Is HBO's 'Westworld' Really About Video Games?

Network's new Sunday night show examines what games like 'Red Dead Redemption' tell us about the people who play them

HBO's 'Westworld' feels like an open-world video game. Credit: HBO

HBO's new science-fiction drama Westworld explores a lot of familiar sci-fi themes: Do we live in a simulation? Can artificial intelligence become self-aware? Do robots have consciousness? What's unusual is that it does so in a setting that resembles an open-world video game. In fact, Jeffrey Wright, one of the stars of the show, just compared it to GTA V.

Westworld, which premiered last Sunday, takes place in a futuristic theme park that could have been designed by Bethesda Game Studios or Rockstar. The park’s visitors, who are paying to live out an Old West fantasy, can choose whether to go on optional missions, like hunting down an outlaw for a bounty. The theme park's designers squabble over the effects of programming updates and argue over how much agency the visitors should be given. And the robots glitch in a way that will be familiar to anyone who's played Fallout.

Chris Suellentrop, the host of the podcast Shall We Play a Game?, and Simon Cox, Glixel's content director, chatted about how video games influenced Westworld, and what it might tell us about the future of games.

Chris Suellentrop: When TV critics and movie critics say a show or a film is "like a video game," they usually mean that it is lightweight, fast-paced or has cheesy computer graphics. But Westworld is part of a small group of movies and shows that are "like a video game" in deeper, more sophisticated ways – that show how games are influencing movies and television, and not just the other way around.

Simon Cox: The gamey-ness of the show hit me about 30 minutes in. There's a scene when the Old West theme park's narrative designer, Lee Sizemore, is making a weaselly play for the top job to the park manager. He says something along the lines of: "Why don't we just roll the robots back to the previous, less advanced versions because people understand those and they creep people out less?" The implication was that less realism meant less creepiness – something violent or dark games can run into with ever more real graphics.

Chris: Westworld is about open-world video games in the same way that Edge of Tomorrow was about shooters. The connections struck me from the very start, from the train ride that looks exactly like the opening of Rockstar's Red Dead Redemption (which, in our infinitely recursive entertainment, of course looks exactly like Old West movies). While riding into the fantasy park where the show’s live-action game takes place, a character talks about how much more fun it is to play as a villain.

Later, you watch the "hosts" – the game's non-player characters, who are robots in Westworld – doing the same things over and over, repeating their lines and following the same paths. And then the narrative designer argues with a systems designer (in the TV show's case, a security expert who is worried about dangerous, out-of-control A.I.) over the tensions between their goals.

Simon: What's interesting is that the players (who are called "guests") can't seem to tell the difference between the robots and the humans (the other guests). The NPCs – the "non-player-characters" – are so good, they're indistinguishable from the players. So it feels, genre-wise, as if it's a hybrid of Red Dead Redemption with something like World of Warcraft on a roleplaying server, where people pretend the game is real.

Chris: And the players can shoot the NPCs, but not the other way around – which, to be fair, is the opposite of many video games.

Simon: Given the current gaming zeitgeist – with virtual reality starting to have its moment – I wonder if, for the next nine episodes, the show will basically address issues that we think might be coming down the pike with that particular technology: sex, violence, isolation, even class. Do you think it's sort of the perfect show to do that?

Chris: I think the game – ha, I mean the show – is going to explore why interactive entertainment drives people to base fantasies about sex and violence. Though, to be honest, I'm not sure video games are guiltier on that front than traditional, non-interactive entertainment. Westworld is violent and filled with naked women in brothels in a way that’s routine for HBO's prestigious, highbrow, non-interactive TV shows.

Still, people are definitely terrified of interactivity. That would be new terrain for a TV show, way more interesting than yet another look at "Killer A.I." – which science fiction has been exploring since HAL.

Simon: Right. Killer A.I. is not nearly as interesting as asking hard questions about where we, as humans and as consumers (which the park guests are), draw the line, morally.

Chris: So you think that this show has a chance to address VR in a way that moves us past the Lawnmower Man era of VR movies?

Simon: Indirectly, yeah. And with less shit CG.

As a fan of the original 1973 Westworld film with Yul Brynner (delightfully riffing on his own previous hero role in The Magnificent Seven), I loved that scene in the new show at the farm where I realized that Teddy wasn't a guest and that the Man in Black wasn't a robot. That's the moment where you realize that there's some complexity here that goes well beyond the original Seventies film and that you're in for a ride.

Chris: I never saw the original movie. Did it prefigure these concerns about interactivity and virtual reality? Is it somehow, anachronistically, about open-world video games even though they didn't exist yet?

Simon: It's Jurassic Park with robots, pretty much, but they never really explain or even delve very deeply into the motives of the androids who go nuts and kill the guests. It's a bloodbath, and the last 20 minutes of the film is basically the end of The Terminator (surely Cameron was influenced by that) as Yul Brynner's The Gunslinger robot relentlessly pursues the guests. It was obviously about technophobia, but it was pretty broadly handled. What echoes the TV show today is the viewer's unease with the guests taking advantage of the robots for sex and to gratify their most base desires.

Chris: I guess my biggest fear for the show right now is that Ed Harris is the only major character who represents the player.

Simon: Ed Harris's Man in Black is for sure a griefer. I think his age might be important. He talks about having been a visitor for 30 years, so maybe he prefers something about the old park and he's unhappy with how things have changed. That would dovetail pretty neatly with a lament we hear from a certain group of gamers – the ones that want games to "just be games" and not try to say something political or have any kind of agenda.

We're so new to VR that we're like the moviegoers who cowered when they saw an oncoming train or a gunslinging bandit pointing a gun at them.

Chris: One developer in my Twitter feed wondered whether Ed Harris' character is a QA tester who's trying to break the game.

Simon: Don't you think he's just a stand-in for gamers in general? The griefer part is that he's messing with the plot, but if you think about it, his actions at the farm are not that far off-script for the guests. They're permissible within the rules of the game. Until he cuts that one host's lid off, he's just a violent participant.

Yet the park in Westworld, like virtual reality will someday be, is so realistic that we recoil at his actions. This immersion is the difference. In VR, you'll kill someone and see their blood on your hands – and they will really be your hands – and watch the light leave their eyes. What will that do to us?

Resident Evil 7 in VR is interesting to me because it was simply too much for some people when they showed it at E3. Resident Evil is bearable on a TV but it's something else – something viscerally different – in VR. The technology changed our relationship with the game. Due to how immediately real it seems, perhaps VR will actually reduce the ultraviolence we see in games. Stabbing someone up close – if the reaction to Resident Evil 7's gore is any guide – will feel much different to shooting someone from across a room.

Chris: The Westworld scene you mentioned earlier, the one when the narrative designer questions how realistic the guests want the hosts to be, addresses that tension. It reminded me of something Neil Druckmann, the Uncharted creative director, said to me when I interviewed him for Glixel. He talked about how no player would want to be as affected by killing a video game character as a Real Live Non-Sociopathic Human would be affected by killing a real person.

I suspect that we're so new to VR that we're like the (possibly apocryphal) moviegoers who cowered when they saw an oncoming train or a gunslinging bandit pointing a gun at them. Once we spend more time inside these systems, we'll realize that VR is a virtual space, not a corporeal one, and we'll start to play with the spaces in a way that we're kind of afraid to do right now. So I guess we're all on the way to becoming Ed Harris.

Simon: Something to look forward to, then.

I see things going the other way. The Man in Black has moved from the thrill of being the hero who murders for a reason – which is maybe what some of the other guests are paying for – to enjoying torturing sentient beings for seemingly no purpose. He's not just an asshole, he's a sick fuck. I don't think many people will want to move that far along the spectrum in VR. I think they'll want to be a hero more often than not.

Chris: So we have sympathetic NPCs, sympathetic game designers, and a malevolent player. I guess there's a woman in the brothel, Maeve, who might be a guest. But she might be a host. I can't tell.

Unless I'm forgetting someone?

Simon: There's the other dude, the one who's there with his wife.

Chris: The hero who foils the narrative designer's big speech.

Simon: Yeah, that guy. I think he might be a callback to the original movie. There was a character like that – a sort of hen-pecked loser who's enjoying having some power for the first time in his life.

Chris: Well, when you put it that way, I start to get worried again.

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