With the review embargo lifted for the long-awaited Horizon Forbidden West, a number of industry outlets have made public their accusations that the game is guilty of appropriating Native American culture.
A sequel to 2017’s Horizon Zero Dawn, Horizon Forbidden West once again puts players in control of Aloy, this time as she leads a group of fellow Nora tribe members to discover the source of a mystery plague that has begun emanating from the eponymous Forbidden West.
Given that both games take place in a post-apocalyptic world, the Horizon series’ human characters exist as nomadic peoples, many of them reverting to hunter-gatherer societies after the world’s knowledge was lost and its population was decimated by corrupted peacekeeping robots.
Unsurprisingly, it is this nomadic setting that the usual industry offenders have taken offense to, believing the near-primitive depictions of the game’s humans and their lifestyles to have been culturally appropriated from the lives and histories of Native American peoples.
In their review, for Gadgets 360, Akhil Arora explained that the depiction of the antagonist Tenakth tribe as “violent and radical” runs “into a thorny issue.”
“In the post-apocalyptic USA that forms the world of the Horizon games, the remaining humans have been pushed back to the Stone Age or something,” wrote Arora. “They are now divided into a series of clans and tribes, whose attire borrows from Native Americans among others. Aloy can don these too. But most of the people wearing them, including Aloy, look — and more importantly — and sound like modern-day white people.”
“That’s not a good look,” he continued. “First, the natives were literally erased by white people — and now their clothing is being adopted by them? This is a few steps beyond cultural appropriation.”
According to The Gamer Editor-in-Chief Stacey Henley, the first Horizon title “only had two serious faults for me; the story was weak, and the whole game engaged in Native American cosplay,” and while “Forbidden West just needed to overcome those faults,” it instead “succumbs to them both.”
“There is no attempt to interrogate or explain the Native American appropriation either,” said Henley. “It’s too baked into Horizon’s formula for them to abandon it, but the game seems to use that as an excuse to shrug it off”
“One of the game’s best armours even sees Aloy don a chief’s headdress,” she added. “However, there is more individuality here – tribes are still spoken about in broad terms, but individual people within those tribes rarely live up to those broad definitions and are their own distinct characters.”
A similar sentiment was put forth by Polygon’s Nicole Clark.
“Forbidden West continues the series’ depiction of a post-racial society, while also borrowing aesthetics from various cultures,” she wrote. “While the racial diversity of the Horizon games feels like progress in the context of AAA games more broadly, it’s at odds with how race, ethnicity, and culture are borrowed here without being discussed, or even acknowledged.”
“I may have missed audio logs or journal entries that explain these issues,” she admitted, “but that reinforces the idea that they aren’t core to the story.”
Kotaku’s Ari Notis found that “Horizon Forbidden West doesn’t entirely wash itself of the sins of its past,” noting – to the surprise of literally no one – that though he did not have any claim of indigenous descent, he “certainly ran into some eyebrow-raising moments over the course of Forbidden West.”
“Forbidden West never addresses why many characters wear outfits reminiscent of traditional Native American clothing, a point of contention for some in the wake of Zero Dawn,” said Notis. “All that ‘savior’ stuff? Given that Aloy is white, and that so many characters in Horizon—in roles both crucial and secondary—are people of color, yeah, it’s weird!”
He further exclaimed, “Due to those aforementioned embargo restrictions, which are so extensive as to bar me from mentioning a character who is literally in one of the trailers, I can’t get into detail here, but the entire final act—the denouement in particular—smacks of colonialist overtones, all in service of little more than sci-fi grandeur.”
It should be noted that, despite game journalists’ obsession with ascribing the game’s tribal imagery exclusively to Native Americans – no doubt because they can believe this demographic to be the most useful to evoke in service of establishing a moral high ground – numerous cultures have, at one time, existed in such a state.
This even includes – most assuredly to said journalists’ dismay – white people, as seen in such cultures of the Sámi people of Scandinavia, the Magyar people of Hungary, and the Norse Vikings.
In fact, even by Horizon Zero Dawn narrative director John Gonzales’ own admission, Aloy’s appearance is more regularly compared to that of vikings than any other cultural group.
Horizon Forbidden West is due out on February 18th.
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