All the way back in 2017, video game Horizon: Zero Dawn took the world by storm. People instantly fell in love with it’s charming and sassy protagonist, Aloy, and the unique and insightful story set in post-apocalyptic America as life reclaims its place on Earth following total extinction. HZD is known for its excellent representation of a diverse cast of characters in terms of ethnicity, sexuality, gender and beliefs, and even represents mental illness rather well. It is by far my favourite video game of all time, having played it four times over to date, and so to say I was excited for it’s newly-released sequel, Horizon: Forbidden West, is an understatement.
I intend to keep this piece as spoiler-free as possible, even going so far as to write this before completing the main campaign of the sequel so I cannot even accidentally hint at the ending, but it won’t be possible to discuss the depiction of disability in HFW without mentioning some plot points. Therefore, if you don’t want any spoilers at all; STOP READING NOW (but save the link so you can come back later).
Aloy’s first encounter with a disabled person in the game is unfortunately not a good one. What I believe is supposed to be a representation of very pronounced autism is clunky, hamming up aspects of the autistic stereotype of having a special interest and no social skills whatsoever, and rendering the disabled character completely dependent on her sister. It’s quite patronising in places, and seemingly played for laughs elsewhere, although it should be said that Aloy herself responds with the usual compassion and respect she displays most decent people. Fortunately, this character does not set the standard for the representation of disabled people further into the game.
As Aloy ventures west into the Nevada desert and down to San Francisco, she encounters a tribe of fierce warriors called the Tenakth. The Tenakth are nothing short of masters when it comes to armed conflict, excelling in ranged and melee combat, military tactics, and the forging of armour and weapons. Unfortunately, the Tenakth are also very, very ableist.
Aloy encounters a small squad of young Tenakth hiding in a cave as she approaches the desert, one of whom has been blinded during a fight with some of the many vicious robots that roam the lands. The ensuing dialogue reveals that the blinded soldier cannot return home as he will now be seen as useless, either being cast out of the tribe altogether, or being placed into single combat with a machine to prove his worth. With little hope of surviving such an encounter while still adapting to his new disability, his fate hangs in the balance. Aloy is appalled by the ableism but recognises that she alone cannot change a whole tribe, and ultimately manages to find the young warrior a new home with a tribe of more peaceful farmers. If Aloy returns to this settlement later in the game, she will find that the young man has taken to music, and seems to have settled well in his new home.
Out in the giant redwood forests of California, Aloy stumbles across yet another instance of disability among the Tenakth. This time, Aloy must venture out into the heart of the forest to search for an elderly man who is wandering among the trees following a violent conflict with his daughter. When Aloy finds the gentleman, he urges her to follow him to a nearby clearing where a group of Tenakth soldiers are about to be ambushed by rebels. As they move towards the clearing, discussion between Aloy and the old man reveals some inconsistencies in his description of the rebels, and sure enough no such attack takes place. Instead, in a truly heart-wrenching turn of events, a mural to a battle long-post is found, bringing the man to his senses. He is experiencing what we would now recognise as dementia, reliving memories of his time as a soldier almost three decades prior, and unable to recognise his own daughter. He admits to keeping “the fog in his brain” a secret from those around him, but upon returning to his village finally confides in his daughter. Since the Tenakth do at least have some respect for the elderly, he does not face the same predicament as the blinded soldier previously mentioned, and so can safely stay under the care of his daughter. While the dementia reveal is quite predictable, the story is well-handled and certainly impactful.
Finally, we get to the most spoilerific part; a disabled character in the main cast. During the first large-scale conflict in the story, all but one of the Tenakth’s top warriors is killed. The one surviving warrior, Kotallo, loses an arm in the battle, but Aloy is not properly introduced to him until later in the story. Kotallo is charged with escorting Aloy to his old clan who, due to his “maimed” status, practically disown him. He is initially surly and closed-off, but eventually begins to open up to Aloy following a fight with some rebels and a particularly vicious robot mammoth. He can still hold his own in the battle, and even helps carry the equipment Aloy needs back to camp, before taking up residence in the mountain base that Aloy’s team resides in.
Kotallo is an introvert, choosing to remain isolated from the rest of the team, so when Kotallo asks for Aloy’s aid in constructing a prosthetic arm it is a clear demonstration of his trust in her. Kotallo accompanies Aloy on this quest, a journey which requires a climb up a sheer rock-face. Despite being one-handed and clearly daunted by the prospect, Kotallo resolves to get up the cliff and does so. Aloy offers help but, when it is declined, respects his decision. Kotallo also helps significantly with the ensuing conflict, before returning to base to construct his new arm. Once constructed, Kotallo tests it out in combat and is pleased with the result, but removes it afterwards. When Aloy asks why, in a moment that had me welling up with emotion, he simply states that he will wear it when needed but take it off in between, as he does not need two arms to be complete. It was brilliant.
In the three good cases, the disabled characters are portrayed with a sensitivity not often seen in pop culture, primarily in that instead of “overcoming” their various disabilities, they must all adapt to live with it. None of these characters are portrayed as pitiful or weak, and Aloy never patronises them. Nor does it feel like disability is included simply to appeal to the masses, or just to move along the plot, instead shaping the player’s understanding of the world and in particular the new tribes encountered throughout the game. Representing disability in video games without being patronising is definitely achievable, and Horizon: Forbidden West irrefutably proves this.