You’ll spend most of your time in Horizon Zero Dawn fighting giant mechanical dinosaurs. It’s the game’s most obvious strength, and it’s a fun, exciting thing to do. But I want to praise one of the game’s subtler successes: a remarkable set of audio logs that stand as some of the best background storytelling of the year.

As the protagonist Aloy makes her way through the abandoned labs and military installations of a world long-since destroyed, she discovers recordings made by the people who used to live there. It’s a shopworn way to fill in a video game’s backstory, but Horizon Zero Dawn’s audio logs are good enough that they still work. My favorite set of logs tells a micro-story involving a long-dead soldier, his wife and the actions of the people in charge of a losing war. The recordings also demonstrate the potency of audio storytelling in games and, more impressively, exploit the way those of us who play games retain in our memory of what we experience without realizing it.

The First Two: A Soldier’s Lament

Aloy comes across the set of six tapes in a broken down military base near the top of The Grave-Hoard. It’s an area players descend into during a lengthy mission called “To Curse The Darkness.” The first two logs sit waiting to be activated in the quarters of one Sgt. Guliyev. We don’t know Guliyev. We don’t meet him. When a player reaches this area, several hours into the lengthy game, he or she may not even yet understand why a Sgt. Guliyev would exist. The player is just beginning to understand the long history of the world Aloy is exploring. Despite her primitive surroundings, she and the tribes around her are far from of one of humanity’s first societies. Instead, she seems to be a member of one of its last. Our understanding of what came before is just coming into focus. We know there was a robot uprising. Humans like Sgt. Guliyev were enlisted to fight it. The war went badly.

In the first two logs Aloy finds, the sergeant explains what is happening to his wife back home.

He is initially optimistic. In a second recording, however, he despairs.

Listen:

Here’s a transcript (transcripts in this article are via the Horizon Zero Dawn Wikia):

Sgt. Guliyev: Thanks for the mails, you. Time goes fast on active duty—four months with the Wreckin’ Recalls, I don’t know, 20 drops? In and out of the West Coast, fighting with these civilian enlistees, scrappy guys and gals—their training is basically “Here’s a DEW, when you see a bot, hit it,”—but somehow it’s all coming together. Between us and the 6th MRB we took down a Horus at Lithium Beach. Pulled out before its buddies arrived, but to see a big one go down...I hope it made the news, honey, showed everyone we’re gonna have a shot at turning this around. We just need to give Project Zero Dawn the time it needs, then everything will be the way it used to be.

Sgt. Guliyev: I know it’s been days, honey, I’m so sorry. Deployments are—getting real long, and tougher every time... the swarm’s getting better at predicting us. Less of us now, and we have to put in ten times the work for every one gone. Like a family business on hard times, only... this isn’t my family. It’s not with you. I still try to see you, the life we had, in the eyes of the people out there. I remember when they were glad to see us, when they still had hope. It all seems to be slipping away. I don’t even recognize the places we’re defending... The only thing I know I’m still fighting for is... you. For Zero Dawn to turn this around, whatever the hell that is.

The pair of logs seems to tell the story you think Horizon’s designers want you to hear: a soldier’s hope is smashed into hopelessness.

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The next four logs you find aren’t close by. There’s some exploring and fighting between them, which would suggest to most players that Guliyev’s story is done with.

The thing is, a good game designer can assume that things like those first two audio logs will stick with players, at least for a while. What we see and hear is burned into our short-term memory, even if we aren’t conscious of it happening. You can recognize this in games in the Metroid series, where the discovery of new weapons and equipment that enable you to smash through walls or jump really high suddenly spark flashes of memory of areas you previously ran through that, hey, were actually full of walls waiting to be smashed and things that maybe we can now jump over. Last year, I wrote about a similar trick from the 1998 Nintendo 64 game Banjo-Kazooie. It springs a quiz on players late in the game, asking them to identify signature sounds and visuals that they’ve heard or seen as they’ve played. You don’t have to have been paying all that much attention to ace the quiz. The knowledge burrowed into you without you noticing.

In Horizon, it’s Sgt. Guliyev’s audio logs that you’ve been subconsciously keeping in your mind’s ear. You hear those first two and then move on to do other things like solving a puzzle….

… then fighting a slew of bad guys…

… and exploring caves...

The Next Two: A Government’s Redaction

At least 10 minutes will pass from when you may have heard Sgt. Guliyev’s words. But in my experience, at least, they stuck with me. Deeper into the Grave-Hoard, players will find a room filled with terminals. On those terminals are more audio logs. Some are ostensibly from Sgt. Guliyev to his wife, but they sound different. The words are similar. It sounds like his voice. But it’s different. The despair is gone. His messages to his wife have been cleaned up and sound more optimistic. He’s been censored.

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These logs are titled “Edited and Approved.” Listen to them after listening to the first two and you’ll understand why:

Here’s the transcript, showing how the sergeant’s words were manipulated to pass propaganda to his wife:

Sgt. Guliyev: Thanks for the mails, you. Time goes fast on active duty- four months with the Wreckin’ Recalls... fighting with these new enlistees, scrappy guys and gals... it’s all coming together. Between us and the 6th MRB we took down a Horus... I hope it made the news, honey, showed everyone we’re... turning this around. We just need to give Project Zero Dawn the time it needs...

Sgt. Guliyev: I know it’s been days, honey, I’m so sorry. Deployments are- getting real long... and we have to put in... the work for everyone. Like a family business... I... see you... in the eyes of the people out there. ...they were glad to see us, they still had hope... I’m still fighting for you.

As a point of comparison, here’s the first of those two logs from the sergeant again, with the parts that were retained in the redacted message bolded:

Sgt. Guliyev: Thanks for the mails, you. Time goes fast on active duty—four months with the Wreckin’ Recalls, I don’t know, 20 drops? In and out of the West Coast, fighting with these civilian enlistees, scrappy guys and gals—their training is basically “Here’s a DEW, when you see a bot, hit it,”—but somehow it’s all coming together. Between us and the 6th MRB we took down a Horus at Lithium Beach. Pulled out before its buddies arrived, but to see a big one go down...I hope it made the news, honey, showed everyone we’re gonna have a shot at turning this around. We just need to give Project Zero Dawn the time it needs, then everything will be the way it used to be.

And here’s the second, in its original form, with what was retained and manipulated bolded:

Sgt. Guliyev: I know it’s been days, honey, I’m so sorry. Deployments are- getting real long, and tougher every time... the swarm’s getting better at predicting us. Less of us now, and we have to put in ten times the work for everyone gone. Like a family business on hard times, only... this isn’t my family. It’s not with you. I still try to see you, the life we had, in the eyes of the people out there. I remember when they were glad to see us, when they still had hope. It all seems to be slipping away. I don’t even recognize the places we’re defending... The only thing I know I’m still fighting for is... you. For Zero Dawn to turn this around, whatever the hell that is.

Taken together, the edited and unedited logs tell a story of their own. Human fighters were getting defeated so badly that their military commanders suppressed the truth of their suffering. Listening to the redacted and edited logs, it’s easy to feel angry about what happened.. But it’s not enough for the game’s writersto just tell the story of a government’s futile attempts to spit-shine a catastrophe. They give us a final pair of messages from Guliyev’s wife.

The Last Two: A Resilient Truth

Near the sergeant’s censored audio logs are two from her. Her first message is marked “rejected,” her second “approved.”

Mrs. Guliyev: Ames... I don’t even know if you’re alive anymore. The mails I get from you, they say they’re from you, but they don’t sound... They sound... recycled. Phrases put together. And you don’t say anything about the news I pass on! The containment zone, the re-breathers, the rioting, 1Earth—what happened in the Dallas Bubble, Ames, that wasn’t the robots! They won’t even give me a straight answer when I demand to know if you’re still alive! They just say if your messages keep coming, then... you’re still... “operational.” It’s not fair, Ames. It’s not fair that you won’t be with me when the lights go out. I love you.

Mrs. Guliyev: Ames, I know I mail you too much—I’m just proud of what you’re doing—everyone back home is. We got moved inland ten kilometers, just as a precaution, they say... School’s still in session, so I get to keep my eye on Andras and Reggie. We never know where or when you’re fighting, but when the VTOLs go over, all the kids run out and wave... I believe in you. I know nothing’s ever going to be the same, but I believe in you. I believe in us.

“That’s so sad,” Aloy remarks as the wife’s rejected message concludes.

It is sad, but there’s also a glimmer of something optimistic. Games like Horizon evoke pathos from the suffering they depict. They show wreckage and loss of life to inspire or justify the hero’s righteous violence. They sound out suffering to motivate action. As this mini-drama concludes, it strikes a touching note about how well people understand each other. Guliyev’s wife knows she’s not hearing her husband’s real words. She can tell. That’s a tiny triumph of love, if ultimately a futile one. Amid lies, the truth did crack through. It’s a small victory in a hopeless fight, subtly conveyed in a vast and impressive game.