Guerrilla details the creation of one of Horizon Zero Dawn's most memorable optional stories.
Deep in Carja territory stalks a machine that strikes fear into the heart of every hunter. The legendary Redmaw. A mechanical beast of such strength and ferocity that it has killed everyone who has crossed its path. And you can bet you’ll be the one to finally bring it down.
Redmaw’s story threads throughout the Hunter’s Lodge quest line in Horizon Zero Dawn. Tales of its victims mark your entry into this old-fashioned club of big machine hunters, and tales of the glory its killer will receive accompany your ascent through its ranks. It’s a carefully planned setup that eventually sees you travelling deep into a remote region for an encounter that will have repercussions not only for lead character Aloy but also the Hunter’s Lodge itself.
But Redmaw has roots far away from its jungle home. In fact, you can trace them right back to a decision an artist made in the early days of the game’s development to put a posed Thunderjaw statue inside a building in the main city of Meridian.
“I was immediately struck by how cool it looked,” says Lead Quest Designer David Ford. This dramatic figure immediately made him think that it could be the centrepiece of the headquarters of some kind of hunter’s guild, and he began to work with Lead Writer Ben McCaw to develop the idea. They imagined a hierarchy in which position is claimed through killing bigger and bigger game, and they found a place within it for Talanah, a character who was featured in one of the game’s early prototypes.
“We wanted to work our way up to this legendary Thunderjaw that people have been going after for years, and through luck and power it’s killed every one,” says Ford. Because Redmaw is a Thunderjaw, a huge, bipedal machine that roams Carja territory and looks like a Tyrannosaurus rex.
The Thunderjaw is all about offensive power. “As Aloy is so incredibly agile, the player most of the time tries to stay away from the machines while the machines try and get close,” says Machine Design Lead Dennis Zopfi. But Thunderjaws can dominate their prey at every range. They can bite and smash with their tails, shoot lasers and machine guns, and they have two disc launchers, which send a drone-like warhead up into the air which seeks Aloy before diving down on her.
By the time you find the Hunter’s Lodge you’ll have seen Thunderjaws. You may have given them a wide berth or have attempted to go up against one, but either way, you’ll have a sense of their power. So when you start hearing about the Lodge’s long campaign against Redmaw, you know it’s something to fear. But first, you’ll need to join them, and that’s when you meet Ahsis, its leader, and are reminded about how much of an outsider Aloy is in this city.
As a follower of the tyrannical old Sun-King, Ahsis can’t stand the idea of a Nora becoming part of his tradition-obsessed organisation. “He’s not evil but he’s prejudiced, very vain, and he’s willing to do whatever it takes to maintain his status at the top of the organisation,” says Ford, explaining that the quest line gave Guerrilla a chance to explore the rift the new Sun-King has driven through rich Carja society.
“In the earliest planning stages for this quest line we wanted to have a jerk leader of this organisation and you’re working with somebody who wants to supplant him and install themselves as a more benevolent, more even-handed leader,” says Ford. Because on your side is Talanah, who sets you a task: to prove yourself by taking on hunting challenges so she will agree to sponsor your membership in spite of Ahsis’ discrimination.
The tension between the two characters drives the final chapter of the quest line, as they race to slay Redmaw first. But Ahsis plays dirty, hiring mercenaries to kill Talanah. Saving her is down to you, and then you help her face Redmaw itself. There’s a real sense of urgency in the sequence — a result of a number of design techniques. You have the running figure of Talanah to follow through the forest, and then, when she loses the trail, you must take the lead. “That’s another thing that motivates people to move quickly,” says Ford. “And there’s music, and then another thing we did was to create a literal path of destruction that Redmaw has created through the jungle, knocking down trees, trampling vegetation, destroying rocks.”
You arrive just in time to see Redmaw tail-swiping Ahsis into a rock, and then your own fight is on. Redmaw bears the marks from its many battles. Hunters’ spears protrude from its chest, it has holes in its armoured plating, and one of its disc launchers is missing. Having been warned for so long about just how tough this beast is, with tales of its tail killing hunters in a single swipe, it’s a formidable encounter, not least because of where it’s set, in a large, open area on the western edge of the map. Here, Redmaw can smash trees down so there’s no cover from its ranged attacks. And with only one disc launcher, it means that you’ll only get one chance to deal it major damage by dislodging and using its own weapons against it.
Talanah helps, of course, but Guerrilla are careful to ensure this fight is yours. “We reduce her damage as Redmaw’s health gets lower,” explains Ford. “So eventually Talanah won’t be doing any damage against it, so she isn’t doing all the work for you and stealing the fun.”
Redmaw has more health than a standard Thunderjaw, but its behaviour, capabilities and damage dealing are otherwise exactly the same. “It’s a placebo effect of everything leading up to the moment,” says Zopfi. “It’s all fed by dialogue and visuals.” The mix of urgency, the sweep of the storyline, Redmaw’s appearance, and the open setting: they make the fight intense and distinctive as you’re exposed to barrages of its laser fire and struggle to dive clear of its tail.
Even if you’ve taken down many Thunderjaws before Redmaw, finally defeating it is absolutely a moment worthy of diving into Photo Mode to remember. This machine is a prime example of Horizon Zero Dawn’s tight lacing together of story, environment design and combat; a battle with consequence and challenge that makes you feel like the finest machine hunter.