Partway through Horizon Forbidden West, you encounter a monster. It’s not an animal-shaped robot, like the bulk of enemies you fight. It’s a bona fide creature of the shadows, and a rare moment of terror in a series that largely avoids jump scares and nightmare fuel. According to the game’s narrative director, the moment was a frictionless creative choice in development.
Spoilers follow for Horizon Forbidden West.
Horizon Forbidden West, Guerrilla’s second entry in a series of open-world games that happen to come out a week before the most instantly heralded open-world games of all time, is full of twists, whether they be the deaths of beloved characters or the true motivation for hated ones. But the most bone-shakingly shocking moment is the reveal that Ted Faro, the spectral antagonist of 2017’s Horizon Zero Dawn, has been alive the whole time.
Record scratch: Who’s Ted Faro?
Ted Faro was a techevangelist from the 21st century whose malignant presence loomed over Horizon Zero Dawn via holograms and audio logs. Horizon’s post-apocalypse is basically his fault, a series of hubristic decisions you can brush up on here. Since Horizon is set in the 31st century, everyone (rightfully) assumed he was long dead.
If you’ve played Forbidden West, you know the moment. During the “Faro’s Tomb” mission, Aloy visits the crumbled ruins of San Francisco to find Thebes, Ted Faro’s personal apocalypse-proof bunker, in search of an override code that’ll help her trap an integral fragment of a terraforming AI program. (Yeah, Horizon Forbidden West’s story is all kinds of bonkers.) She’s accompanied by a tribe called Quen, which is fronted by a guy named, in one of Horizon’s best jokes, Ceo. At the end of the quest, Aloy reaches the bottom of the bunker, where she finds a panic room (bunkerception). Inside is Faro, who had extensively experimented with gene therapy in order to indefinitely prolong his life.
Now, Horizon Forbidden West doesn’t actually show you what Faro looks like. Ceo, in his only instance of bravery, walks into the room. You hear an inhuman roar. He immediately scampers out. That’s the extent to which you encounter Faro’s monstrous somehow-still-alive form in Horizon Forbidden West. Ceo foolishly orders his minions to immolate him off-screen seconds later.
Horizon Forbidden West is packed with exposition and explanation, so “Faro’s Tomb” stands out not because of what it shows you but because of what it doesn’t.
“I felt very strongly, and the game director felt very strongly, that there are two reasons not to [show Faro],” Horizon Forbidden West narrative director Ben McCaw told Kotaku in a recent interview. “One, it’s not a horror game … That’s not our wheelhouse. The other thing is, in the end, isn’t whatever you imagine is behind that door scarier than anything we can actually show?”
McCaw likened the scene to cinematic techniques from French director Jacques Tourneur, best known for horror films like The Leopard Man and Night of the Demon. (Tourneur also directed a 1964 episode of The Twilight Zone.) Prior to the era of ballooned budgets and the advent of splashy computer-generated imagery, Tourneau had to rely on other tricks to convey frightening moments.
“It’s what’s lurking in the shadows that’s way, way scarier—the image that your mind conjures up—than the cheesy Hollywood rubber suit that you show,” McCaw said. “We didn’t want to do that. We wanted it to be in the player’s mind.”
In the moment—since it happens at the end of a mission, and in a suspiciously boss-fight-looking space—I steeled myself to fight some sort of unholy monstrosity. But once nothing barreled out after me, I reasoned that Faro 2.0 couldn’t move, so I came to the conclusion that it looked perhaps like, say, the notorious Rat King from The Last of Us Part II, except with all of its limbs severed.
McCaw, however, has more of a literal picture: Behind the door, Faro is, he imagines, a “human cancer, a massive cancerous growth. That’s what Ted Faro is, in a certain way. He’s sort of a cancer on humanity.”