By BigSocrates 30 Comments
I want to start by saying that I don’t dislike Aloy as a character. I think she’s inconsistently written and can be a little annoying at times (as many video game characters can) and that the voice acting was…only adequate…but I mostly found her likable, smart and pleasant enough. She was fine.
My issue is that the game sets her up to be something truly special. A fascinating weirdo the likes of which we’ve never seen in gaming. And then it abandons that to make her a fairly routine open world game protagonist. I felt a profound sense of disappointment when I realized that they weren’t going to do anything with their premise, and I never fully recovered during the course of the game. Horzion Zero Dawn could have had some of the most memorable character interactions in years. Instead it has a bunch of good but forgettable stuff, and a standout performance by Lance Reddick, who is by far the most interesting character in the game.
Here is what I mean when I say that Aloy doesn’t make sense:
Aloy isn’t socially awkward: This was my biggest surprise in the game. The tutorial section takes great pains to set up how Aloy is raised by Rost alone, a man who is himself pretty stiff and awkward in social situations, and shunned and abused by everyone else. She has fewer than five meaningful interactions with other people her entire life (except for some dealings with a shady merchant) until her 18th birthday. Despite this Aloy is not only a warm, empathetic, person, but always knows the right thing to say in the right situation. She even has quips and clever remarks. Who taught her this? It’s learned, or at least practiced, behavior, and it’s not like Rost has a great sense of humor. One would expect her to model herself after her “father” and be stiff and self-righteous, the only type of human behavior she’s had a chance to observe up close. Instead she’s super empathetic and insightful. Even funny. How does she even know how to put psychological insight into words? Rost sure didn’t.
I thought Aloy was going to be a fascinating socially awkward nerd who spent her whole life practicing for one competition and was completely stunted in other ways because of it. Nope. She’s a sometimes sassy empathetic urban twenty-five-year old from today.
Aloy isn’t angry OR ingratiating: Aloy has been shunned and abused her whole life. She is driven to find out why, but she doesn’t resent it, and sort of shrugs it off when it’s over, letting bygones be bygones. This is not natural behavior for someone who has always been an outcast. She should either be bitter and angry about her treatment, or super ingratiating and trying to show everyone how awesome she is so they’ll finally keep her around. You can’t go through an experience like that, especially if it’s your ONLY experience, and not be shaped by it. Aloy goes from being an outcast girl to being an important person not just with the Nora but in the huge Carja empire and adjusts easily and fluidly. That’s just not how people work. The game seems to realize this at the end when Aloy rejects being labeled the savior of the Nora, but she does so with insight and sophistication, and it’s too late. Once again, she’s way too well adjusted.
Aloy doesn’t care that much that Rost dies: This is a smaller thing, but given that Rost is basically the only person Aloy knows at the start of the game, she takes his brutal death incredibly well. She asks about him a couple times, and mentions him, but mostly she just shrugs and keeps trucking. He’s the only person she loves. The only person she’s come to rely on. The only person she knows. She should be constantly talking about him and referencing him. Instead she finds out where he’s buried and then later asks about his story but that’s it. I realize it would have been annoying to have her talking about him non-stop the whole game, or even worse despondent and depressed over his death, but a few more mentions, even in her internal monologues, were warranted.
Aloy understands the “past” world way too well: Aloy is raised on the fringes of a small tribal society. Everything she even knows about THAT society is learned from the outside looking in, or from Rost describing it to her. I’ll accept that she’s literate (for unknown reasons, since the Nora don’t seem big on books and it’s unclear why Rost would teach her to read, living as marginal hunter-gatherers) and has the focus so she knows a few facts, but she has no formal education. Her ability to grapple with and understand the significance of what she learns over the course of the adventure is completely unbelievable. At one point she calls Elizabet “Doctor Sobek” indicating that she somehow grasps the way our educational system works and grants degrees and special titles. As far as I can tell she’s never even seen a school. I understand that having her act like a “tribal” woman constantly asking Sylens to explain things would get old soon, but her level of sophistication was totally immersion breaking for me. She instantly understands the dynamics between Sobek and Faro, and what they were arguing about, and his level of wealth, all of that. Once again, she acts like a smart twenty five-year-old from our time, not an eighteen-year-old tribal outcast. Also she can collect meat from the storage lockers of the ruined installations and that’s just gross.
I understand that Aloy is a clone of a supergenius and people will use that to explain some of this away but it doesn’t work. That’s not how “genius” functions. Genius needs to be nurtured in some way, exposed to concepts and ideas, even if through books or the Internet. And eventually genius needs interactions with other humans to grow and reach its full potential. Aloy’s genius has been focused on hunting and preparing for the proving, so it makes sense that she excels at those things and is the best of the best. That’s how Elizabet should manifest in her. Having her also be great at stuff she’s never been exposed to or even thought about is sloppy, mediocre, writing.
There was another way: Aloy could have been a much more awkward character. She could have said the wrong thing, been headstrong and scornful, and reflected her stunted, weird, experiences. That wouldn’t stop her from being a hero or doing any of the things that she does in the game, but it would have made the interactions more interesting and unique. It would have been truly memorable if when people asked Aloy for help she always said something slightly off, or was confused why they couldn’t handle it themselves, the way she and Rost always did. It would have been great, and funny, if when the Carja king suggests Aloy could replace his warrior-lover she said “I do not wish to mate with you” or something instead of showing subtle, psychological, understanding of what he’s going through. It would have been nice to see Aloy befuddled by the before-humans and their soft, complicated existence. Why did they war when they had everything they could want?
It’s a missed opportunity and it’s one of the reasons that I think Horizon Zero Dawn’s story is just above average, and not great. Aloy isn’t a character, she’s a collection of traits and a totally independent personality. But she could have been much more.