The post-racial world of “Horizon Forbidden West” turns culture into costumes

In John Gast’s 1872 painting “American Progress,” a towering woman in white robes floats to the left side of a landscape with a book in one hand and a telegraph wire in the other.

This woman is Columbia, a personification of the United States – from Manifest Destiny – and she has seen leading white settlers from the eastern fields to something more ominous: a dark Pacific coast where animals growl, a herd of frantic buffaloes, and in a nauseating simile, a small group of native men, women and children flee his advance.

“American Progress” is repugnant to anyone with a cursory knowledge of the conquest of the Americas and, in particular, the conquest of the nation west of the Mississippi River – it is an artistic representation of the kind of beliefs necessary to commit the expanding western atrocities.

John Gast’s “American Progress”.

More than 200 years after the colonization of the American frontier, stories of white expansionism like that depicted in “American Progress” are still being reimagined and told through pre-revisionist Western films, novels and, less obviously, through games such as the grand -title of budgetary action, Forbidden Horizon West.

west forbidden is a sequel to 2017 Horizon Zero Dawn by Amsterdam-based Guerilla Games. Picking up where her predecessor left off, a warrior protagonist named Aloy must leave her birthplace in the east to venture into a swath of post-Publish-Apocalyptic continental America not seen in previous entry. She heads for the “Forbidden West”, a region which she is warned is eminently dangerous to outsiders, populated as it is by various factions of the fictional Tenakth, who are described as particularly vicious and terrifying.

A sin zero dawn, Aloy and the rest of the characters in the game are members of a future society recovering from a climatic catastrophe that involves robotic dinosaur creatures (don’t ask) and a series of advanced artificial intelligences that, in short, reintroduced humanity to Earth without giving away any knowledge of technological progress or world history before their time (no, really don’t ask). These fictional characters are depicted dressed in leather and fur, adorned with bits of scrap metal and beads; they primarily hunt with bows and arrows, spears, and tripwire traps, live mostly in small towns built of brick and thatch, and refer to each other’s tiny nations as “tribes.” The game calls them “primitive”.

Aloy can don the aesthetics of various tribes throughout the games.Forbidden Horizon West

The characters represent a dissonance of post-racial harmony (the various factions are racially and sexually diverse) and a pan-Native worldview that collapses the value of an entire world of specific cultures into a handful of chosen and used aesthetic references as suits. Although they have forgotten the history of the world before the apocalypse, west forbiddenFactions of , in a limited geographic area, may wear clothing inspired by pre-conquest Maya priesthood and royalty in one instance while, in a nearby village, characters wear white polka-dot face paint in the style of African Xhosa.

Aloy herself can change her clothes to partially hide her ginger tresses under an array of ornate headpieces; protect his body with a deerskin lined with fur; and applying face paint borrowed from the cultures of those she encounters as she explores the Forbidden West.

HorizonThe use of indigenous culture as an aesthetic shorthand for “primitive civilization”—as well as terminology that uses “primitive” and “tribal” as descriptors of its personas—has been criticized when zero dawn released in 2017, notably by critic Dia Lacina in an article for Microphone. Then, as now, the implication that the aesthetic shorthand of culturally indistinct Indigenous clothing signifies a lack of progress signals the same sort of insidious worldview that drove Manifest Destiny’s “progress” – that of ethnic cleansing. and racism in the name of the Building of Civilization defined by Europe.

Corn west forbidden is able to justify his role as a white savior with the apocalyptic reasoning of science fiction, his story bears echoes of a very real the story.

Five years later, west forbidden harbors the same issues by continuing its flattened, nation-independent use of clothing and architectural design while reinforcing its intention to make its post-apocalyptic setting more explicitly American (undermining denials that its inspiration goes further, to include the Vikings, at the same time).

The plot setup described earlier sees Aloy heading west to assert herself in the affairs of factions that have long resisted incursions and slave-capturing raids by an eastern empire called Carja. She goes there to save the world from a mysterious plague. Determined to solve this problem, Aloy travels to a region presented explicitly as a frontier, which is, in the words of one character, the home of people for whom “violence is the mother tongue”. Corn west forbidden is able to justify his role as a white savior with the apocalyptic logic of science fiction, his story echoes a very real story.

This is reinforced by a sequence that sees her enter the West as part of a tense diplomatic meeting between the Eastern Carja, whom the Westerners rightly despise for their past raids, and emissaries from the Tenakth. The meeting is ambushed by a splinter Tenakth faction, still bent on avenging the Carja Empire’s aggression, and ends in the slaughter of those working for peace. The leader of their attackers, Regalla, is portrayed as staunchly brutal and warlike – a ruthless version of the frontier peoples – whose wickedness is driven by a reasonable refusal to forget past atrocities from the East, which remains largely unchallenged throughout. Game.

From this shaky start, west forbidden attempts to right herself by showing that the Tenakth (except Regalla’s forces) that Aloy encounters are not a shadowy, unknowable enemy but are, of course, ordinary people like her. Though following the path of an old western, taking a dangerous journey into the “frontier” to improve the lives of the entire continent (and the world), Aloy is a 21st century cowboy who doesn’t fall so easily into the kind of stubborn racism of the mad Carja or the wicked Regalla. She, as a savior figure in a modern action game, is enlightened enough to avoid reductive thinking.

This element can provide a welcome complication to the plot, but it doesn’t make up for digging into the real story to make it an action game. Corn west forbidden wants to present an alternative vision of an abstract and nobler westward expansion, its use of indigenous cultures as an overall aesthetic and the contextless recreation of the horrors of the 19th century that its plot offers speaks of a cultural blind spot whose implications hinder a good understanding of the past, and today.

Jan-Bart van Beek, artistic director of Guerilla and creator of the Horizon series, clarified his studio’s intentions in an interview with Launcher, describing the game’s plot as “much like a Western story, with a girl on horseback, traveling across the Great Plains”. This quote explains the kind of reasoning that informs Horizonunaware of how loaded its evocation of the past is in favor of a narrow, romantic view of Western conquest as one of daring adventures across lush, forbidden landscapes by heroes driven by a desire to save those who cannot. save themselves.

The Quen are one of Horizon Forbidden West’s many tribes.

The absence of reflection on the history of its setting is contrasted quite directly by a sequence towards the end of west forbidden. In it, a character named Tilda van der Meer shows her collection of Dutch master paintings, friezes and sculptures, giving specific insight into a nation and culture of the pre-apocalyptic era and describing, in detail, the enduring qualities of the work of artists like Rembrandt and Vermeer. The game’s creators should be proud enough of their country’s heritage to make room in their plot to showcase Dutch art, but to do so with such specificity fosters an unflattering comparison between national cultures and histories that deserve to be evaluated in detail and those that are only allowed to exist. as a generalized aesthetic.

“Don’t be so quick to dismiss the comfort we can find in art,” van der Meer says if the player guides Aloy away from the gallery, eager to recapture the thrill of her quest. “Or the insight we can acquire.”