When Guerrilla Games released Horizon Zero Dawn in 2017, it was a startlingly new direction for the studio. In years prior, the studio’s specialty had been Killzone, a first-person shooter series set in alien lands. Against all odds, Horizon Zero Dawn was a resounding success that introduced gamers to Aloy and her world filled with robot dinosaurs.
Although Horizon Zero Dawn manages to pull off stellar gameplay in a setting that remains beautiful despite the dystopian ruin sprawled throughout, Guerrilla Games is undoubtedly looking to outdo itself with Horizon Forbidden West, the next entry in the series. One of the gameplay elements that can stand to be greatly improved is the Flashpoint system. While its implementation in Horizon Zero Dawn allowed players to fine-tune Aloy’s personality to their liking, it seems to be only a skeleton of what can be done with the idea.
Flashpoints in Horizon Zero Dawn
In close to no time, Aloy has skyrocketed to become one of PlayStation’s most recognizable and beloved mascots. This is partially thanks to her personality. She remains fierce in the face of dangers much larger than her, and despite the challenges thrown in her path, giving up does not seem to be part of her game plan. Her fierceness is admirable, and her quirks from having grown up as an outcast can be amusing.
During Aloy’s interactions with various other characters, players will occasionally be given options regarding how they wish to respond. These are known as Flashpoints. The Flashpoints offer three possible types of reactions: Heart which elicits caring responses, Brain which triggers clever responses, and Fist which leads to aggressive responses.
Flashpoints allow players to identify with Aloy more by giving them agency with regard to how she reacts to the world around her, and this is a feature that is certainly appreciated. Unfortunately, the significance of Flashpoints is illusory, because they have minimal impact on the story or any of the game’s outcomes. Consequently, the weight of the player’s choices is removed.
There is a sense of powerlessness and a feeling of being fooled that arises when one realizes that the choices a game asks one to make bear little to no impact on the narrative. It is a complaint that has often been waged against story-based games that promise radically branching narratives yet ultimately tell relatively linear stories. While Horizon Zero Dawn never makes the promise of branching narratives, Flashpoints make players feel as though they are being given choices. However, in most cases, the choices are meaningless. When they do have an effect, it is always minimal, and they do little to make Aloy or the people she interacts with feel more alive or believable.
Improvements to Flashpoints in Horizon Forbidden West
Flashpoints can be made to feel more meaningful without the inclusion of branching narratives or multiple plotlines. For an example of how this can be done, it would be useful to have a look at an open-world game that managed to make NPCs seem truly alive by making interactions with them feel meaningful.
In Red Dead Redemption 2, players are able to interact with almost all NPCs. If players choose to be nice to others, they can usually expect nice treatment back. Conversely, rude behavior typically invites rudeness in return. Furthermore, NPCs and settlements remember how players behave. Hence, if one decides to go on a shooting spree and get arrested, subsequent visits to a town will feature locals commenting on one’s arrest and misbehavior.
Without needing to be nearly as complex, Flashpoints in Horizon Forbidden West could be implemented in a similarly effective manner. If Aloy chooses to be nice to key characters, like the leader of a settlement, they should remember Aloy’s kindness and speak to her in kinder terms in the future. But things should not stop there. Choosing to be diplomatic should put her on good terms with the rest of the tribe, too, and she should expect friendlier comments and reactions when she visits the settlement again.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, players should have the full prerogative to serve up a rude response to a settlement leader they believe deserves it, but they should not be surprised if that results in a sour interaction with them later on. Furthermore, the rest of the tribe should be more hostile to Aloy, with perhaps a few NPCs making snide remarks as she passes.
Such an implementation would go a long way to making settlements and NPCs feel more dynamic and believable while allowing Flashpoints to be used to their full potential. Flashpoints could become a way of regulating Aloy's relationships with entire tribes, which would add weight to the choices that players make.
Regardless of what Guerrilla Games decides to end up doing, the few snippets that have been shown of Horizon Forbidden West already demonstrate that Horizon Zero Dawn's sequel is gearing up to be bigger and better in every single way. Hopefully, Flashpoints are one gameplay mechanic that gets a good rehaul.
Horizon Forbidden West is set to release on February 18, 2022 on PS4 and PS5.
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