There was a delightful irony to the world of Bionicle that drew me in when the toy line started back in 2001. Here was a tropical, tribal-looking island that drew a lot on Polynesian imagery populated with robots who could wield magical elemental powers. Well, technically biomechanical robots, but there was still this really cool aesthetic of futuristic machines inhabiting an ancient world. It doesn’t make sense.
That contradiction, though, piques an interest. Why is there a robot with a fire sword fighting robot animals on a tropical island? The exact answer doesn’t really matter, but it captures the imagination and draws you in. Bionicle would go on to expand its lore and explain why exactly these robots were doing their thing and, while cool, it did lose a lot of its mystery and wonder. But that dope imagery from the first years of Bionicle lives on in my mind, a consistent sense of mystery and wonder held within.
I’ve been thinking about the setting of Bionicle recently because I’ve been playing a bunch of Burning Shores, the expansion of Horizon Forbidden West. The game takes place in another fantastically contradictory setting. We’re in the ruins of America a thousand years after an apocalypse, humanity lives on in various tribes, most of which are on the verge of reaching industrialization. And they live under threat of robot dinosaurs. And so you’ve got people wielding bows and arrows as they fight to take down a robot T. rex that shoots lasers.
I’ll be the first to admit that it was that visual — bows and arrows against a giant friggin’ robot dinosaur — that caught my interest (everything else came later and I love it so). That contradiction seemed so tantalizing — why were there robot dinosaurs and why were we only using pre-gunpowder weaponry to fight them? Horizon takes that conceit and runs with it, expounding on those contradictions and telling you the whys, all as it shows you a world that’s really worth caring for.
Contradictions invite curiosity. Something not making sense can invite questioning and interest since there’s an inherent mystery waiting to be unravelled. In Star Wars, a world of laser guns and spaceships, the most revered and dangerous warriors don’t have a rifle but a laser sword. It doesn’t make sense — what use is a sword against a gun? — but it’s interesting and so we watch on. The hook of The Mandalorian is this big badass bounty hunter finding, and coming to care for, a baby (and the baby looks like Star Wars’ famously-old character). It’s an irony that the show pulls at, though, like Bionicle, The Mandalorian does lose something once it’s teased that thread out as long as it can go — gaining something else in the process.
I’m sure contradictions like these don’t always work, in fact, I’m sure that it can be done quite terribly too. But when it works, it works really really well. Or maybe I’ve just been playing a lot of Horizon and thinking about Bionicle and have been trying to find the connection between the two.