When you think about the success Horizon Zero Dawn has enjoyed over the past year, the idea that developer Guerrilla Games thought it might fail is kind of incredible. But that’s exactly what happened.
“It wasn’t obvious to us, even when we announced,” explains Guerrilla Games MD and co-founder, Hermen Hulst, in an interview with us. “I thought we had something good, but as I sat there in the room with JB, our art director, we thought we were going to be laughed at by having these robotic machines against this green backdrop and then these tribespeople. We had no idea it was going to click with almost everybody.”
From Killzone to new Horizons
Horizon Zero Dawn was a huge change for the studio, which made its name by creating the Killzone series. The shift from making a linear FPS to a third-person, open-world adventure title with a female protagonist was the kind of thing that almost required a miracle to happen. But the studio was already aware that to make such a change would require fresh talent and some recognition that things weren’t right with the Killzone series.
“I’m personally very proud of the fact that we acknowledged that we didn’t know what we were doing in the past, so we reached out to people that really are very good” says Hulst. That included bringing people like John Gonzalez, of Fallout and Skyrim fame, on board as narrative director to help create Horizon Zero Dawn’s world, story and characters come to life. “The fact that Aloy was going to be a great female character, that was very much one of the reasons that John signed up. He thought it was bold of us, and we thought we should just do it.”
And thank goodness they did, because Horizon has been a roaring success. It’s nominated for a whopping eight BAFTA awards, has a top notch metacritic score of 89 and fans desperate for more Aloy adventures.
“I have learnt that taking a huge leap of faith and a massive creative risk can work,” says Hulst reflecting on the past year. “I knew it was going to pay off in terms of satisfying me creatively, but it’s been commercially very viable for the team. To see that risk-taking approach rewarded by people buying our game to this scale is important for us to see, as it’s important because it buys you creative freedom in the long run as a development house.”
Guerrilla might not be ready to talk sequel, but we've got some clues
So what is next for the studio and the series then? Well, although Hulst wasn’t able to go into detail about plans for Horizon Zero Dawn 2 - or should that be Horizon Zero Dusk? - having such commercial success with the first game definitely gives you license to really push boundaries with the next game. But what that next chapter will be is obviously in the forefront of the studio’s mind.
At the end of last year, Guerrilla released the story-led DLC expansion Horizon Zero Dawn - The Frozen Wilds, which takes place around the mid-point of the main game’s narrative and focuses on the Banuk tribe. We questioned at the time whether that was a decision made to shed a little background on Sylens’ past as a Banuk tribesman, but he isn’t actually in the DLC. Obviously he plays a huge role in the ending of Horizon Zero Dawn, so it makes sense for him to at least feature in a sequel. But it seems like Aloy is still going to be the focus for the next game, if you read between the lines of what Hulst says about the game’s ending and the DLC.
When I asked whether Aloy’s story was over now she has all the answers she wants, Hulst said that it was a “tricky question”.
“She’s really uncovered some of the main mysteries in the world, but how do you feel when you finish the story? Are there questions that come up that you want to answer for Aloy? It was not difficult for us to build the Frozen Wilds and tell that story through Aloy. The environments and the world that we’ve put together easily raise more questions, so it feels pretty rich to us, but that’s all I can say about that for now.”
Doesn’t quite sound like we’re done with Aloy yet, does it? But wait, Hulst’s got more and it’s to do with The Frozen Wilds.
“We obviously couldn’t tell the next chapter of the personal journey of Aloy [in the DLC], so we went into a side story. But it’s a part of the world, a part of the map that we wanted to explore. At the beginning of putting the game together, we had drafted that area, so we knew it was going to look amazing, as a kind of backdrop for these amazing machines. The tribes themselves, and the relationships with the machines was interesting.”
And it’s this relationship with the AI that makes the Frozen Wilds seem to hint at potential themes for the next game. In the Frozen Wilds Aloy comes into contact with an AI called Cyan, who is capable of feeling emotions and empathy. Interactions in this way weren’t really seen between AI and humans in the main game, and feels like something that could be pushed further in a sequel, which is exactly what I asked Hulst.
AI could take a more human form
“What you’re picking up on is the personification of AI systems, of giving them a face and a character and a behaviour. These are huge themes in our world too: the autonomy of warfare, the potential threat of AI going wrong. I think it’s really nice to show and not tell in games, and have the player react to them - and fight them - that makes it much more interesting to me.”
Now obviously, a huge part of Horizon Zero Dawn is about fighting AI creatures, but facing a an AI foe with a face, personality and a voice is something that we’ve yet to do. And if that Horizon Zero Dawn ending cutscene beyond the credits is anything to go by, we could see Sylens and Hades making a return, perhaps with its masters, all hellbent on destruction.
But for now we’ll just have to be content with Aloy’s existing adventures, and foray into Monster Hunter World, because Guerrilla isn’t announcing Horizon Zero Dawn 2 anytime soon. When it does though, we’ll be the first in line to take down more metal beasts.
What do you want to see in Horizon Zero Dawn 2? Let us know in the comments below or hit us up on Twitter @GamesRadar.