You could draw a direct line between the fictitious villains of Horizon Forbidden West and certain members of the IRL three comma club. The game’s lead writer, however, insists that such characters aren’t based on any real-world people.
Horizon Forbidden West, first released last month for PlayStation 4 and PlayStation 5, is the sequel to 2017’s Horizon Zero Dawn, and is a similarly open-world apocalypse sim. Horizon takes place 1,000 years from now, in the wake of a planet-wide catastrophe that’s left the world covered in moss, giant robots, and little else.
During the opening hours of Forbidden West, main character Aloy and her best friend Varl make their way through a defunct facility of a private space corporation called, in a pitch-perfect encapsulation of modern-day Silicon Valley naming conventions, Far Zenith. Aloy and Varl walk into a windowless room. A hologram pops up. It’s a Far Zenith acolyte, some dude named Osvald Dalgaard, spouting off epithets about the moral incentive—the imperative, even—behind fucking off into space.
“Humans. Homo sapiens. Us. We have always pushed the boundary as explorers, pioneers, trailblazers,” Dalgaard says, sounding not unlike anyone who’s booked 17 minutes on a TEDx stage, before outlining Far Zenith’s plan to reclaim a complete construction on a derelict spaceship and send a sleeper colony to the Sirius system. “There, we’ll create humanity’s first off-world colony. They … may take 300 years to reach it, but when we look up at the night sky, we’ll know they’re on their way.”
The obvious real-world parallels have spurred players to post YouTube videos with titles like “This Dude is Basically Elon Musk” and “Elon Musk That You?!” (Musk, who has a net worth of $200 billion, is the founder and CEO of fuck-off-into-space company SpaceX.) Meanwhile, over at Digital Trends, Giovanni Colantonio drew a direct comparison from the Zeniths to real-world bazillionaires like Jeff Bezos. (Bezos, who has a net worth of $175 billion, is the founder and executive chairman of fuck-off-into-space company Blue Origin.) But, according to Horizon Forbidden West narrative director Ben McCaw, that was not the writerly intent.
“It is not based on any real world people, except as a phenomenon,” McCaw told Kotaku in a recent interview. “It’s a group of people, some of which are very public and some of which are very good at not being public, that represent an overwhelming amount of resources and, frankly, seem mostly interested in that.”
McCaw said the writing team wasn’t singling anyone out, and noted that there are indeed some noble ideas underpinning the keen urge to leave the planet you see among some prominent members of America’s billionaire class. (In response to a follow-up email, McCaw pointed to the spirit of exploration and the hunt for renewable resources as noble ideas.) And that’s to say nothing of the staggering feats of engineering on display—functional designs, like reusable rockets, that impressively seem straight out of science-fiction. But still, for a writer looking to design an enemy faction, there’s a lot to mine in the wide topic of billionaire-funded space travel.
“Really, when you see that phenomenon, you just can’t help thinking, ‘Is there some kind of self preservation involved? Or is it the next world to conquer, so to speak?’,” McCaw said. “But no, we weren’t trying to skewer anybody in particular.”
Spoilers follow for Horizon Forbidden West.
For the Far Zenith faction in Horizon Forbidden West, yes, the motivation really is to find another world to conquer. During the game’s first-act break, you encounter a group of humans equipped with futuristic tech…who also seem to be completely invincible. It’s pretty clear they’re Zeniths of some form—that’s barely a spoiler—but later on, you learn the truth. They’re not descendants of the humans who fucked off into space. They’re actually the humans who fucked off into space. Somewhere along the way, they cracked the code for indefinite life extension.
But in the fiction of Horizon Forbidden West, staying alive for a millennia, and spending all that time away from your homeworld, creates a level of disregard for anyone still left there. This is best exemplified in Far Zenith’s three surviving leaders, who comprise a sort of twisted future-chic take on Zelda’s Triforce (that being three folks who embody virtues of Courage, Wisdom, and Power).
There’s Gerard, the leader—and McCaw’s personal favorite to write, one who he regrets not being able to give more screen time to. There’s Tilda, who McCaw described as the “smart one,” expertly played with even-keeled pragmatism by Carrie-Anne Moss. Finally, there’s Erik, the “physical one.” He’s an unrepentant jerk, a thoroughly malevolent, borderline sociopathically brutish man who gets off on hurting people.
“Part of that is this idea that they were off on this colony for a thousand years, which I think had a lot of naval gazing, a lot of really egotistical reflections of the glory days of their lives on Earth,” McCaw said.
Put another way: To any billionaires who are reading this, if you do end up leaving the planet in search of less earthly pastures, please don’t come back.