Horizon Forbidden West lore goes back many years (five since the game came out in our time, and about 1,000 for the story’s time frame), but with the game coming out on Friday, time might be tight to get through all of it. So, for the newcomers wanting to give the sequel a shot after its many positive reviews, or for those looking for a quick recap, here’s a lore explainer for the world of Horizon.
First things first, if you are looking for the full experience, there is no better substitute than to simply play Horizon Zero Dawn. The 2017 game holds up perfectly and Horizon Forbidden West isn’t going anywhere. The first entry is available on PC and PlayStation 4 with a free upgrade to PlayStation 5.
The next option is to take six hours to watch the movie version on YouTube. This provides the full main game campaign without the countless hours of exploring the rest of the game world. Another three hours adds the Frozen Wilds expansion.
If that’s all out of the question, this quick lore explainer ahead of Horizon Forbidden West is for you. Full spoilers for Horizon Zero Dawn and The Frozen Wilds follow below. There are no spoilers for Horizon Forbidden West in this article.
The Horizon Forbidden West history
Horizon Forbidden West is set in 31st century Earth, where the previous civilization (ours) has long since fallen. The people are split into tribes and share the world with hostile, animalistic machines (as well as the animals we currently know and love). But, in order to understand why the world is like this, we have to go back about 1,000 years in the Horizon Forbidden West lore.
In the mid-21st century, robotics company Faro Automated Solutions was the world’s wealthiest corporation. The American company solved the climate crisis with its green robots but, shortly after, it opened a military branch.
This military branch created combat robots, which were sold to hundreds of nations, including opposing nations. However, after about 14 years, the popular Chariot line of robots encountered a glitch, causing them to break the chain of command and only answer to themselves. These robots acted like a swarm and quickly began to chain other robots to their command. By the time this glitch was discovered, it was already too late.
The Faro Plague
The Faro robots started replicating. Worse yet, these robots use biomass as fuel. As the robots exponentially grew in numbers, the Earth’s biosphere deteriorated. Ted Faro, founder and CEO of Faro Automated Solutions, asked his former employee Elisabet Sobeck — who angrily left the company when it branched out to combat models — for help. Elisabet quickly surmised that the end was inevitable and that, due to Ted’s sloppiness and attempt to cover things up, the extinction of all life on Earth would be complete in just 15 months, leaving the planet a barren, toxic rock.
As the Faro Plague continued, humanity tried to come up with a solution. However, only Elisabet’s solution was deemed viable. Enter Project Zero Dawn, an attempt to cryopreserve seeds and embryos of every living organism. This would be cared for by a true AI, who would terraform the earth after all life is gone and repopulate the world with the creatures we know and love, including our own kind.
Project Zero Dawn
All humanity had to do was build the AI and the facilities in about 16 months’ time. The AI would be so sophisticated that it would be able to decrypt the war machines, build towers to send out a signal to shut them down, terraform the planet and birth the Earth’s plant life and creatures.
They named this artificial intelligence GAIA and gave her several subordinate Functions to assist her with various tasks such as detoxifying the atmosphere and oceans, planting seeds, cloning humans and reintroducing animals. Most notably, GAIA had access to the Functions APOLLO and HADES.
APOLLO held an archive of all human history and knowledge, to be taught to the first humans to reemerge. HADES was a failsafe, in case GAIA’s attempts were unstable or wrong in some way. With HADES, GAIA could undo the terraforming and try again with a clean slate. Ideally, this program would never be used.
Hundreds of years later, GAIA’s efforts were pretty much complete. Humans had reemerged and life was restored to the planet. However, there was no knowledge of the older civilization. We can thank Ted Faro for that, who decided that, with the knowledge stored in APOLLO and its millennia of history, humans were bound to make the same mistakes. He deleted the data behind the other scientists’ backs and then he killed them.
Despite Ted Faro’s monstrous act, life on Earth was preserved, albeit in a way that forever changed the future of the planet. But that wasn’t the worst of it. Shortly before the story of Horizon Zero Dawn begins, a mysterious signal of unknown origins was transmitted to GAIA, unchaining her subordinate Functions, including HADES.
HADES immediately began its efforts to reverse GAIA’s terraforming, going as far as taking over GAIA and the Zero Dawn project. It raised an army by gaining the loyalty of a tribe called the Eclipse. Then, it went for the Spire, a large transmitting tower in the middle of a capital city called Meridian. It aimed to send out a signal to all the slumbering machines of old in order to reactivate them and end life on Earth once more.
Fortunately, Elisabet built in a Master Override (ironically at the suggestion of Ted Faro himself). This Master Override would shut down GAIA in case of emergency. However, Elisabet had been dead for centuries by this point, having sacrificed her own life to keep the GAIA facility safe from the machine swarm. So, in the split second between HADES awakening and its taking over the Zero Dawn project, GAIA activated a yet-unused protocol.
With this protocol, called Lightseeker, GAIA created a clone of Elisabet Sobeck herself. This clone, once grown up, would be recognized by the facilities as Elisabet, allow her entry, gain access to the Master Override, and shut HADES down before it completes its mission.
This clone is Aloy, the protagonist of Horizon Zero Dawn and Horizon Forbidden West. All the aforementioned is discovered throughout Aloy’s journey in Horizon Zero Dawn, in addition to smaller lore tidbits and meeting friends along the way. In the end, Aloy succeeds in shutting HADES down with the Master Override, ends the Eclipse tribe’s onslaught by defeating its leader Helis in a 1v1 and saves the world … for now, it seems, or there wouldn’t be a sequel.
Why hostile machine animals though?
Okay, so Aloy saves the world from an evil AI that tried to reawaken a different evil AI machine swarm. That doesn’t explain the angry animal machines. For this, we have to look at GAIA once more and the Frozen Wilds expansion.
One of GAIA’s subordinate Functions was HEPHAESTUS, which was in charge of building machines. To do this, HEPHAESTUS built all these animal-themed machines to help GAIA’s terraforming efforts. Originally, these machines were docile and did not attack humans whatsoever. Humans even hunted the machines for parts and resources, which we see in many of their attires and weaponry. But, when the signal released all of GAIA’s functions, HEPHAESTUS began to defend itself. Humans hunted the machines, so HEPHAESTUS retaliated by building aggressive machines that specifically seek to eliminate humans.
This subordinate Function was the primary antagonist in the Frozen Wilds expansion but has not yet been dealt with. It remains a threat as long as it has defaulted hostility against humans in its machines.
Questions going into Horizon Forbidden West
With the main threat of Horizon Zero Dawn dealt with and the lore ahead of Forbidden West roughly explained, there are several lingering questions. First, where did the signal come from that released GAIA’s Functions? Second, is the HEPHAESTUS problem going to continue to grow?
But, there’s more. One of Aloy’s allies in Horizon Zero Dawn is Sylens. This mysterious man with cybernetic-esque tubes going through his body (much like the Frozen Wilds’ Banuk tribe) has remained an enigma, one that drip-fed Aloy information throughout the story agonizingly slowly. Even Aloy grows frustrated by it. Near the end, we learn he is the one who found HADES and that he started the Eclipse tribe in order to serve the artificial intelligence. He did this because HADES had promised him knowledge. But, Sylens shows hints of, perhaps, being an AI himself.
Sylens shows little to no emotion throughout the story. Elisabet Sobeck instilled GAIA with feelings in order to make her function properly and care about what she was doing. Sylens struggles with this concept when Aloy explains it to him. He also requires an explanation when Aloy tells him Elisabet’s own self-sacrifice in order to save the world was one of sentimentality. He had called it rationality. Upon hearing Aloy’s side, he dispassionately replies with, “Your argument is sound.” He follows this with “I’m sorry for your … loss.” This appears to be an AI learning human emotions but still not truly understanding what he is saying. He even goes as far as calling Elisabet’s sentimentality something “magical.”
Finally, at the very end of the game, Sylens calls HADES “old friend.” Of course, Sylens and HADES have a history, but could it mean that Sylens is in some way more connected to HADES than we originally thought? Could Sylens, a man we know is desperate for knowledge, be part of the APOLLO Function, looking for the lost data? Or was he simply the cat that nearly got killed by curiosity?
The Sylens theory is, perhaps, a stretch, but there is still much lore to learn about this strange man in Horizon Forbidden West. Let us not forget that he secretly has HADES in his possession in some kind of cage. In the post-credits scene, we learn that Sylens aims to uncover who sent out the mysterious transmission that unchained the evil AI.