//This post contains spoilers as to broad setting details, but I’m going to try to keep plot spoilers light. Still, just assume, if you care, don’t read this.
The recent “show that your friends keep insisting you watch” has been HBO’s Westworld, a show inspired by the 1973 movie of the same name, in which rich assholes gallivant across a faux-Wild West theme park full of androids that don’t know they’re part of a theme park. Westworld is as realistic a recreation of the Wild West (at least, as people think of it) as possible, with the exception of the fact that guests basically cannot experience any negative consequences of their actions, allowing them to (show’s words, not mine) rape and pillage their way across the land, knowing anyone they maim and slaughter will show up in their predefined loops the next day, their memory wiped of the atrocities committed.
I don’t necessarily want to just rant about why the show is good (that’s not what this blog is for) but the particular reason I’m so enthralled by the show is how much the show is about game design without being about game design. The employees of the company which runs Westworld talk about seeding the environment with narratives for Guests to discover, and have arguments on whether the Guests should follow along with narratives or just wreak havoc upon them. Guests argue about which side-quests are worth your time.
Obviously, this isn’t the main theme of the show (talk about niche appeal), but there’s certainly a reading of the show that very much does have something to say about games and narrative design.
For starters, Westworld has quite a bit to say about the depravity of modern media. Guests in the park tend to enjoy violently murdering, among other things, the lifelike Hosts in the park. The pinnacle of this comes in a big, town-wide gunfight early on in the series.
This scene is great, and features some fantastic Wild West gunslingin’. However, it comes to an abrupt halt when the leader of the bandits raiding the town, as well as his next in command, are shot by a Guest and left to die on the ground. As the Guest giddily jumps for joy at the murder he just committed, giddy with how lifelike the bandits’ violent dying spasms are, I all of a sudden became extremely uncomfortable with how excited this man was to commit murder.
The counterpoint that characters in the show use is one that we in the games industry have used quite a bit: a sane person knows the distinction between a simulacra of a human and a human. The same argument used for Mortal Kombat is getting used here, but it feels like the show is forcing the viewer to take a hard look at that reasoning. “Look at this,” it says. “Isn’t this guy kinda fucked up? He didn’t shoot a person, and you said that’s OK,” it taunts. “So where exactly do you draw the line? How real is real enough?”
These sorts of moments are what makes the show really powerful in this regard. There are great, well choreographed, spectacles of fight scenes, but put side by side with scenes of Guests truly acting like monsters, before those same Guests perform those high-octane stunts, you’re left feeling gross about the entire situation.
Another interesting point the show has to make is the idea of predefined vs. dynamic narratives. Lee Sizemore, the head of the Narrative department of Westworld, has a variety of discussions with coworkers about how his Guests (read, players) interact with his narratives. He spends all this time constructing stories and character arcs and speeches, only to have Guests either ignore them, or “shoot and fuck” them into disarray.
I think the interesting thing here is this idea of “blaming” Guests for ruining storylines. While we don’t really see an uninterrupted playthrough of any of the narratives in the show, what we see of them portrays them as pretty simple affairs, mostly involving murder, simple interpersonal interactions, and some basic travel. Westworld as a whole seems to only encourage shooting and boning as means of interaction with the world (two of the first things you see when you get off the train are a brothel and Union soldiers signing people up for a manhunt). Hell, before you even get into Westworld, the lobby area is full of guns and attractive Hosts ready and able to engage in any debauchery the Guests want. When representatives of the corporation that run Westworld come down from on high to make some changes, they comment on a desire to make Hosts “simpler” and to simplify interactions between them.
In this way, the way Guests behave in Westworld, and the events and tone of the show, can be seen as a direct result of Narrative. Westworld, in this reading, is a game, and it was Narrative’s responsibility to teach Guests how to play. Guests were shown guns and sexy ladies during their “tutorial”, and everything they do in Westworld is based off of what they were “taught” to do, how they were “taught” to play. I think this is a very important point: when players enter our game, what we teach them, and what we don’t teach them, will color how they want to interact with the entire game world. If we want players to behave a certain way, we can’t just expect them to do that, we need to teach them that such a thing is possible. Perhaps by giving players tutorial levels where they learn the controls to jump and shoot, we’re limiting the player’s ability to see the game as anything other than stuff to jump over and enemies to shoot.
I’m sure there’s more Westworld has to tell us as designers of narratives, and I’ll probably pick up on more in my second viewing, but for the moment, I think one of the reasons Westworld is the best show I saw this year is its commentary about the way we tell stories.