I’m the type of girl that eats, sleeps, breathes, and lives video games. More specifically, those video games that touch your soul and resonate with you long after you’ve beaten the final boss and put the controller down for the last time. And even more specifically, those video games that destroy you emotionally, because the main character becomes something of a loved one to you. Not only because you took every step of their journey alongside them, but because something in them called out to you, something relatable and instinctive that made you realize that you were much more similar than you ever thought you could be.
For me, Horizon Zero Dawn was one of those games. I could say a lot about the game; I could mention how much the concept blew my mind, the incredible juxtaposition of robot dinosaurs with primitive tribal life. I could talk about the spectacular animation and graphics; the loving attention paid equally to lush greenery and burgeoning cities, or the fluid transitions of Aloy’s movements. I could mention how thrilled I was to encounter a character like Aloy; a character who was lauded and praised not for her looks, but her skill. Her strength. Her aptitude. Her bravery. But the best thing to do, I think, would be to let the marvelous people who worked on this game themselves speak about it instead. I sat with the wonderful Angie Smets and Michiel van der Leeuw during their visit to have a chat about Horizon Zero Dawn.
GCON: Angie, Michiel, thank you for joining us for this interview. As this is your first time here, is there anything that stood out to you about your visit to Saudi Arabia?
Angie: I think one of the most significant things we noticed about this visit was how kind and attentive to us everyone was. They have been very careful about making sure we are always comfortable, giving us frequent presents—
Michiel: – and food!
Angie: [Laughing] – yes, and food. It’s really wonderful to be here.
Michiel: We were shopping earlier today, and I was really surprised by the variety of options in shops available here. It’s very western. We also got some really excellent food. Everyone has been so friendly; we appreciated that.
GCON: What about the people you’ve met so far? Were you surprised by the number of gamers here in Saudi Arabia?
Michiel: We knew we had a fair number of Saudi Arabian gamers, since we know how many copies of Horizon Zero Dawn were sold here, due to telemetry data, but for us, I think, from so far away in Amsterdam, we don’t really appreciate how cool it is until we get to see it up close.
Angie: I also got the impression that there were many hardcore gamers here, who surprised me with how much they know about games and the gaming industry. So that was really cool.
GCON: The character of Aloy has been praised for being a feminist icon. Saudi women in particular were happy to see a character they could really look up to. How do you feel about the way Aloy as a character was perceived?
Angie: I’ve had the opportunity to meet many women here and speak with them about their opinions, their goals for the future, to get a handle on the unique perspective that they have, and for them to say that they really love playing as Aloy, it just added a second layer to her character for me.
Michiel: We always knew that we wanted to create something positive for the female fans. We considered also having a male lead, but a strong female lead was always part of our original vision for the game. It really started to resonate with us when we started to see a rise in cosplayers; lots of young women who were really inspired by the character, who put a lot of love, time, and effort into recreating her outfit. I recall a particularly special moment where we had a press event and invited five Aloy cosplayers to attend. Having five Aloys in our building brought tears to a lot of eyes. Present company included! Working on something like this, and seeing the amount of positivity it brings to others, it’s just as Angie said: it really adds an extra layer to it all.
Angie: One of the cosplayers, a Dutch woman, 30 years old, was just so happy to be at the studio. She had only played the first two hours of the game or so, but kept saying how much she loved Aloy and how much she enjoyed cosplaying her. She mentioned wishing that the game had been around earlier, when she was fourteen years old or so, so she could have had someone like Aloy to look up to. At that moment, I realized that we had succeeded at creating the character that we really wanted Aloy to be.
GCON: Can you tell us more about the design process of the game as a whole? How did the idea of juxtaposing tribal life with robot dinosaurs come about?
Michiel: Isn’t that cool?
GCON: It’s amazing!
Angie: I think there’s a sort of tension there, with the primitive tribal life on one hand and the advanced technology of the robots on the other. The contrast between the two elements, we thought, was a very good starting point, and something that we could really build a whole world around. The fact that they are so conflicting we found interesting.
Michiel: It was difficult to get the balance right, because it’s hard to build a game with these constraints. We had to design weapons that looked like they belonged in that world, that could be made out of robot parts. If you look at the designs, you’ll see that almost everything was reused. So it was tricky to find something that would feel natural. Things like the machine gun, for example, needed to be carefully designed, so as not to break the illusions of the world and cause things to fall apart. We had to invent a lot of stuff ourselves, seeing as none of it really existed elsewhere.
GCON: On a final note, we have to ask: did you manage to learn any Arabic whilst you were here?
Michiel: [Laughing] Nope. I didn’t even try.
Angie: Oh, next time he’ll learn, Insha’Allah.
GCON: [Making heart-eyes at Angie]
Angie: I knew some Arabic before, because I spent time in Yemen, but I learned lots of new names this time. But I do know some words, such as Assalamu Alaykum and Alhamdulillah.
Michiel and Angie, on behalf of all the gamers who love the world you’ve created for us, and the character you gave us to inspire us: thank you. We really hope to have you back with us again soon. In the meantime, can anyone volunteer to be Michiel’s Arabic tutor? Let us know in the comments!
Interview edited for conciseness and clarity. Horizon Zero Dawn is available for PS4 and PS4 Pro now.