This is a reoccurring theme on this blog now; I’m poor as shit. Both financially poor and time poor. Thus I’ve had to become much more selective about which video games I spend my time and my money on. Especially now they are starting at £70 as a minimum.
Which is why I take much more of a wait and see approach to major AAA titles. Like Horizon: Forbidden West for example. The first game in the franchise was one I loved, telling a super unique story full of mystery, compelling characters and settings. While the gameplay was something of a turnoff for some people, the question behind the nature of the world drove many people to see it through to the end, myself included.
And by the time 2017 was over, the game easily found its way into my top five video games of the year, only losing out by having its feet swept from underneath it by Super Mario Odyssey and The Legend of Zelda: The Breath of the Wild. But even back in 2017, when writing about this game I questioned the very end of the game sequel baiting the audience with a story I had no real confidence could be anywhere near as compelling as the one I had just finished.
Thus we find ourselves in 2022, in familiar territory where Horizon: Forbidden West comes out and then almost immediately has its dinner stolen by FromSoftware and the release of Elden Ring. And here’s the thing, I haven’t played Horizon Forbidden West. The discourse around the game shortly after its release didn’t fill me with a lot of confidence.
Despite the passing of five years and the changing of attitudes of gamers and what they want in their open world games, it sounds like this sequel does very little to differentiate itself its predecessor when it comes to its gameplay. Nor does it really break the mould of the icon infested, checkbox style of open world game that Ubisoft seem to have made their exclusive property these days.
People talk about open world burnout, it’s something I feel is real. But not because I’m fed up of the concept, just the commonly agreed upon approach to these games that tend to miss the point of an open world. Games like Pokemon Legends: Arceus and Elden Ring seem to be returning to that idea of actually giving the player space to explore and discover things rather than just giving them long list of things to do that result in a player sprinting from point to point on a map.
It’s why I fell off Ghosts of Tsushima and why I haven’t had the drive to pick up Forbidden West. That being said… I was curious enough about the story to know what possible direction Gorilla could have gone in following the super compelling mystery that drove the first game. So I did what any impatient nerd would do: I just read the plot synopsis on Wikipedia.
Now… I sure there is some context lost through reading this story through a text document and not experiencing the game’s story first game. I think it’s usually called Stockholm Syndrome, Choice-supportive bias or Sunk-cost fallacy. One of those things… because reading this story outside of the context of having spent £60 on it; is sound incredibly dumb.
Horizon Zero Dawn was some science fiction nonsense without a doubt. Dealing with concepts like Cloning, AI Takeover, Transhumanism and the Grey Goo Apocalypse theory. Maybe, out of context, all of this could have sounded silly, but playing through the game myself, the slow reveal of why the world was the way it was worked.
It was a mystery stoked with mere images of the landscape and the machine animals roaming around it. You only had to look at stills of this game to want to know more about it. It was a feeling the sequel was always going to struggle to replicate, because it was all stuff we’ve seen before. In the wake of the first game and what it inspired in other games that had come out in the time since.
One possible solution the developers could have made would be to forgo the mystery/shocking reveal setup of the first game’s narrative and told a story purely in the “now” of the world’s setting, with the truths behind how the world and humanity survived its first apocalypse being a just a matter of Aloy’s past. But instead, the developers decided to stick to what had worked before and went about telling another story with the tone and beats of the first game.
But when your first story is based around a massive mystery, without totally altering what we thought we knew about the world, it ends up being a story of diminishing returns in my eyes. Horizon Forbidden West ends up doing both of these things, and the result ends up being almost comedic to someone reading the events of the game out of context.
I’m not going to detail the detail the events of the game here. But my feeling is it’s one of those twists that retroactively takes a lot of the tention and the drama out of the original story by adding a whole new layer that was obviously not even a twinkle in anyone’s eye during that particular writing process.
Which leads me to the point I’ve been trying to build up to based on the title of this article. Despite the utterly pointless metric that is Metacritic giving he game mostly favourable reviews, in the grand scheme of things; this is a video game that really didn’t need to exist. I don’t think I’ve played a video game in recent years that screamed of being a perfect standalone story like Zero Dawn. I’m pretty sure I said as much when I wrote about it in 2017.
But we don’t live in a time where any popular piece of media can be a simple story with a definitive ending. Literally everything needs to be made with some kind of eye on the future and the potential for a franchise to be born from it. Which is how you find yourself in this lose/lose situation for creators. Where you either front load your franchise with a ton of plants that will pay off in future media.
What it felt like Tom Cruise’s Mummy and the early Snyder DC stuff was doing; rushing into a franchise before you make an actual good game in the first place. Or you find yourself in the situation the Horizon sequel did; where you told a complete story, but still tease a sequel, despite having no idea where you’re actually planning on going.
Thus we get a game that needs to stick to the tone and story structure of the first game, as not to alienate returning players, all at the expense of the story being told here and retroactively under-minding the story of the first game because, as it turns out, it probably didn’t matter in the first place compared to this larger, more pressing threat.
It’s kind of ironic that while everyone seemed to forget about Forbidden West thanks to Elden Ring coming out, and yet Elden Ring is a game finding itself in a very similar place to Forbidden West, yet managing to jump expectations to the point that people are raving about it like it’s one of the best video games ever made. Both Elden Ring and Horizon: Forbidden West are video games you could easily describe as “more of the same” when talking to a laymen.
And yet one of them is blowing the the world up while the other is already slipping into obscurity. It goes to show that being a part of a long running franchise is no reason you can’t be something new, exciting and revolutionary. But whether it’s from pressure from studio executives or a lack of enthusiasm from developers, turning stand alone stories into franchises is often a death knell for that franchise and the start of a slow decline into wasting the talents of developers and the time of the people who play the games.
It might sound like I’m being harsh here, but during a time where we’re fully submerged in shared universes and long running franchises, I am really finding myself done with so many of them. Despite Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes telling me these stories are amazing and a ton of people arguing about them on social media, I am quickly losing my taste for things being turned into franchises.
And yet we can’t escape it can we. I’m still planning on going to see the new Jurassic Park movie, I’m looking forward to seeing Doctor Strange 2 and am actually planning on picking up Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands. Which, I suppose, is why we’re mired in this problem in the first place. Popular media is build on the backs of just finding what works and doing it over and over.
I just suppose in the case of Horizon Forbidden West, it did too good of a job establishing the first game that it ended up shooting itself in the foot when it came to trying to make a sequel that could come close to matching the first game without seeming ridiculous.