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The Musical Holograms of Horizon Zero Dawn Features 

The Musical Holograms of Horizon Zero Dawn

It’s become common for sci-fi game soundtracks to blend electronic and classical elements. The intersection is especially fitting in Guerilla Games’ Horizon Zero Dawn, where scattered tribes in post-apocalyptic North America have reverted to pre-industrial era technology, while highly advanced robotic animals roam the surrounding countryside. But does the musical fusion also take a step further to manipulate the game’s environmental art?

As protagonist Aloy fits together the pieces of her species’ shattered past, she travels to long-abandoned underground research facilities in the Rocky Mountains region. Although time has reclaimed the facilities with silt, cave-ins, and stalactites, they still shimmer with artificial light from the holographic displays that busily process redundant data.

These holograms flicker and pulse rhythmically, seemingly in reaction to the musical ambience created by Niels van der Leest and The Flight. Geometric shapes build and jitter to thudding timpani drums, while colours wash in and fade out to the more delicate percussive cues. In effect, the holograms appear to serve as music visualization, a little splash of MilkDrop to enliven the decaying space.

Synaesthesia style presentation has found traction with electronic artists like Amon Tobin and Eric Prydz, whose spectacular live shows synchronise complex imagery with their music. Similarly, dynamic works of art that blend sound and aesthetics have become increasingly common, like the mixed-media installations that use projection mapping to decorate Sydney Harbour during the annual Vivid light festival.

But are the holograms in Horizon Zero Dawn actually designed to respond to its soundtrack, or is the audiovisual overlap just an elaborate coincidence? Guerilla Games senior sound designer Lucas van Tol provides a cryptic response via Twitter: “Did we…did we not? Haha ;-)” He points to the work of French theorist Michel Chion, whose work explored the relationship between sound and images in film.

Chion coined the term “synchresis” to describe the instinctive way in which the human brain fuses images and sounds that are presented simultaneously to a viewer. Nicola Phillips explains the theory in a review of Chion’s seminal book on the subject: “The nature of the synchronous sound causes the filmgoer to construe the image differently, and hence the relationship of sound and image in film should not be described simply as ‘associationist’, but as ‘synergetic’; they enter into a ‘contract’ in the filmgoer’s perception.”

So is there deliberate interplay between the environmental art and musical composition in Horizon Zero Dawn? Perhaps it doesn’t matter – some players may connect the audiovisual components, some may fail to see the association, while others will simply sprint past the pretty holograms to quickly reach the next checkpoint. All are experiencing and enjoying the game on their own terms.

In the end, the holographic displays serve as another example of the exquisite, thoughtful detail that Guerrilla Games have invested in Horizon Zero Dawn. The cumulative result is a stunning vision of the future, an uncomfortable fusion of old and new, and the synergy between hope and despair.

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