When you’ve made your name on a series of hyperviolent shooters with the blunt force title Killzone, you’re not expected to mine Albert Einstein, Arthur C. Clarke, and BBC nature documentaries for your latest offering.
And trust us, no one is more taken aback by this than the people are Guerrilla Games themselves.
“I’ll be honest with you,” Guerrilla Games co-founder and managing director Hermen Hulst tells Co.Create. “ There were moments when we were making this game where we weren’t sure we were going to be able to pull it off.”
Horizon Zero Dawn represents a creative pivot for Guerrilla—an open-world role-playing game steeped in mythology and set in a world post-post-apocalypse where humans are primitive and tribal and the land is filled with grazing herds of mechanical “animals.” Gamers take on the role of Aloy, a resourceful heroine and outcast from a matriarchal tribe forced to survive in this harsh, but insanely beautiful (especially if you’re playing in 4K) landscape.
And it all began about six years ago. Hulst and the management team at Guerrilla were pondering their next move and, rather than try and predict what their fans would want them to do, they opened the floor to the people who would actually have to make the game.
“We wanted to do something new, so we reached out to the entire team and asked for pitches,” explains Hulst. Out of the pitches, around 45 were presented to Hulst and the directors, but they didn’t all push the company forward in a meaningful way. “Some of them were really, really good, and they were relevant to what we had done before. But we picked two that made it to the prototype stage. One concept made a lot of sense based on our capabilities. It was in line with what we had done before. The other one not so much—and that was Horizon Zero Dawn. It was way outside our comfort zone. It was just too many things we hadn’t done before.”
Initially daunted by the idea, Horizon sat around for a bit with only concept art and a few ideas to prove its existence. And why not? Killzone had been a huge success for the company–in 2009, Sony sent out a press release boasting that the sequel, Killzone 2, had “garnered the biggest initial success at retail of any first-party PS3 title to date, and will continue to drive incentive for hardware sales throughout the year.” The temptation to stick to their guns (no pun intended) was strong, and yet…Horizon kept bubbling up despite the challenges it represented. “It would be our first open world game, it would be a brand new IP, and it would be our first role-playing game—too many new things, we thought,” admits Hulst. “But after some pull from our team we eventually said, ‘You know what? We’re going to make this.’”
Now fully moving forward, Guerrilla enlisted the help of narrative director John Gonzalez. An open world gaming vet, Gonzalez was fresh from his work on Fallout: New Vegas for Bethesada, which had sold over 5 million copies worldwide with an 84/100 Metacritic score.
“I was absolutely gobsmacked when I saw that this pitch was coming from Guerrilla,” Gonzalez tells Co.Create. “It was like, ‘What?’ I was floored that they had the temerity to try and do such a creative change. They go from a linear first-person shooter to an open world third-person role playing game! It was three dimensions of drift from their core competency. They knew it was going to be a big risk, and they were fully committed to making a bold move. I thought it was exciting.”
Beyond the gaming mechanics, Gonzalez helped shape some of the grand thinking from both science fact and science fiction that had informed Horizon’s development since the start. “There are a couple of big ideas behind it,” says Hulst. “One was a quote attributed to Albert Einstein. He said ‘I don’t know with what kind of weaponry World War III will be fought with, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.’ Another was from science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke, who said that the only way for advanced technology to be perceived as magic is when it’s shown to people who’ve never encountered it before. We all read books like The World Without Us and Guns, Germs, and Steel. Also, BBC Nature documentaries turned out to be a source of inspiration as well!” Hulst admits he wanted a world players wanted to spend time in, unlike the grim environs of Killzone that people wanted to escape.
When you’re asking your fans to give up their hero spot and switch from first- to third-person, you’d better be absolutely sure you’re giving them a hero they will have no problem handing off the reins to. In another creative pivot, Horizon Zero Dawn’s action hinges not on a hulking soldier, but on the crafty and nimble Aloy. To work, she had to offer more than just Lara Croft-esque titillation and fantasy fodder.
“We kind of joked that she showed up in the concept art and then stepped out of the art and said to us, ‘Hey, I’m going to be your lead character,’” says Gonzalez. “Our approach to writing a great, or hopefully great, female protagonist was to just put all of our effort into writing someone who felt human and multifaceted.”
Hulst concurs with Gonzalez’s assessment of Aloy’s inevitability. “We didn’t ‘opt’ for a female character. The game concept asked for her. We never considered Horizon Zero Dawn without her.” To that end, the designers made sure to do her justice at every turn. “We didn’t want to overly sexualize her—to me that would be really distracting to the bigger premise of the game. You need to use every bit of creativity and feedback from your teams, and we have very diverse teams–men, women, people from 30 different nationalities. John has female writers on his team. We took feedback from everywhere.”
“Everywhere” isn’t an overstatement. In fact, one of the biggest contributions–the literal “face” of the game–came together serendipitously from producer Jochen Willemsen’s sickbed.
“We scanned the head of an up-and-coming Dutch actress named Hannah Hoekstra,” says Hulst (Guerrila Games is a Dutch company). “And it was all because of Jochen! He was home sick one day and was watching movies and came across Hannah! She was perfect. She has an electric personality.” And it seems as though people are already taken with her. Hulst speaks in amazement of seeing Aloy cosplayers just days after the game was announced at E3 in 2013—something Guerrilla had never experienced before.
As the game readies to be thrown to the wolves—you know, the shy and reserved gaming community—on February 28th, Guerrilla can already count Horizon Zero Dawn a success solely based on the impact it’s had on the company’s future.
“It’s fair to say it’s a pivot,” says Hulst. “And I can safely say in the comfort of hindsight that at the end of the day it’s most important that a development team, a creative team, be in love with a creative process. Creative friction is paramount to making a title. The process we went through has shown that. That’s more empowering than just doing what you’re already good at.”
“It shouldn’t be easy.”