Do we really need to like Horizon: Zero Dawn's Aloy?
Possibly the most famous character motivation in games isn't actually revealed until the fourth level of the original Super Mario Bros. The player doesn't need to know there's some princess named Peach in need of rescue to understand that Mario jumps when you press A and that collecting coins or stomping out Goombas feels good. Hand a controller to someone that's never played a game in their life, and pure experimentation will tell them all that.
Games have been fairly content with this truism for years. Player motivation (i.e. fun or some other emotional response) comes first. We play horror games to get scared. We play adventure games to laugh, cry, or see what happens next. We play action games, usually, to feel in control. Character motivation (i.e. that most basic storytelling device that tells us why a protagonist acts, doesn't act, or acts a certain way) comes second, if at all.
Not so in Horizon: Zero Dawn. Before protagonist Aloy is even old enough to walk in-fiction — before the player is even asked to select "New Game" — the heroine's reasons to mistrust religion and authority are clear. She begins life as an outcast in her tribe: literally forbidden from speaking or being spoken to by anyone else in her post-post-apocalyptic world by religious law. Of course, as a newborn, there's nothing she could have done to deserve her status. It's the definition of unfair and it all stems from her community's fear that Aloy's very existence will incite divine wrath.
Even so, the deeply human need to be around other people motivates the protagonist to join "The Proving" — a trial to, well, prove that she deserves to be let back into society. Just as she wins, and is about to earn the right to ask why her infant self was exiled, zealots following a neighboring country's religion kill the closest things she has to friends while trying to kill her as well. In Aloy's personal experience, then, religion is nothing but a means to leverage fear and violence against those who don't deserve it (e.g. her and those close to her).
So, when her nation's religion forbids her from exploring the technologically advanced ruins that pock-mark future Earth, she assumes the taboo is wrong. When her religious matriarchs say it's wrong to ask questions, Aloy is more curious than ever. That curiosity — born out of injustice and murder — is the driving force behind nearly all of the heroine's actions throughout Horizon: Zero Dawn.
One early-game NPC, for example, informs Aloy of a nearby "Cauldron" — Horizon's spin on Zelda-like dungeons. The area is strictly off-limits to the Nora, the characters' tribe, so of course Aloy wants to see it. That desire triggers a quest marker on the player's map. Suddenly, and strangely compared to most games, the protagonist's desires match the player's. Aloy's curiosity and contrariness line up with the player's desire to rack up experience points, upgrades, and blow up robot dinosaurs.
The two motivations reinforce each other. The more the player wants to enjoy the game (and be rewarded for it with digital goods) the more Aloy's curiosity literally pays off. The more her inquisitiveness lines up with the player's wants and needs, the less likely players are to stop suspending their disbelief that she would help strangers on the road.
It's a small detail that shouldn't be as novel as it is. Yet so many games miss it, intentionally or otherwise.
Motivation is so underutilized and underexplored within videogames that developers have begun criticizing its lack in their own games.
First-person shooters especially, from Half-Life to Call of Duty, tend to have plainly human protagonists in need of believably human motivations to match. Yet in that genre, motivation is often so secondary that it relies on "silent protagonists" (a convention that has admittedly waned some in recent years). Without their own voices or desires, this leads to a lot of blindly following other character's orders in order to know what to do and where to go. The protagonist, and in turn the player, has hardly any measurable impact on the world. They're a vehicle following on-board GPS: a means of reaching a destination.
In fact, motivation is so underutilized and underexplored within videogames that developers have begun criticizing its lack in their own games. The makers of Half-Life themselves did so in the seminal first-person puzzler, Portal. That game's promise of cake for its mute heroine is played as a (now painfully over-referenced) joke. The original Bioshock astounded a generation of players by simply drawing attention to its own protagonist's lack of impetus in the famous "Would you kindly?" reveal.
While both games addressed the medium's severe lack of character motivation, neither of them took pains to "solve" the problem the way Horizon does. That was handled more deftly and much more recently in The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt.
Horizon doesn't even try to hide its clear reverence for that game (just check out its developer's Twitter feed). Both games ask players to follow a whole lot of blood trails, prepare traps to snare different classes of monster, and place a heavy emphasis on crafting.
The comparison runs deeper than just mechanical inspiration, though. The Witcher's Geralt of Rivia is just as motivated as Aloy to put his greater quest on hold to perform services for poor townsfolk. The difference is that Geralt's needs are more nakedly commercial. Hunting monsters and helping people is his profession — meaning he gets paid to do it, of course.
This has the added benefit of being extremely relatable. Most of us have to work to stay alive and achieve our goals (at least, if not especially, here in the United States). So the vast majority of players will understand the push-and-pull of Geralt's quest almost instinctively. This is where Horizon: Zero Dawn either breaks down for you or becomes that much more interesting.
Granted, nearly everyone on the planet is impacted by religion or religiously motivated policies at some point. Yet not everyone has the strictly negative view on faith that Aloy does. To her, trust in a higher power only represents ignorance and hate. She doesn't hide it, either, and literally scoffs at religious NPCs or passive aggressively implies their beliefs are backwards.
Aloy, being in a distinct minority of white people in the game, comes across as patronizing when she tells someone clearly twice her age that their beliefs are provably wrong.
It doesn't help that Horizon — admirably so, when taken on its own — includes huge swathes of black, brown, and Asian NPCs among its cast. Aloy, being in a distinct minority of white people in the game, comes across as patronizing when she tells someone clearly twice her age that their beliefs are provably wrong and she is right. In short, Aloy isn't always likeable.
The age-old adage "never meet your heroes" has never been less relevant in the age of social media. You don't need to meet them to learn maybe they were never worth looking up to: they'll gladly tell you directly in a promoted tweet or via a filtered Instagram photo.
That kind of texture makes sense for Aloy. The game does nothing if not justify its heroine — from her beliefs to her demeanor to why she's willing to put her life on the line to explore a 600-year-old cave. It doesn't always make her a good person. It makes her a believably flawed one. All it took was a little motivation.