Horizon Zero Dawn‘s Joel Eschler on building a world of wonder

Horizon Zero Dawn is almost upon us. It was a surprising announcement at E3 2015; a lush, beautiful open-world RPG from a studio who’d made nothing but gritty first-person shooters for the past ten years. True to big-budget marketing form, we’ve been kept on a steady stream of information to keep the hype train going, but a lot of questions yet remain unanswered.

To answer some of those questions, I had a chance to speak with Joel Eschler, a Senior Producer on Horizon Zero Dawn. He’s a relative newcomer to the game, having joined its development in 2016 after many years with 2K Australia, but he nonetheless had some fascinating insights to share.

I’ll have some thoughts of my own soon – please look forward to my review, which should be up sometime next week. For now, enjoy the interview with Joel.

Horizon PS4 interview

Shindig: To start with, can you tell me a little bit about your role on Horizon Zero Dawn?

Joel Eschler: Sure. I’m a senior producer at Guerrilla, and at the moment I look after the art for the game. For Horizon, it was mainly the environment art team – the construction of all the environments above and below the ground, the creation of the assets and how it blends in with the world they’re in, the lighting, and all that kind of stuff. It’s workflow management as a team, and a little bit of hiring, and that kind of stuff. And schedules, of course – y’know, a lot of boring stuff.

Being a producer must be a bit of a fingers-in-all-pies kind of job?

Yeah, it’s a bit like that. It’s about having that awareness of everything that’s going on in the project so you can know your part of the team, with all the others.

You worked with 2K Australia before it sadly shut down, on stuff like BioShock and Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel. How has your experience from there fed into what you’re doing on Horizon?

It’s all valuable. I was lucky at 2K Australia, with it being fairly small studio but also working over with Irrational Games in Boston and Gearbox in Dallas, with those big teams, to do a little bit of everything. In time there, sometimes I looked after the entire studio, other times art, other times tech. Being able to see every single aspect of development, including marketing, scheduling, and hiring decision – it all groomed me to be able to go to a really professional outfit with really experienced, talented developers. I felt ready, but also nervous joining Guerrilla Games, seeing what kind of technical wizards they are. But yeah, my time working with 2K was invaluable.

Horizon PS4 interview

It’s an interesting shift for Guerrilla, going from Killzone to this colourful, nature-centric thing, but I imagine for you it’s a shift in the opposite direction? Borderlands in particular was so cartoony and over-the-top.

Yeah, with Borderlands it was really fun to bring that humour to the world, but working on Horizon, it’s been really good being able to go back to that sort of realistic art style and really trying to create something beautiful. In the past, especially with BioShock, the beauty also had that destruction element to it, but with Horizon, it’s got more of that natural beauty. That’s difficult to do in video games because organic models usually have way more polygons than man-made things. Man-made things tend to be solid and straight, whereas organic things need to move with the wind, and they curve.

The engine we’re working with handles vegetation well, which is why we’re able to do lush jungles and that sort of stuff. That’s really awesome, because I games have tried to do jungles before, but not with the amount of vegetation, ground coverage, and foliage that we’ve got on this. Combined with the overgrowth on the old ruins, there’s this really nice contrast of man-made beauty and natural beauty.

That’s something games have tried to do with varying degrees of success – nature taking back the world from humanity. How is Horizon approaching that idea, and what’s going to make it stand out from other games that try to do that?

A lot of people in the studio really love post-apocalyptic entertainment; it’s always really interesting to see what people do when society crumbles. This game is the post-post-apocalypse – so after society fell apart, and a lot of people died out, then nature took everything back over. I think that’s a bit more of an interesting angle; it’s not people trying to survive in the same way. Growing up, you always have these thoughts – “Oh my god, if a zombie apocalypse breaks out I’m going to hole up in that store there, I’m going to go to Bunnings, that’ll be safe.”

But it’s different for the people that are still around in Horizon Zero Dawn. They have established new cultures and ways of living as they try to survive in this new world where they’re no longer the dominant species. The robotic creatures are the “owners” of Earth, and humans are just trying to survive and establish what they mean there. The ruins are more of a curiosity than something nostalgic.

Horizon PS4 interview

I’m curious about what sorts of ideas and themes you’re trying to convey with the story, the world, and the way it’s all constructed?

This game’s been in development for quite a while at Guerrilla – about 6 years. At the beginning, it was just a small team of about 30 people, who were exploring the artistic designs for the machines and concepts for what the world would look like. A lot of time went into the world-building, and the unique characteristics of each tribe. We really tried to create a world – a fully functional world with believable, varied locations before going into building the gameplay into it.

I think that really served the writers, because our narrative director actually came in later – about 3 or 4 years ago – and there was already a world for him to build a narrative into. I think that was really useful for the narrative designers, because they could really work on Aloy’s story. There were these pre-existing tribes and history that they could tap into to try make her story more believable.

I appreciate that story stuff is always difficult to talk about before release, but can you tell me a bit about Aloy’s story? What is the driving force for her, beyond her own sense of exploration and desire to see the world?

I can only really talk about what we’ve already revealed so far, because we’re so close to release, but Aloy’s main drive is to find out where she came from and who her mother is in this world. She grew up isolated, as an outcast from the other tribes – you’ll find out why pretty early on in the game – and her journey is finding out why she’s an outcast, whether she can be accepted into society, and if she even wants to. Similar to what the player may be thinking, she’s trying to figure out what happened to the world, where the machines came from, and what her place is in the world.

It’s kind of a coming-of-age story; an exploration of who she is and why she should matter.

Horizon PS4 interview

Aloy’s visual design has always reminded me of Merida from Brave, the Disney movie, if you’ve ever seen that and from what you’re saying, it sounds like her character is a lot like Merida as well. On that note, what sort of inspirations did you draw on for Aloy, and for the game as a whole?

The way the game actually came to fruitition was through a pitch competition around the end of Killzone 3. It’s something they wanted to do, to be able to let people pitch ideas and build a deck. The studio art director was the one who came up with the initial Horizon pitch, which was post-post-apocalypse, with the natural beauty taking over, and early ideas for the robots. He has mentioned to me that he took inspiration from ‘80s cartoons in the very early stages – something called Zoids, I think I’ve heard him mention.

That was the one that ended up winning the pitch competition, so when the rest of the team went into Killzone: Shadow Fall development, this small group started exploring ideas. They haven’t really been able to tell me where Aloy originated; she was always part of the game, and she just made sense for the world, and for the perspective of someone in this unusual world. When the writers fully came on, they just latched onto her – she just made sense to be this character in Horizon.

For myself and a lot of other people, she’s one of the most interesting parts of the game.

Yeah, I think that’s really cool. Within the studio, it wasn’t necessarily a pillar early on to do a female character. We’re really happy that we have seen so much support, because it’s always that scary thing putting something out in the world. Way back in the day at 2K when we first announced XCOM: Enemy Unknown, the internet blew up and told us that we should all quit our jobs – “Why even bother? This isn’t XCOM!” But the reaction to Aloy has been really positive.

A couple of weeks ago we had a bunch of Aloy cosplayers in the studio, and we allowed them to play the game – it was they first time they had had hands on with the game. It’s hard to have that perspective as a white male, but they were really to happy to see this strong female character. They were really excited about it.

I think I saw some photos from that. It must be quite strange to see people cosplaying a character for a game that’s not even out yet.

Yeah, it’s awesome. And the detail in these things! I wouldn’t even know where to start. I don’t even know how to sew up a hole in my jeans. To build an entire thing from scratch – they’re amazing. Making a game that’s really fun is what we all want to do, being creative people. If it helps people through some difficult phase, or whatever it might be besides entertain people – if it manages to do that, that’s a really awesome feeling.

Horizon PS4 interview

You announced quite recently that Ashly Burch is the voice actor for Aloy, which is exciting. How did that come about?

I don’t actually know how Guerrilla first got in touch with Ashly. I think she’s pretty well know, especially after doing the Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dragon Keep DLC for Borderlands 2, where she went from being the screaming crazy girl to being a real emotional character with baggage – I think a lot of people started to pay more attention to her. Now she’s just blown up, being on Adventure Time and everything all over the place.

She seems to be in almost every game that comes out.

Yeah, but the good thing is her voice isn’t that recognisable. She has enough range to do these different voices. There are some video game voice actors that tend to do every single game, and you know their voice – like Nolan North. But Ashly is a little bit less recognisable in her voice, which is really cool, because we want Aloy to stand out as her own character and not just another role that Ashly Burch is doing. She brought that performance to it – she feels like Aloy the character, not like a voice actor being Aloy.

I see a lot of Monster Hunter in Horizon, with the concept of hunting monsters and scavenging parts from them to build new equipment. Is that an inspiration for this game?

It hasn’t specifically come up, but the designers in particular play everything that comes out and they pull inspiration from all over. A lot of games in the last few years have gone into that scavenging gameplay, and there’s the RPG side of it as well – looting from your kills, crafting gear, and getting better; that core loop. It’s really cool with the machines in particular, because you it’s not just random stuff that you’re picking up; you’re actually targeting part of this robot that you want to get. If you’re hunting you can shoot a weak spot to take them out quickly, but then you won’t be able to loot that part. It might take longer and be more dangerous to take it down carefully, but then you get those parts. You have to make those decisions.

Horizon PS4 interview

What’s the thinking behind taking an open-world approach rather than something more linear, where there’s more scope to focus on story and character development?

I think back to my days of working on linear games like BioShock and XCOM, and I think “Gee, it’d be so much easier if we were doing something like that.” But then I remember that back then, working on those games, it wasn’t easy at all. Each approach has its own set of difficulties.

There was a desire within Guerrilla to make an open-world game because it was a challenge. They’ve been working on the Killzone franchise for nearly a decade – if you don’t challenging yourself, you start looking for other opportunities to take those risks. Horizon was definitely a risky project right from the beginning because the scope of it was just ridiculous. It’s so much bigger than any game I’ve ever worked on in terms of features, locations, and just the general size of it.

As for the storytelling, I think the interesting thing about open-world games – and Horizon in particular – is that they allow people to create their own stories in the way they build up their character and the order in which they choose to pursue the story. It’s the coolest thing when you put out a game and you read the forums or watch YouTube videos, and people have completely different stories about how they played a particular aspect of the game. That’s really cool, because it allows players to build their own stories.

The storytelling for the world at large is definitely as important as it was in the more linear Killzone games. We have a lot of cinematics in the game and narrative options; there’s definitely a clear, large main story. And then you have the side content, the other side content, and the more immersive gameplay where you can create your own stories.

The really good open-world games do that really well – give you a playground to create your own stories. But then there are games where an open world filled with stuff just seems like the thing to do, and they don’t really gel together. Is that something that you were thinking about Horizon?

Yeah, there’s always that fine balance. There were definitely features that we ended up pulling because we wanted everything to fit to 100% satisfaction in their implementation. Some things weren’t getting there. We didn’t want “this part is really good, but this part is just average” – we wanted it all to be at least really good. We were doing play tests and focus tests for years to get people’s feelings about different aspects, because we did want it to gel together. Sometimes cutting stuff from the game hurts, but at the same time, you don’t want it to feel out of place.

I think the mix of stuff we have, with the main story content and the side stories, and also the cauldrons and the hunting grounds – we have these different ways of highlighting the gameplay side of Horizon. I think they work really well together. You can play the game for hours and hours before diving into the story. Some people prefer to just immerse themselves in the world and hold off on those main quests, and I think we have enough of that for people to just explore.

Horizon PS4 interview

Is there anything else that you want to talk about and share with the world?

Something we’ve teased is the cauldrons, which I really want to talk about, but it’s the kind of thing we want people to discover, as opposed to getting out there in the world. What I’m most excited about when watching the Twitch streams is when the open world really begins. We have our introduction to the game, and we’ve shown certain parts of the world, but it’s so small in comparison to the whole map.

We had some people in for an event a few weeks ago, and we let these Aloy cosplayers play a bit more than the press got to play. They’d been playing for about 6 hours, and then it opened up to be about 10 times bigger than the space they’d been in. They were just like “Holy crap!”

There are the different environments, as well. We have the lush jungle, the desert area, the underground spaces, the snow-capped mountains, and I’m just looking forward to people seeing that. Everything got 100% effort, as well, so I’m really excited to watch these streams and see people be like “Oh my god, there’s a whole other game here, and a whole other game on top of that.” I’m really looking forward to it. We’re so close.

Horizon Zero Dawn comes out exclusively for PlayStation 4 on February 28 in the Americas and March 1 in Europe, Australia, and New Zealand.

Matthew Codd

Matthew is a writer based in Wellington. He loves all things pop culture, and is fascinated by its place in history and the wider social context.