Do we Still Think 'Westworld' Was About Video Games?

Do we Still Think 'Westworld' Was About Video Games?

Ed Harris as The Man in Black, 'Westworld' HBO/Glixel

Spoiler warning! We revisit our theories in the light of this weekend's 'Westworld' season finale

Spoiler warning! We revisit our theories in the light of this weekend's 'Westworld' season finale

HBO's $100 million re-imagining of a pair of Seventies movies as a ten-part show came to a close on Sunday night, with a bloody conclusion that left the door open for a (perhaps) much less cryptic second Westworld season.

From the beginning, the parallels and references to games, gameplay – and even gamers themselves – have been front and center. Following the first episode, Glixel's Simon Cox and writer/podcaster Chris Suellentrop chewed them over, noting that Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy's creation was a comment on everything from open-world style role-playing games like Grand Theft Auto 3 to Gamergate. A lot has happened in the park since. Chris and Simon met again to compare notes on the finale and where Westworld leaves gamers.

Big fat spoiler warning for what lies ahead, obviously.

Simon Cox: Now that the season has ended, do we still think it's a great big metaphor for games?

Chris Suellentrop: Um, maybe? I mean, mostly yes. The security team that’s out to stop Maeve in the season finale is still called "QA," The Man in Black talks about going with Dolores to the "next level." And as a writer at Deadspin put it, "The show built a genuinely fascinating world and populated it with characters who are by their nature unfascinating." What could be a better metaphor for video games than that? I think the best summation of the first season of Westworld came from Laura Miller in Slate, who wrote, "Westworld is, among other things, an extended meditation on video games and the moral damage we do to ourselves when we behave cruelly, whether or not anyone actually gets hurt."

Simon: Are you saying you're not that interested in Koopa Troopa's backstory in Super Mario World? I'm not sure I agree the characters aren't fascinating. I actually found the world the guests play in less fascinating as it's really just this very on-the-nose recreation of every Western movie – but the world of Delos and the show – if that's more what Deadspin was talking about, assume it was – is more interesting. The characters to me are really the whole show, which is how I feel about The Last of Us and, for that matter, Uncharted. Both suddenly very topical, too. Open world game comparisons aside, then – the magic of both those games is that the characters themselves are at least as fascinating as the world. The Ringer wrote that the show-as-game had moved from PVE – the player versus the environment or world – to PVP, fighting other sentient players. That seem about right to you?

I'm most disappointed, as I was at the end of the pilot, about how little the show thinks of video game players

Chris: To be fair, I warmed to the show over its 10 episodes. At first, I liked it mainly as an intellectual exercise – not as a riddle to be solved on Reddit, but as an exploration of game design and interactivity and what it would mean if the characters in Skyrim were sentient. By the end of the seventh episode, I was genuinely interested in Maeve, Dolores, Bernard, Ford and the Man in Black. The hosts are definitely more interesting than the guests or, Ford aside, the people who run the park. But I suppose that’s part of the point.

As for Ben Lindbergh’s piece in The Ringer, it was a smart take, and I hate to quibble with a smart take. But is Westworld really a multiplayer shooter? There definitely seems to be a human-robot war in the offing, and season 2 may offer a new "map," or a new world (with samurai?!) but the game's most devoted player is still William, and he's a single-player campaign man through and through.

If anything – and maybe this is me caring more about the grand design than the actual storyline – I'm most disappointed, as I was at the end of the pilot, about how little the show thinks of video game players.

Simon: Maybe it's more that what's interesting – and "game-y" – is that you have characters moving from that limited, directed role to empowered protagonists/players. Not only that but if this is a metaphor for games, then we're all now wondering just who is a host and who isn't – and that includes the Delos shareholders who are presumably all dead, and even Ford the creator (surely the ultimate player). How great would it be to get to the end of a game – something like a Deus-Ex or a Witcher 3 – and find out that your most intransigent foe had been a human-controlled player all along? I feel like Dark Souls prodded at that with its ability to let other players invade your game, but has anyone done that in a game yet?

Chris: That would certainly open up some new jobs at the Chinese gold farms that flourished at the height of World of Warcraft’s popularity.

William is Westworld’s most devoted player, one who spends a lifetime cracking its secrets, learning its systems, unraveling mysteries that the designers didn’t even intend to create. The maze, after all, was not built for him. This is precisely the sort of high-level play, the deep mastery of an object, that Ian Bogost praises in his new book Play Anything as the definition of "fun." Yet in Westworld, that behavior is painted as depraved rather than enlightened. Then again, William was scalping sentient robots. But can anyone play this game without becoming a monster?

Simon: But he might be redeemed, in my mind, as a player by the end – and I do mean literally the very end – by the look on his face as he realizes he's been shot by a host. To me, that look was "you're free at last!" So was the Man in Black/William all along really wanting the same thing as Ford seems to now want? And that Arnold wanted? Or does his obvious pleasure at finally getting a decent challenge – like Blizzard raising the level cap or Dark Souls dropping some tough DLC – just reflect his addiction to the game and his need to stay in it at all costs?

Chris: I guess I interpreted it as joy at the sequel – the Westworld equivalent of drooling over the trailer for The Last of Us 2.

The show doesn’t have a high opinion of game designers, either, so it’s not like only the players come in for a beating. In an early episode, a narrative designer unveils an expansion that Ford derides as lowbrow and filled with sex and violence rather than what players actually seek (whatever that is) – which was one moment when the show seemed to judge the designers for making the world and not just the guests for playing in it. And the finale was about how Arnold and Ford had created consciousness, and then consigned their creations to hell. Arnold’s solution was to destroy his work. Ford’s was to try to liberate it. I guess I’d prefer my designers do the latter!

Simon: Yeah, the show is at the very least a critique of entertainment and games - but the opinion of game designers was definitely varied. I sort of felt like it was saying "there's good stuff out there – you just need to find it" when it comes to quality narratives. The Lee Sizemore narrative designer character was so broadly drawn and so obviously shallow that he was an easy target as a stand-in for crappy game writers. It was perhaps condemning the past of games while pointing a finger in the direction of its future.

Chris: In Season 2, William spends a quiet summer as a fire lookout, pondering the meaning of life.

Simon: I feel like I played Firewatch all wrong, so maybe I'm William. Food for thought… actually, we sort of stumbled into this comparison, but I felt as if the way Firewatch played with game tropes/conventions was pretty meta in the same way Westworld is. You spend most of the game waiting for a yeti, or a murderer, or aliens or something to shoot at or change things up and in the end, it's just a tragic set of circumstances in someone's life that happens to use a first-person perspective to deliver. Gone Home messed with horror conventions, too – very lightly – with the candles in the attic. I feel like the world is starting to mess with gaming in this way, and it's a good thing.

Chris: It’s definitely a good thing that a prestige HBO show not only took video games seriously, but did so in a way that was smart and literate about them – subtle enough to be appreciated by the players of Rockstar and Bethesda games while totally missed by people who just wanted to watch a show about killer robots. There was even a joke about stealth barks, when Dolores thought she heard something and then said, "Must have been the wind."

Simon: As a final question: do we agree that without the progress games have made in the past 10-15 years, this show either wouldn't exist or would be something entirely different?

Chris: This show couldn’t exist without Grand Theft Auto 3 and its progeny. It is a show not just about video games but about a very specific type of video game, and what it means to play those games, and whether playing them a certain way is morally corrupting. I think that’s a serious question, and I hope the show continues to pose it. I guess I hope the answers in Season 2 are a little grayer.

Simon: I'm a sucker for Naughty Dog games – clearly – but I'm wondering what the theme will be next season. Neil Druckmann just said that the difference between The Last Of Us and the just-announced sequel is that the first game was about love and this next one will be about hate.

Chris: Neil loves Fumito Ueda’s games. The Last of Us was inspired in part by Ico. And you could say the same thing about Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, even though they’re not direct sequels. Ueda once said Shadow of the Colossus was about "cruelty."

Simon: He even said this week, in a response to Miyazaki in our interview that one of the words he'd use to describe Shadow is "punishment."

Chris: But now I think we’re asking too much from Season 2 of Westworld. It won’t be that good.