the world better. You have to use your smarts to count for something, to serve life, not death.”

– Elisabet Sobeck (Gaia Log: 3 Feb 2065 R)

Rick Castle is a PhD student in Classics at UC Santa Barbara. He has an MA in Classical Studies from Brock University in Ontario, Canada. As an international student and member of the BIPOC community, he studies video game reception of Greco-Roman myth with a specific view to the representation of marginalized communities and peoples. His favorite games include the Horizon series, Jedi: Fallen Order, and Hades. He currently hosts a monthly event Playing with the Past at UC Santa Barbara to introduce undergraduate students to reception studies and to explore how instructors might best use video games in their pedagogy. He also has a chapter exploring motherhood and agency in Hades to be published in a forthcoming edited volume, Persephone in Love: Persephone and Hades in Popular Culture.

1 I refer to the societal framework and scholarly culture of the United States and Canada, rather than North America which also includes Mexico. I wish to make this distinction clear since the United States and Canada are very similar both in the structure of their academic Classical education and historical deployment of Greco-Roman texts. The Horizon series is set in the United States while I have received my Classical education in both the United States and Canada, reinforcing the game’s immersive quality for myself especially.

2 For an excellent explanation of the process of game developers when balancing playability and historical authenticity/accuracy, see Alexander Flegler, “The Complexities and Nuances of Portraying History in Age of Empires,” in Classical Antiquity in Video Games: Playing with the Ancient World, ed. Christian Rollinger (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2020), pp. 205-215.

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