First Steps: Freedom in the Open World (Part 4)

Welcome to Part 4 of my “First Steps” project which focuses on restrictions, guidance, and freedom in the initial moments of open world games. You may find it helpful to visit Part 1 for an introduction to the project and an overview of my line of inquiry. In previous posts, I talked about The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Fallout 4, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, and Grand Theft Auto V are next up on the list.

I hope you enjoy my observations and brief reflections on the opening of Horizon Zero Dawn!

Horizon Zero Dawn — Developed by Guerrilla Games, Feb. 28, 2017

  • Played on PlayStation 4
  • Time played: 3 hours, 3 minutes

Spoiler Warning: While I avoid major spoilers for the games discussed as part of this project, know that minor spoilers may lie ahead. Discussion of each game’s plot/narrative elements does not exceed the first 2 1/2 hours of play.


Horizon Zero Dawn begins with a cutscene introducing players to two important characters, Aloy and Rost. Immediately, some contextual information is provided for the infant who grows into a boisterous child. Players are quickly given control as Aloy, having run off in anger, falls down into some ruins.

After picking myself up, I worked through the ruins and found a device called a Focus.  With the device, I was able to scan certain objects, skeletons, and areas which in turn revealed audio logs that told the stories of people’s lives. Eventually I heard Rost calling for me, and I followed his voice into a cavern where I climbed up to the sunlight and Rost’s waiting hands.


After a brief scolding, Rost led me off to learn some survival skills such as how to use a bow, what plants had medicinal qualities, and how to stalk and take down prey. As part of this segment, I helped save a fellow Nora named Teb and looked through the map and inventory interfaces.


Once the main quest, “Lessons of the Wild,” was completed, a cutscene played where I was confronted by some rather rude Nora children. This moment of conflict served as an introduction to the game’s action and dialogue options as seen below. Rost caught up to me shortly after and we discussed what it would take for me to learn the identity of my mother. The Proving, an annual right of passage for the tribe, was presented as an option that would require years of training.


We began immediately. A scene played out showing me perfecting survival skills, studying up on the information held in the Focus, and becoming a highly-trained young woman. The Proving was now a mere two days away and Rost disappeared from our dwelling. I was back in control of Aloy and explored the immediate area, finding a campfire used as a save point and fast travel location along with some basic supplies. I soon found Rost. We spoke, giving me further practice with the dialogue options, and he presented me with a final lesson as preparation for the Proving.


After our discussion, I was free to explore the region controlled by the Nora. I was prompted on-screen to access the map where I saw two quests available along with various icons indicating points of interest. I gathered materials to craft items like arrows, and I pushed the boundaries (mostly the natural terrain and some instances of fences/other structures) of where I was allowed to go before meeting again with Rost to assist the Nora.


For the sake of spoilers, I’ll skip past the events of the quest and say that it involved an objective in a set area. Once the quest was complete, I was back in Nora territory speaking to Rost. Again, I was free to explore and finish any side quests before proceeding to the main quest.

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Again, I’m going to be vague about what followed as the next hour of play was particularly story-driven. Essentially, I was guided through a series of narrative sequences that both progressed the story and further developed Aloy’s character. These moments allowed for some player-choice as well as combat. But it wasn’t until Aloy was made a Seeker that the game world really “opened.”


Initially, Horizon Zero Dawn is fairly linear with only a few segments giving off the semblance of an open world. Several cinematic scenes divide these moments and soon the Nora territory is accessible to players, though this area is a tutorial zone cutting players off from the rest of the map for several hours of play. However, more than a few opportunities for player action/interaction are available in this area including main and side quests, locations to discover, enemies to defeat, and resources to gather.

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While I was playing, several points relating to player guidance interested me. Some of the more linear parts of the game use topography to guide the player such as when I set out to find Rost before the Proving. Due to the landscape, mountains and trees, there was little room for exploration, and I was instead funneled to where Rost was waiting. Despite the natural barriers, the game maintained the illusion of being open as I could see mountains in the distance, forests, and water. The immediate landscape still appeared natural even though it was designed to move the player from point A to B.

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Another point of interest occurred when Aloy was still a child. When Rost was teaching me how to successfully navigate the wilds, I purposely left our place of hiding in the undergrowth and stepped in front of a Watcher. It immediately spotted me and was ready to charge. Before it could injure or kill me, Rost shot it down with his bow. He looked at me and said, “The Watcher saw you, Aloy. You’ll have to try again.” The game then reloaded back to the moment before I defied its guidance and stepped out. This move of redirection was skillful in that it avoided a simple “you died” screen (that wouldn’t be very appropriate given Aloy is a child at that point anyway) and instead opted to use an adult figure briefly to address Aloy’s mistake.

Players experience a carefully designed world where an attempt was made to balance guidance with player agency in Horizon Zero Dawn‘s opening hours. The developers seem to have thoughtfully anticipated players’ desires to experience the world and participate in combat while minimizing the “hand-holdy” bits. The opening hours shine during the moments of freedom and where the narrative is particularly strong.

Thank you for reading, and please let me know what you think in the comments! I hope you join me next time for a discussion of Fallout 4!

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