Our Techno-Utopian Nightmare
Artificial intelligence has become an unavoidable trend, and with that comes an explosion of possibilities and fears. Though A.I. promises to free the masses from the suffering of alienated labor, it also threatens to render many redundant. In some sense, the blessing and curse of A.I. is that it may become too good, painfully exposing just how inadequate our biological modes of being are.
In Guerrilla Games’ Horizon franchise, A.I. appears as both the villain and the hero, illustrating the dual nature of technology. Interestingly, the studio’s science fiction vision appears to borrow heavily from H.G. Wells. Although it may seem counterintuitive at first, upon closer analysis, it becomes apparent that Guerrilla Games and Wells may have been trying to convey very similar messages through their art.
The story behind Horizon Zero Dawn‘s conception has been retold aplenty in the gaming community, as it demonstrates how creativity can be maximally harnessed with good leadership. After years of working on the Killzone franchise, Guerrilla Games realized that being a one-trick pony would not be a sustainable long-term strategy. Hermen Hulst, who was the studio head at the time, had the team pitch ideas about what games they’d like to work on. Out of that, the Horizon franchise was born.
During the pitching process, the team toyed with the idea of making a game based on H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, first published in 1895. The sci-fi novel is set in the distant year 802701, and at first, it appears that the perfect utopia has been achieved. However, upon closer inspection, readers discover that the class differences have been so exaggerated that humans have split into two races, and the rich and poor appear to be two separate species.
Though the idea of a Wells’ game was scrapped, it doesn’t mean that Guerrilla Games completely abandoned the iconic author. As Hermen Hulst has admitted when discussing The Time Machine: “Even though we ultimately didn’t pick it I suppose you can see some elements translated into Horizon“. Wells fans will be aware that one of the races in The Time Machine is called the Eloi, a word that’s quite similar to a certain red-haired heroine’s name.
The Horizon Between Biology and Bot
The War of the Worlds is perhaps Wells’ most widely recognized text. It has found a special place in literary culture, and it is considered a seminal example of the alien invasion subgenre. Part of the novel’s success comes from its descriptions captivating enough to cause mass panic when it was read in a 1938 radio program.
Through the vivid descriptions, Wells brings to life the Fighting Machines that the invading Martians use to terrorize England. In an unexpected twist, what makes the Fighting Machines so awe-inspiring is not their technological prowess, but their resemblance to simple biological beings.
The narrator notes how the Fighting Machines are not a mess of cogs and wheels. Instead, they walk on spider-like legs that are powered by a “sort of sham musculature” that electric currents run through. It is this “curious parallelism to animal motions” which was “so striking and disturbing to the human beholder”. At one point, the animal-like nature of a Fighting Machine enchants the narrator so much that he “did not see it as a machine, in spite of its metallic glitter”.
A similar effect is found in the Horizon franchise. The Machines that have enchanted fans seem more animal-like than robotic, with many of them exhibiting reptilian or mammalian behavior. For players with an active enough imagination, it is also possible to form a bond with Aloy’s mounts as if they were living pets.
Though the similarities between the machines of Guerrilla Games and Wells may seem merely poetic at first, it goes much deeper. The Corruptors, which bring destruction in Horizon Zero Dawn, walk on spindly legs much like the Fighting Machines, and they have the same skittish, animated style of motion described in The War of the Worlds. With the upcoming Horizon Forbidden West DLC, Burning Shores, it appears players will see more of the Horus Titans which sport tentacular appendages.
Hope During Dystopian Disasters
Wells’ influence on the Horizon franchise has produced a unique variety of science fiction that represents a masterclass in worldbuilding. The peak of technology in both Wells’ works and the Horizon franchise is represented, not by an austere, sentient computer like 2001: A Space Odyssey‘s HAL 9000, but rather by biology mimics. These are perhaps the comforting video game villains needed now more than ever, when technology poses the risk of ushering in biological obsolescence. Humans can draw some superiority from, and feel flattered by, the fact that the higher technology strives, the more it becomes like us.