When I sat down to play the Horizon Zero Dawn DLC The Frozen Wilds, I expected many things. I expected new environments, a few new machines, some new weapons, outfits and characters, maybe an exciting new revelation or two. So far, I got what I came for. There are fresh hunting strategies to form, eccentric people to meet, and vertical challenges to explore.
But what I didn’t expect to encounter was the resurfacing of a topic first addressed following the original release of Horizon Zero Dawn: that of cultural exchange vs. appropriation. The game has always seemed to take some inspiration from Native culture, but The Frozen Wilds takes that a step further with its focus on the Banuk tribe. What is the difference between the two, and when does borrowing become theft? In the ensuing hours as I made my way through The Cut, I contemplated answers.
When I played the original Horizon Zero Dawn I hadn’t read a lot on Native identity in videogames, but having done so now, it’s a bit easier to pick up on some of the game’s problem spots in terms of the narrative, aesthetic and linguistic elements it borrows from other cultures. While as a white woman I am not the most qualified person to make this observation, even from a casual glance, the game seems to touch on Native, Scandinavian and Eastern (particularly Mongolian and Chinese) sources of inspiration, and of those, the Native elements come through the strongest. This trend not only continues throughout The Frozen Wilds, but is actually more emphasized than the base game, as Aloy tracks the long-lost Banuk to their northern mountain home, finding a tribe in self imposed isolation and deep spiritual conflict.
There are many elements specific to The Frozen Wilds that can be found in various cultures: a lost tribe in the “wild,” a spirit and daemon who dwell on a mountain, shamans, sacred rock paintings. However, combined with some key artistic and stylistic choices, these narrative choices make the primary Native influence on Horizon Zero Dawn, and its DLC, clear. This matters in particular because when a narrative is clearly an allegory for real people and situations, parallels will be drawn. In this particular literary context, the road between fiction and nonfiction is a two-way street, and it informs and exchanges both ways. Whatever is written, then, takes on a unique responsibility, in that, if the power structure is in favor of the author, they come to dictate the narrative of that entire perspective, for better or worse.
The game effectively makes a comment on Native identity, even if it doesn’t mean to, and that comment is often in conflict with how actual Natives feel. In particular, tribal societies in Horizon Zero Dawn are portrayed as the “primitive” result of a still-evolving culture, one that builds their beliefs and customs based around their attempt to understand the machine-based world around them. There was one scene in particular, a death ceremony featuring elaborate animal headdresses, that made me cringe. If the goal is to responsibly steer the conversation around tribe-based social structures away from the pejorative, moments like these do not help.
Additionally, both Aloy and the player are given knowledge that the Banuk are not privy to (that the machines are not divine, but rather, instruments of war created by greedy human capitalists), creating a intellectual power divide that impacts our perception of their belief systems. Aloy is herself an outcast, and not fully trusted by the Banuk or her own people, the Nora, but with this additional power imbalance, at times the narrative of The Frozen Wilds steers close to the White Savior trope; in one scene Aloy helps a Banuk woman, Ourea, to communicate with her god “the Spirit,” an advanced AI system, solving an elaborate puzzle on her behalf. Later in the dialogue, visibly awed and grateful for Aloy’s help, Ourea tells her, “You are the answer.”
The portrayal of these tribal, clearly Native inspired thematic elements, presented as the organic, spontaneous result of an evolving “prehistoric” culture, are also an eerie parallel to the cultural erasure Natives face today. The question is not solely about whether certain ideas or terms are framed in a positive light (such as their use of the term “brave” for Nora warriors) or part of a respectful cultural exchange; rather, is it appropriate or sensitive to borrow when the culture in question has been popularly framed as extinct in order to put their identity up for grabs? I say this not to assume bad intent on part of the writers, but to point out why it’s a good idea to include the marginalized when taking inspiration from their heritage. Native Americans are not extinct—their cultures are many, varied and distinct. They do not view their tribal structure or religious beliefs as primitive, or ignorant of modern science or technology. That they were chosen as an example of “primitive” society sends a message, alone. These negative messages are not ones the writers of Horizon Zero Dawn intended to imply, but that’s what happens when you use real people as an allegory for a fictional situation. Parallels will be drawn, for better or worse.
A narrative solution may exist for some of these problems. Horizon Zero Dawn’s story doesn’t provide an opportunity for the history of the cultures that inspired it to be acknowledged—all pre-disaster records of human life has been destroyed by a bug in the program. But maybe Guerilla Games could find a workaround—at times in the game, backstory is provided through audio and text files. Many of the cultures or societies that influenced Horizon Zero Dawn are ones with a proud history of surviving the odds over thousands of years. Perhaps that could factor in as well.
As for the rest of the game, all the elements that I enjoy about Horizon Zero Dawn remain intact. Aloy is delightfully both unimpressed and unconcerned with impressing, and her aloof but principled commitment to helping others makes her my personal superhero. The DLC itself is written into a bizarre position where it heightens the combat challenge but narratively still has to fit into the story whether or not the player has completed the game, and it makes for some awkward moments, particularly the interactions with Sylens as you dig into his backstory with the Banuk. That being said, I’m very fond of some of the new characters, particularly Gildun, a Tom Arnold type who is initially annoying but, by the end of his story arc, becomes endearing, even sympathetic. His interactions with Aloy are some of my favorites in the entire game. It’s refreshing that the new missions don’t seem to be a flash in the pan pack of fetch quests. I was genuinely interested in the unique personalities and storylines showcased within the DLC.
Hunting is still my favorite part of the game, and while the new missions are well fleshed out and the game’s core hunting systems extremely satisfying to play, I’m a bit disappointed with the lack of quantity in the DLC’s new machines. Most have been simply given a new qualifier (a tried and true DLC asset repackaging trick), “Daemonic,” which makes them harder to beat, especially if a nearby tower has not yet been deactivated. What new machines there are, though, are quite a challenge, so if you’re a hunting game junkie like me, you’ll have a lot of fun. I’m not really into the new spear and spear mods, as I don’t prefer to use melee in the game, but there might be some fun it for those who like to get up and close. I don’t suggest using them on the new machines.
So when is cultural appropriation considered theft? The distinction relies on the imbalance of an existing social power structure. The Frozen Wilds is a fine example of quality post-release content, but as Guerilla Games leans further into the game’s Native identity, I’d like to see them ask themselves some questions. As an artist, how much power does your voice have? Does it have more than those whom you borrow from? Does your interpretation of their perspective drown out their actual perspective? The answer will dictate what path your narrative should take. In the case of Horizon Zero Dawn I think we can do better.
Horizon Zero Dawn: The Frozen Wilds was developed by Guerilla Games and published by Sony. It is available for the PlayStation 4.
Holly Green is the assistant editor of Paste Games and a reporter and semiprofessional photographer living in Seattle, WA. She is also the author of Fry Scores: An Unofficial Guide To Video Game Grub. You can find her work at Gamasutra, Polygon, Unwinnable, and other videogame news publications.