This article about the guilt of killing machines in Horizon Forbidden West contains major spoilers for Horizon Zero Dawn.
If meat is murder, machine meat is murder squared. That’s the questionable conclusion I’ve come to after playing Horizon Forbidden West and being racked with guilt almost every time I’ve dispatched one of the game’s mechanical animals.
I say almost because those giant mecha-snakes can go to hell, but it’s not just a matter of size, offensive capability, or how adorable the machines are. Even if a Bristleback can dispatch Aloy in a couple of hits, I still feel like the post-apocalypse’s biggest shitheel for rummaging through their mechanical guts.
Conversely, I couldn’t give two hoots about Forbidden West’s “real” animals, and that’s coming from someone who spent a significant part of their life as a vegetarian. Maybe Little Billy Woodland Creature does keep asking his mother when daddy is coming home, but that hasn’t stopped me from slaughtering a small continent’s worth of boars.
In fact, I have so much “rich meat” hoarded away, I could use it to craft some kind of horrifying flesh golem. I don’t know where Aloy’s storing it, unless she’s taken to shoving it into her cheeks like a hamster, showering NPCs with flecks of flesh when she speaks. If a living, breathing beast bounds into sight and it’s bigger than a squirrel, it’s getting turned into a pincushion, no questions asked.
Likewise, I have zero issues dispatching Horizon Forbidden West’s human foes. So what makes the machines so different? It’s a question I’ve asked myself an awful lot, because my reluctance to dispatch them is definitely making Horizon Forbidden West harder. I inwardly cringe whenever Aloy plunges her spear into the neck of some mechanical beast, then fills her pockets with its component parts. Just roaming around and seeing people clad in robot parts has me raising an eyebrow, and I did a double take when Aloy was presented with a tiara made out of what appeared to be machine scales.
One reason why is that there’s no mess when it comes to killing and pillaging the machines of Horizon Forbidden West. Red Dead Redemption 2 might be oversimplifying matters with how easily you can skin an animal, but there is at least a visceral element to it. Killing a machine in Horizon Forbidden West and then whipping its components out feels too easy. You haven’t gotten your hands dirty, particularly if it’s a stealth kill, and it feels like you haven’t “paid” for the kill. One minute a Burrower is walking around, the next you’re strapping chunks of it to your arrows.
There’s also the question of why condemning them to “death” is the only option. Knock an NPC unconscious and there’s every chance you’ll do some serious damage. And yet with the machines, which are only hostile when you get too close, death is the only option. You can knock them down and stagger them, but there’s no local off button, which is surprising given what they were built for.
That brings me to the real reason, on reflection, I feel guilty every time I kill one of Horizon’s machines. These machines are ultimately the saviors of humanity – of the planet as a whole. It’s revealed in the first game that a group of self-replicating robots, albeit initially man-made, destroyed the planet. They stripped the planet of its biomass, which they used for fuel, and yes, that probably included eating people. It’s a pretty horrifying scenario.
The machines you encounter in Horizon Zero Dawn and Horizon Forbidden West, however, are not those robots. They were constructed to reseed the planet, to terraform Earth from the barren rock it had become to a place that could, once again, support human life. Sure, some of the machines were diverted from their purpose, and you could definitely question why a water filtration robot needed to look like a giant crocodile. But at the end of the day, humanity exists and continues to exist because of them.
In the real world, animals go extinct all the time and the consequences for the food chain can be dire. But again, Horizon Forbidden West does away with that middle layer as you dispatch machines that, even though they may be operating less efficiently than they once were, are keeping the world alive.
The underground factories in Horizon Zero Dawn and Forbidden West called cauldrons do make more machines, but with each kill I felt I was making the world a fraction less livable. Plus, some of the machines you can kill are the ones that harvest fallen machines – meaning the more you kill, the less chance there is that the cauldrons will have the resources to make more.
I barely felt a twinge of guilt when I was killing machines in Horizon Zero Dawn, partly because of the sheer novelty factor of taking down a giant mechanical dinosaur. But Zero Dawn’s story, and the thinking space I’ve had between both games, has given me serious second thoughts about robo-slaughter. And since the game doesn’t impose any penalty, my brain has been left to bring the guilt.