Once Upon a Time in the Westworld

No-one watches Game of Thrones and thinks, “this show describes my life perfectly.” It may contain plenty of themes and imagery that ring true today, about lust for power and the pitiless brutality of war — it may be fantastic storytelling — but unlike drama set in the ‘real’ world of doctors and policewomen and unemployed people, it’s a harder jump to put yourself in the place of characters who shoe horses or chop people’s heads off for a living.

As a science fiction drama set at an indeterminate point in the future, Westworld is slightly more ‘real’ than Game of Thrones, but the premise is arguably more ridiculous — a theme park set in the Old West, filled with robots that guests pay to have sex with and kill. We all know how that story ends, don’t we?

But by the end of the second episode, Westworld felt more relevant to my life than almost anything else I’ve watched recently. Why?

Because it’s one of the first shows to take videogames seriously. Yes, it’s also about humanity’s relationship and responsibility towards its creations — but when you see characters talking about finding hidden levels, and employees frustrated about designing new quests with exquisitely-modelled robot actors, you don’t need a PhD to understand what they’re talking about.

To a certain set of people, videogames still mean Super Mario and Space Invaders, Call of Duty and Candy Crush. So when these people depict videogames in fiction, they get flattened out into mindless gore-laden cariactures or hyper-addictive puzzle games. There isn’t much interesting to say about those games, other than in a Black Mirror-ish “the future is terrible, and so are we” way.

But there are other games out there, role-playing games where you can explore enormous worlds for hundreds of hours, becoming a knight or a criminal or, yes, a cowboy, helping or hindering hundreds of non-player characters (NPCs) in countless quests. They aren’t ‘better’ than Tetris, but they’re very different.

And it’s these role-playing games that Westworld is so familiar with and evidently very skeptical of, even as they crib them for material. There’s one scene in the second episode where a man is introducing his friend to the world, and they’re flagged down by a town inhabitant who robotically recites his lines about a hidden treasure. The man drags his friend away, performing the equivalent of hammering “X” on a controller to skip through a story cutscene, impatient to get to the good bits — and that’s not even the most obvious example of their dislike for canned gaming dialogue.

Canned dialogue or not, it’s what visitors pay $40,000 per night for. “We sell complete immersion in 100 interconnected narratives. A Relentless! Fucking! Experience!” shouts one game designer, a little defensively. Westworld is not merely about shooting people or having sex or even about the incredible environment — it’s not about mindless thrills, it’s about placing visitors into the heart of their own, tailor-made adventure where they can become the (anti)hero. It’s about the story.

Oh, what sweet words to my ears.

Once upon a time, my actual job was Alternate Reality Game Designer. For three years, I was lead designer of a fictional world that blended straight into our own world. Tens of thousands of paying players would receive emails to their personal accounts, phone calls on their mobile, and letters in the mail. They’d discover adverts laden with clues in the newspaper, and when they’d meet with other players, one might escape onto a literal black helicopter when uncovered as an in-game mole.

It was a thrilling and incredibly stressful experience to create a world that was always ‘on’, but that’s what we were selling; unlike practically every other ARG to date, we weren’t advertising movies or cars or jeans. We were selling a standalone experience, one that aspired to provide complete immersion in interconnected narratives but — of course — wasn’t quite as immersive as Westworld.

I don’t pretend that Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy have ARGs foremost in their minds when writing Westworld. They were probably more interested in epic role-playing games and massively multiplayer online games like World of Warcraft or Grand Theft Auto or The Witcher 3. But I like to think that ARGs are closer in reality to what they’ve created. It’s only in ARGs that you physically step into a fictional world for days on end; it’s only ARGs that have attempted to blend real world storytelling and gameplay. So yes, I feel a frisson of delight as I watch the first show that reflects my job. I can imagine the millions of role-playing gamers gradually ageing into their 30s and 40s — a prime HBO subscriber demographic — feel just the same way.

It’s far too early to tell how much Westworld can tell us about our relationship with videogames. Stray too far from how a ‘real’ Westworld might work and the story loses its power to tell us about our own world. Even by the end of the second episode, you’re left wondering how, precisely, the theme park prevents players from accidentally stabbing each other, or from constantly breaking character and irritating other players keen to immerse themselves in the fiction.

But adhering too closely to gaming verisimilitude can produce an overly cautious and mechanical story. Even as a gaming and technology enthusiast, I have little interest in Westworld exploring the minutiae of experience points and AR field of vision.

Judging by its first two hours, I remain hopeful that Westworld will continue to address videogames. It’s a rich, untapped narrative vein to mine: what people will do to win, the seductive attraction of repetitive actions that make us feel like we’ve accomplished something, our desire for a world that we can master and yet can still surprise us.

In the mean time, I have too many silly ideas for Westworld writing projects. Here are just a few:

  • Diary of a Westworld game designer
  • How I’d design a Westworld fan ARG
  • Westworld Patch Notes
  • Westworld Metacritic Reviews

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s