The Art Direction of “Horizon Zero Dawn”

Horizon Zero Dawn is the game I have played most recently, and as I progressed through the game I was continually blown away by the attention to detail in the world-building, which is particularly evident in the aesthetics of the peoples and creatures.  Horizon Zero Dawn is an action role-playing game (RPG) set in a post-apocalyptic world.  Humanity lives on in tribes, surrounded by evidence that the “Old Ones” lived in a much more technologically advanced civilization than their own.  Deteriorated ruins of skyscrapers and giant, metal machines are scattered across the land. Many dangerous live machines of all kinds also roam the land.  Humans hunt these mysterious living machines for parts, to use for clothing, armor, weapons, and currency.

The protagonist you play is Aloy, a fierce huntress of the matriarchal Nora tribe.  However, for reasons unbeknownst to her, Aloy was cast out of the tribe at birth, an extremely rare thing for the High Matriarchs to do.  Growing up an outcast, Aloy develops her own sense of curiosity and is unafraid of the ruins of the Old Ones, unlike the rest of the Nora Tribe.  Her desire to learn more about her own origins, why she was cast out at birth, and what caused the destruction of the Old Ones is what sets her out on her quest.

Horizon Zero Dawn, Aloy
Aloy, the protagonist of Horizon Zero Dawn.

Guerilla Games began working on Horizon Zero Dawn in 2011, and it was released at the end of February 2017.  Most games are only in development and production for a few years, so Horizon Zero Dawn was in development and production a long time for a game.  The developers chose to take the time to create quality—Assistant Art Director Roland Ijzermans stated, “From the outset, we wanted to make sure that we did justice to Horizon Zero Dawn’s unique vision for a post-post-apocalyptic future.  Our concept designs had to feel like they belonged in the future, so we performed a great deal of research on what its environments, inhabitants, cultures, and surviving technology would look like, how they would interact, and how they could’ve evolved over time” (Davies 6).

The depth of research the team did is abundantly clear, as every tiny detail in the visual choices for  the game’s several tribes work together to create rich cultures with distinctive personalities. The Nora strikes a balance between practicality and spirituality.  The deity they worship is All-Mother, and women in their society are venerated as leaders, with matriarchal lineage being of the utmost importance. The most powerful women in Nora society are High Matriarchs, women with three or more generations of descendants.  In terms of technology, the Nora shun the ruins of the Old Ones as evil places. The living machines that roam the land are merely hunted for parts and resources. These beliefs are reflected in their visual design—the Nora dress themselves mostly in worked leather clothing, making their color palette primarily of grounded earthen colors.  They augment their clothing with machine plating and parts for armor. The decorative elements of their clothing and items are derived from female anatomy, particularly the womb. Cables and wires from machines are repurposed into objects such decorative belts and jewelry, as well as being used to attach the machine armor parts.

Horizon Zero Dawn, Nora
Representative examples of members of the Nora tribe

The Carja are the most advanced culture in Horizon Zero Dawn.  As such, they have the most elaborate buildings, dress, and social hierarchy.  The center of their kingdom is located atop a large mesa, which has an expansive view of the plains below.  They worship the sun as their deity. This would be a natural religious development for their society, considering where they are located and the seemingly almost never-ending sky they see.  Because the sun’s movements across the sky are so important to them, avian imagery, inspired by natural and mechanical birds that populate their sky, is the most prevalent motif in Carja decorations.  They even deftly construct their machine-part armor to resemble feathers. Another particularly impressive element in the visual design of the Carja is the way their decorations and embellishments on everything from clothing, buildings, to makeup, are heavily inspired by circuitry.

Horizon Zero Dawn, Avad
Concept art of the Carja Sun-King


Horizon Zero Dawn, Carja priest
Carja priest

The other main tribes in the game are the Banuk and the Oseram.  The Banuk are the most spiritual tribe, and believe that machines house benevolent spirits.  As the tribe with the closest connection to machines, their dress incorporates the most machine parts and characteristics.  Their color scheme is colorful and bright, but predominantly the same blue as the light the machines emit from their lenses.  Some Banuk even have machine cords sewn into their skin. The Oseram are the most pragmatic, and the only tribe to have developed the technology to forge metal.  Consequently, the construction of their buildings is rough yet sturdy and functional, unlike the elegant, ornamented buildings of the Carja. The Oseram’s armor is the only clothing in the game made from forged metal pieces instead of metal parts harvested from machines.


Horizon Zero Dawn Banuk shaman
Concept art for Banuk shamans


Horizon Zero Dawn Oseram
Concept art for the Oseram

These and more details in the design characteristics of the tribes give each tribe their own realistic cultures, and playing through the game I am continually impressed by these grounding details.  Everything has a purpose, and there is a story to how each tribe developed their aesthetic sensibilities.

Almost all the living machines that populate the land are based on or have characteristics of animals, living and extinct.  For example, Striders are very much like horses, Grazers resemble deer, and Watchers were originally inspired by a small bipedal dinosaur.  Tallnecks, as you might guess from the name, are based on giraffes. A subtle cue to the player is that machines that resemble more docile animals are less hostile than those that resemble predators.  Dangerous Stalkers were inspired by the maned wolf, Snapmaws look like giant mechanical crocodiles, and the deadly Stormbird is like an eagle, only it is gigantic and spits lightning at you. Many of these resemblances to animals are so strong in their looks, movement, and behavior that I would repeatedly accidentally call machines animals while playing the game.  When I learned more about the origins and purpose of these machines as I played through the game, their animalistic nature became even more compelling story-wise.

Horizon Zero Dawn machines.png
The many machines of Horizon Zero Dawn

Conversations are graphically very impressive.  Aloy and the other people she encounters have micro-expressions when speaking.  They naturally shift their weight from foot to foot and gesture with their arms and hands.  Not only did the game’s designers utilize motion capture effectively for running and fighting, they also drew on it for dialogue.  I have never seen such natural-looking conversations in a game before, particularly with the micro-expressions. Previously, some of the better in-game conversation expressions and movement I have seen were like that of Deus Ex: Mankind Divided (2016).  But in Deus Ex there is still a certain amount of unnaturalness in the movements and faces—they’re a bit too jerky, expressions are not very nuanced, and the movements and the facial expressions, while pretty good, are clearly computer-generated and cycle through a limited number.  To jump from obviously computer generated expressions to in-game expressions that looked and felt real and natural in games released just one year apart is astounding. Playing the game, I am continually amazed by the use of the facial motion capture to create such real, believable characters and dialogue.

The graphics for the scenery make the game stunningly beautiful.  The draw distance (the distance you can see) is incredibly far—so far that you feel you are actually there when playing the game.  The weather changes, and day turns to night, to day, and so on. Aloy shivers when it is snowing, unless she’s wearing a warmer outfit. When you walk or swim across a river, she makes comments about how it will take a while for her clothes to dry.  When it rains, she observes how “the land is thirsty for rain,” but “[her] not so much.”

Horizon Zero Dawn landscape

Horizon Zero Dawn ruins.png

The weather effects and day to night changes are quite similar to The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.  Link also shivers in cold areas, and even takes damage from the cold.  He also overheats in hot areas. Both Horizon Zero Dawn and Breath of the Wild are beautiful, open-world games in which you can explore anywhere you want, in any order you want.  (Though there are more difficult, dangerous areas it would be best to avoid until you’ve levelled up.)  Horizon Zero Dawn has a few more realistic details, though, as Aloy traverses various terrain,the most impressive of which is snow.  When running through deep snow, instead of just slowing down, like Link in Breath of the Wild, Aloy’s gait changes as well.  Snow clings to her boots and clothing.  In less deep snow, her footprints reveal grass underneath.

Horizon Zero Dawn and Breath of the Wild were both nominated for game of the year in 2017, but Breath of the Wild won.  I am a huge Legend of Zelda fan, and I totally understand why Breath of the Wild deservedly won game of the year.  However, Horizon Zero Dawn pushes into the realm of story-telling art, more than just being a really well-done fun game to play.  Its nuanced story also requires more thought gameplay-wise—it’s more about finding clever ways of defeating enemies and being stealthy, than just charging in for a hack-and-slash style of fighting.  Both are fantastic games that are fun to play, but as a game geared towards a slightly older audience instead of an all-ages audience, Horizon Zero Dawn offers a different level of sophistication with its story.

Horizon Zero Dawn makes topically relevant commentary on environmentalism, capitalism, and global relations and warfare.  It is a story-driven game, grounded by the authenticity and realism of Aloy and the world she inhabits. It is stunningly gorgeous, and so much care, thought, and research was put into every decision in creating the game, particularly in the aesthetics of the world and its inhabitants.  Literally every aspect and detail of the game works so well together that Horizon Zero Dawn is masterpiece of a game.  It moves beyond merely being an excellent game—it is an immersive piece of art.

Horizon Zero Dawn, Aloy and Thunderjaw
Concept art of Aloy fighting a Thunderjaw




Davies, Paul.  The Art of Horizon Zero Dawn. Titan Books, 2017.

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