Horizon Zero Dawn: “Honor the Fallen”

“We whisper reconciliation, but forget how the old king’s priests sang the words and blessed the killing.” —Mournful Namman, from Horizon Zero Dawn‘s side quest “Honor the Fallen”

It is difficult to do justice to how true to life Horizon Zero Dawn is. The idea of “doing justice” to a video game meant to generate millions of dollars in sales, a game centered around a story about killer robots, sounds absurd to be fair. But it’s so clear to me after completing the game that those who made it wanted to say something credible to their kids about growing up in this crazy world. It’s clear to me they succeeded. So I believe a few remarks about an unusual sidequest are in order.

I understand that some of you reading this blog think of video games as diversions where candy is crushed, Pac-Man eats dots, or there’s a set of Legos that’s infinite. The idea that our best talent has decided not to write novels or screenplays, but takes their knowledge about Moby-Dick or Homer and uses it to create a mythology for a fully immersive and discoverable game world can be a bit shocking. I urge you to get over yourselves fast. There’s a good chance that the few things which survive this age may be video games, which can serve as first-rate social commentary while providing ideas about what the future might look like. Grand Theft Auto IV was about how the feuds of the Old World are only turned more extravagant and deadly by the promise of the New. Skyrim was unsparing in critiquing the resentment underlying white nationalism while focusing on how messianic figures enable social change. For the last few weeks, I’ve been completely taken in by Horizon Zero Dawn‘s earnestness about hard moral lessons—how to stand up for yourself in a world of fascists who are open about war crimes and genocide when it suits them. How to stand up in this world, be there for others, and stay compassionate despite those in power indulging a fantasy of “kill them all, let God sort them out.”

One might argue with me thus: “Congratulations. You found every superhero movie ever made. Now get back to work.” I’m not sure how to respond to this, as I’m not entirely sure where I want to go as a scholar. I do think mass media can shed light on uncomfortable truths, especially as the United States indulges oligarchy and nostalgia in its more established institutions. The dystopic storylines of a number of games are filled with illustrations of corrupt power and delusional principles. Surprisingly enough, there’s typically also a real sympathy for what it means to believe. I guess that’s not so surprising when you’re asking people to consider an imaginary world as relevant to their own moral formation, but I don’t think we should be too cynical about such moments, for reasons you’ll see below.

“Honor the Fallen” is a sidequest where your character comes across a priest of a state-established religion who has been dealing with requests for reparations. Make no mistake, the reparations are very much owed. The religion joined the state in waging war against nearly every other people, enslaving some, sacrificing others, raiding and destroying what they couldn’t take in order to cater to a sense of superiority. In the cutscene below, you can see the priest, one Namman, introduce himself by addressing your character’s grief. Your character is grieving, but not for reasons he could know:

Around the 50 second mark, Namman voices a sentiment in which all religions should be able to share. He wants those who wish to express their grief at losses his religion and people caused to be able to express that grief: “These people seek to honor their loved, their lost. With their own voices, not mouthing Carja rituals to Carja stone.” He is sympathetic to those of other races and religions and sees the legitimacy of his religion in the development of a genuine universality. He blames an obsession with “tradition” for getting in the way of what was “right.” Your character’s job is to defeat robots who are preventing them from getting to areas they can grieve, as well as deal with one old, fanatical priest who thinks the slaughter before was indeed godly and righteous.

This is so incredibly radical that I’m blown away it got made. I deal with reactionaries who loudly proclaim that there have never been any sexual predators among the clergy. I hear all the time that talk about reparations is radical even as the news shows video daily of people of color or people with disabilities being executed by law enforcement. A few I know are arguing that Santa Claus is a moral necessity (I don’t even know where to start with that one). Here, in a video game, is a priest seeing the task of religion as enabling all to grieve, as openness to the pain of others. A lot of people in America see religion as strictness and tradition for strictness and tradition’s sake. They don’t want to hear anything that sounds like culpability; what matters to them is that as God commands, they follow, they command and are followed. There are many they do not want to see in their neighborhoods or at church. They would dismiss Namman, the fictional priest in the game, as a hopeless “progressive,” as if God Himself couldn’t envision a better future. What’s stunning that this picture of religion, where religion only belongs to traditionalists or fundamentalists, is shared by the majority of news outlets. Mainstream churches, temples, mosques, etc. are near invisible in coverage compared to, say, some small church trying to get a book burning going.

Namman is clear what is at stake if the individuals are not allowed to grieve. Religion can be thought a public space where pain can be expressed. If people are not allowed to express their pain, their stories go unheard. Exclusion can be a form of dehumanization, but when it comes to a state-run religion, it absolutely is. One need not stretch the imagination to see how much this situation parallels life in America.

Horizon Zero Dawn goes further. It doesn’t blink at how exploitative a culture which indulged slavery is, even when slavery has been ended. Skip to 1:06 in the video below and listen to Brageld’s story, if you want:

Brageld wants to get into the shrine because his lover, who was a slave, crafted a statue of the king who eventually ordered him to his death. He wants to see the handiwork, as terrible as it may be, because it’s his lover’s work. His wish may not strike one as the most intuitive; for those of us living in a stratified society, it’s really hard to imagine that all some people have left of their ancestors are the things they were forced to build. I hope you will take this moment to reflect on the history of the White House, which was built in large part by slave labor, and to ask yourself why the hell Georgetown University ever dared to sell slaves.

Brageld’s wish to express his grief should be considered an opportunity for a religion. The Carja, who killed his lover, can welcome him and make a greater society possible. However, Brageld isn’t being let into the shrine. A priest most unlike Namman, one Jahamin, calls the shrine his “retreat.” Jahamin, in preventing Brageld from entering the shrine, proves himself obsessed with purity. “Defile,” “debasement,” “corrupt,” “false,” “shame”—these are all terms he uses while rendering no specific accusation against Brageld. Horizon Zero Dawn proves itself attuned to how the rhetoric of white supremacy works. It demonstrates how racism can take a deep hold in religion and stay there even after an ultranationalist moment has passed.

Your character forces Jahamin to be specific and gets only old man rants. Once upon a time, things were great and pure. Now things have changed and are awful. You can see the rants start at around 3:10 in the above video. Your character can only marvel at how Jahamin dismisses the actual atrocities, the actual history, as she confronts him with it. Religion is used as “alternative facts” to allow the old priest a “safe space.” He’s allowed to be angry and throw a tantrum while others are not even allowed to say they miss someone. There is no way to argue with this logic—it can only be confronted and shamed. One thing I found notable is how his talk, like that of some I know, moves from political matters to religious ones in the blink of an eye. You could say that’s because the religion is of the state, but what sticks out besides “purity” is his complaint that the Carja are “weak.” The link between politics and religion for him is the military, the nationalism. Without nationalism, he doesn’t have a religion.

It’s no surprise, then, that he has to bully others—that some traditionalists are more committed to bullying others than prayer or service—in order to feel religious. Religion for them is the feeling of personal strength emanating from a sense of cosmic order. It isn’t struggle with doubt or belief, it isn’t attempting to do what’s right, it isn’t a look at how other people practice spirituality or achieve authenticity. It’s a sense of cosmic order in the most literal, brutal sense: our stormtroopers are destroying everything, so God must be with us, with me. It’s completely deranged, and what’s notable is that this critique is coming from a video game, alongside a picture of how religion could work in a more authentic vein. People could be allowed to cry and say they’re sorry.

You get the priest to leave the shrine no matter what you pick—he’s a fanatic but a coward. People with his views did form a splinter state to the west.

There are two other encounters in “Honor the Fallen,” but I want to focus on one which engages the intensely personal guilt that brings many of us to religion in the first place. Rea, when freed with her friend, ran as quickly across a dangerous swamp as possible. She assumed her friend was behind her, but the friend was killed in that swamp. Skip to 19:06 in the video below to hear her story:

The storytelling in those few lines is intense, and I can imagine some gamers pressing X rapidly to skip past the dialogue and get the mission rewards quickly. Rea clearly feels enormously guilty—she may have, while running, thought “she’ll be fine,” which is a dangerous form of denial. She may have not thought of her friend at all.

Either way, she’s haunted now. She dreams of finding a bracelet her friend had that contains seeds and letting the seeds sprout in the jungle. She feels the only way to rectify her lack of thought for her friend is to proclaim herself dead-in-life but her friend as truly alive, always growing. Even then, the grief hits her harder: she exclaims “oh!” while saying this, realizing how alone she is. Not only did she lose her friend, but her inability to think of her when she was most needed makes her wonder, I guess, if she ever deserved a friend.

The game leaves off there. The grief which seeks expression in religion transcends conventional notions of religion. It can’t be bounded by what other people say or think, because we don’t even realize what we’ve lost or are experiencing. Given that Horizon Zero Dawn is about man-made apocalypse, the outstanding question is what grief as affirming looks like. How do we build when we’re capable of and culpable for so much destruction? In the face of such a question, it’s religion’s openness, not defensiveness, that matters most.

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