After making almost nothing besides FPS titles in the Killzone series, it was seen as a major risk for Guerrilla Games to suddenly shift gears and announce they were making an open-world, third-person action RPG. Set in a post-apocalypse where humans are besieged by wild robots that very closely resemble dinosaurs and other wildlife, Horizon Zero Dawn turned out to be a massive hit in a year full of other excellent games to compete with. Being a new IP, it had a lot of work to do between establishing a new world, characters, gameplay mechanics, and more. Now that it’s been years since the original came out, and with Horizon Forbidden West right around the corner, all that world-building and story might be a little hazy.
Horizon Zero Dawn’s story is broken into two major components: There are the events that lead up to the world becoming the way it is in the game, and the actual plot revolving around protagonist Aloy and her quest. Keeping everything straight is complicated on its own, but if you missed some key audio logs, got distracted by all the extra activities to do in the open world, or just forgot the important beats over the years, it might be confusing to jump right into Horizon Forbidden West without a little refresher. Here’s a full breakdown of the story of Horizon so far and what you need to know before starting Horizon Forbidden West.
Note: This should be obvious, but we’re about to spoil the entire story of Horizon Zero Dawn. We won’t cover anything beyond that game’s ending, but all major plot points, including the ending, will be discussed in full.
Project Zero Dawn
Before we get to the present day, at least as it is known in Horizon Zero Dawn, we first need to go back to the middle of the 21st century to learn what actually happened to turn the world into the state we encounter it in. These lore details are discovered as Aloy explores the world and finds various ancient facilities, notes, audio logs, and other messages to piece together the events of the past.
This is the way the world ends
Our history lesson begins with a man named Ted Faro, founder and CEO of the Faro Automated Systems company that specializes in creating A.I. and robots. These robots are not the animal-like ones roaming the world, but specialized war robots from a Chariot production line called Peacekeepers. These Peacekeepers were exceptionally effective at killing, but Faro, a man with no foresight, also designed them to run on biomatter for fuel, which they could provide for themselves from the environment. Even worse, the Horus line of robots could even self replicate indefinitely as long as they had fuel. Oh, and he also thought it would be super smart to make sure they had no emergency shut down device, and even made their OS nearly unhackable.
In a twist no one could’ve possibly seen coming, one of these killer robots glitched in 2064 and stopped accepting commands. From there, an entire swarm, as they called them, of bots stopped taking orders. Faro called in a former partner named Dr. Elisabet Sobeck (who will be very important) to help. Being a bioengineer and roboticist, she was able to identify that this swarm had become fully independent beings and were replicating fast.
Now that they were sentient, these robots wanted, as any creature would, to replicate and survive. As we covered, as long as these Peacekeepers had fuel, they could make more of themselves, and as long as there was biomass to consume, they could keep expanding their numbers. Dr. Sobeck calculated that the swarm, which was already too big a force to combat traditionally, would consume all the biomass on the planet in 15 months.
Now dubbed the “Faro Plague”, the plan had to shift from stopping it to how life might be preserved at all. That’s when Dr. Sobeck came up with the titular Project Zero Dawn. This project centered around creating a new A.I. named GAIA to live on after the Faro Plague eradicated all life and to cultivate new life in the aftermath. GAIA would have nine subsystems all named after Greek Gods to handle specific aspects of the project. Dr. Sobeck, in a move almost as baffling as Faro’s, made one called HADES that was in charge of restarting the entire project if anything went wrong.
I’m sure that won’t be a problem later.
Project Zero Dawn was barely finished by the time Faro’s bots had essentially wiped all life off the planet, and there wasn’t enough oxygen left to support the few people in hiding. Only the corporate elite, Faro, Dr. Sobeck, and other scientists, were able to essentially preserve themselves inside a special bunker. Due to a malfunction, though, a latch wasn’t secured properly and the Faro bots would be able to locate them. Dr. Sobeck made the ultimate sacrifice and closed the hatch from the outside to make sure the project would survive.
Inside, Faro went a little nuts over, you know, wiping out all life on Earth. In his madness he deleted all the archives of humanity they kept inside the APOLLO subsystem so that when humanity restarted, they wouldn’t repeat the same mistakes. Guess he never heard the saying about those who forget the past. After that, for good measure, he killed off all the surviving members of the Zero Dawn team.
Once life was completely wiped out, the Faro robots were forced to go into a kind of hibernation state since there was nothing left to use for fuel. For the next century or so GAIA worked on hacking the Peacemaker A.I. and finally was able to shut them down for good. Once that was done, the Zero Dawn Project was started and life was seeded back onto the planet’s surface via raising clones. But, as things with A.I .always go, a problem just kind of appears and GAIA loses control of HADES. HADES decides that the project shouldn’t be started yet and takes over the terraforming controls. To stop him, GAIA has to blow up the facility that it, and HADES, are in.
The terraforming process, by the way, was making the animal-type machines you encounter in the game. They’re actually the good robots, believe it or not.
HADES wasn’t about to go down so easily, though. It managed to transfer itself into one of the old Peacekeeper robots, which did trap it, but at least kept it “alive.” It formulated a new plan to bring back the Faro Plague, but stuck as it was, couldn’t do it alone and sent out a signal that someone, years later, would answer.
Welcome to the 31st century
Humanity has come back, though it is still in early tribal cultures. Aloy was found as a newborn without parents and deemed an outcast by the Nora tribe’s matriarchs. A man named Rost volunteered to outcast himself as well to raise Aloy, becoming her father figure and teaching her all the skills necessary to survive in this wild and dangerous world. While still a child, Aloy stumbles — or rather tumbles — into an ancient facility where she finds a device called a Focus. The Focus can let her see in a kind of AR mode, communicate with other Focuses, and interact with computers.
Rost never told Aloy why she was an outcast or anything about her mysterious origins, and only knows that if she can win the Nora coming of age tradition called The Proving, she can kind of exploit a loophole around being an outcast and become a Brave. The Proving is basically an obstacle course and combat test. To achieve this goal, Aloy trains until she is the right age for the Proving and, for the first time, is allowed to enter the community. She meets the other teens participating in the Proving, most of whom are scumbags and try to sabotage her, but that doesn’t really end up mattering since the event is interrupted when another tribe called the Eclipse attacks and kills all the other kids. They’re about to kill Aloy too, but Rost comes in and saves her at the cost of his own life.
It turns out the Eclipse are somehow able to control the wild robots, and all were wearing Focuses of their own, but also were specifically trying to kill Aloy because she looks almost identical to Dr. Sobeck, who she gets a glimpse of when she recovers from the attack inside the alter of the All-Mother, which is actually a computer system that will only open a passage once all corruption in the land is cleared.
This begins Aloy’s quest to figure out who Dr. Sobeck was, what her connection to her is, what’s up with the Eclipse controlling machines, and what’s behind that big door in the altar. Instead of becoming a Brave or returning to her outcast status, Aloy is given the title of Seeker, which is one of the few people who are able to freely leave and return to the Nora’s land. Thus, the adventure begins.
Two important characters that Aloy meets and teams up with on her journey both wear Focuses. One is named Olin, who she meets first after noticing he had a Focus just before the Proving. When she tracks him down after recovering, they are ambushed after their Focuses tweak out and she overhears the Eclipse plotting another attack on her. She manages to survive and learns that Olin was responsible for helping the Eclipse ambush the Proving. He did this because they are holding his family hostage but tells Aloy that they’re all taking orders from HADES, who recognized Aloy and made her the primary target.
The other character of import is named Sylens. He starts out by guiding Aloy via her Focus through one of the Faro machine stations where she learns all about the world we went over before. After a bunch of lore dumps, Aloy goes to multiple locations that Sylens guides her to, eventually discovering that Aloy is actually a clone of Dr. Sobeck, which is why she is granted access to so many of these facilities that no one else could enter. This is also why HADES is so intent on killing her.
After all this, Aloy also learns some hard truths about Sylens. He was not only the former leader of the Eclipse but had been working directly with HADES. Remember that signal it sent out after trapping itself in a robot? Sylens was the one who eventually answered it. Their relationship soured when HADES tried to kill Sylens, and he’s since decided that stopping the genocidal A.I. is a better plan.
Because of her genetic code, Aloy is the only one who can access something called the Master Override. This is the only thing that can defeat HADES, located in a place called GAIA Prime. She gets the final bits of lore exploring this site, eventually getting the Master Override, and has Sylens fashion it onto her staff so she can stab HADES with it before it, now reactivated by Eclipse, can reach an antenna called The Spire to reawaken all the old Faro killer robots again.
The climactic battle includes all the different tribes and groups Aloy met through her adventure, which we completely glossed over since they weren’t super essential to the plot, taking down HADES and the Eclipse. Aloy kills the Eclipse leader, uses the Master Override to deactivate HADES, and prevents all the bad robots from waking up. The day is saved!
Once the world is no longer in immediate danger, and now knowing who she is, Aloy decides to start traveling west to where the original Dr. Sobeck died. She finds her body (don’t ask how it’s still there after hundreds of years) in a spacesuit. Touching the helmet projects an image of her face, and Aloy takes a locket she wore before sitting in silence for a while.
Meanwhile, post-credits, we get a scene of some people picking around the old HADES corpse. While they’re gathering scrap, a light shoots out of the body. It travels across the sky and … arrives at Sylens who has some sort of A.I. receptacle that HADES is now stored in. He says he still has things he wants to learn from HADES, including who or what was caused HADES to go rogue.
So, not only is HADES still around and a threat, but Sylens has double- (or is it triple?) crossed us. It is possible Sylens was using Aloy from the start just to get his hands on HADES for his own purposes, but what he plans to do is a complete mystery. However, Sylens does appear in the trailers for Horizon Forbidden West with a new group that can control machines. Whatever his intentions are, and why they brought him west, will no doubt be pivotal in Aloy’s odyssey to the west as well. It’s likely that whatever the source was that woke, and corrupted, HADES will be found on the coast.