Horizon Forbidden West sees franchise hero Aloy take on a mysterious new threat, learn more about her modern world and the once-modern world that lies in ruin, and find both new friends and foes as she travels throughout the Forbidden West.
It’s a captivating story as IGN’s Horizon Forbidden West review noted, and one that simultaneously answers lingering mysteries of the Horizon universe and opens up potential paths for the future, all while telling deep, character-driven stories. And if you’re wondering how some of its biggest moments came together, IGN spoke with Guerrilla Narrative Director Ben McCaw and Senior Writer Annie Kitain to break down some of Horizon Forbidden West’s biggest story moments in our latest spoilercast.
Watch the video above for the full discussion, and read on for some excerpts from the chat about HFW’s story. But, be warned, FULL SPOILERS AHEAD! Turn back and finish the story of Horizon Forbidden West first before reading or watching if you do not want to be spoiled.
Horizon Forbidden West: Biggest Changes From Horizon Zero Dawn
Horizon Forbidden West’s Main Foes – The Far Zeniths
Perhaps unexpectedly, early on in Horizon Forbidden West, Aloy is hot on the trail of Sylens and the kidnapped AI Hades. Always operating with ulterior motives, Sylens leads Aloy to a location because, thanks to being a clone of Elisabet Sobeck, she is the only one who can open a particular door.
After doing so, she quickly encounters the unexpected villains of Forbidden West – not Sylens, not newcomer Regalla, but the Far Zeniths, a group that, at the time, is a mysterious, ultra-futuristic, unkillable bunch who seem to want the same things.
“Everything before that [level] is prelude and everything after that is the struggle that Aloy has to undergo to defeat them,” McCaw explained. “I will say, I saw many, many versions of that scene in development. But when I saw the final version, and I saw the Zeniths, how they just looked physically, I was so happy. And Erik in particular, is just so awful and so menacing in that scene.”
And their inevitable intrusion into Aloy’s journey is one that was not only by design for Forbidden West, but something embedded in the Horizon lore from back in Zero Dawn.
“Part of this was developed during Zero Dawn, which was that we knew that there needed to be this colony around the Sirius Star System, which is the origin of the mysterious signal. We knew they had to come from the Odyssey,” McCaw said. “But what we didn’t know is the personality of the Zeniths. That was something that we develop more while we were doing Forbidden West.”
“There are data points that mention that mentioned the Odyssey, mentioned Far Zenith, but it wasn’t really a big part of Zero Dawn story, right? And then, when you start Forbidden West, and you get into the first ruin, and we introduce that it’s parsing it from the get-go, it was just fun to work in those acknowledgments to returning players or players who kind of dig into the lore and find those tidbits,” Kitain said.
As for their inclusion in the sequel as such a major force, they allowed the writers to stay true to the Horizon universe but deliver something new.
“We felt the sequel can’t just be what you’ve seen before. It has to be something else and we have to go in a different direction. We don’t want to break the mold but we want to make sure that the mold evolves. And I think the Zeniths are our answer to that,” McCaw said.
The Fate of Varl
The Zeniths are a major force to contend with for Aloy and her gradually expanding band of fighters, but in the course of their battles, one of Aloy’s closest companions is killed. Late in Forbidden West’s story, as things seem to be working out in the process of restoring Gaia’s subfunctions, a Zenith attack mid-mission leads to the horrifying death of Varl.
It’s a gut punch moment that cuts through all the advancements the team, and the player have made, as they reckon with the loss of such a companion. This devastating moment is one the team says was a major, intended low point for Aloy’s journey, and one rooted in her connection to Varl throughout the sequel.
All New Machines in Horizon Forbidden West
“He’s the most important character to Aloy in the story,” McCaw explained of the decision to kill Varl. “There need to be uncomfortable moments, there need to be difficult moments, there need to be tragic moments, or else there really isn’t much of a journey.”
That tragedy, and where it puts Aloy, is also key to her decision making immediately after, as she makes a tenuous alliance with the Far Zenith Tilda, who seems willing to help her at the moment.
“She’s at this low point where she just lost her friend. She just lost Beta and Gaia and she considers it for a moment. She can’t just outright say no, because what Tilda is saying is making a lot of sense. But it’s also that grief and that pain she’s feeling and her reflection about everything she’s gone through up until that point that brings her to the decision to say, ‘No, we will find another way. I have another idea,'” Kitain explained.
Both writers pointed to the artwork in Tilda’s vault as another way to explore that grief – much of what’s there speaks to the nature of grief, and Aloy’s dialogue directly, or indirectly, relates back to losing Varl.
Cracking the emotional throughline of these scenes also carried through to one of Forbidden West’s most beautiful moments, a conversation between Zo, who Varl had begun a relationship with, and Aloy. The two are at a memorial place Zo has set up for Varl, looking all the way out to her home in Plainsong.
“It’s one of the few times that she really does open up and she admits her feelings about Varl and about how she’s felt this whole time to Zo and that’s a moment of closeness for them,” Kitain said. “It’s that moment of grief that she couldn’t really allow herself to have until this place, because she knew she was still in danger.”
Beta and Aloy’s New Hope
Another major relationship for Aloy is the discovery of, essentially, her sister Beta, also played by Ashly Burch. Though she starts somewhat antagonistic, the two eventually form a close bond. But cracking Beta’s character arc was particularly tough for the team.
“One of the versions we had of Beta early on, she was actually a lot more optimistic and… spunky, I guess, might not be the right word, but it’s the word that’s coming to mind, which you can actually see a little bit of that with her at the very end when she’s back in the base. But that version of her just wasn’t working out for the arc that we were trying to tell,” Kitain explained.
“It was really when we started to think of her as a sullen teenager and someone who’s depressed and who would lash out, that’s when it really started to click of, ‘Okay, this is how we can express her insecurities and her fears. But also, in a way that’s understandable and it’s motivated from her upbringing.'”
Kitain called Aloy and Beta’s relationship “the heart and soul of this story,” and as McCaw pointed out, their close connection anchors Aloy’s mind state at the end of the game.
“You see that at the beginning and the end of the final scene, and in between that are all the tribal components – what happens to the Quen, what’s going to happen to the Tenakth, what’s going to happen to the Oseram, and even Morlund and his crew,” McCaw said.
“That’s something that’s all wrapped in this idea of Aloy is no longer alone. Where we go next, I don’t know, but I do know that Aloy still has growing to do. I know that for sure.”
“[Horizon Forbidden West] was the chapter of her growth that we wanted to tell, but that’s been said. It’s an ongoing story. It’s an ongoing growth for her,” Kitain echoed.
And perhaps given all the ways Forbidden West’s story was informed by the lore built into Zero Dawn, it’s time to go digging through all those data points once again.
But in the meantime, be sure to check out IGN’s full Horizon Forbidden West guide if you’re aiming to collect everything in Aloy’s world, and find out where HFW falls on IGN’s list of the best open-world games. And for more on the world of PlayStation, stay tuned to IGN’s Podcast Beyond! every week for more impressions, news, and breakdowns of the biggest PS4, PS5, and PSVR happenings.
Jonathon Dornbush is IGN’s Senior Features Editor, PlayStation Lead, and host of Podcast Beyond! He’s the proud dog father of a BOY named Loki. Talk to him on Twitter @jmdornbush.