Horizon Zero Dawn opens as an infant Aloy is taken to a mountaintop and held aloft by her mentor Rost, who bellows her name to the depths below. As far as entrances go, it’s a dramatic one. Solid Snake shed his wetsuit in an elevator, Master Chief simply woke up, and Duke Nukem? He peed into a urinal. Aloy, on the other hand, announces her arrival with Disney-like grandeur. Sony can only hope fans will embrace their redheaded offering, who looks poised to become the next face of PlayStation.
The last time developer Guerrilla Games invented a new world was for 2004’s Killzone. Though touted by some as the “Halo killer,” at the time Killzone failed to differentiate itself from the ongoing barrage of drab military shooters. Guerrilla’s second attempt at a new IP, Horizon Zero Dawn takes place 1,000 years after an unspecified cataclysmic event simply referred to as “The Fall.” Post-historic robots now thrive alongside and in spite of their human cohabitors, as nature and technology meet, synthesize, and then explode in a fiery blaze. It seems as if Guerrilla has taken the industrial sensibilities from its previous franchise and condensed all of its gunmetal grays into Horizon’s jagged machines, allowing flora the chance to reclaim the environment and giving the open world room to breathe.
The fog-swept concrete streets of Killzone’s Vekta are a far cry from Horizon’s lush landscapes, but visual design is not the only area in which Guerrilla identified room for improvement. Killzone was mostly memorable for its gas-masked villains, the Helghast’s muffled British screams instilling fear into your comparatively forgettable allies. Managing director Herman Hulst says this time the team decided to refocus its attention away from the bad guys. "With Aloy, we had a protagonist now that is as strong, as iconic a character as the Helghast were as antagonists." But considering how often the word “iconic” is thrown around, we feel the urge to ask: How do you go about creating an icon?
Ask most people to recall a famous pixelated head and it'll likely be attached to a Nintendo-owned frame. When it comes to creating memorable mascots, Sony has stumbled. A lot. Polygon Man, Gex, Croc and Captain Blasto represent just some of its failed efforts. "It's really hard to design an iconic character,” says Guerrilla’s art director Jan-Bart van Beek . "You can hope for it, but it's not something you can really put a stamp on it, like, ‘OK, it's iconic now.'" Successful, console-selling characters are of course designed to appeal to the gaming audience at large, but they are also a reflection of their pixel-drawn peers. As Aloy ventures forth into unfamiliar territory, it seems wise to cast a glance back toward the path well trodden. The former peoples of Horizon’s reset world — who we only find ghostly remnants of — are key to Aloy figuring out who and where she really is, much like the hallowed heroes of PlayStation’s past trace a lineage without which she would not exist.
Back in 1994, Naughty Dog was a two-man company comprised of Andy Gavin and Jason Rubin. They had been discussing ideas for a game that was to become synonymous with the first PlayStation console. Nintendo had Mario, Sega had Sonic, and Sony was in need of a mascot to help sell its newly launched machine. Gavin recalls that the idea came to them during a three-day drive across the United States. “We called it the ‘Sonic’s Ass’ game. And it was born from the question: What would a 3D CAG [character action game] be like? Well, we thought, you’d spend a lot of time looking at Sonic’s ass.” The game was originally called Willie the Wombat, though it shipped two years later under the name Crash Bandicoot.
The Wumpa-fruit-loving marsupial was an instant hit with fans and his anarchic spirit perfectly captured PlayStation’s at the time subversive stylings. With an infectious zeal and an enthusiasm for mischief that once led him to heckling Nintendo’s headquarters as part of an ad campaign, Crash split the difference between Mario’s upbeat effervescence and Sonic’s toe-tapping attitude.
But Naughty Dog didn’t set out to create an icon for the PS1. In fact, the character was largely born out of the console’s limitations. Crash’s design, according to Rubin, was “determined 51 percent by technical and visual necessity and 49 percent by inspiration.” Many key decisions weren’t made in answer to the question, “Is this a good character?” but rather, “What will run on the hardware?”
Why is Crash’s face so much bigger than the rest of his body? Because the screen resolution was so low. Why does Crash have gloves, spots on his back and a light colored chest? Because of bad lighting models and low polygon counts. In the end, these technical constraints did nothing to dampen the game’s popularity and the series went on to sell more than 50 million copies. Though as PlayStation grew, so did the demand for a more mature figurehead to lead its software lineup.
Enter the bloodsoaked purveyor of chaos, murderer of family members, and soon-to-be dad Kratos, who first flaunted his muscles in 2005's God of War. This spartan-turned-deity was not just the star of a critically venerated series, but became Sony’s adopted mascot throughout the PS2 years.
Kratos had that one thing so many video game characters lack: A force of personality. Granted, it was hardly a nuanced personality, almost wholly defined by a single emotion. It was lucky then that Kratos's raging Grecian anger — endlessly comical yet rooted in tragedy — was so deftly handled by the developers at SCE Santa Monica Studio. Creative director David Jaffe remembers his singular vision, to “create someone that looked really brutal, really nasty, and really violent. We really wanted someone who made the player feel like he was able to unleash his dark side.” The Ghost of Sparta was indeed the perfect character to release your own frustrations through as he hacked apart an ever-growing list of enemies with almost poetic violence. The designers could have easily gone down the plumed helmet, toga and sandals route, but they didn’t. They created a topless sociopath wielding chain-linked swords and, in the process, an icon.
The ghastly collaboration between Sony and Santa Monica worked wonders for years, so it's little wonder that the Japanese giant plastered those furious Greek eyes onto its merch.But he wasn't enough for the brand; he was just a member of the family — namely, that tirading, half-cut uncle who won’t stop taking his top off. We loved him and his worryingly pale skin, but he needed a counterbalance. Sony needed a counterbalance.
On the opposing end of the mascot scale sat an intrepid young explorer; a man who watched too much Indiana Jones, talked a load of smack, and couldn't hold down a girlfriend to save his life. But while Nathan Drake struggled with the ladies, Sony took the time to nurture a healthy relationship with his parent, Naughty Dog. Together they sold Uncharted as gaming’s definitive cinematic experience — and you could only find it on PlayStation.
Sony’s family grew with the arrival of Uncharted’s eclectic mix of characters, all brought together by its dashing lead. Nathan was witty, fallible, loyal, and boasted the arm strength of a gorilla. Naughty Dog extended the globetrotting adventure with a sequel, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, which showcased the developer’s unmatched mastery of the PS3 hardware and delivered the most memorable train chase sequence in the history of games. But the franchise’s success was not due to eye-watering visuals, daft polygon counts and realistic textures. It owed a lot more the indelible charm of its everyman protagonist who spoke to players in a way a bandicoot and demigod could not.
In the wake of the fortune hunter’s retirement following Uncharted 4: A Thief's End, you wonder whether the Drake-shaped hole in Sony’s arsenal will ever be filled. That pressure isn’t lost on Guerrilla. According to Horizon’s lead writer John Gonzalez, "There are people even within this building who were feeling like, 'How do we try get something that's even to 90 percent of Nathan Drake?'”
If you look at the industry’s ideas about how to create a successful product, you get a sense for how it perceives itself and what it thinks players want. Horizon’s gameplay is modeled on a proven open-world formula refined by best-selling franchises like Assassin’s Creed, Far Cry and The Witcher. No surprises there. Its success in this department is a sum of finely polished parts and bleeding edge technical innovation. Guerrilla’s secret string in its bow is Aloy herself, and they’ve bet big on players forming a strong bond with her.
Sony has found success with a belly-flopping Bandicoot who only communicates to you through crazed stares, a god killer who primarily speaks in guttural yawps, and a plucky rogue with quips to spare. Now, we’re seeing the industry evolve to champion a new type of protagonist. One that’s human, capable of more than a single emotion, smart, inquisitive and, oh yeah — a woman.
Aloy’s sheltered matriarchal tribe is afraid of technology and the progress it seems to have undone. But Aloy brings a unique perspective, drawn to the strange curios littered throughout her land, interrogative of social structures she’s caught between, and determined to locate herself within history. While the true nature of her own world’s past will remain a mystery for now, Aloy’s place within the PlayStation pantheon is all but confirmed. After three years, it looks like Sony has found its icon for the PS4 era, and in her the new leader of their increasingly multifaceted tribe.