Horizon Zero Dawn’s Functionalist Approach to Symbols and Religion

 Image provided by Guerrilla Games

Image provided by Guerrilla Games

During the introduction of Horizon Zero Dawn, the outcast Aloy is taken into the sacred mountain, usually reserved only for the matriarchs, who are the leaders of the Nora tribe. There, Aloy discovers that she may be special; one of the matriarchs, Teersa, tells Aloy that she was born in front of the Goddess, the All-Mother. Aloy thinks that the Goddess is just a door, due to her knowledge of the metal world—the Nora forbids exploring the metal world. The Goddess runs through an authentication process, explicitly telling the player the Goddess is just a door from the past, a time when science was valued more than spirituality. In that moment all symbolic significance of the All-Mother is reduced to its function as an objective for the player.

Horizon takes a functionalist approach to its understand of religion—discounting the symbolic value of a ritual or symbol, rather explaining what they do practically. One of the most popular functionalist arguments is Marvin Harris’ explanation of Hinduism’s treatment of cows. In his article India’s Sacred Cow, Harris argues that Hinduism’s reverence for cows is historical, claiming that cows are more valuable alive for their agriculture use, therefore, during times of famine cows are not slaughtered to be eaten. Harris approach doesn’t consider the symbolic importance that culture places on cows. Mary Douglas, on the other hand, argues that ideas of taboo and pollution order society.

Douglas argues, in her book Purity and Danger, that ideas of dirt and pollution are culturally relative. Thus, the idea of pollution creates a hierarchy, indicating a system of cultural fears and taboos, Douglas cites the fear of touching sexual fluids, which is a taboo in many culture, even before our contemporary understanding of sexually transmitted diseases. These ideas of pollution and taboo may indeed serve a functional purpose, however, culture permeates so much of our life, most people feel obligated to follow these rules—no matter if the practice is negative or positive.

We are constantly navigating a world built around symbols and abstract ideas, from money, to the idea of gender. Like gender, there are tangible elements and differences, however, these are interpreted in the symbolic domain. Sex is tangibly real, but, our conception of binary gender is symbolic, and vary from culture to culture. Some of ideas are certainly problematic, nonetheless, they are important and effects of our lives. Reducing something memerly to its function discounts the importance of the symbolic realm of our lives—Horizon suffers from the same problem.

Aloy immediately knows that the Goddess is nothing but a door, devaluing the symbolic and ritualistic importance of the All-Mother. I haven’t finished the game yet, however, I find this part of the game problematic, because it undermines the culture they are trying to represent, the portrayal almost seems patronizing. As Dia Lacina points out in her article, Horizon appropriates many aspects of indigenous culture and uses pejorative words commonly used to dehumanize indigenous people. Horizon also uses a tool of analysis that devalues indigenous practices and beliefs, reducing any cultural importance to a mere function that people happened to stumble upon, without having the “scientific” knowledge that the Western researchers have.  

Horizon seemingly invites players to marvel at how this society has “regressed” back to tribalism, and to gawk at the “mysticism” this culture has attributed to man-made technology. Horizon’s mentality is reminiscent of studies about “Cargo Cults,” tribes who come in to contact with Western technology. As Holger Jebens in the book he edited titled Cargo, Cult, and Culture, Jebens criticizes the Us (Westerners) and Them (Indigenous people) cults narrative which cargo cults are explicitly based on. Horizon doesn’t try to attempt to understand the agency and the fact that “tribal” people do actually understand what technology is.

Horizon draws upon indigenous culture and uses a lot of the negative history to create it’s world. While I’ve enjoyed playing this game so far, I couldn’t stop thinking about the negative similarities to the destructive history of marginalization of indigenous people and culture.