Westworld is a good TV show about a terrible video game

HBO's Westworld is a show about technological anxiety, explored through the lens of a futuristic theme park where you can live out your wildest fantasies with hundreds of almost perfectly lifelike (and increasingly self-aware) animatronic "hosts." It is also, as many people have pointed out, a series about video games.

Creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy have explicitly compared the titular park to violent open-world games like Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead Redemption, the latter sharing a similar Western setting. The designers of the theme park face headaches straight out of the games industry, like pushing out updates before testing for bugs or writing dramatic speeches knowing they’ll be cut short when a player just shoots the monologuing character. In addition to overarching questions about artificial intelligence and interactive storytelling, the show aims to hold a dark mirror to present-day entertainment, particularly the violent and hedonistic side of games.

There's just one problem: Westworld is a terrible game, in ways that say a lot more about its creators than its players.

Minor Westworld spoilers ahead.

We'll leave aside all the potential logistical problems with Westworld, like what happens if two players both want to rescue the same girl in a shootout. The core problem with Westworld is that it tries to deliver a power fantasy — one of the things video games are best at — and then makes players superfluous.

Sure, players can kill hosts whenever they want, while hosts can’t hurt them at all. But we’ve seen few things that would make players feel challenged or important, as if they’re a vital part of the story. With a few exceptions (like the aforementioned rescue), visitors end up tagging along with a sheriff or gunslinger who comes off as the real star of the show.

Encounters seem so carefully scripted that the only power players have is to end a sequence early by killing somebody, beating the scripted events to the punch. But if they caused the mass mayhem and destruction that’s so satisfying in open-world video games, the whole system would fall apart. Westworld is a show where people paid for Grand Theft Auto and got a bad ripoff of Sleep No More where you can shoot the actors.

For an example of how things might have gone differently, look at the very opening of the show. A cowboy arrives in town and sees a beautiful local woman dropping her groceries. He walks up to her, and she hugs him, telling him that she's elated he came back. This is a perfectly fine opening to a storyline. An NPC — non-playable character — clearly signals that she needs help, inviting the human players to come introduce themselves. When they approach, she tells them exactly how to relate to her, and lets them decide what to do next.

In Westworld, though, this is a pre-programmed intimate encounter between two hosts. A villainous "black hat" visitor, played by Ed Harris, claims it exists so evil players can kill the boyfriend before raping the woman. But if that’s true, why play out the courtship scene at all, instead of just uploading a memory? Are the black hats — which Nolan compares to GTA players who casually mow down pedestrians — supposed to be snooping around listening to romance novel excerpts? Are "white hat" players supposed to be entranced by a few minutes of romantic dialogue that never blossoms into a real story? No wonder so many people just stay in the brothels.

The challenges Westworld faces, as a physical space, are actually less like those of video games than live-action role-playing games. Like the park, larps gather a bunch of near-strangers in one place and have to slot them into semi-scripted interlocking plots that still allow room for unpredictability and improvisation. The way that park guests stumble around looking for interesting treasure hunts or bandit-killing parties reminds me uncannily of my own experience with larping.

But Westworld fails at that, too. Good larps are about inhabiting a character, whether it’s based on a complicated three-page backstory or a few traits scribbled on a sheet. They’re also collaborative — you can act out being a sadist or a sociopath, but you have to do it in a way that makes everyone else's experience more interesting. Westworld seems totally solipsistic, and we've yet to encounter anyone who seems legitimately interested in role-playing. So far, the Old West setting itself is essentially an exercise in theme park branding.

It could be a missed opportunity on Westworld’s part. If there’s a story to tell about people who treat hosts as disposable machines, there’s also one about the people who become deeply invested in a safely predictable world full of programmed characters — until these characters start questioning their own existence. Fortunately, we’re only three episodes in, so hopefully visitors’ relationship with the park will start getting more complex.

Visitors to Westworld are theoretically there to act out fantasies they couldn’t in real life. From what we've seen so far, these fantasies consist of:

  • Shooting people
  • Visiting prostitutes
  • Rape and torture

Again, this is supposed to be an indictment of violent media. And again, it fundamentally misunderstands what's interesting about it.

Take, for example, Nolan's characterization of good and evil in Grand Theft Auto: good people like his wife follow traffic signals, bad people mow down pedestrians. Personally speaking, I have mowed down a fair share of virtual pedestrians. I have barely ever done it because I wanted to hurt them. I did it because racing fast cars is fun, and I'm not going to brake for minor fictional characters. There’s a moral quandary there, but it’s about violence as a byproduct, not a goal.

There are many people who perform gleeful cruelty against innocents in games at some point, but very few people buy games for this sole purpose, much less games that cost $40,000 a day to play. Attacking people who can't fight back is largely boring — which is why games like Grand Theft Auto send armed police after players who do it. Ed Harris' villainous character isn't just scary because he's a sadist. He's scary because who (apparently) does the same easy side quest for 30 years? It’s telling that the thing that finally got him to move on was discovering an actual challenge.

Conversely, Westworld also doesn’t deal with our desire to suffer in games. From "masocore" platformers to survival horror to the endless deaths of Dark Souls, we want experiences that will push our own boundaries. The emerging field of virtual reality, one of the closest things we have to Westworld, has produced few murder simulators. It’s given us nearly infinite ways to torture ourselves.

When real-world players are presented with equivalent "good" and "evil" choices, there's evidence that they usually take the high road — we might flirt with the occasional nasty choice, but overall, we don't particularly like wearing the black hat.

Interestingly, Westworld deals with this. It suggests that black hat players are coming back after going through as good people, similar to players trying for the "bad" ending of a game on their second playthrough. But so far, it hasn’t really delved into the dark side of heroism: that so many games will morally absolve us for doing terrible things.

For every game about outright monsters, like Hatred or Hotline Miami, there are a hundred epic stories that justify sky-high body counts by turning your enemies into one-dimensional avatars of evil. Violent games rarely encourage us to be indiscriminately cruel, they just tell us that any cruelty is justified if it's against the right people.

In a show that’s about how characters respond to repeated trauma, it’s arguably more interesting and relevant to discuss what that means for hosts who were programmed not just to bear abuse, but to seem like they deserved it.

The most mind-boggling thing about Westworld is that the 2016 science fiction series’ idea of fun is rooted in the casual chauvinism of 1973. We've seen only a few female guests, at least one of which was vocally bored. Because really, what's a woman, especially a heterosexual woman, supposed to do there? Participate in generic gunfights where the reward is women offering to sleep with you? Walk around a town full of robots programmed for 19th century gender roles and sexual assault?

For all the flak games (often rightly) get about sexism, the industry is already far ahead of HBO's imagined future. You'll still get explicitly "masculine" projects like GTA, but the world of fantasy and sci-fi games in particular is increasingly gender-neutral — sometimes, as with the pointedly inclusive Dragon Age series, far more radically so than films or TV.

Game designers spend a lot of time playing with the difficulty of representing the past without replicating its ugly social norms. Westworld could do the same, with the added twist of an entirely new form of life being created around those norms. As it stands, choosing not to feels like a lazy default. And trying to make sense of its bizarre gender politics ends up actually being more distracting than outright anachronisms would be.

One of the big questions in Westworld is what's beneath the surface-level theme park. There are hints of a deeper game-within-a-game, and on a larger scale, Westworld's founder is clearly more interested in creating new life than catering to the whims of guests.

So it's entirely possible — even plausible — that Westworld is an intentionally dull, ill-designed place that self-selects for rich sociopaths with low standards. Hosts act out scenes that nobody cares about in order to nudge them toward consciousness, and their creators aren’t barraged by requests for weapon rebalancing, new love interests, or anything else that engaged players might demand. It’s the 3DO console, a game platform less interested in art, and more interested in pushing technology and establishing cultural cache.

But this makes it less a criticism of the people who consume mass culture than a commentary on the cynicism of people who create it. If you give players a world without meaningful, positive ways to participate, it’s not surprising when they opt out or tear the whole thing down. As any Sims player who locked their avatar in a box with no bathroom can attest, human beings can be awful to virtual ones. But they can also subvert expectations — like the people who role-play heroic cops in Grand Theft Auto.

As it stands, it’s only robots who exhibit this complexity. Humanity, in Westworld, is beyond saving.


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