My sweetie got me a copy of Horizon: Zero Dawn a couple of weeks ago, and I have been enthralled with it from the moment I put it in my PS4 and started playing. The writing is top-notch, the graphics are incredibly beautiful, and the game play is challenging without being brutal. But the thing that both impresses and entrances me the most is the protagonist, Aloy.
When most people think of action RPG main characters, what usually comes to mind is either the bland but still masculine dude (like Adam Jensen of Deus Ex: Human Revolution or Nathan Drake of the Uncharted series) or the hypercompetent, hypersexualized woman (like Lara Croft of Tomb Raider* or the eponymous PC in Bayonetta). Certainly there are exceptions—for instance, Geralt of Rivia from the Witcher series is certainly masculine, but no one would call him bland; and Samus Aran of Metroid is almost always completely covered in battle armor—but the stereotypes are strong enough that it's often hard to see past them.
Aloy, however, is a particularly noteworthy exception, for many reasons. Here are five of them:
1. She is attractive, but not objectified
Face it: video game protagonists, like movie and TV show stars, are almost never ugly**. Aloy is not an exception to this. She is, in fact, quite attractive, as the portrait here clearly shows. But although that attractiveness is always present, it is never overemphasized. Her outfits are sensible and non-revealing (with one notable exception), there are no titillating semi-nude cut scenes, and she's leered at exactly once (by a guy who probably leers at every woman he meets). Her attractiveness is simply there, and it neither drives nor detracts from the story.
And not only do very few of the other characters in Horizon: Zero Dawn remark upon her attractiveness, Aloy herself doesn't even emphasize it. She doesn't dance or prance or wiggle her pants; she doesn't strut, pout, or put it out. She moves naturally and non-suggestively, she wears little to no makeup, and she barely acknowledges the few compliments on her appearance that she receives (though she isn't by any means rude about it). In fact, for all practical purposes, Aloy's attractiveness is entirely incidental to the game***. And that is exactly as it should be.
2. She has a distinct personality
Video game characters are often fairly blank slates as far as personality is concerned. In most cases, this is deliberate—the less a PC seems like a unique person, the more the player can project his or her own personality onto the character. But Aloy is quite different in this respect. While she has qualities that are similar to those of many game heroes (courage, compassion, a strong sense of justice, etc.), she is also sarcastic, a bit selfish, a little naïve, and (at least at first) fairly reckless. More importantly, though, she learns and grows over the course of the story so that her early recklessness and naïveté are tempered as she progresses through her journey. And even though she never loses her essential "goodness", she retains her selfishness as well. It's never obtrusive or irritating, but it is there.
It is these small contradictions in her character that make her feel like a real, living, breathing person. Yes, the player does have some control over a few of her conversational responses (where we are given the choice of being clever, compassionate, or confrontational—indicated with the icons of a brain, a heart, and a fist, respectively), but her core personality isn't altered by these choices. Rather, they feel like coequal pieces of her self, and the choice the player makes in how to respond is just a gentle push that tips Aloy's decision toward one of the three options. Even her life-or-death decisions don't ever feel out of character, no matter which way the player directs her. When all of this is taken together, it is clear that Aloy is no mere proxy for the player, but a fully developed character of her own. A sympathetic one, to be sure, but definitely distinct.
3. Her story is rich, deep, and detailed
The main story and quest of Horizon: Zero Dawn is fundamentally Aloy's story. As much as it impacts the entire world in which she lives, it is also a deeply personal trial for her—one in which she discovers more about who she is than perhaps she ever wanted to know. As the player, we are brought into Aloy's story almost from the very moment of her birth; and although large chunks of time are passed over between her infancy, childhood, and young adulthood, we know pretty much everything about Aloy from the very beginning. There isn't much in the way of exposition with regards to her backstory—because we play through her backstory. We as players know almost as much about Aloy as Aloy does.
This makes the personal nature her journey feel immediate and compelling, as if it is our journey as well. Every piece of information she discovers reveals a little bit more about her origins, and Aloy is learning it right alongside us. These discoveries also reveal information about the world around Aloy, and it changes her relationship to it. Sometimes the discoveries are wondrous, sometimes they are scary, and sometimes they are like an emotional gut-punch—and we experience these reactions right alongside her.
Most importantly, none of the elements of Aloy's story feel trite, superfluous, or unbelievable. There are none of the elements of abuse or emotional trauma that make up so many other female protagonists' backstories, and nothing feels like it was shoe-horned in out of some sense of "drama" or "realism". Bad things happen to her, certainly, as they must happen to anyone on a hero's journey, but there is never a sense of arbitrariness in them. It's clear that the writers took great care to avoid most of the shortcuts that others have taken when writing about heroic women.
4. Her motivations (almost) never feel forced or contrived
This is closely related to the previous two points, but it is distinct enough that I wanted to highlight it. From the very beginning, Aloy's motivations are clear. They aren't static, but they are never mysterious. When the main questline goes in a particular direction, we know why Aloy is doing what she is doing. Even for the majority of the side quests, major and minor, the reasons for Aloy's participation are clear and feel natural. There are only a few of the smaller optional side missions where this breaks down and it starts to feel like a more typical computer RPG experience ("Hi! I'm running around doing good things for people because I need XP and more stuff. Got any errands I can run?"). But those are, thankfully, few and far between. Even the so-called "Hunters' Trials" make sense in context, because it's perfectly reasonable for Aloy to want to get better at a skill that helps ensure her survival.
All of this contributes to the sense of Aloy being a distinct individual with real emotions and desires rather than an empty shell for the player to fill with his or her own personality. It also makes the story feel organic and logical in its progression. Though we as players are definitely "on a rail" in terms of the unfolding of the main quest, we don't mind because it feels perfectly natural.
5. Her sex makes exactly as much difference to the story as it has to—no more, no less
Aloy is a young woman, and that fact is never glossed over or ignored. But neither is it ever artificially emphasized. For the most part, Aloy is judged based on her ability and experience, and the fact that she is female doesn't enter into it. The times when she is treated in a dismissive or condescending way are usually due to her culture of origin ("outsider"/"outlander") or social status ("outcast"). Furthermore, the few instances where her being a woman does make a difference in how she is dealt with make sense in the context of the story. Basically, Aloy's femaleness is almost never treated as an obstacle to her getting what she wants. There is one exception to this, but it's because of a particular character's intransigence rather than any kind of institutionalized sexism.
This is not to say that her being a woman is completely incidental. Although the story doesn't necessarily require a female protagonist, having the player character be a young woman just feels right somehow. Maybe it's a symptom of our society's inherent sexism that I can even consider a female PC as being "appropriate" to a story, but I can't help but think that some of the subtler aspects of the narrative would be either lost or very different were the PC a young man instead. Of course, there are a few places in the game where her being a woman quite obviously matters, but thankfully these are neither terribly important to the progression of the story nor gratuitous sexual situations, either positive or negative.
When it comes right down to it, Aloy is simply Aloy—a young woman trying to find out more about herself and save her world, just like every other hero, male or female.
* However, I feel that the 2013 reboot of the Tomb Raider franchise went a long way towards toning down the "sex object" aspects of Croft—a very good thing, given that she is supposed to be only 16 years old in that game!
** Not even the so-called "Ugly Betty" of the eponymous TV program. Even the IMDb description of the show just refers to her as "slightly less attractive" than the supermodels she works with.
*** Okay, so her hairstyle is maybe a bit impractical for someone who engages in so much combat—but so is Geralt of Rivia's. And Thor's.