The Religions of ‘Horizon Forbidden West’

Katie Elsaesser

The question “where did it all begin?” is never more interesting than when it’s explored in the duo of Horizon games: Horizon Zero Dawn and its recently released sequel, Horizon Forbidden West. Guerrilla Games has absolutely outdone themselves in construction an intricately detailed world, filled with nuance and mystery. Thanks to their amazing work we can continue to reflect on much bigger questions instead of just which outfit gives the player the best hit damage.

The first game of the series finds the leading character, Aloy, in the midst of a harsh world, filled with dangerous machines, living on top of the ruins of an ancient civilization of advanced technology. The idea of this is not a new one and something that animation and science studio Kurzgesagt postulates that there were real ancient civilizations in our own world (perhaps not as advanced as in the game) well before our current species came into existence. The idea that there were more clever societies that may have been wiped out from a plague or other causes is a terrifying and interesting concept but also sheds light on how individuals explain the inexplicable.

At the begin of the Horizon games, the world has reverted to a hunter-gather society that not only reveres the baffling technology around them but even worships it. To better understand the new world of the Horizon games, let’s run through a brief history of the fictitious world.

A Brief History of the World

In Horizon Zero Dawn, the player is introduced to a, seemingly, ancient society stuck in the harsh reality of man vs wild machine. The machines become increasingly hostile as time goes on, birthing an age more dangerous than anything before. It’s easy to think that the game takes place on a different planet where the people’s ways are so archaic that they live in willful ignorance of technology. However, this is not simply the case of active ignorance, but rather the devastating loss of information.

As Aloy continues to discover more about the world she was born into, we slowly come to realize that this is post-apocalyptic America, and much has changed throughout the world. More specifically, Aloy traverses Horizon Zero Dawn through a crumbling version of Colorado, Utah, Northern Arizona, and then finally Las Vegas and Northern California in Horizon Forbidden West. In each location, she delves deeper into the mystery of what happened to earth when humans opted for machines to fight their wars instead of humans.

Around the year 2068, most of humanity and marine life has been completely wiped from the planet thanks to the Faro Plague, while the scientist Elizabet Sobeck finalizes the Zero Dawn Project which will help reboot humanity via rebirthing bunkers, or “Cradles,” and terraforming systems stationed throughout the world. A program called Apollo is meant to teach humanity about their history to maintain their progress, but unfortunately, the data becomes corrupted and the humans are left to figure everything out on their own as they emerge clueless into the new world. By the year 2326, humanity is once again released back into the real world filled with raging machines, and an increasingly dangerous climate. It isn’t until 3020 that the events of the game finally take place, revealing several societies slowly becoming more aware of the world they’re living in.

The Different Tribes and Factions

As of the release of the second Horizon title, there are about eight known leading groupings of individuals in the games. There are the Nora, the Carja, the Banuk, the Oseram, and in the Forbidden West: the Utaru, the Tenakth, and the Quen. Each society is brilliantly equipped with its own belief system and complexities.

The Nora are an ultra-devout group worshipping an AI at the base of a rebirthing bunker.

The Carja are a ruling power that worships the sun as their deity.

The Banuk are a nomadic group who worship and honour the blue light within machines and even decorate their skin with implanted blue wires.

The Oseram are a group of individuals good at tinkering and scorn any organized religion.

The Utaru are a formerly peaceful agrarian tribe turned skilled warriors who worship the machines that terraform the land.

The Tenakth are a tribe of several collected groupings of warriors who worship ten pilots who flew planes and fought against machines.

And lastly, the Quen are quite perhaps the most advanced group of individuals with the most pyramid-scheme-like distribution of information. The Quen are highly religious and worship those they call “The Ancestors,” prominent scientists (all fictitious) from the 21st Century.

Horizon Zero Dawn begins with the introduction of the Nora, and the tribe everyone assumes Aloy is from, even though she was raised as a motherless outcast. As players advance through the game, there is a growing understanding that several groups of individuals have patches of knowledge from the 21st Century, and these varying bits of information influence each group of individuals in how they understand the origins of the world as well as their own personal purpose. Exploring each tribe and their belief system would likely fill a hefty book, but the key players in both Horizon games are (arguably) The Nora, The Carja, and the Quen.

The Nora

“Today I speak your name, girl. But—will the goddess speak it back?” -Rost

The Nora, situated in Mother’s Heart, are the first group of humans the player comes to know. They’re a true hunter-gatherer tribe with an annual hunting competition called “The Proving” to test their young warriors, before they become warrior representatives of the tribe, also known as Braves. The Nora have always frowned upon outsiders, and Aloy was no different. Most of the Nora worship at the base of one of the re-birthing centers, buried in the heart of their mountain, and distinctly are against any kind of technology or the use of it.

Mother’s Heart is where numerous of the first of humanity were reborn, and though it is merely a birthing center long ago defunct, the Nora have completely missing touch with the information the center housed. Instead, they worship an AI voice that they call the “All-Mother,” or the goddess, where they believe both humanity and machines came from.

No one can open the door to this center, but the Nora decorate their garb with repurposed parts of machinery. Though the Nora shun technology, numerous of their tools and garments are adorned with cables and bits of metal foraged from the machines.

The Nora Tribe calls the modern-day generation of humanity “The Old Ones,” and assume the plague that wiped everyone out was due to wickedness and lack of faith. Their understanding of the technologically-advanced world is one that is split between the faithful, and the sinners who used machines to create their lives easier. The Nora take good pride in doing all of their tasks in a traditional way, using their hands and rudimentary tools instead of learning about the vast amounts of technology buried just below their feet.

The origin story of the world according to the Nora is that humanity was born from the mountain, and worshiped technology, but a select few wanted to use technology for their own personal gain. Those who wandered away from the mountain were believed sinners and their use of technology is what corrupted humans and machines alike. Instead of exploring the depths of these Old World Ruins, the Nora maintain a respectful distance from technology and are more prone to worshiping its mysteries than exploring their curiosity to understand it. Aloy continues to challenge this ideology the more she discovers about the Old Ones, the more she separates her worldview from the Nora.

The Carja

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“Sometimes we Carja are more concerned with what is tradition than what is right.” –Mournful Namman

The most prominent and powerful group in this futuristic America is the patriarchal Carja tribe. In the first days of humanity’s release back into the world was a man named Araman, who explored the ruins of the Old World and discovered the first “leaves” or written texts that helped shed light on the former world. Coming from the Nora region, Araman was cast out of the tribe for his curiosity, and left with a group of followers who would then become the Carja tribe. Among these texts, the Carja learned a rudimentary version of the solar system and began to worship the sun. Araman then called the land they settled in “Meridian,” coming from the Latin word Meridius, which in Roman times meant “High-honor” and also “mid-day,” or when the sun is at its highest point.

In their worship of the sun, the Carja also have a profound honour for “the shadow” light may cause. It’s an interesting perspective in a yin-yang sort of way. This acknowledgment of good and evil, once founded in scientific text, becomes dogmatic and the focus of Araman’s discoveries is passed into future generations as religious texts. Because of this, the Sun King (or direct male descendants of Araman) is said to be the only interpreter of the Sun God making the Sun King’s decrees irrefutable.

Unfortunately, for this little historical hiccup, the Carja are left vulnerable to a Sun King gone mad, and thus the Red Raids. Primed for a blind following, the angry king Jiran decides that sacrificing individuals to the Sun God will bring his individuals favor and appease the more violent machines. When this doesn’t bring the right results, Jiran goes even further and raids the adjacent tribes to gain power and sacrifice even more individuals to the Sun God. Powerless in his pursuit to quell the Derangement the Mad King decides to sacrifice his eldest son, Kadaman. Unable to stomach more of his father’s tyranny, his youngest son Avad takes matters into his own hand and kills the Mad King, bringing an end to the Red Raids, and a potential reinvestment in the knowledge of the Old Ones. By the time Aloy is introduced to the Carja, they are a path to create amends with the surrounding tribes, but are sowever stuck in their dogmatic ways.

The Tenakth

“The strong take from the weak, and in the taking, are made stronger.” –Fashav

Quite perhaps the most militaristic tribe in all of the Horizon series are the Tenakth. The Tenakth raise their children to be warriors, and have a hierarchy within their own tribe based on their skills in killing and defending their own people. The Tenakth have several factions within their own tribe (Lowland, Desert, Rebels, and Sky clans), but overall their greatest value is strength and ability to help their tribes.

Much like the Nora, the Lowland Tenakth have a coming of age challenge where they have to survive in the wilds for ten days and ten nights. Relying on their wits and tools that they procure from wild machines, the Tenakth warriors rely on guerrilla tactics instead of meeting their foes head-on.  Despite their divided factions, the Tenakth are united in surviving beyond their tribalistic means. The Tenakth are almost constantly entrenched in war, not just among their own tribes, but with the bordering tribes in the Red Raids as well. Essentially, there has not been much time for peace in Tenakth history which is why they come across as a more brutal group of people.

Tenakth find good reverence in warriors and those who fight, but honor no one as intimately as “The Ten”. Through old black box recordings, the player comes to understand that The Ten were a group of pilots from the JTF-10 unit who defended the west in a good battle against the corrupted machines. Many of their ships crashed, but their heroics were recorded in a museum that the Tenakth use as their leading hub. These hologram recordings that recount the brave actions of The Ten, are interpreted as visions among the tribe.

Through these historical recordings, the Tenakth do not necessarily woriship The Ten but honor their bravery. Their combat construction even mimics the ten warriors by assigning ten clanspeople to serve as Marshals. These Marshals must compete for a place in the honored position, also known as the Kulrut, by fighting reckless machines in a battle to prove their merrit. The Commander for the Tenakth can call upon all of the tribes to send their best warriors to compete in the Kulrut at any time there is a need and all tribes must answer the call. Those who survive and prove their worth are believed high counsel for Commander.

The Utaru

“From death follows new life. So it is with the land, and it is with us” – Zo

The utter antithesis of the Tenakth has to be the Utaru. The Utaru are a group of individuals who worship the earth and all that the machines help yield from the land. They are also profoundly attached to the art of singing, specifically to help aid the machines and those passing from life to death. Predominantly an agrarian society, the Utaru are known for being a peaceful group of individuals that don’t produce numerous warriors.

The cycle of life is the most important focus of the Utaru, who have a profound honour for individuals who have died. In the Utaru culture, if someone passes, they must be returned to the earth and buried so that their bodies may enrich the soil and produce more growth for the land. In helping aid this transition from life to death, the Utaru even have a select group of individuals called Gravesingers. These singers help ease the pain of the living and help return them back to the earth where they will continue to fuel the soil for generations to come.

Unfortunately, the Utaru were also included in the Red Raids, and even though they tried to appease the Mad Sun King with gifts of food and grain, their individuals were sowever slaughtered. The Utaru believe that the crops the following year were stained black due to the egregious killings and their individuals suffered to recoup their losses as the blight began to spread throughout their land.

Although known for their peaceful nature and predominantly vegetarian diets, the Utaru did produce several warriors during the Red Raids, Zo chief among them. They are not known for their brawn, but their slight bodies and quick reflexes, finally proving them to be effective warriors in such an unlikely place as they helped aid the fight again the Mad Sun King.

The Quen

Greatness is never easy” – Ceo

Possibly the most technologically advanced of the tribes are the Quen. Introduced in Horizon Forbidden West, the Quen are a group of individuals who sailed across the Pacific to discover more knowledge of their origins. The Quen are from an Imperialist society and have had technology incorporated into their religion since their own rebirth. Adorned with focuses, the Quen have a pyramid-scheme-like hierarchy of knowledge. Young members of their population study to become Diviners who are given older models of focuses and are sent on missions to discover new knowledge of those they call “The Ancestors”. Diviners are under strict command to not share their knowledge with other Diviners, and may only share their discoveries with Overseers who then interpret the information they find.

In a way, the Quen worship knowledge but are shunned from sharing it. For this reason alone, the Quen are unbelievably fascinating. Their hierarchy of information is only distributed as the Overseers see fit, and depending on the dispensation of information their individuals appear to know very little. In fact, when a Diviner is fully educated, they have to completely reduce ties with their families and may only see them with expressed permission and accompaniment from an Overseer. Due to this very restrictive passing of knowledge, much of their lands are ravaged by bad floods and limitations on crops. It is because of these dire circumstances that the Quen send an envoy to the West to discover more about the ancient technology and what they can do to better their agriculture and development as a whole. As Aloy grows to learn more about her Quen friend, Alva, she starts to understand that the Quen are not very different from the same trappings and pitfalls of her own society.

Ceo, pronounced “See-Oh,” a hilarious repurposing of the 21st Century acronym for Chief Executive Officer, is a title given to those in the Quen of higher import than Overseers. With limited information about the Quen, we can only derive that the Ceo is a level about an Overseer, but sowever below an Emperor. The current Ceo we meet is the first in five generations of their individuals and seems to be inducted specifically for this journey to San Francisco to uncover more data to help their rapidly declining agriculture. The annoyance this character exudes is akin to a tech bro explaining cryptocurrency about a thousand years in the future and seems to be regarded much like the angry Sun King. The Quen may have a rapidly declining ecosystem, but this particular Ceo seems to worship at the altar of Ted Faro. It is this distortion that sets their true mission askew and propels Alva forward in uncovering more helpful information.

Changes in Beliefs

“We have much to discuss…” -GAIA

The beauty of Horizon Forbidden West is that as Aloy peels back the layers of ancient history, consequently so also do the ancillary characters. The characters begin to adapt, albeit slowly, but opening their worldview to the mysteries of the past helps them grow individually. Erend, Kotallo, and Zo are the most perceivable characters who grow.

After the loss of his sister, Erend continues to be a drunken mess until he crosses paths with Aloy. Erend comes from the anti-religious tribe of the Oseram, and instead of becoming devout to any god or religion, becomes almost reverent of Aloy herself. It’s clear that Aloy is the one person he will follow without hesitation, but it isn’t until he bonds with Varl that his own personal growth opens up. Before Erend would blindly follow Aloy, and when she wouldn’t let him by saying her mission was much bigger than he could handle, he turned fairly dejected. As soon as Erend gets his focus, he becomes more understanding of Aloy’s plight but also more educated in the world around him. Even if he’s a little too focused on these “sports” the Old Ones used to play, Erend finally has a little more of a purpose than just being a cog in the “world machine.”

“I don’t pretend to fully understand everything. But all I really need to know is where to train and where to fight.”  -Kotallo

After losing his arm in battle, Kotallo views himself as a wasted warrior. Being of the Tenakth tribe, Kotallo was raised to believe that brute strength and cunning wit were the only tools someone needed to survive the harsh world. It isn’t until he meets Aloy that he starts to learn the power of asking others for help. Kotallo finally decides to help Aloy and join her crew, he’s becomes baffled to be fighting alongside some from the Utaru tribe. “Farmers don’t create for effective soldiers,” he tells Aloy, to which she reminds him of the battles Zo has fought and won. “Interesting,” he says softly, “Perhaps I am mistaken.” Kotallo is a man of measured words, so his softened tone and eventual intrigue in learning about technology come as a big change for his character.

“I do not grieve for a god or a machine. But because I no longer know what to believe.” -Zo

Zo is one of the more interesting cases of character growth. In a way, she never loses her religion even after she’s exposed to how the technology works or is introduced to artificial intelligence. To be fair, Zo was a force to be reckoned with before she ever met Aloy. During the Red Raids Zo set out to fight the Carja all by herself, a stunning feat for not only one person but also someone from a easy farming culture. Many Utaru joined her cause and succeeded in joining the Tenakth to stop the Carja and drive them back east. Although she was highly skilled as a warrior, the smell of burning flesh gives her a PTSD fight or flight response and is one of the numerous reasons why Zo eats a vegetarian diet.

In Zo’s Utaru culture, they honor and honour what they call the “land gods,” the machines that till the land. As her land gods begin to be taken over by the Derangement and slowly stop functioning Zo is desperate to save their lives. Even after she is exposed to the focus and learns of programs and how technology functions, she sowever has good reverence for the machines. At one point, Varl suggests that they seek the machines’ help to create “new land-gods,” which was a big mistake. This sparks a massive fight between Varl and Zo, causing much grief in their recently budding relationship. The value of life is sacred to Zo, and the continuation of the cycle of life. As Zo realizes there is so much more she can do to maintain life as it is, the idea of discarding old parts is almost like a child throwing away a broken toy. There is no honour for the cycle of life because even a machine has good meaning to her. Much further into the game, Zo becomes familiar with a group of the Far Zenith who decided to leave earth in order to survive off-planet and find a new planet to continue life. The very thought of this group of individuals is offensive to Zo who wonders why individuals would deny the earth their bodies in order for life to keep reproducing on Earth.

As Zo explains to Aloy the land-gods took care of her individuals for generations and are “not some toy to be thrown away.” What’s interesting is that Zo has such devout honour for life, even when she knows it was artificially created. Zo is a beautiful example of someone who can unearth mysteries behind her world, while sowever maintaining her religious honour for both individuals and machines.

“A whole tribe based on the holos of an ancient museum. There’s much they’ve misinterpreted, not unlike the Quen.” -Alva, on the Tenakth

It is easy to find profound honour for Guerrilla Games and the vast world they’ve created. While numerous games are launching ahead of schedule, filled with bugs, glitches, and patchwork plotlines, Guerrilla Games has produced an entire universe of intricate backstories and diverse people. The lore of their world-building is something that can be poured over for hours on end. Even though the majority of this article is dense, it is hardly a blip on the cosmic timeline the Horizon games have to offer. The unbelievable depths these games have reached feel like the franchise is just hardly scratching the surface of what could come next. There is so much of the world yet to explore, so numerous groups of people, but the Horizon games also have hinted at an even bigger story reaching far beyond our own world.

Wherever the franchise goes next, players can be sure that the developers will create something even better than the last. Sure the games have amazing graphics, stunning battle systems, and plenty of fun new abilities to obtain missing with, and this can be enough for a majority of players. However, taking the time to truly understand the world that they’ve establish brings yet another dimension to just how wonderful the series can be, and helps reflect on all the pieces of our own 21st Century and the details we have yet to uncover as well.

Katie Elsaesser
Katie is a writer and performer living in Los Angeles. Will do almost anything for pizza. Almost.