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Westworld’s creators were inspired by Red Dead Redemption and BioShock

Be kind to your NPCs

Jimmi Simpson and Ben Barnes in Westworld
Logan (Ben Barnes) and his co-worker William (Jimmi Simpson) on the train into Westworld.
Simone de Rochefort has been producing & hosting YouTube videos for Polygon since 2016. She co-directed the upcoming documentary The Great Game: The Making of Spycraft.

It’s no secret that Westworld’s executive producers Lisa Joy Nolan and Jonathan Nolan drew inspiration from video games for their new HBO show. They discussed video games and their influence on Westworld at the show’s New York Comic Con panel.

Westworld is about a Western theme park where the “hosts” are all hyper-human robots that the human visitors can interact with. It’s easy to draw similarities between the titular Westworld and a video game. The hosts in the park serve as NPCs, drawing the guests into adventures. That could mean something as innocuous as a treasure hunt, or something as taboo as murder. The guests have free rein to do as they please.

Among the video game inspirations for Westworld were Rockstar’s open-world adventure games — most notably, Red Dead Redemption and the Grand Theft Auto series, which both Nolans played for research.

“My wife is the world’s most boring Grand Theft Auto player,” Jonathan Nolan said.

“The city looks beautiful if you just slow it down and take your time,” Lisa Joy Nolan rebutted. This attitude of enjoying an open-world video game — treating it as a theme park, essentially — is addressed in the show’s second episode, which airs tonight on HBO (it’s already available on demand). In the episode, “Chestnut,” we’re introduced to two new human visitors.

Logan treats the park like “a Grand Theft Auto mission of indulgence,” said actor Ben Barnes during the panel. His friend William (Jimmi Simpson) is more reluctant to see the park as a fantasy. To follow the metaphor, he is the Grand Theft Auto player who stops at traffic lights.

But the Nolans are fascinated by the way that people can use games to explore violent fantasies that might be completely at odds with their everyday personalities. This behavior finds its logical extreme in the Man in Black (Ed Harris). “It really speaks to the game-like aspect of it,” said Jonathan Nolan.

“The way that we act in our simulations is not [...] how we act in the real world,” Jonathan Nolan said of Harris’ character. “That binary aspect of his personality is something we’re exploring.”

Jonathan Nolan also name-dropped the BioShock series, saying the games are “amongst the most literate and thoughtful pieces of entertainment I’ve seen in the last ten years.”

He said he was especially struck by a video in which he remembered BioShock creative director Ken Levine talking about designing entire conversations between the game’s NPCs that players would never hear if they raced through an area guns blazing.

“It’s tragic,” Nolan said. The robot hosts of Westworld live a similarly precarious existence. At any moment, they can be shot and “killed” by a guest, which forces the park’s administrators to clean up the damage and wipe the hosts’ memories. But as we begin to see in the first and especially second episodes of the show, these traumatic events can still leave a mark.

For more on Westworld, check out our thoughts on the pilot. Westworld airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on HBO.