Horizon Forbidden West Needs To Offer A Better Portrayal Of Motherhood Than Zero Dawn

I recently decided to replay Horizon: Zero Dawn as a means of celebrating its fourth anniversary. To this day, no other game’s narrative has enthralled me as much as Zero Dawn’s did. Set in a distant future where humans live in tribes and robotic creatures are top of the food chain, our protagonist, Aloy, begins a search for her mother that leads to her uncovering the mysteries of herself and the world. As this world opens up before her, so too does the story, quickly making Aloy’s search for her mother seem like only a minor detail in a much larger narrative with much higher stakes. I found myself rushing through the main story as quickly as possible so that I could unravel the mysteries of the world – what caused civilization to collapse, and why do deadly robotic dinosaurs roam the land?

But, despite all of these tantalizing mysteries, what makes Horizon so compelling is Aloy herself. She is singularly focused on figuring out who she is, a quest that sutures her into the position of having to save the world from another extinction. This somewhat colored my perspective of Horizon the first time I played it. In my haste to get to the bottom of the story, I missed some of the more nuanced elements of the game. While Zero Dawn was heralded as a feminist landmark by some for its inclusion of a non-sexualised female protagonist, others considered this to be the bare minimum games should be aiming for, noting that it was nothing worth marveling at.

Whatever you believe, it’s clear that Guerilla Games did a fantastic job of creating a strong female lead with Aloy. It was also intriguing to see the inclusion of a matriarchal tribe, though sadly nothing of substance ever comes from this as it isn’t compared to any of the other factions. It’s great that Guerilla created a well-rounded female protagonist, and more are definitely needed in games. However, something both sides of the discourse seemed to miss was the insidious reinforcement of the gendered notion that women are “natural” caregivers and nurtures.

On my second playthrough, I noticed that the importance the Nova – Aloy’s matriarchal tribe – ascribes to mothers forces motherhood upon women in a rather oppressive way. Aloy is motherless, found inside a sacred mountain. The Nova places heavy importance on biological birth and this comes through in the way they treat baby Aloy. Instead of opting for a more progressive gender politics and giving Aloy to a couple in the tribe who cannot conceive, or a same-sex couple, she is given to Rost, a single father and an outcast, thus doomed to be outcast herself. It seems the Nova believe that children should be part of a nuclear family (a mother, father, and two kids), with a mother in the prime caregiving role. This is a dangerous stance to take as it undermines years of queer activism that seeks to validate non-nuclear families. It also clashes with the queer history of many Indigenous American cultures, which the Nova’s aesthetics borrow from heavily.

The game’s position that women should be mothers alienates women who are infertile, trans women, trans men, non-binary people, and women who just don’t want to have kids. Having a woman be the action hero of an adventure game is a great step towards undoing gender stereotypes, but the Nova’s strict adherence to gendered child-rearing makes the game’s overall position on gender roles more ambivalent. The wider implication of the gender role presented is that it dictates that a woman is based on their ability to have and raise children.

Larger story elements reinforce another outdated notion: women are supposed to clean up the mess made by men. GAIA, the AI tasked with reseeding life on Earth – after arrogant tech-mogul Ted Farro writes the code that will destroy it – is coded as feminine, having a feminine hologram and voice. Her programming is so intrinsically nurturing and life-giving that an entirely different AI, HADES, has to be designed to cause another extinction if GAIA fails to make conditions on Earth suitable for human life. HADES is coded to contrast GAIA – it is masculine, has a male voice actor and boasts a dark and threatening appearance.

GAIA is coded by Dr. Elisabet Sobeck, and interestingly, it is Elisabet who notes that GAIA needs a destructive side as it will not want to kill anything. Instead of allowing Elisabet some depth and having her code HADES herself, a man makes it. Even though Elisabet knows GAIA may fail and the Earth may need to be reset, the character is written to not have it within herself to create something that would take life instead of nurturing it. This view that all women must have the desire to nurture alienates and belittles women who do not wish for or cannot attain motherhood.

Another missed opportunity for more complex feminine characters is the fact that HADES was initially a part of GAIA, one of her subroutines. This allows for some depth to the femininity presented in the game, a destructive side within, one that counters the nurturing stereotypes. However, the only destruction GAIA is permitted is her own self-destruction in an attempt to stop HADES from causing an extinction event. She’d rather kill herself than have anyone else harmed, which dangerously suggests that women should be so nurturing that they put the needs of others before their own lives. Despite this, HADES unshackles himself from GAIA, rendering her sacrifice futile and separating them into two opposing beings. Instead of allowing GAIA to interact with her masculine side, it chooses to part with her, as femininity is too constraining for it. These binaries create the kind of toxic attitudes that men should be one way and women should be another, harming everyone in the process through the stifling of their gender expression.

The biggest element of the game that posits gender roles as predetermined is the discovery that Aloy is Elisabet’s clone. Aloy is literally made by GAIA to save the world, it is her inescapable destiny. The very fact that Aloy is grown in a lab – as all the first generation of new humans were – serves to prove biological parenthood is outdated. Yet her quest for a mother figure to accompany Rost, her father figure, reaffirms the importance of outdated biological gender roles.

Zero Dawn plays with the idea of rebelling against gender norms by allowing you to be a badass cloned woman who shoots giant mechanical T-Rexes with her bow and arrow, but it still assigns deeply outdated gendered roles to the majority of its other characters. Even Aloy is forced, by birthright, into being the mother of the new world. These outdated ideas on women and motherhood hurt everyone trying to understand their gender by encouraging adherence to gender binaries. Hopefully, Forbidden West can do a better job at creating more nuanced depictions of women.

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Issy is an avid film lover, writer, and game-player based in Leamington Spa, England. He combines his love of film and games in his writing, trying to find as many connections between the two mediums as possible. When he’s not writing, playing, or watching, Issy loves to DJ and look after his growing collection of houseplants, as they make him feel more adult.

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