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Horizon Zero Dawn's Aloy is one of the best new protagonists in years

(Image credit: Guerrilla Games)

Horizon: Zero Dawn makes the giant parkour leap from PlayStation to PC this week, and it's an exciting move for many reasons. Horizon could be blazing the trail for other Sony exclusives like The Last Of Us or God Of War. The PC opens up a whole world of modding opportunities. And it means we get to take on Horizon’s unique robotic monsters, some of the coolest new creatures in the last few years of games. But what I’m looking forward to more than any of that is simply spending time with Aloy again.

Horizon’s lead is one of the most interesting new characters this generation, despite being thoroughly unsupported by the cast around her. Unlike, say, Red Dead Redemption 2’s Arthur Morgan, Aloy is not surrounded by a Dutch Van Der Linde, a Sadie Adler, a Micah Bell, who all add to Arthur’s journey, as friends or antagonists (or often both). She has no pre-established link to the audience through a John Marston. The characters around Aloy are fine. A couple even flirt with interesting, but they’re still teething. They wobble under the weight of all the story threads Horizon throws out to establish its new setting. They’re not used to life at this altitude, and it shows. There’s potential there, but Aloy is not a character with potential: she’s the real deal already, and the most interesting turns in Horizon happen through her.

Aloy is frequently compared to Lara Croft, and while that comparison isn’t unkind, it is unfair. They’re both agile action heroes who explore ruins, they both love to climb up things and crawl under others, and—the likely reason they’re so often compared—they’re both women. Beneath the surface of their gender and basic gameplay mechanics, Lara and Aloy are completely different people.

Lara is a suave, sophisticated, action movie-style heroine (or a horror movie ‘last girl’ who slowly grows in confidence, depending on whether you’re talking pre- or post-2013 reboot). Aloy is cocky and headstrong, but also reckless, brash, and driven by a secret inferiority complex and social anxiety. She’s a compelling concoction of contradictions, and while everyone around her mainly trades in tropes, clichés and half-finished ideas, Aloy is fresh and raw and magnetic.

Without getting into spoiler territory, we learn early on that Aloy was not born, but was discovered one day in the temple. Some of her tribe’s elders feared her, while others saw her as a sign from the Heavens. As such, she was cast out but kept close by, raised by her adoptive father, Rost, growing up adjacent to the tribe but never part of it. She’s free and trapped all at once. She’s Lucifer, she’s Christ, and as she uncovers more of her legacy, history, and how she came to be, she takes on shades of the Virgin Mary too.

There are deep religious undertones in how Aloy’s story unfolds, but without clunky preaching, direct biblical parallels or forced symbolism. It’s rare to see any form of media explore religious narrative so subtly, without demanding to teach us something or make some grand-yet-obvious statement about morality.

As well as shouldering the large themes of the game with grace—not to mention carrying most of the cast on her back—Aloy shines in the little moments too. They might be where she shines brightest. Voiced superbly by Ashly Burch, there’s a biting sarcasm to almost everything Aloy says, but it's punctuated with real heart too. Throughout the game, Aloy can return to her adoptive father Rost’s home to speak to him about her quest. At these moments, the bravado and wit wash away and show Aloy unsure of herself and her place in the world, displaying a vulnerability video game protagonists usually shrug off at the start of their quest or deal with in one brief moment of crisis. And it's the voice acting that really makes these scenes work—the way Burch's voice breaks when she says "I won’t waste what you’ve given me."

For most heroes it’s a weakness to shed, but for Aloy, it’s a humanity to hang onto.

Even with the side characters, Aloy never misses a beat. She knows when to bite her tongue, when to razz the NPCs back, and when to show she won’t be messed with. She deals with the sexism and the looks of distrust being an outcast grants her, but Aloy is no noble pariah; she’s feisty and in-your-face, standing up for herself and for others without ever resorting to being mean or cruel.

Aloy's snark is occasionally overused and feels for the player’s benefit more than anything else, and her aesthetic is essentially a white girl wearing clothes wholly borrowed from Native American culture. Those are things Guerrilla Games can do better in Horizon's sequel.

But her story, her personality, and the performance behind it makes Aloy more than just one of the best new female protagonists in recent memory. She’s one of the most complex protagonists I've ever played as in a game. The eye-catching headline around Horizon coming to PC is that it might pave the way for more PlayStation exclusives, but her character should rise above that. Hopefully Aloy’s success can encourage other developers to make nuanced women the stars of their big budget games in the future, but for now, it's great that one of the strongest characters in modern games is now on the PC, too.