Westworld is the ultimate videogame

Opinion
October 5, 2016 by Danielle Riendeau

How HBO's new series comments directly on the nastier side of our favorite hobby

This piece comes with a content warning for sexual violence.

I went into the first episode of Westworld -- HBO's latest slickly produced series, about a hyper-advanced virtual world, styled on the old west -- expecting something like a way prettier Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, explored further.

I mean, in some ways, it is. It's a sci-fi series set in the far future, with semi-sentient androids living in a park of 3D printed horses and gorgeous old west vistas. It's kind of like a holodeck program, and recalls a whole bunch of TNG's finest "holodeck gone haywire" episodes, like A Fistful of Datas, which was itself a western.

Its moral pondering comes closer to something like Measure of a Man or Voyager's episodes about The Doctor character, which questioned the treatment of sentient AI, the essential personhood of such beings, and their rights.

But Westworld -- starting hard in its very first episode -- doesn't just raise interesting questions and revel in it's fun wild west setting. It wants you to think -- really think -- about its implications. And it rubs your face in the most uncomfortable parts.

You know what else Westworld does beautifully? It comments on the game industry,  on the ethics of pleasure, and the broader landscape of entertainment.

Westworld (the park/game itself) is essentially a hyper-advanced MMO, with some LARP elements. But instead of homemade swords and ragtag outfits, it sports Walt Disney World's budget and attention to architectural detail, and repurposes Disney's audio-animatronic figures as advanced AI NPCs, with emotions, motivations and memories. These are "host" androids who believe themselves to be the characters living in a classic western town. Each day, their short-term memories are erased so they can go about their business without the trauma of remembering what awful things players did to them the day before.

Everything is scripted, with a degree of improvisation allowed, and the lead writer of the game goes on, in one scene, about the various narrative threads and intricate programming that makes it all work. He even gets pissed off when a player (a "guest," in the show's parlance, also a nod to Disney's theme parks) shoots a major character before he can give his speech, a clear nod to creators' frustration with players skipping cutscenes or otherwise ignoring painstakingly-produced story content.

The language of modern game design is clearly used to highlight these similarities. There are "quests," "hosts," and world events that recall MMO structures. Even the team of people who run the game can be understood in clear game industry roles: an executive producer, a creative lead, a head of programming, a lead writer/narrative designer.

This is all pretty explicit. What Westworld does so brilliantly is take more subtle shots at the dude-centric fantasies that inspire a good chunk of genre fiction, and hence a healthy number of big budget games. Those motivations fuel the business decisions that make those titles get made and marketed.

Westworld did far better than entertain me: it made me question my own pursuit of the perfect power fantasy.

The setting is very Old West: a racist, sexist environment where women characters are typically either young, milky white maidens to be saved or tarty prostitutes offering their wares in dusty saloons. Men of color, like an American Indian card dealer in the episode, are treated as fodder for abuse and violence.

Yes, there is a woman shooter on the "bad guys" team during a big bank robbery event, but she is the exception that proves the rule, making for a male-dominated world where (typically white) guys can -- and are encouraged to -- play rough. The creators expect them to fight and fuck and shoot their way through the world.

Early on, one male character alludes that "playing evil" was way more fun than taking the "good guy" chivalrous route. The marketing copy on HBO's site (itself mimicking Westworld's pitch) boasts "explore a world where every human appetite, no matter how noble or depraved, can be indulged." This is a macho-power-fantasy version of Disneyland on steroids, and there's a lot of rape in the first episode alone.

Is this freedom and encouragement to wreak havok so far removed from most big open-world games, including the ones I love dearly? Minus the obvious leaps in technology, the subject matter and basic verbs of the game in Westworld are pretty much the same.

It's something I struggle with in my own journey with a lot of action-oriented games. There are plenty of things I like about traditional masculine power fantasies: I want action and adventure and romance with saucy ladies and a whole world set out for my pleasure. I don't just want to be the hero and matter to the world, I want to dominate and bend the universe to my will (looking at you, Mass Effect).

At the risk of sounding like a dudely razor ad, I want to BE AWESOME.

But I don't want anyone to be hurt by these fantasies. And I sure as hell don't want to dial back the progress of women, even subtly.

I like that Westworld is making me look at our industry with fresh eyes. Oh, of course the drama is on a higher plane in the show -- when you bring sentient beings, human or not, into the fray, we're talking about subjugation and slavery, concepts that we cannot apply to AI characters in our primitive-by-comparison 2016 games.

But it asks, on a fundamental level: what do our power fantasies say about us? Do we engage them ethically, or do we hurt others in the breathless pursuit of pleasure?

It may be easy to divorce ourselves from Westworld's androids and AWESOME TECHNOLOGY, but it isn't as if our current landscape is without its own moral quandaries. Our own problems about who can afford leisure and fun, and who works and/or suffers to provide it.