Westworld and Video Games
Westworld and Video Games
If you’ve been keeping up-to-date with the latest and greatest on TV recently then chances are you’ve probably heard of the new HBO show, Westworld. The show, co-written by husband and wife Johnathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, depicts a theme park of sorts that allows its privileged customers to live out their fantasy life in a version of the Wild West. The immersion is furthered by the fact that many of the inhabitants of this world aren’t human but robots/androids called hosts. These hosts cannot harm the guests but are incredibly lifelike and only exist to make the scenario more believable. The concept comes from Michael Crichton who directed the 1973 film Westworld but is perhaps better known for being the author of Jurassic Park.
If the idea of living out a fantasy life as a cowboy or any other character sounds familiar that may be because you’re a gamer who enjoys role playing games (RPGs). The show is basically one big RPG, allowing the customers to reinvent themselves for a period of time and do whatever they like. Some of the hosts offer intimate pleasures or drink while others offer what are essentially quests for customers to take part in. There are even ‘higher level’ or more difficult quests as you venture further into Westworld.
The writers of the show, Nolan and Joy haven’t shied away from the show’s connection to the gaming world and at New York Comic Con this year described some of the influences on the show:
“I was a big fan of the Bioshock video games, which I thought were amongst the most literate and thoughtful pieces of entertainment that I’ve seen in the last ten years,” Nolan said. “Just brilliant.”
“I listened to the commentary with Ken Levine, who was the designer of those games, talking about the non-player characters,'” Nolan continued. “And in a scene that I just ran through and shot everyone and kept going, he was talking about how much craft had gone into all the conversations the NPCs have. All their dreams and aspirations, and I just thought ‘Oh isn’t that tragic. That’s sad.’ The player just ignores them all…”
Other game inspirations Nolan and Joy mentioned were Red Dead Redemption and Grand Theft Auto. With Red Dead Redemption many of the comparisons are obvious: they share a setting, are violent and allow the user to experience life as a cowboy. John Marston’s tale is a very personal one and many of the characters in the game are distractions that add flavour to the world rather than directly servicing Marston’s journey. Similarly, in Westworld many of the customers come with an objective and when watching the show you can hear people say things like ‘I went bad last time’. Much like an RPG they are deciding on their character from the outset and the hosts are just there to provide whatever experience the customer is looking for.
Grand Theft Auto offers players a similar freedom albeit in a modern world setting. In addition to being incredibly popular with many gamers they are often highlighted by mainstream media as featuring quite graphic violence. While the media’s relationship with violent video games is a whole other topic on its own, players can take their frustration out on NPC’s in the game with bullets, explosives or simply running them over in a car. Grand Theft Auto is one of the most immersive franchises in gaming and it certainly doesn’t restrict violence towards its fictional characters and many players explore this freedom. In Westworld, several characters begin shooting people almost as soon as they arrive as they seek out adventure and danger with no repercussions. One character Logan has very little regard for the hosts and is simply there for the thrill while his companion William begins to empathize with the hosts who are incredibly lifelike and react to being shot or hurt just like a human would. Westworld allows its customers to live out a fantasy, it is escapism at its most resonant; not unlike an RPG.
Perhaps the largest influence on Westworld is Bioshock. A game that depicts an underwater world named Rapture that has slipped into dystopia and which was originally intended to be a haven for its citizens. There are certainly parallels between Rapture’s creator Andrew Ryan and Westworld’s creator Dr. Robert Ford. Like Ryan, Ford has constructed this environment for people to live in but Ford is much more akin to a game designer who has sway over the content of Westworld from the ‘quests’ to the look and feel of the park. There is a sense of limitlessness in Westworld, the idea that if you can see it you can go there not dissimilar to vast open-world games.
The connection between the show and video games goes on and on. In the latest episode, the hosts are revealed to have stats just like an RPG that the management can manipulate and their ‘routines’ are much like the NPC routines in games like The Elder Scrolls or Grand Theft Auto which continue regardless of the player’s presence. Westworld‘s main mystery surrounds the Man in Black who has intimate knowledge of the park and its ‘quests’ and who is seeking a maze which some have speculated is the ‘endgame’ or ‘completion’ of Westworld. The idea behind the park is immersion and over the years the hosts have grown more sophisticated, advanced and subtle in their interactions to the point where they know resemble humans very closely, much like video games have improved their immersion over time with virtual reality the latest initiative to immerse gamers, Westworld has improved its ability to immerse its customers in the Wild West. Unlike video games, Westworld shows us behind the curtain as much of the screen time is devoted to the management of the park and the ongoing power struggle over its direction.
When considered seriously, Westworld may be the most accurate representation of a video game on either the small screen or the big screen. Check out veteran game designer Hideo Kojima’s tweet about the show:
Watched “Westworld” E2. What Anthony Hopkins said in that story was an exact theory of my game design. pic.twitter.com/KbJaXQ5N8b
— HIDEO_KOJIMA (@HIDEO_KOJIMA_EN) November 1, 2016
The quote Kojima references is spoken by Dr. Henry Ford, the creator of Westworld played by Anthony Hopkins:
“They come back because of the subtleties, the details.
“They come back because they discover something they imagined…they hadn’t noticed before, something they fall in love with.
“They are not looking for the story that tells them who they are. They already know who they are.
“They are here because they wanted a glimpse of who they could be.”
The parallels between Westworld and video games is plain to see and I encourage anyone to watch it if they have an interest in video games or TV (because the show is damn good too). Westworld is a smart modernization of the original film from the 1970’s when video games weren’t as immersive or prevalent as they are today and I look forward to the remainder of this season.
If you like RPG’s why not check out my article on what make’s a great open-world RPG.
What do you think of Westworld and its video game inspirations? Let me know by commenting below.