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Horizon Zero Dawn’s power comes from its story of motherhood

What does the future hold? In our new series “Imagining the Next Future,” Polygon explores the new era of science fiction — in movies, books, TV, games, and beyond — to see how storytellers and innovators are imagining the next 10, 20, 50, or 100 years during a moment of extreme uncertainty. Follow along as we deep dive into the great unknown.

Horizon Zero Dawn tells a classic science fiction story, one of my favorite examples of the genre: a tale of how humanity’s indomitable spirit and survival instinct can conquer the most hostile circumstances one could imagine. But that alone isn’t why I love it so much. The specifics of Horizon Zero Dawn go beyond that familiar framework to deliver a unique sense of thrill and hope that’s far less common — a vision of the future that’s optimistic because of how strongly it centers women.

[Warning: The following contains full spoilers for Horizon Zero Dawn.]

Guerrilla Games’ 2017 adventure takes place a thousand years in the future, on a barely recognizable Earth that has suffered the catastrophe that we perhaps fear the most: the extinction of all life on the planet. But in the game’s fiction, that extinction event comes in the near future, with a plague of killer robots that consume all organic matter on Earth sometime in the late 2060s — which would be during the lifetime of many people reading this article.

A husk of a thousand-year-old war machine from the Faro Swarm, known in Horizon Zero Dawn’s present day as a “Metal Devil,” lies on snow-capped mountains.
Image: Guerrilla Games/Sony Interactive Entertainment via Polygon

That time frame may sound absurd, until you consider the apocalypse as Horizon Zero Dawn posits it. Things start to go south in the 2030s with the ripple effects of climate change, which result in more than a billion deaths during the “Great Die-Off.” Humanity spends the subsequent decade trying to claw its way back from the climate crisis, aided by detoxification efforts from environment cleanup robots developed by Dr. Elisabet Sobeck, a renowned robotics and AI expert working at a company called Faro Automated Solutions.

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The company’s founder, Ted Faro, unknowingly creates the conditions for Earth’s sixth mass extinction when he pivots the firm to military contracts, producing automated defense systems for governments, corporations, and other entities. These self-repairing, AI-driven war machines are already built by AI-run factories, but in a final, fatal step toward disaster, Faro engineers develop a battle robot that is capable of consuming biomass and turning it into fuel — i.e., eating — instead of needing to be recharged. When some robots start to go rogue in late 2064, Sobeck quickly realizes that there’s no stopping them from consuming every living cell on the planet.

“Every time we add something to our alternate timeline, we take great pains [to] ensure it feels real,” says Ben McCaw, narrative director at developer Guerrilla Games and lead writer on Horizon Zero Dawn, in an email interview with Polygon. “We look especially closely at technological trends — AI, automation, robotics, transportation, etc. — and try to extrapolate plausible science-fictional outcomes that enhance the themes of the franchise.”

I’ve read a lot of reporting on the capacity for climate change to completely reshape life on Earth, especially if people around the world don’t immediately undertake all possible efforts to slow it. If you look at the potential consequences of ignoring this seemingly intractable problem, and the difficulty of tackling it, it starts to feel obvious that climate change presents an existential threat to the planet. “We felt that any version of a timeline for 2020-2065 would have to include [climate change] or it wouldn’t feel credible,” says McCaw.

Image: Guerrilla Games/PlayStation Mobile

Sobeck represents the best of humanity: a genius who puts her brilliant mind to work in cleaning up the consequences of climate change. In protest of Faro’s move toward defense contracting, she quits her job and starts her own company, which ends up winning all kinds of awards for its “green robots.” And when Faro’s military robots turn deadly, it’s Sobeck to whom he turns, desperate for a solution to a problem of his own making.

“By contrasting that [military] automation with what Elisabet does, we wanted to show that technology always has two possible directions, a responsible/ethical one and one driven by power and greed,” McCaw says.

The Faro Plague is unstoppable — the robots will consume every living thing on Earth, and the planet will become lifeless and uninhabitable — so Sobeck comes up with a solution that will preserve life on Earth, along with millennia of human history and culture, so that centuries later, an AI entity can shut down the machines and revitalize the planet. It’s a long-shot plan that’s up against impossible odds. Everything has to go right in order for it to succeed. And it almost doesn’t — because Faro tries to sabotage it.

Apparently driven mad by, you know, the guilt of causing the apocalypse, Faro murders all of the Zero Dawn team leaders working to achieve Sobeck’s vision, and he also destroys Apollo, the component of the project that would’ve educated future humans about the entire history and progress of the world. Why? He wanted humanity to start with a clean slate. Conveniently, this clean slate would mean that future generations wouldn’t know of his culpability in the extinction event.

Sobeck sacrifices so much for her life’s work — at one point, she laments that she “never had time” to have children of her own — and she ends up sacrificing her life to protect Zero Dawn, knowing that the work must continue for the good of the planet. And it does. Within 400 years of the apocalypse, Zero Dawn has disabled the Faro robot swarm; produced mechanical creatures that terraform Earth so it is once again capable of supporting life; and artificially gestated humans in at least one of its “cradle” facilities, which releases them into that reseeded world.

The fact that Zero Dawn ends up being a success despite the destroyed Apollo function makes Faro’s sabotage an even more tragic turn of events, an arrogant, selfish decision that sets humanity back to the Stone Age and defies Sobeck’s desires for the project.

“We wrote the game with the idea that if Faro hadn’t murdered the Zero Dawn Alphas, then Elisabet’s dream would have come to fruition,” says McCaw. “It might not have been a perfect world, but it would have fulfilled her vision of a promising new beginning for humankind.”

In the end, though, humankind does get a new beginning, thanks to Sobeck’s efforts. She creates the master AI behind Zero Dawn, and names it Gaia, after Greek mythology’s concept of mother Earth itself. Sobeck designs Gaia purely to oversee and manage all the subfunctions required to keep Zero Dawn running for millennia. But as she interacts with Gaia over time, the AI learns from her and takes on some of her qualities, becoming a nurturing and motherly presence that experiences human emotions. This new dimension is arguably what gives Gaia the desire and faith to persevere when an unknown catastrophe befalls it.

Dr. Elisabet Sobeck speaks to Gaia, the master AI managing Project: Zero Dawn.
Image: Guerrilla Games/Sony Interactive Entertainment via Bearborg/Horizon Wiki

Like its creator, Gaia is betrayed from within, when a dormant failsafe subfunction, Hades, is mysteriously brought online, threatening to reverse Zero Dawn’s work and reset Earth to its uninhabitable state. And like its creator, Gaia executes a last-ditch effort to save the project.

Before sacrificing itself in a self-destruct operation, Gaia triggers the production of the only thing that can save the planet: Elisabet Sobeck (or someone with the same genetic code), who can use an override command to stop the rogue AI function. Gaia begins the gestation of a new embryo, in the hopes that it will grow into a person who figures out how to defeat Hades and bring Gaia back online. Born on April 4, 3021, this child is named Aloy by the Nora tribe — and she is a clone of Sobeck herself.

Sobeck saves life on Earth; Gaia creates a new life to ensure that Sobeck’s work carries on; and that new life, in a way, is the daughter that Sobeck never had. Playing as Aloy, we learn of Sobeck’s brilliance and her life’s work — and we bring it to fruition, achieving her “mother’s” dying wish.

“Womanhood and motherhood are woven into the story at every level,” says McCaw. He adds, “We wanted to write a story about how love, even passed down through countless generations, has the power to overcome any obstacle, machine, or weapon system.”

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