Living machines? The biology, biomes & symbiosis of Horizon Zero Dawn and Forbidden West

A world where humans and robots coexist with one another for the purpose of restoring life on earth that ceased to exist. Let's talk about art (biomimetic design) in one of the most popular open-world games.

Mar 31, 2023
9 min read
worldbuildingconcept art

Table of Contents

I put my spear down with a little bit of sadness in my eyes. Another chapter of a great story is finished and now we have to wait once again to unluck big mysteries and eventually maybe visit other places. What is so special about this game that you just do not want to leave the world of Horizon?

Is it the story? For many of us - pretty good - but for sure you can find a little bit of here and there that can slightly dissapoint or at least raise an eyebrow.

Is it the player experience? Could be? Gameplay and exploring is great. Who doesn't like freely climbing mountains with a little wind the hair?

Is it the biomes, the machines, the tribes, the symbiosis, and the relationship within the whole ecosystem? Certainly - at least for us, artists. The graphics is just gorgeous, breath-taking.

Just because we love post-apocalyptic themes.

The symbiosis

Nature has flourished, robots roam the ruined cities, and humans hide in caves and mountains. Did you ever think about how would the world look like if all creatures, plants, and machines not only existed side-by-side but were actually intertwined? That’s the main concept of living machines as represented in the world of Horizon Zero Dawn and Forbidden West.

When you start to play Horizon Zero Dawn you are slowly introduced to a different world than you are used to. Undeniably we have robots and machines, post-apocalyptic scripts, and bad AI taking over the world. But Horizon has a very unique concept, one that we didn’t see yet (correct me if I’m wrong, I didn’t play all games, see all movies or read all books). As you are following the story of the main character Aloy, you start to notice the connection between life  and synthetic life.

In Zero Dawn, which is the first game, machines have been adapted and evolved to fit the natural environment in which they live. They are designed to integrate into the biomes, requiring the same basic skills and behaviors for survival as other creatures naturally known to us from the real world. In a way, machines become an integral part of the food chain and the environment in which they exist. Acting as predators, scavengers, and important sources of “food” or food collectors for larger creatures.

Behemoth - a large Transport Class machine. Ref. from Artstation Nazz Abdoel

In Forbidden West, the more recent second part, you can observe that the relationship between machines and the environment is even more deepened – at least more presented and explained to you as a player. Everywhere from the open plains to the deep jungles, machines are part of the ecosystem and are essential for the growth of the biomes – such as seed germination or soil fertilization.

Grimhorn - main function is soil maintenance and seed dispersal. Ref. from Pro Game Guides
The future doesn’t have lions, tigers, and bears. It has robots that look like lions, tigers, and bears (and dinosaurs and crocodiles) with cannons, armor plating, and other forms of high-tech machinery.

Machines and their real-life counterparts

Most Horizon machines are based on real-life animals or their combinations. We have a few that are robot war machines - The Faro bots aren't from Gaia (the most unselfish AI I ever saw), and have nothing to do with rebuilding the world - more coming from a sci-fi design and not resembling anything “alive” as a whole – therefore such a difference to properly distinguish between purely combat robots and machines constructed to save the environment. But you can also meet some machines based on dinosaurs. Why? Probably because GAIA thought that they are freaking cool (she talks about them specifically, calling it a shame that such megafauna is not around anymore).

We go for that...that there is a recognizable element in there," says lead designer Dennis Zopfi.
We try to twist it a little bit so that there's something new to it.

Faro bots design

Ancient. Came to the world before the apocalypse. Designed to fight. Nothing more, nothing less. Also, personally, I would say that the design of Faro bots (Corruptor, Deathbringer) is something that comes to mind if we think about futuristic war machines and sci-fi movies.


Corruptor aka Scarab was designed to operate in swarms like certain insects do. Their strongest points are rapid movement over any terrain and self-repair function (or repairing other robots; they were the clerics, if you will). Corruptor resembles slightly a large black scorpion but have only 4 arachnid-like legs. Their sleek, black, alien look alike sets them apart from all Horizon machines.

Corruptor, ref. without notes by Horizon Wiki


Large, mobile weapon platform. Deathbringer has robust armor plating, which makes him very resistant to damage. The movement of the machine is very limited and slow - short mechanical steps; but that seems to be balanced with high protection and multiple weaponry equipment. The Deathbringer also has a circular swivel that allows the head to turn 360°.

Deathbringer, ref. without notes by Horizon Wiki,

Animal-based machines

Acquisition Class

This class was designed to help with the ecosystem as a part of a terraforming program. Each machine of the Acquisition Class is typically specialized in refining a single type of resource: plant consumption to produce biofuel, mining soil for mineral resources, salvage scrap, collecting and storing solar energy, etc.


Usually found in herds of 2-4 individuals, Bristleback resembles a combo of a boar and a warthog (well, Pumbaa from Lion King, does that ring a bell?). Same as wild boar, Bristle is a very good digger thanks to the tusks   - something what warthog doesn't do. Warthogs' tusks are meant for defence. Just for ref. wild boars' tusks are around 10-12 cm (3,9 - 4,7 in) while warthogs' up to 25 cm (10 in).

Both animals, a boar and a warthog, look like barrels on four thin legs. The same applies to Bristleback. Massive mouth, strong neck and big chest are making Bristle more of the big guy thing, you know.


Bouncey and bullet-spongey. This is one of the machines I really hated in the game. They are fast and tough - it's fine to have a challenge - but sometimes they are just so annoying. Start with one and suddenly the entire gang is around you - same as baboons. The primary function of a Clamberjaw is to use claws and tail to salvage scrap.

If we are going to compare Clamberjaw and baboon, both have cheek pouches, whereas baboons use them identically to hamsters to store food. Clamberjaw's so-called Concussion Sac is filled with air. Clamberjaw also borrows its prehensile tail and uses it similarly to other primates such as spider monkey. Clamberjaws Blaze sacks mimic a baboon's red buttocks but are definitely not designed for mating. As the name already suggests they are a Blaze (biofuel) storage.

Combat Class

In the beginning (at the start of the post-apocalyptic life), this class didn't exist, apart from few exceptions. There was no reason for them. We had the acquisition class to terraform and other classes with their primary functions. But after a crazy AI - HEPHAESTUS - declared humanity a thread, the combat class was born as guardians of weak machines, equipped with nice weaponry.


Stalkers thrive in environment such as jungle where visibility is challenging. Masters of stealth and ambush - they weren't my favorite either, but surprisingly much more fun than Clamberjaws. Stalker is primarily inspired by cheetah - extremely sleek hunter just awaiting his prey.

Similarly to cheetah or even black panther, they are able to blend in with the surrounding. Cheetah has black spots over whole body which serve as a camouflage - by offsetting shadows in the gray-hued grasses they inhabit. Stalker, on the other hand is covered by black hexagonal plates and is equipped with a Stealth generator.


Stormbird's closest resemblance is a giant eagle or a falcon. Some may even say a mythical thunderbird (Native American mythology). Looking at Stormbirds' abilities, there was surely some inspiration:

It was called the Thunderbird because the flapping of its powerful wings sounded like thunder, and lightning would shoot out of its eyes. The Thunderbirds brought rain and storms, which could be good or bad.

The similarities to a bird of pray are undeniable - wings, tail, head, beak, taloned feet and even armor plating resembling feathers. This is another machine that can go on your nerves. The dive attack is just - let's say some mention feelings. even such as fighting a Quetzalcoatl.

Communication Class

The only lonely member of this group is a Tallneck (as far as we know). Poor guy, I feel sorry for him. Communication class has no offensive abilities and is also the only class that wasn't affected by the lunatic AI - HEPHAESTUS. The sole purpose of Tallneck is longe-range communication between machines.

Tallneck resembles a giraffe (in the early development of Horizon, it was called comm giraffe) in both anatomy and gait. But I remember reading somewhere that in the case of a Tallneck, it's not possible physically in real life with that size to have the same gait as a giraffe (correct me in the comments, if you were better in physics). Other than that, they are simply majestic machines to look at.

We didn’t know how animalistic we should go for the machines,” confesses Horizon Zero Dawn’s director Mathijs de Jonge of the initial design process. “We did crude models and mockups at a very early stage.
We have another two classes: Recon class and Transport class. But since this post is already long enough, we will save them for another time.

Botanical-based machines

I cannot forget to mention – which is kinda sad - we have just two examples of botanical-based machines: Metal Flowers and Control Towers. I wish we would see more of these. Overall, it would make perfect sense.

For Metal flowers, the original function is unknown - but throughout the game we get some hints and speculations - such as a connection between them and the terraforming system.

Control towers look like palm trees with an alien touch. Their swaying movement reminds of marine fauna, such as sea anemones. They have only one purpose - repairing and maintaining machines - therefore they do not have any defensive mechanism and are always guarded by other machines.  

The description in Aloy's notebook suggests that the Metal Flowers may simply be intended to promote seed germination.

Worth to mention


Artist: J_WoodM, Fan Art Machine Design | Whiptail, source: Reddit
Leap Howler - Screenshot of a 3D model from Yuk Tin on sketchfab

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Horizon machines and their counterparts

What animals are the various machines based on?

Some further readings

If you enjoyed this article and you would like to see part 2, covering more machines, let me know below in the comments.

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