Horizon Forbidden West Addresses The Issues With Tribes, But Not The Appropriation

When Horizon Zero Dawn came out, few reviews noted the cultural appropriation that comes with a white girl running around dressed as a Native American. Games have come a long way in a short time, and so even as recently as 2017 perhaps we did not have the capacity to interrogate such an issue. In the years since, it has been mentioned more often – while marginalised critics have put in the hard yards of keeping it a talking point – but the Forbidden West reviews largely don’t address it either.

Of course, there are a couple of excuses for this. It’s no worse than in the first game, and this time around we all expected it, so perhaps many felt it was not worth drawing attention to. If you view a review as a buyer’s guide (for me, it should be that mixed in equal parts with critical evaluation) then you may feel there was no need to inform your readers of a thing they already know. I myself did not dedicate paragraphs to the idea, but spent a few lines noting that the game fails to interrogate, justify, or learn from criticisms of appropriation and even doubles down in places with Aloy wearing armour akin to a chief’s headdress.

Guerrilla Games ducks the issue of such problematic design decisions, but the issues go deeper than Aloy. Indeed, while the headdress is a choice, Aloy is less defined by her relationship with the Nora here and so the appropriation feels less on the nose. The game still could make some attempt to address the issues the first game raised around its aesthetic, but they’re too core to the Horizon formula to be removed completely. It’s not Aloy who offers the most interesting cultural analysis this time however, but instead the tribes around her.

Though less talked about than Aloy playing Action Pocahontas, the way tribes are discussed in the game leaves a little to be desired too. Many cultures still use tribes and similar forms of community and democracy today. It’s easy to suggest the culture of the West’s politics is more advanced, civilised, and refined, but if we all die in a series of nuclear strikes, it won’t be the tribes at fault.

While it is true that a lot of current political systems evolved hundreds of years ago out of communities like tribes, other systems have evolved and balanced the tribal system to advance it while keeping it true to its roots. The idea that Aloy’s world is primitive and backwards because it relies on tribes is in many ways worse than the appropriative aesthetics. How Aloy looks is careless cultural cosplay. How the world thinks is far more deliberate and unlike Aloy’s costume which is covered by the rule of cool, has nowhere to hide when it comes to justifying its world view.

Unlike the costuming, however, Forbidden West takes some attempts to address the concerns Zero Dawn raised when it comes to the tribes. Forbidden West takes place in a new region, although the first few hours have us exploring along the border and therefore feel very familiar. There are Oseram, Carja, and all the tribes you know from the first game acting pretty much as you remember them.

Venture further west though and you’ll meet a bunch of new tribes. Farthest west, in San Francisco, you could argue the Quen’s passion for technology makes them the most advanced tribe, but they’re also the most fanatical, displaying a stereotypically fascinated, misguided reverence for technology they misinterpret at every turn.

Other tribes, much like Quen, are discussed in the broadest of terms. Like animals, tribes are defined as a collective, labelled with traits, beliefs, and philosophies which represent the entire trove together. However, once you meet the individual characters within that tribe, you’ll see a lot more depth. Zero Dawn had a few standout characters who went against the grain, but for the most part characters were defined by where they were born. It was like a postcode lottery, only instead of school attendance and life opportunities, the lottery determined your personality.

Forbidden West gives each character a greatest sense of individuality within their tribes, and this elevates both the story and the world. By contrast, it does make Aloy look a little flat, but maybe she’s just not that interesting. In enhancing the characters within the tribes, and separating them from their tribes and letting them be their own person, Forbidden West has learned from Zero Dawn – even if Aloy has not.

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