If you're anything like me, you've probably been sinking deeper and deeper into the mysterious Westworld, HBO's latest attempt at a sprawling, Game of Thrones-like television series. Especially with the latest (frustrating) round of major character deaths over on The Walking Dead, my Sunday nights have shifted from watching zombies to watching cowboys.
But there's another reason Westworld is so appealing to me, and that comes from the fact that the park within the show is essentially an incredibly futuristic video game. While real life is only just pushing into the realm of virtual reality, Westworld imagines a future in which players drop the "virtual" portion of that and literally enter the game world.
Granted, the show is more about exploring the nature of humanity if given freedom to indulge all desires, and what sorts of moral questions come from creating artificial life so advanced it's essentially human... but let's focus on the video game part. Several developers recently spoke with io9 and discussed their views of Westworld as it pertains to video games.
Most Interestingly, The Representation Of The Writing Process Appears To Get A Lot Right
Okay, so when I say "most interestingly," it may be a bit biased toward my own opinion as a writer. Still, several of the developers discussed when they realized the show was closer to video game design than they expected, and many answers revolved around the scenes in which the narrative lead, Lee, pitches his ideas for storylines.
Westworld (the park within the show), if you're not aware, is basically an open-world, Western-style theme park. "Players" enter the park in the same way you might imagine entering Disneyland. Upon entering, there's the main town that everyone begins their journey in, and scripted bits of dialogue from the "Hosts" (NPCs) will lead them down particular storylines.
For example, most people who enter encounter a group of cowboys looking at a "WANTED" poster who then ask the visitor if they are willing to help seek the wanted criminal and bring them to justice. In other words, the player is offered a quest!
When discussing the design process behind these quests, though, the developers being interviewed mentioned that Westworld's look behind the curtain is a bit familiar. One developer mentioned that the narrative lead was someone he both loved and hated because he's very much the annoying, yet affable writer that every game writer can be at times.
My favorite line, though, comes from Chris Avellone:
"It’s one of the most important things to disassociate yourself with in [sic] game writing (and game design). The moment you start dictating content/themes/story vs. allowing the player to be a participant in the story and carve their own path, you’re doing the player a disservice."
It's an incredibly poignant thought, and one that I think gets taken for granted in games that succeed in creating an open world for players to explore. Westworld has its narratives and quests, sure, but it's also open enough to allow visitors to make it their world rather than the world of the ones running the park.
The Social Aspect Of 'Westworld' Was Another Interesting Topic
When I say the social aspect was discussed, I don't mean exclusively the social aspect within the park. Rather, the social aspects of the ones designing the park seem to mirror a lot of real-life developers in corresponding roles. Anthony Hopkins character Ford, as Walt Williams points out, starts out humble and willing to talk with workers... up until the point that his personal vision is intruded upon. At that point, he makes it frighteningly clear who's in charge.
Similarly — and I found this both funny and oh-my-god too real — it's pointed out that a lot of the QA workers "secretly [think] they should be the guys on the upper levels," but that that mindset also comes from a place of wanting to learn and improve, while the guys at the top just want the QA and repair workers to just do their jobs. It's not an outright plot point or focus, but it's something the show works very well into the background.
As for the park itself, multiple developers pointed out how the social aspects of the world work well for players interested in making it their own world. Players are given subtle and not-so-subtle breadcrumbs, but ultimately they are the ones who control whether or not they interact with certain Hosts. Do you accompany the noble peacekeeper? Or do you spit in his face and try to strike a bargain with his target?
More importantly, and something I love to see pulled off well within games, are the small details. Several developers praised the way the show tosses in small details that elevate the park from feeling like a game world to feeling like a world made into a game. As Sean Vanaman so excellently puts it, "It’s not about the big boss fight, it’s about the small stuff you didn’t notice at first. That’s where the magic is."
And Like Many Of Us, (Most Of) These Developers Have Questions
Questions galore are likely something that anyone watching the show has had. Personally, I have my own share of questions while at the same time loving the way these questions are subtly answered over time — for example, elevators that can take workers to different parts of the park but sink into the ground after being used — but it's interesting to see what actual developers focus on versus what your average game-playing watcher focuses on.
Of course, one of the main questions being asked is the main question I've seen most people ask: How the heck does resetting the narrative work? With so many guests in the park, and the Hosts taking immense amounts of physical damage, it seems almost impossible to be able to reset the world as often as it is. However, where both mine and the developers' interest comes from curiosity, the developers clearly are also interested from a practical and technological standpoint.
Similarly, many are interested in the rules of the park. How can Hosts not damage people despite having guns that work against Hosts? How can people not hurt other people? But again, my interest in this matter is mostly interest for the sake of knowing. The developers seem more interested (rightfully so) in this question from a design standpoint. After all, that sort of programming and accounting for error seems almost impossible to be able to make work 100 percent of the time.
Still, the best answer has to come from Sean Vanaman:
"Man, I don’t give a shit. I’ve spent so many years being told by game designers 'well, you gotta do X and you can never do Y and Z is impossible.'
So, if I was actually in the show and could ask the designers of the park questions they would (in this fantasy) all be about the steps they take to suspend disbelief."
When you think about it, it's a pretty inspiring answer; focus on making work what you want to work, and not what others tell you won't work.
There's A Lot More To Discuss, Though!
The above topics are only a sampling of what was covered, and the entire interview is worth checking out in full, as it covers some pretty interesting topics such as:
- What game would these developers recommend the Man in Black play?
- The classic, "Is it a bug or a feature?" as it pertains to emergent self-awareness.
- A discussion of what (if anything) these developers would change about Westworld (the park).
- And frankly, quite a bit more.
What's your personal take/lingering questions on the video game aspects of Westworld?