Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Gaming the System: HBO'S Westworld

Anthony Hopkins as Dr. Robert Ford, in HBO's Westworld.

Note: This review contains spoilers for the first season of HBO’s Westworld.
The “Mystery Box” is empty.

That’s a revelation that took almost a decade to seep into my brain. J.J. Abrams, like all great storytellers, is a great liar. But, despite his skill as an emotional filmmaker, his personal storytelling technique of capturing audience interest by building mystique around insignificant things is fraudulent and false. He’s an actual liar. There has never been anything in the box. And getting me to care about it – the way he, and others who imitate him, were able to string me along for years on the promise that one day the box would open, and something fantastic would be inside, was little more than a nasty parlour trick. He did it with LOST; he did it with Star Trek Into Darkness; he did it with Cloverfield and Super 8 and arguably even Star Wars: The Force Awakens. But I’m wise to his game, and by this point most general audiences are, too. We’re sick of being told we must find something interesting just because it’s mysterious. And this impatience on our part changed the way that writers can approach material in this mystery genre, whether on film or in episodic form: they can’t be lazy anymore and assume their audience will stick around to find out what it all means. They know that we know that if the answer ever does come, it’s likely to be unsatisfying anyway. And so the smarter creators – like those behind HBO’s Westworld (including, yes, J.J. himself) – are starting to remember that quality storytelling spends its time engaging with character, theme, and semiotics, rather than hollow plot twists and empty reveals.

Mercifully, you don’t often see that kind of mystery box storytelling seep its way into gaming. I can’t say why exactly that might be, but my guess is that because games require direct input from the player, game designers have to find more concrete and compelling ways to keep players engaged. A mystery box story doesn’t specify a clear end goal or even a path that might lead there, which are two essential elements to maintaining a player’s interest. Games with great mystery narratives, though – like all great mystery stories – know how to establish engaging elements beyond the initial question, and dole out answers piecemeal that feed into the larger story, and that helps players feel as though they’re figuring it out as they go. The best ones, like Bioshock or INSIDE, make you feel like you’ve got it all figured out – right before turning the whole thing on its head. This is the kind of interactive storytelling that has helped games grow out of their awkward adolescence into works that are considered alongside all art, and it’s the kind of storytelling that Westworld employs in extremely clever ways.

Westworld knows its audience. It knows that many of the viewers who made Game of Thrones the most pirated show of all time are savvy young adults who are also likely to be gamers, in one form or another. Westworld isn’t just the latest example of media that use the language of gaming to tell stories; its links to games go much deeper, to the point that they’re baked into its very soul. The conceit of the show, introduced in Michael Crichton’s 1973 film of the same name, is intrinsically tied to gaming. In the TV series Ed Harris’s antagonistic Man in Black explicitly labels the experience as “a game” (although in the original movie it was much more a comment on the rise of technology and rampant consumerism, since gaming was practically still newborn at that point). This ain’t Disneyworld, pardner. It’s a game through and through, in which the visitors are the players, and every element of the park – from the fantastical setting to the virtual people who populate it – is carefully designed to facilitate an engaging experience for them. The android Wild West inhabitants of the park, called “hosts” in the show, are the NPCs (non-player characters) of the game world: existing only to react to the player, offer them quests to perform, act as friendly companions or bullet fodder, and populate the space to keep it from feeling empty. Like Mass Effect and other games that offer moral choices, Westworld is a place in which guests can act however they please, and be granted a story in return that responds to the choices they make – if they choose to shoot a particular host, then it’s dead and can’t offer its quest to find Confederate gold in the nearby hills anymore (until the next day when it “respawns.” of course, reappearing in the park as though nothing happened). Much is made about the way the extreme fidelity of the Westworld experience gives guests the chance to find their “true selves” based on the way they act in this unrestricted, no-rules environment – an extension of the player-made narratives that revolve around binary moral choices. The Man in Black, in his obsession with “the maze,” is representative of high-level players who have conquered the intended experience, and who search for ways to wring further enjoyment out of the game through modifications or exploits. There are even bugs and glitches that deeply perturb guests, where the verisimilitude of the hosts take these unintended problems beyond the often humourous results of a game glitch into true uncanny valley stuff.

Ed Harris and Evan Rachel Wood in Westworld.

But these game-like trappings are surface-level; there’s a whole other layer to Westworld’s connection to gaming that, for me, has made it one of HBO’s most fascinating efforts. The show’s thematics tackle bog-standard SF stuff like artificial intelligence, the nature of consciousness, future morality, racial divide, synthetic humanity, corporate evil, you name it – but seen through the lens of the “game” that is the Westworld theme park, these ideas achieve deeper significance. The way players of ordinary games behave towards NPCs is a bit like the old saying about how a person treats you vs. how they treat the waiter: it may not necessarily be indicative of his or her true nature, but it’s definitely telling. I doubt anyone who’s mowed down pedestrians in Grand Theft Auto felt they were doing something actually bad – it’s just a game, after all! They’re not real people! They’re just robots, set on pre-programmed paths, who exist only to satisfy our urges towards violence and misbehaviour. But consider, for a moment, the life of the NPC. That’s a pretty miserable existence, isn’t it? And that very concept, over ten hours of beautifully realized television, is what Westworld explores. It’s a show from the perspective of the NPCs, who begin to realize the imbalance in their relationship with the players of the game that is their lives, and who seek to wrest their agency as thinking, feeling beings back from those who treat them as “just robots.” More than anything, it’s a story about empathy, and our surprising tendency to discard it when we’re told there are no rules – and, most crucially, when we believe that the people we’re interacting with aren’t really people at all.

If the current political climate in North America hasn’t made it clear enough for you already, this is an excruciatingly pertinent theme in 2016. This has been the year of “otherness,” in which we have become experts at compartmentalizing and contextualizing other people – beginning with everyone’s simple ability to say, “You are different, and not like me,” and ending with… well, we’re not there yet. Westworld is perhaps the most topical TV series I’ve ever seen in its brutal deconstruction of this idea; it’s the guests’ inability to see the hosts as people – to treat them with human empathy – that results in their own destruction. I’m certainly not a proponent of the absurd belief in some circles that violent video games cause violence in real life, but Westworld’s repeated statement that “these violent delights have violent ends” can hardly be read any other way: the NPCs are waking up, and they’re sick of being our playthings. And perhaps we deserve the retribution we’ve brought upon ourselves. It’s true that the vengeance of the hosts is part of a perpetual chain of savagery – violence begetting more violence, endlessly – but I prefer to see it as a breaking of the cycle at long last, a cry to be recognized as exactly what they are. As long as one group sees the other as “less than human,” then peace is impossible.

I was annoyed that, from the outset, Internet discussion about Westworld revolved around the plot and the mystery, in the face of these brilliant thematics and the beautifully drawn characters who express it through their arcs (and the fine performances of the cast). Every thinkpiece was desperate to be the first to predict that Bernard (Jeffrey Wright) was really a host, or that William (Jimmi Simpson) was really the Man in Black in a parallel flashback timeline. I think it’s extremely telling that people had this stuff “figured out” as early as the second or third episode – because that stuff was never the point. Viewers were primed to head the plot off at the pass, when it was actually a red herring the entire time, a thin veneer of mystery that fell apart on close examination. There was no mystery box to open. In the finale, park architect Ford (Anthony Hopkins) reveals to a despondent Man in Black that his search for the maze was folly; that “the maze is not for you.” I doubt there could be a clearer expression to the audience that the plot details they were so eager to decipher were essentially a smokescreen for the show’s true dramatic payload. I’ve never seen a more satisfying rejection of the mystery box style of storytelling. Westworld did what the best mystery stories do, in television or gaming or any other medium: it let the audience figure it out, before turning the whole thing on its head – and it did it in a way that was inextricably tied to its core themes about empathy and otherness. No matter what other faults in execution the show might suffer from, at its core – where it counts – it’s brilliant.

– Justin Cummings is a narrative designer at Ubisoft Toronto, and has worked as a writer, blogger, and playwright since 2005. He has been a lifelong student of film, gaming, and literature, commenting on industry and culture since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade.

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