the price of wonder


I expect everyone’s writing about this right now and many of them are likely further along than I am, so I’m not as invested in some overall take as…uneasy speculation?

Cut for spoilers for Horizon Zero Dawn:


But the thing from HZD (which I took a vacation day yesterday to play as much of as possible) that has stuck with me most, so far, is a tiny conversation with a minor side-quest character, who is mentioning a dangerous place she found to you. Driven by her curiosity, she barely got out alive, and she’s warning you away from the place. Your character, Aloy, presses:

“But for a moment you felt something. This…sense of discovery. Are you sure that’s such a bad thing?”

“Has to be, right? Or I wouldn’t have been punished.”

That conversation won’t leave my head.

Because there shouldn’t be space for wonder in a world where you’re barely surviving. What we saw of Aloy’s adopted father figure, Rost, showed tenderness and obedience, yes, but not a yearning for exploration. Aloy is, admittedly, a teenager, so perhaps we are meant to attribute that lust for discovery to her age. But if…if we are ultimately going to be put in a position of either gratifying that spirit and allowing progress to move forward, when “progress” means — coupled with the less-than-great tendencies of mankind — a likelihood of repeating the apocalyptic mistakes of the past, or of bowing to the fear-based, religious orientation to the world that manages through its fear to keep that natural world from being destroyed…oh, man.

I’ve played the Fallout games, but I’m not really a big fan, for the very shallow reason that they’re ugly. Everything is brown, rusted and awful. But Horizon Zero Dawn takes place so far after the apocalypse that almost destroyed mankind that the world is…beautiful. Canyons. Rivers. Mountains. What appears to be the environs surrounding Colorado Springs (hello, Air Force Academy!), revivified into snow-dusted prairies alive with herds of animals (and robot animals, let’s not forget).


To be asked whether those spaces are worth keeping the way they are, in their recovered states, at the expense of wonderment, isn’t easy. Rost found wonder enough in the natural world, but Aloy appears not to. She wants to see more, explore, and if the reasons motivating her to do that are necessities at first, her reactions as more and more of the outside world unfold before her make it clear: she wants to be awed.

And nothing of the way mankind has treated her so far, growing up, has done much to inspire awe.

What are wonders to the Matriarchs — the female clergy in charge of the religion that shapes the life of the Nora tribe, from which Aloy was shunned as a child — are easily-explained relics of the Metal World (our world) to Aloy. Computerized doors and lights are to her — thanks to the chip she wears on her ear, itself a relic which interacts with the ghostly remains of computers past — merely that. Functional objects. But the Matriarchs, and those they lead, attach wonder and superstition in equal measure to such relics, warning people away from them and worshiping them in equal turn.

I have no love for organized religion or its tendency to shape people’s lives and actions through fear. But if we are meant to learn, through uncovering what exactly happened to those Metal World people (us), that humans deserve no better…that fear is the only thing that will cause them to act in a way that is beneficial to all…well, shit. “Teach them otherwise!” you might say, but is Aloy in a position to do that? Yes, even having grown up an outcast, even having been loved by a pseudo-father against the wishes of the Matriarchs (or at least the most cantankerous one, who snapped at Rost when she saw him being gentle with the child). Even having the conversations she does with other outcasts she finds — behaving better toward them than any tribe members have, because she has seen both sides of that coin. Even with all this, it’s awfully messianic to task her with teaching people to be better to one another. And to the natural world.

If she emerged “motherless” from the earth as from some kind of Fallout-esque Vault — if there are humans living down under the earth will the full technological capacity of today, and if we are called on to decide whether to merge with them, invite them up and to make our lives easier with the technologies of the past…I’ve got to say no. They had their chance. They blew it. The remains of their self-destructive battles still litter the earth, and make perilous the lives of those few humans who still cling to it.


If we are told that such an act would only be putting off the inevitable, that progress will eventually resurrect those old technologies anyway, fine…there is nothing Aloy, a human with a finite lifespan, will be able to do about that. But don’t rush it along then. Don’t welcome back into a world that appears to have barely survived an apocalypse, the very technologies that brought it to the brink. It’s like those pacts aliens in space stories have, not to inundate evolving cultures with tech they have not yet themselves discovered. Yes, even if that means no antibiotics or MRIs. In the world of Horizon Zero Dawn, we had those once, yes…but we also had robots built to kill people, and almost all the people died. On the planet.

We screwed up. And if what Aloy takes away from this is that humans will always screw up like that; that it is in their nature to do so…at least let it happen in due time. Not rushed.

Nor erased, like in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. If there is a way to walk the line between inevitable industrial collapse and cautious, environmentally respectful advancement, sure, walk that line. But I don’t know that we are going to be told that’s an option. I don’t know that, realistically, it should be.

We are, after all, of the Metal World, and we kind of already fucked it up. However wondrous it yet remains.


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