Guerilla Games’ latest is venturing out into the wild today in the US, with its post-apocalyptic tale of survival in a world dominated by robots spreading to Europe tomorrow and Japan the day after. If you caught our review last week – it’s here in case you missed it – you’ll already have seen that it’s damn good.
We also had the opportunity to sit down with Senior Producer Samrat Sharma and talk about the game, from its inspirations and philosophies on creating the gameplay of the open world, through to the way that Aloy as a character has managed to really strike a chord with so many people. It’s a long interview, but well worth a read.
TSA: First things first, did you have Zoids growing up?
Samrat Sharma: No, I didn’t. I know what they are, I just didn’t have one…
TSA: I think that’s a bit of a shame. I know a lot of people who saw Horizon Zero Dawn for the first time and just went “Ah! Zoids!” I’m sure that they must have an inspiration for some on the team, but what else fed into creating this post-apocalyptic world and not leaning on the crutch of zombies?
Samrat: I think for us the key phrase was ‘post-post-apocalyptic’. The apocalypse has happened and every bad thing that was going to happen has happened, nature’s taken over, but humanity is slowly clawing its way back into being a society. Different tribes have emerged, different ethos have developed based on what they find important, which is how society across humanity has worked.
Generally for us that was a more important touchpoint in that it’s a much more hopeful game, once you start playing it and you see the through-line of the themes and and the ethos of the game. We wanted to set it in a world that felt beautiful and, yes a bit intense and scary because there are these giant beasts roaming the world, but we also wanted it to feel lush and welcoming and friendly. The visuals mirror what we had hoped to tell as a story.
TSA: I find it interesting that a lot of people are going to expect that the robots, the machines are the enemy, but from what I’ve played, there’s still the friction between humans as well.
Samrat: Yes, and that was important for us as well. The initial pitch was always about this young girl who was incredibly agile, incredibly capable, and yet is vulnerable. She’s very empathetic towards people around her and she feels for them and wants to help people. This was key to our pitch and our initial idea of what we wanted to make.
There’s these giant machines and trying to discover what’s going on in the world, that’s part of the story, but when you bring humanity into it you start seeing her empathetic side, you start to understand that she’s one of those people that really wants to help others. That comes through when she interacts with humans of all tribes.
TSA: Aloy is just from a visual perspective a very unique character. There’s not all that many female protagonists, and even fewer that are redheads! [laughs] She’s also a very isolated character, I feel. She’s searching to find her place in the world, and as soon as it looks like she could be close, the game sends her off into the wild, and I think that isolation can actually make her quite hard to relate to initially. Did you feel that and how have you addressed that in the game?
Samrat: I think there’s two things to consider here: the first is that there are dialogue choices that allow you to explore what she’s thinking at that point and express who she is as a person. These are less of a choice between choosing to do evil or choosing to do good, it’s about you trying to express her personality. None of those dialogue options are disparate, they’re all within her as a person, so that lets you explore a bit about who she is, we feel.
The other side of the equation is that we always wanted to mirror her journey with your journey, and that’s how you have a connection with her. So she’s trying to find out who she is and where she came from, who her parents were and what’s going on there, and you as a player are trying to find out what’s going on in this world and why there are these giant machine dinosaurs. That quest for answers for both of you is juxtaposed, and we found that was the best way to keep you engaged with her story and keep the central seam of curiosity alive.
TSA: She’s a character that has definitely struck a chord, to the point that you had the event just the other week with so many women coming in cosplay. That must be particularly gratifying to see.
Samrat: Oh, absolutely. E3 2015 was when we first announced the game, and almost from the first moment we announced it we were getting inundated with fan art of Aloy. People were drawing her in different styles and with different inspirations and then sending that to us – surprisingly we haven’t received as much fan art of the machines as we have of Aloy. It’s just Aloy!
Then people wanted to cosplay as her and that community has grown so much. There are so many cosplayers across the world and we’re in touch with almost all of them. They talk to us and ask for little tips or tricks, ask what a fabric is like or for some clothing shots, and we send it to them.
It’s so gratifying and it’s also like the character’s taken on its own life outside the game, because nobody’s really played the game and yet they’ve embraced her so much. We’re super chuffed by it and it’s amazing to see.
TSA: This is the first time you’ve created an open world game, and how big was the learning curve to shift to that?
Samrat: The learning curve was huge. We hadn’t done something like this before, and definitely the theme of what we wanted to tell as a story and the experience we wanted you to have dictated the sort of features we put in the game, but at some point there were things we hadn’t done before.
Our tech team are amazing people, so they were able to build a set of tools and open world tech that we could easily start playing around with, and that helped a lot. Having great tech people helps immensely.
The other side, obviously, was us growing the team. We got lots of people from different walks of life, people with experience doing different things other than Killzone. So that and the existing Killzone teams growing up and learning new things about what they could do and expanding their skill set. The team’s really grown in the past few years and you can tell from the confidence with which we present the game now that it’s there.
TSA: One of the things I noticed was that, when you’re having a conversation in open world games and RPGs, they can often be very static. You’ve got quite a dynamic camera in Horizon’s conversations, and so I’m wondering if you saw that and other things in the rest of the industry and saw a need to go further?
Samrat: That particular point, our cinematics team looked at that. Everybody in the core concept and the core teams for the game has looked and decided for themselves what they want to polish to such an extent that it stands out. I think anything that distracts from it has been taken out and anything that adds to the overall theme of the game has remained. The story is quite dramatic, it takes lots of ups and down, lots of twists, and so we wanted to make sure that didn’t come across in a standard way.
It’s a common theme across the whole studio. Everybody’s tried to distill it down to the core features they think help the core story and theme of the game.
TSA: It can be a rather direct story at times, and the language, which is both a kind of evolution of our own and also, I feel, harkens back to almost stereotypes of tribal languages. How did you approach that?
Samrat: What we did was we tried to design these tribes from the ground up, and there’s an incredible amount of lore that you don’t see that we built up for each of these to try and see what lessons these tribes have learned from the world around them. The common trait of tribes across the world has been that they look at nature around them and that informs who they are as a tribe. That’s why tribes around the world look different.
So we tried to see that in a world where these giant structures exist that the old ones, which is us, left behind…
TSA: You’re not that old! [laughs]
Samrat: [laughs] And there’s giant machines that roam the world. All of these things and how the tribes would evolve if each of them has a separate ethos and a different viewpoint to that world. Some would see the structures and make giant settlements, some would learn how to hunt the machines, take their parts and make stuff out of it.
So the language, then, when our narrative director started writing the dialogue, the decision was to show that these tribes are learning from the world around them and that also informs how they speak. So it’s a bit different from how you and I speak, and that’s intentional.
TSA: What were your philosophies with regard to teaching people how to play the game? On the one hand, yes, there’s the introduction and its narrative-led tutorials, but the first big battle, you’re thrown in there, and you later on have to take the initiative in learning how to hunt as well.
Samrat: The idea was to make sure to tell you how the game works so you don’t feel like you’ve been thrown into it, but also that you immediately understand that there are no shortcuts here. This is an incredibly punishing world with machines that are not to be trifled with.
Being tactical about the decisions you make, choosing to be stealthy or not, running away and coming back or not, whatever it is in your arsenal of tactics, we wanted you to know that is important. The initial few hours are a direct mirror of what we wanted you to feel, that we’re not a game that lets you just go in without any help. Yes we will tell you how the game plays, but at the same time you need to remember this isn’t an easy world to be in for Aloy.
TSA: There’s an interesting mix of animalistic and the completely mental, like Corruptor. Who was it that designed the giant robot chicken that sends big gouts of fire in every direction?
Samrat: Because these are machines, this is our comfort zone as a studio. The way we do industrial design is we decide what the function of that thing is. We decide the lore, decide the function and then the form comes.
So we decided how many machines are going to be there and what their purpose is in the grand scheme of things. What will they be aiming to do and is that ecology self sustaining? I don’t want to spoil too much about what they’re doing there, but there’s a purpose for all of them and they’re trying to do something very specific.
Once we’d decided on that, then you start designing what they look like, what they behave like. We’ve drawn inspiration from the animal kingdom, and one of the first ones we showed was the Watcher, where we’d drawn inspiration from the meerkat. Obviously, we’ve taken some inspiration from dinosaurs and birds and all sorts of things.
We took all this inspiration and then decided on what their function is within the game as well, how they attack and how they behave, so you can take them down, and these are the weak points and so on. At that point then you start designing the way you can communicate the attack it does through sound and FX, and there’s a lot of that in the chicken thing you were asking. A lot of what you see is so you don’t have to read up to see what that machine does, you can visually tell where you’re in danger and what you’re in danger from.
TSA: You’ve had quite a bit of fun coming up with names, such as ‘Aloy’, which is a mispronounced spin on alloy, but what is your favourite pun in the game?
Samrat: Favourite pun in the game? It’s a spoiler so I can’t tell you!
It comes later in the game and one of our writers, Ben, he likes puns. I don’t and I have a pun jar next to my desk, so every time someone makes a pun I make them put 50 cents in it…
TSA: [laughs] How much have you made so far?
Samrat: Oh, it can pay for drinks on a Friday night, so yeah, it’s a good jar!
So Ben, yeah, he put in a couple of puns and yeah, it’s a bit of a spoiler to say which one my favourite one is.
TSA: That’s a slight shame. I kind of wanted an answer to that.
TSA: Lastly, you get to be the first studio and first game that really takes advantage of the PS4 Pro on release day. I assume it’s fair to say that even then, you won’t have been able to extract the absolute most out of the console so soon after its release?
Samrat: The machine has a lot of power, so we understand what it can do, but the game was already in place when we learnt about the Pro and got the dev kit. So what we’ve done is taken the power and tried to make the best improvements we think for our existing game. We didn’t design the game from the ground up for the Pro, but we tried to use that processing power to do the best things we could to make the experience look or feel better for you.
I don’t think it’s fair to say we haven’t used it fully, but I do think it’s fair to say that if we’d designed the game from the ground up for the Pro, we’d have probably used it differently.
In nitty gritty detail, this is a question for our tech director, but I think my two favourite improvements are the anti-aliasing and supersampling even on 1080p televisions so it just looks smooth and beautiful, and if you’ve got a proper HDR TV, the colours, especially in the lush forest regions, they just pop. Those are my favourite improvements that we’ve been able to squeeze in.
Thanks to Samrat for taking the time to speak with us. Check out last week’s review of the game here, and if you’re picking it up this week, I hope you enjoy hunting robots in its gorgeous open world!