Generally speaking, I scoff at marketing that calls a video game protagonist ‘iconic’ when the only people that have had first-hand experience with the character are those close to the project. Guerrilla Games recently referred to Horizon Zero Dawn’s lead, Aloy, as ‘a PlayStation icon’ in a behind-the-scenes video series speaking about different aspects of their brand new IP. This is the first ever game featuring these individuals, this particular game-world, these specific robot beasts, etc. I’m sure Morecambe & Wise weren’t described as iconic before they’d done their first sketch, or The Beatles before they’d played their first gig, or Hitchcock before he’d directed his first film. When saying things like this, you’re generally setting yourself up for a giant fall. I may have to concede, though, because I think they're onto something.
The events of Horizon Zero Dawn centre on Aloy: an agile, fierce, caring individual that wants to learn more about her past. Naturally enough, on her way to figuring out her history she encounters a couple of road blocks that mean her path of discovery takes a few detours. Some of these distractions come in the form of lacklustre, samey side missions, wherein you’re asked to serve one-dimensional, and quite often, boring NPCs; In a 30+ hour RPG, some of that is accepted and even expected, but it’s really noticeable in Horizon Zero Dawn because of how strong Aloy is.
Aloy’s an outcast: as a young girl she was shunned by her tribe and has had to learn how to survive in the wilderness through the teachings of her father figure, Rost. As she got older she wanted to learn more of why she was in the situation that she was, and, on a deeper level, who exactly she is. It’s effectively like your distant relative who, at 31, moved to a rural town with only one nearby Tesco Express in order to ‘find themselves.’ Unlike your second cousin, Aloy’s tale is a compelling one that involves overcoming odds to obtain knowledge that will give her solace, rather than overpriced iceburg lettuce.
You can imprint a little on Aloy through a sporadic dialogue system that gives you the option to choose what she says in certain scenarios, but it’s appearances are so few and far between that it almost seems irrelevant. Aloy has clearly been crafted to have specific reactions to events; making the Mass Effect-inspired multiple choice wheel (that appears to have no effect) unavoidably weak. While the game offers up a whole host of activities for you to pass the time like any good role-playing, open-world affair does, the main quest, and the revelations both you and Aloy uncover during its narrative, are leagues above any side-quest where you're tasked with tracking down some teenager’s missing boyfriend.
The reason is simple, really: Aloy is far more nuanced than anyone else in the game. She feels real — as real as any woman that's aiming to eradicate a beautiful, post-apocalyptic world, of its angry robot nasties. She furrows her brow at an aggressive assailant, and becomes wide-eyed at an awesome sight, all while endearing players more to her person. A large portion of this is down to the terrific performance of Ashly Burch, who was Tiny Tina in Borderlands 2 and Chloe Price in Life is Strange. There are remnants of the sarky Price in Aloy when she delivers a cutting quip, making fun of a dodgy companion, but Aloy is more than that; she isn't based on acerbic jabs — she’s the embodiment of courage, and Burch captures that superbly.
Like Aloy, the player is discovering the truth of this world for the first time, and everything that comes out of her mouth might as well be coming from the one wielding the controller sitting at home on their couch. After taking a sip of tea, and doing a cloud check with your e-cig, you steady yourself prior to taking on the next step in your mammoth task, just as Aloy does in-game. It really is a shame that a lot of the secondaries are either exceptionally hammy, or stilted in their delivery; but it’s a testament to the substance of Horizon Zero Dawn’s protagonist that she can remain excellent, even when up against it with some piss-poor chat from others.
Was it silly to call Aloy iconic before anyone else had played it? Christ, yeah — it's just as ludicrous as releasing a special edition for the first game in a series. Even after playing it, I can’t say whether or not she’ll be a PlayStation stalwart like Drake, Kratos, or even Crash; that’s down to the public, who’ll tell Guerrilla and Sony with their wallets. What I can say, however, is that they definitely have something they can expand on with Aloy, so maybe. Maybe...