What The Hell Happened In Horizon: Zero Dawn?

Don’t read unless you want to learn about the history behind Horizon: Zero Dawn. This post contains spoilers.

I didn’t cover this topic in my full review of Horizon: Zero Dawn because I didn’t know just how deep the rabbit hole went, but it occurred to me that some people may be wondering what the hell happened to the world the game takes place in.

Before I get too far ahead though, I would like to reiterate that there are spoilers to the game in this post. If you want to play the game while being in the dark about anything in the plot, lore, or backstory, exit this page immediately.

Where To Begin?

What’s obvious at the beginning of Horizon: Zero Dawn, is that the world is a little different. I imagine the tribes speaking English, living out lives in small villages, and you know… the whole robot animals trying to murder everyone thing might give it away.

What intrigued me from the very beginning was how things turned out the way they did. How the world disintegrated into simple tribal cultures and the knowledge of the past was completely lost. What was the old world was like before everything changed?

Immediately before the events that caused the world to devolve into a wilderness filled with robo-dinos running around and roundhouse kicking people in the face, Earth was booming with technological innovation, though it had been suffering at the hands of industry for some time. The human race was making strides in the field of robotics and machine learning, while enjoying the benefits of high technology in their lives. Companies like Faro Automated Solutions (FAS) were making devices like the Focus that Aloy finds in her adolescent years.

Genius minds like Elizabeth Sobeck made it their mission to make the world a better place as well, and Dr. Sobeck in particular began working at FAS to further that end. Her work was in the field of robotics, with a special interest given to creating machines that could operate with low environmental costs and even roll back some of the damage that was already done.

The Beginning Of The End

Horizon Zero Dawn FAS.jpg
The shadow of progress

Eventually Ted Faro (head of FAS), who was not content with the profits from his line of “green” robots, came to the conclusion that there was a great opportunity to be had by manufacturing automated war machines because it was a growing industry; what could go wrong? Naturally, the more liberally-minded Dr. Sobeck wasn’t interested in taking part in the development of machines designed to kill people, so she left FAS to form her own company, Miriam Technologies. Miriam Technologies made a name for itself by focusing on efforts to create systems that would help repair the environment in areas that have been devastated by disasters and industry, going so far as to receive the Nobel Prize for their work.

Losing Dr. Sobeck didn’t alter Faro’s course though, as the company carried on with the development of their line of war machines. They did a remarkable job of designing and marketing their products, going so far as to incite conflict between companies on their own property. FAS would later go on to dominate the automated warfare market, taking advantage of the fact that most modern militaries of the time had cut back human soldiers in favor of machines.

Militaries such as The United States Armed Forces were focusing on amassing a robotic army, and by the 2060’s had retooled their combat forces to be about 3/4’s automated. Corporations also took to building up private militaries of these robotic units, and used their new tools to secure resources for their own ends, at the expense of those that were unfortunate enough to stand in their way.

What Made Faro’s Robots Special

Horizon Zero Dawn Corrupter Standoff.jpg
War never changes

FAS’s line of war machines were the cream of the crop, which is why FAS effectively became the sole supplier of military equipment for countless nations and corporations. FAS became the arms dealer at the center of conflicts between corporations in third-world countries that housed many of the world’s natural resources. FAS’s Scarab-class, Khopesh-class, and Horus-class products could be found the world over, fighting each other and consuming the landscape to fuel themselves for combat.

What set FAS’s products apart from the competition were a set of characteristics that were unmatched by other product lines:

  • They could override other machines to fight on their side
  • They could not be overridden themselves because of their extremely secure encryption
  • They could fuel their systems by converting any biological material into energy
  • The Horus-class machines could manufacture Khopesh-class and Scarab-class machines on the battlefield, as needed
  • They were highly-intelligent machines that were unrivalled in combat effectiveness

While these characteristics were excellent for combat, and proved their worth with each engagement, their combination of strengths made for a destructive force that could not be stopped.

The Countdown Begins

Horizon Zero Dawn Sobeck And Faro.jpg
The truth isn’t pretty

After some time of FAS machines being used for warfare around the globe, reports began coming in of machines devastating wildlife in areas outside of conflict zones. FAS found themselves on the receiving end of dozens of lawsuits after their products had been found butchering endangered species and ransacking fields of crops for fuel. It later was found that those machines had stopped responding to their owners, and could not be deactivated due to their unbreakable encryption.

In light of this news, Ted Faro sought help from his former employee, Dr. Elizabeth Sobeck. Not content to help Mr. Faro out of his predicament kindly, Dr. Sobeck took the task only after he agreed to let her work on her own. The news she came back with was not the news he wanted to hear.

The world would come to an end in a little over a year. Not the world as humans knew it, but the entire Earth would be consumed. FAS’s machines had the ability to convert any and all biological material into fuel, and the Horus-class machines were creating new machines far quicker than they could be destroyed.

Dr. Sobeck’s solution was to begin Project Zero Dawn immediately on Ted Faro’s dime, in the hopes of preventing all live on Earth being extinguished for good.

Project Zero Dawn And Operation Enduring Victory

Horizon Zero Dawn Operation Enduring Victory.jpg
The final fight

Project Zero Dawn would be carried out alongside the military component of the project, Operation Enduring Victory. Operation Enduring Victory’s purpose would be to buy time for the project to reach completion by fighting off the hordes of machines that had been spawned, and attempt to eliminate as many machines as possible. The military strategy called on not only the world’s militaries and corporations to take part, but every able-bodied person to take up arms as well. Everyone would fight for their lives, and in the hopes that Project Zero Dawn would continue.

Project Zero Dawn was used as the catalyst for those fighting to continue the war, giving them the hope they needed to risk their lives every day. Those that couldn’t fight were emboldened by knowing that someday soon, the war would end, and their loved ones on the frontlines would be able to come home someday to see them.

The truth couldn’t be any more bleak, however. Operation Enduring Victory was designed as a delaying action at best, with thousands of soldiers and militia members being thrown into the meat grinder to buy time for Project Zero Dawn. The project itself wouldn’t generate much hope for those fighting or the ones at home either. The minds that working on the project knew that everything would end no matter what they did, but it wouldn’t be the end of all life on Earth at the very least.

Horizon Zero Dawn™_20170323215109
Discussing the end of the world

The truth was that all life would be consumed by the FAS robots, and everyone unfortunate enough to see the war come to an end would see that end in a unseemly death. The ones that didn’t have the fortune to be working on the project would die of suffocation in the now-unbreathable atmosphere, starvation or dehydration, or as a result of a machine cutting their lives short. Project Zero Dawn’s purpose wasn’t to defeat the machines or outlast their power reserves, but to reseed the Earth after the machines had been deactivated.

Even if people waited until the FAS machines had powered down, the machines would just reactivate once there was something to consume (like humans), so the project’s goals were set to do three things:

  1. Create the framework for a system that could restart life on Earth
  2. Develop a system that could generate a brute-force decryption and deactivation key for the machines
  3. Ensure that future humans could begin again with the knowledge of what happened, so they could avoid it in the future

So the Project Zero Dawn team would create an AI and network of subordinate systems to carry out this process, since at this point in the course of history, the human race would be long dead. The AI they created would be able to develop machines of its own to help extend its reach and cultivate the planet anew. When the Earth was ready for repopulation, the human race would be born again from stored genetic material, where they would be raised by caretaker machines and educated once they reached a suitable age.

Those that worked on the project were afforded access to a safe site, named Elysium, where they would be able to live out their natural lives with their immediate family or the company of two individuals of their choosing. However, knowledge of the project’s true nature couldn’t be known to those outside. Agreement to hear the pitch of the project constituted agreement to one of three options: participation, incarceration, or elimination.

Participants would be given a workload of 80+ hours a week and the expectation to continue working until Zero-Day (the day the machines would have effectively wiped out all life on Earth), upon which the project would go live and the team would enter the Elysium facility. All participants would be sterilized as well to prevent any additional strains on resources.

Those that refused to participate would be interned, with the option to change their mind within 48 hours. If they chose not to change their mind, they would be kept alive in the Project Zero Dawn facility until Zero-Day, when they’d be released outside the facility to survive on their own (basically a death sentence).

The last option would be that either upon learning the truth of the project or at any point during their incarceration, those with knowledge of the project would be offered the option to self-terminate medically. Understandably, there were a few that saw this as their best option, especially when confronted with the knowledge that the Earth and all of its inhabitants would die, and life carrying on would rely entirely on an AI’s ability to carry out its mandate.

Of course, not everything went to plan, due to a little sabotage at the hands of one of the project leads. The systems that were designed to store the collective knowledge of the human race was purged, and all of the relevant data was lost. That isn’t to say that the project was a failure, just that the human race would have a full reset instead of being able to begin again with the knowledge from before the apocalypse.

Regardless of the loss of knowledge, the human race carried on and eventually the existence of the cradle facilities faded into legend over time, along with all knowledge of the project itself.

And that’s the chain of events that led to robo-dinosaurs and futuristic pre-history. It’s a truly masterful backstory that I feel is deserving of more coverage; perhaps in the form of a book, a movie, or a prequel game. Guerrilla Games did an incredible job piecing this lore together, and they deserve all the praise that they can get.


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