“Strange phrase, the pain of death. See, this one’s in no pain at all. [He was] a thief, a slaver, a killer–the kind that give[s] honest killers a bad name. ”
-Nil, Horizon Zero Dawn
–Spoilers for Horizon Zero Dawn—
Morality and player choice often have a large role in RPG games. Games like Mass Effect, Dragon Age, and Skyrim all have consequences for the character/player’s choices. In some games, there is a clear distinction between right and wrong and the player’s choice will have little impact on later quests or the player character’s behavior other than which NPC they’ll be interacting with. However, there are also quite a few games where there is no good choice and no matter what the player does, there will be a consequence for later quests and interactions (BioWare games, in particular, do this). In Horizon Zero Dawn, Aloy is faced with a few major choices of whether or not to spare or kill characters. In the case of Olin, the man whose presence at the Brave Trials indirectly lead to the deaths of many of Aloy’s Nora generation and her father figure Rost, the player can choose to enact revenge or to allow Olin to repent. It can be argued that it wasn’t Olin’s intention or fault that so many people died since he was only serving HADES to protect his family and that overall, he isn’t a bad person, just a person who made some bad decisions. Nil, however, presents an interesting dilemma of morality for Aloy and not just when it comes to choosing whether or not to duel him and by extension, kill him.
As a character, Nil is complex, despite only being seen briefly before entering the six major bandit camps scattered through the game. He was previously a soldier serving the Mad Sun-King, although whether or not he was truly loyal to the king and his ideals aren’t entirely clear. What is certain is Nil’s love for fighting and in particular, killing. Nil often talks about killing like an addiction, citing how he doesn’t blame his partner for running off because inaction eventually leads to “your fingers itch[ing] for the bowstring”. He channels his “talents” and love for killing into the slaughtering of bandits, which he insists is good since no one wants or likes bandits anyway.
“I’m relieved to see you don’t take trophies, by the way–I never cared for that kind of behavior.”
-Nil to Aloy
Understandably, Aloy is uncertain about whether or not she wants to work together with Nil. His charismatic, yet dispassionate way of talking about hunting bandits gives players the option to have Aloy admit that she doesn’t trust Nil, to which he replies that unless she is a bandit, she has nothing to worry about. His mentality about bandits and the almost inhuman way he talks about them also gives players the option to question why he seemingly has such a vendetta against them, to which Nil replies that he has none. He simply wants to kill, and bandits, in his opinion, are people no one will miss. Ultimately, Aloy can choose to work with Nil and to systematically go through and eradicate the bandit camps. Eliminating the bandit camps opens up new campfires and vendors for players, so the player is encouraged to do so. However, what does this mean for Aloy’s perceived morality?
Aloy expresses disgust at Nil’s love of killing, but the fact of the matter is she does participate in the fight and there is never really a moment in the game itself where Aloy expresses any internal conflict about killing a person. Presumably, the first time she took a life was when the new Braves were attacked, yet she never really reacts later or has a dialogue option to reflect on the fact that she has taken a life, regardless of the reason. Likewise, she never says anything about the bandits she kills, despite the possibility that some of the bandits could have become bandits for reasons other than a desire to pillage and murder (the motivation Nil assigns to them). In no way am I attempting to defend bandits, however, it should be noted that Aloy doesn’t react at all from killing any person except perhaps Olin, but even then its never an “I just killed someone” reaction.
In the case of fighting bandits alongside Nil, Aloy is complicit with his behavior. Nil could be described as a lawful evil character based on his code of conduct and otherwise nonchalant reaction to death.
“A lawful evil villain methodically takes what he wants within the limits of his code of conduct without regard for whom it hurts. He cares about tradition, loyalty, and order but not about freedom, dignity, or life. He plays by the rules but without mercy or compassion.”
So where does that put Aloy? She does condemn Nil’s pleasure, but she also does continue to interact with Nil and participate in the slaughter of the bandits. She does not attempt to negotiate with them or open up any type of dialogue. There are few if any options within Horizon Zero Dawn to speak with human enemies and more often than not, Aloy engages with them directly, meeting violence with violence. While she does engage with internal-tribal conflict using words, there are no attempts outside of that to reason with human enemies (note: she does allow Dervahl to live and has an option later to speak with him, but she was acting on orders in this case).
This begs the question: was Nil wrong to suggest that Aloy enjoys killing just as much as he does? When it comes to killing machines, she clearly enjoys the struggle and fight. Players have the option of joining a hunting lodge and the newly announced expansion sets Aloy on a path to hunt bigger machines. She enjoys the challenge. Could the same then be said about her killing people, despite her apparent distaste at the suggestion?
It is difficult to say definitively yes or no when considering that her complicity in joining Nil could potentially stem from a flaw in the game’s objective design. There is also the issue of the final quest with Nil where the player has the option of dueling him–which should break Nil’s code. Harkening back to Nil and Aloy’s first meeting, he stated that she only needs to worry about him killing her if she’s a bandit, yet he challenges her to a duel to the death seemingly for fun. It could be argued that his allowing her the choice to fight or not does give this rule a loophole since he does allow her to walk away should she say she doesn’t want to fight, but the matter still remains that Aloy had the option to fight him. Going back to Aloy in this situation, choosing whether or not to duel him defines Aloy’s morality. By agreeing, it could be seen as her deciding to rid the world of a killer. However, Aloy says nothing after killing him and her expression really doesn’t state any emotion, be it regret or satisfaction. Nil does remark that she seems “concerned” after defeating him, but her lack of words speak far louder than his observation. Then there’s the comment she makes upon agreeing to the duel,
“If this is how it has to end, Nil.”
There is a resignation in those words; a simple acknowledgment of more death to be dealt. It makes the player wonder, where does Aloy stand in terms of right and wrong when it comes to killing people? Does she kill out of necessity, or is Nil right? Does she enjoy it? Aloy’s behavior is completely different if she chooses not to duel Nil. She bluntly states that she’s leaving after she acknowledges that killing is simply a sport for Nil. However, this reaction doesn’t necessarily erase the past work she did with Nil and it should be noted she doesn’t state how she feels about killing.
In the end, Aloy’s complicity with Nil can land two different ways depending on the player’s choices and perception. Either way, the game design can, unfortunately, push the player into potentially believing that Aloy does get a slight thrill from fighting and killing, be it from killing monsters or humans, due to the game’s encouragement to clear out bandit camps and the narrative’s lack of acknowledgment of human death.