This is the first of several posts on Horizon Zero Dawn by Guerrilla Games as a facilitator of archaeological thinking and serves as a brief introduction to the game and the game components for those who have not necessarily played the game recently (or at all). This game does not expressly discuss or address archaeology and archaeological theory but, from the eyes of an archaeologist, presents and produces a discussion of artifacts and landscapes. In this post, I will briefly look at how was can examine archaeology in Horizon Zero Dawn and introduce some concepts and contexts that will be important in this analysis. In future posts, I will examine archaeology in Horizon Zero Dawn further.


Archaeological survey in digital games lends itself to an understanding of how people in the physical space think about cultures and cultural development. Archaeogamers point out the usefulness of landscape archaeology in games and the representations of landscape archaeology to the public through games like walking simulators [González-Tennant, 2016; Graham, 2016; Morgan 2016; Reinhard 2018]. This way of understanding what landscape archaeologists do and how they think is important for representing archaeological concepts to the public and to other archaeologists. Applying landscape archaeology concepts to videogames  is demonstrate, by Reinhard’s No Man’s Sky archaeological project. Graham (2016) suggests that a concept does not have to be explicitly stated for it to be internalized and understood, using the examples of game rules which individuals have internalized, possibly without realizing it.

For example, in Shadow of the Tomb Raider (2018), Lara Croft provides an interpretation of the artifacts in a way that is more realistic of how archaeologists and historians might think than she does in previous games. Rather than pulling out unfounded claims about the history of an artifact, like an old Soviet medal in Rise of the Tomb Raider (2015), Lara seems to take into account the actual history and the context of these artifacts is more carefully considered. Her interpretations show a more realistic archaeological interpretation (ignoring her destruction and looting of cultural heritage sites). But it is again evocative of internalizing the way that material culture may be used to discuss the past that is specifically relevant.

This ability for internalization and understanding of archaeological thoughts and practices based upon the unwritten aspects of a game suggests an interesting possibility in the discussion about how archaeologists might be better represented in video games. Through passive understanding of landscape archaeology and how archaeologists think about artifacts in their context, entertainment games may provide answers for discussing archaeological interpretation with the larger public. Additionally, users are encouraged to think of material culture and the physical landscape in a more archaeological way.

It is with this in mind that Horizon Zero Dawn (2017) can be explored. Horizon Zero Dawn is a game which presents archaeological thinking to the public without specifically stating this idea. Artifact interpretations presented to the player and the exploration of the landscape in a more archaeological sense are visibly present to an archaeogamer. Though the descriptions and ideas of artifacts and landscapes are easily made available to the public, the understanding of how that might be tied to archaeological thinking are less explicit.

Background: Horizon Zero Dawn (2017)

Horizon Zero Dawn, created by Guerrilla Games and distributed by Sony Interactive Entertainment, takes place centuries after a man-made disaster which destroyed our world. A number of gatherer-hunter communities have since developed in the time after the disaster, complete with their own religion, politics, and a trade-based economy. The developers crafted several different cultures based in the different regions in the map which have their own cities, terrain, and technology. Animals roam the map, some natural and some robotic which can be hunted and used for crafting and trade. The world contains many elements of our present while also incorporating elements of an imagined near future on top of various gatherer-hunter societies. The game answers the question of what might future people think about the presently known world, or that of the near future, centuries after we no longer exist.

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Devil’s Thirst ancient ruins in Horizon Zero Dawn. Screenshot captured by Kaitlyn Kingsland.

The player takes control of a young woman named Aloy and through a series of events is the only Nora—a matriarchal tribe run by religious figures—allowed to leave their lands in order to figure out what is wreaking havoc on their world. Throughout the game, the player is allowed to explore the remnants of “our” world (that is, the world as it is today and its fictionalized recent future) and the fictional futuristic technology which, according to game lore, was developed in our near future. The aspects of our world which are present in the game’s world are referred to by the inhabitants as ancient. There are ancient ruins, ancient technology, and ancient artifacts which were created by the Old Ones (which is supposed to be our modern culture and society in the near future).

Since there are no non-player characters (NPCs) which remember the technologically advanced society of the present, the player is completely enveloped into the world of Aloy. Players come to understand that the religion is based upon a lack of understanding of this technology which was left behind after the destruction of our world. Each society has differing views on how to treat the remains of our buildings, artifacts, and technology. Aloy is developed in a way which allows the player to not feel constrained by the cultural and norms of the game’s communities. This allows the payer to freely explore the material culture and landscapes of our world while not being distracted by Aloy’s world.

An Overview of Archaeology in Horizon Zero Dawn

What types of archaeological content and materials exist in Horizon Zero Dawn? This game provides wealth of historic documentation (game lore) and archaeological materials both small-scale and large-scale. Artifacts and the landscape are approached with a post-modern and culturally relativistic interpretation which serve to flesh-out the game lore and produce a sense of culture for the game’s inhabitants. There are several categories of artifacts present in Horizon Zero Dawn which the player can collect in various ruin locations and with associated documentation.

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One of the many ancient debris assemblages which can be found in Horizon Zero Dawn’s ancient ruins. Screenshot by Kaitlyn Kingsland.

Resource artifacts which can be found almost anywhere, especially in ancient ruins. These types of artifacts are often used as a way to gain metal shards which not only serves as a valuable crafting material but also as the main monetary system in the Horizon Zero Dawn world. In addition to these resource artifacts, there are the game’s collectables. These consist of ancient vessels and Banuk (another society in the game world) figurines—two different periods of history in the world of Horizon Zero Dawn. In Horizon Zero Dawn’s Frozen Wilds DLC, there is also the inclusion of animal figurines which reference a Natural History Museum in Montana from our near future. All of these items can be found spread around the world of the Old Ones in the ancient ruins in ancient debris which acts as an artifact assemblage.

Another type of collectable is the metal flower, which is not explicitly an artifact, and can be traded as a rare item to a corresponding collector’s shop. Similarly, there is the Frozen Wild’s pigment and bluegleam. All of these are considered rare and/or collectable items but are more for the purpose of other story aspects rather than the material culture of the Old Ones and are not generally found explicitly in ancient ruins or in ancient debris.

In more historical documentation, Aloy’s interaction with technology (specifically her Faro device) allows her to access records in the form of written text, spoken logs, technological written logs, and holograms. These logs and records act as historical documentation does for archaeologists today. A specific collectable called a “vantage point” provides a holographic picture of the landscape prior to destruction with the voice over of a person who lived in the time of the Old Ones. With these documents, the player understands the context of these artifacts and landscapes for better analysis of the artifacts.

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Various forms of historic documentation in Horizon Zero Dawn. Screenshot by Kaitlyn Kingsland.

Additionally, these ancient ruins correspond to real-world locations in Colorado and Montana providing a place and time with which the players are familiar. The landscapes become a place for the player to explore and evaluate in an archaeological context where the debris piles serve as an artifact assemblage to be analyzed. The images and documents are familiar to the player who can easily understand using cultural and technological knowledge common to our modern world and allow the analysis and interpretation of these documents to understand the history and lore in the game world.

NOTE: For the purposes of these posts, I have tried to remain as spoiler free as possible, providing only the necessary information which is not integral to the main story in the HZD. If you have not played the game, I highly encourage you to do so. For those of you who are interested in diving into the lore a little closer, the fan wiki is an incredibly detailed resource [].

For those interested in learning more about the bibliography or cited works, visit the bibliography page  for more information and exact citations.

—Kaitlyn Kingsland, Archaeogaming
28 June 2019


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