After four episodes, HBO’s Westworld has already fueled more fan conspiracies than an entire season of Lost, but there’s far more to the show than trivial debates about whether or not the whole thing is set on Mars. Westworld offers a surprisingly nuanced interrogation of humanity, and the most striking thing about it is the way that it uses the language of video games to explore its themes.
Westworld is particularly adept in its use of player choice. Westworld (the place) is essentially a real-life Western sandbox along the lines of Red Dead Redemption, a theme park populated with lifelike robots called Hosts. As an immersive, interactive experience, Westworld teaches guests something about themselves — or at least what they want from their entertainment — and the setup is dramatically interesting because we might not like all of the answers.
The show’s best examples of that dynamic are Logan (Ben Barnes) and William (Jimmi Simpson), two guests who arrive at the park in the second episode. Logan is a Westworld regular who comes to indulge in sensory pleasures, displaying little interest in anything beyond eating, fighting, and fucking. He’s there to blow off steam, seeking a release similar to that attributed to a game like Grand Theft Auto.
William, on the other hand, is making his first trip to the park and is far more reserved. He opts not to sleep with the Host in his dressing room because he’s unwilling to cheat and hesitant to take advantage of a compliant robot. Later, when William and Logan encounter a distressed Host named Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood), he helps her because the Hosts are realistic enough to trigger an involuntary empathetic response.
Logan is indifferent to Dolores, and you could argue that his lack of empathy mirrors his abrasive treatment of human beings. William is visibly uncomfortable with Logan’s debauchery, yet Logan continues to pressure William to participate. Logan assumes that his version of Westworld is the best version of Westworld, failing to grasp that some guests might like the campfires (and the narrative) more than the sex.
At the same time, Logan is right insofar as Westworld is structured as a game with rules that can be exploited. When he tells William not to talk to certain Hosts, he does so in the same way that a video game walkthrough would advise players to skip boring conversations. It’s just a waste of time. The Hosts aren’t real people, so you could just as easily argue that William sees humanity where none exists. That will change if or when the Hosts gain consciousness (there’s a lot going on in Westworld), but the guests are not yet aware of anything happening behind the scenes. From a tourist’s perspective, Westworld is as advertised, a healthy outlet for their basest human desires. William and Logan merely represent two different ways to play.
The bigger question is whether or not in-game decisions have any relationship to one’s behavior outside the park. For the most part, the answer seems to be ‘no.’ While the Hosts are eerily lifelike, guests like Logan are aware of the facade. Hosts can be identified because they’re always in character. If they get shot, they’ll be patched up and returned to the park in a pristine state the following morning. The unique physics and the historical costumes make it clear that it’s a fantasy setting where there’s no risk of bodily harm. Logan indulges because he knows he can’t do those things when he returns to civilization, and the Westworld experience is far enough removed from reality that it mitigates any chance of confusion.
However, there is a flipside to that equation, and the guests’ treatment of the Hosts is far more unsettling when it comes to park-sanctioned instances of torture and rape. For example, Dolores is a farmer’s daughter who lives on a ranch outside of town. Raiding her family’s homestead for the express purpose of raping her seems to be one of the more popular activities in the park. The pilot opens with one such scene featuring Ed Harris’s Man in Black, and later events with other guests suggest that Dolores is a frequent victim of such attacks.
Though the scenes are disturbing, the ethical fallout is more ambiguous than it is on a show like game of Game of Thrones, where the narrative scars are permanent. In a strictly utilitarian sense, no people are harmed in Westworld. Dolores is a robot designed specifically to absorb physical and emotional abuse. Is it really that surprising when guests decide to stress test the equipment?
Of course, the acts depicted on Westworld are horrific. At a gut level, a utilitarian analysis feels wrong, and not only because the show has implied that Dolores retains her memories and is rapidly becoming self-aware. Rather, it’s disturbing because it gives the lie to more optimistic notions of inherent human decency. Westworld panders to people who engage in cruelty and domination as a form of escapism, suggesting that people are monsters because they choose to be monsters when they don’t think anyone is watching.
That’s also why it’s reasonable to ask whether or not there’s any correlation with actual behavior. Unlike western gunfights, sexual assault occurs with alarming frequency in the real world and often goes unreported and unpunished, so there’s less distance between fiction and reality. As the current political cycle demonstrates, there’s nothing hypothetical about a patriarchal society in which men believe they can get away with sexual assault. If you knew someone went to Westworld to rape the Hosts, would you feel safe around that person when he got home?
That critique would not resonate as strongly without the element of choice. Most serial television traffics in linear cause and effect in which people cannot always predict the outcomes of their actions. Westworld constantly refreshes the status quo and ensures that the players have perfect information. That gives the decision itself far more weight than the consequences, and the fear is that Westworld offers a more honest depiction of humanity because people are at their worst when told that their actions have no social or legal repercussions. Gaming already has a troubling history with sexist and misogynistic content fostering toxic worldviews. How much worse does that get when a place like Westworld allows guests to act on their most vicious, latent impulses?
It’s too early to tell how Westworld will resolve those issues (we haven’t even touched on the park’s in-show creators), but what’s telling (and encouraging) is that Westworld does not propagate the kind of moral panic that has followed gaming since its inception. The park is depicted as a popular destination, suggesting there’s nothing weird about wanting to interact with a fictional world as a form of escapism. It therefore feels like a very modern portrayal of gaming, using that vocabulary to ask tough questions without condemning the medium as a whole. In that regard, Westworld might be the first mainstream TV show that normalizes the language of video games for an interactive generation, with the central understanding that Westworld is as much a reflection of the player as it is a physical place.
So forget about the conspiracy theories. Westworld is captivating because it has such a strong understanding of the quandaries that scare us today, and I can’t wait to see how the game evolves as the rules change in the weeks ahead.