I walk Aloy up the steps inside the ruin of a commercial building in Horizon Zero Dawn. The light is dim and gray. The dust is thick. The stalactites and stalagmites nearly clench together like teeth. I encourage young Aloy, who's maybe six-years-old at this point, further up the stairs, her tussle of red hair lost in the dark. She stumbles on those last few steps, putting a hand down to rebalance herself. She recovers. Her adoptive father is nowhere to be seen. I’m feeling how alone Aloy feels right now.
At the top of those stairs, a flock of bats fly out from the rafters above. Me, in the real world, screams a little. I nearly drop the controller. “Dad,” my daughter says, sitting next to me. She puts a reassuring hand on my arm. “If you’re going into a dark place, you’ll have to expect things like that to happen.”
I shrug off her reassuring hand. Whatever, kid. You’re seven. Dad can handle this. Actually, I should be screening video games before she’s exposed to any of them. I got lazy. I figured I’d just kick her out of the living room if things got too intense for her. But things got too intense for me. Bats are usually fine. But these were huge. Leathery. There were so many of them.
Aloy emerges from the commercial building ruins, her adoptive father having reached down and lifted her from a crack in the building. Outside, the plants are lush. The flowers flowery. The sun is bright. Lens flare is involved.
“Do you know that feeling, Mom?” My kid is talking to her mom in the kitchen now. “That feeling in video games when everything is beautiful. Not realistically beautiful, but video game beautiful. Still, just everything is beautiful? And then you go into a scary part. Do you know that feeling, Mom?”
Her mom, in fact, doesn’t know. My wife doesn’t play video games. She assembles spreadsheets and arranges flowers. Reads books. “Mm-hmm,” she tells our daughter.
“And because everything was so sunny and beautiful before,” my kid says, “it makes the dark and scary part so much more...dark and scary? But I watched Dad play because I felt I could deal with it.”
Great. My kid both identifies and handles her fears better than I do. At seven.
I can attest that six-almost-seven-year-old Aloy is an accurate rendition of a real-life six-almost-seven-year-old. Aloy at that age is determined. Insistent. Hopeful. Thoughtful. Smart. Very smart. She asks a lot of questions. She questions a lot of answers. And she even skips around a little. She just has that little hop in her step from time to time that, again, I can attest, is a wholly accurate rendition of a kid just being a kid at that age. When Aloy gets annoyed, and she storms off, arms straight down at her sides, then, yes: accurate. And when Aloy is confusingly assaulted by another kid her age, and you can see the gears whirring in Aloy's head as to her next move, then, yes, again: 100 percent accurate.
Horizon Zero Dawn gets so many details right about Aloy at that young age. I appreciate the time and energy it took to render her so accurately, especially for so few—yet formative—minutes in the game. Watching kid Aloy feel out the complexities of growing up made me look twice. I just hope I don’t fail to appreciate these few, formative years in my own daughter's life.