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Broadening Horizons: Loss, Memory, and My Return to Scholarship


Marketing art for Horizon Zero Dawn


When Horizon Zero Dawn dropped in 2017, I was stunned. A studio in the Netherlands had completely surprised me with an original IP that was hard to put down. At the same time, I was teaching literature full-time and struggling with whether I should leave academia. I loved being in the classroom and researching but missed making games. I grappled with the decision for a couple of years until 2019, when I decided to take the plunge. I formally quit the university and accepted an offer at WB Games.


A few months later, I was in Costco on a Saturday afternoon, tired from staying up too late working on quest dialogue. Standing beside a palette of chocolate almond containers was my former Early Modern Lit professor, Dr Brandie Siegfried, wearing a newsboy hat and red blazer.


Dr Brandie Siegfried in Cyprus presenting on Margaret Cavendish.


I won't go into extensive detail about my time spent with Dr Siegfried in graduate school, but it sufficeth to say her tutelage changed my life both as a scholar and person. When I was a student, we'd pass away hours talking about the philosophy of beauty, Margaret Cavendish, the nature of belief and disbelief, and theories of animate and inanimate imagination in her office filled with books, papers, and student essays. Those conversations were magical to me and expanded how I thought about and engaged with the world. Needless to say, it was a tad disorienting to find her browsing the aisles for Kirkland trail mix like the rest of us.


Dr Siegfried saw me and smiled, waving me over. She hadn't heard from me in quite some time and asked where I'd been. I told her I'd returned to the games industry and loved my job but deeply missed work in English literature. She clapped her hands and said, "No! This change of yours is excellent. We have so much to discuss. I have some juicy ideas we can work on together if you're up for it." I enthusiastically told her I'd love that.


However, that discussion with Dr Siegfried never happened. In 2021, during the height of COVID, I got a call from an old classmate informing me that my friend and mentor, the beautiful Professor Brandie Siegfried, passed away from cancer. I was devastated and consumed with regret for never taking the time to sit down and have that discussion. I felt like I'd let her down even though I knew she'd tell me such a feeling was misplaced.


With the world still dwelling in isolation, I started deep-diving into her old lectures and endnotes on essays and assignments. I read publications of hers I'd never explored and reread the ones I already had. I rewatched the films she'd assigned in her graduate courses. Along the way, I discovered her PhD dissertation, which I had never seen. The title stilled me, "Compensation and Connivance: A Theory of Games and Literature."


To say I was stunned would be an understatement. Dr Siegfried and I had spent countless hours together during my years in graduate school. I took all her classes and was her research assistant on projects relating to Margaret Cavendish. We'd even traveled to Cyprus together for a conference in Nicosia. Not once had she ever spoken about her doctoral work in literary game analysis. I immediately purchased a hard copy of her dissertation from Brandeis University and read it in a single sitting. Upon finishing it, I realized I held a gift – her dissertation held the seeds of that discussion she and I should have had. I came away with the insight that my life could hold more than one world. I could be a narrative designer and a scholar. I could work in game development and still publish.


In that spirit, in 2022, I responded to a call for chapters for an edited collection on Horizon Zero Dawn with McFarland Books. I combined my love for literary analysis with what I'd learned as a narrative designer in game development. The result is my contributed chapter, ""In you, all things are possible": Aloy's Postmemory Identity through Datapoints and Walking Simulator Design." For me, this chapter was a Herculean effort of time and attention. I wasn't sure if my scholarly writing had grown stale or if I'd measure up after years away. It sounds silly and foolish, but after all that time away from graduate school, the absence of constant conversation and reading in scholarship made me feel like my mind had dulled.


What's more, I'd never attempted to publish this sort of work. Being an independent scholar is daunting. When I was with an institution full-time, I had access to databases full of recently published articles, interviews, and criticism. On my own, I had to figure out creative and often frustrating ways to access that information, which was heavily paywalled. However, once I got started, I couldn't stop. When I tell you I collected, read, listened to, and cataloged every single datapoint in both Horizon Zero Dawn and Horizon Forbidden West, I am not joking.


Although I had played Horizon Zero Dawn before writing this chapter, examining Aloy's relationship to identity and memory through the game's datapoint design led me to ask questions I wished I could have discussed Dr Siegfried in that tiny little office of hers on the Wasatch Front. How do you hold onto your past in a way that doesn't harm your present? How do you grapple with the void of losing regular conversation with those who've passed on? What do you do when you realize the people, community, and world you thought you knew hold deeper secrets than you realized? How do we find community in remembrance even as we see the failures of those who shaped us?


I cannot claim I ended up with any answers, but after some time, I was able to chip away at the rust in my brain and pen. I came away with an increased love for the Horizon games, for Dr Siegfried and the professors who shaped me, and for the opportunity to study games as literature.


And I do insist on this point! Video games are works of literature. They are in conversation with writers, thinkers, poets, historians, and philosophers in the past and present. Of course, games are so many other things, too – art, entertainment, technology, etc. They should be examined, taught, and explored as any and all of these ideas. Many developers and scholars have been doing work for decades to make sure people have the opportunity to engage with games as such. Yet any game developer working today will tell you the industry is at a crossroads between layoffs, funding droughts, and burnout. However, in my opinion, that crossroads has also come for the humanities. The cumulative effect of book bans, humanities departments being slashed from universities, the lack of tenure track work, and the fear of philosophy, protest, and good-faith discourse overwhelms observers and participants alike.


At the center of all of it, I find comfort in the fact that at the end of the day, any person, student or not, can pick up a book or game and find meaning there. Dr Siegfried always sought to share the meaning she found in literature and art with others. She was one person, but what she taught changed the trajectory of my life. Like Elisabet Sobeck's mother said, "... Being smart will count for nothing if you don't make the world better. You have to use your smarts to count for something, to serve life, not death." Aloy understood that, and my dear friend, Dr Brandie Siegfried, lived it.


 

Many thanks to Matthew Wilhelm Kapell, the editor of Broadening Horizon: Essays on Environment, Culture, Identity and Myth in the Game Franchise, and all the other contributors who helped raise the bar for my work. Additional appreciation goes to Trent Hickman, whose teachings on postmemory and memorialization helped form a foundation for this chapter. The book is currently available for preorder with McFarland Books.

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