HBO’s gun slinging and pulsating Sci-fi/Western epic Westworld debuted two weeks ago and it has already gained favorable responses. Variety claim that the show hit the highest viewing figure numbers for a HBO premiere since True Detective in 2014. It has been over 40 years since the 1973 release of Michael Crichton’s original film starring Yul Brynner. Subsequently since the themes and concepts surrounding the plausibility and vividness of virtual reality has taken on a whole different meaning. Expanding the scientific scope of the original, creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy have given Westworld a virtual relatedness that offers a stark realization to the virtues and vices of our own increasingly virtual world.
It can be argued that the theatrical 1973 Westworld film was ahead of it’s time, delving into the intimidating, prodigious themes of ‘other’ worlds, artificial life and the morality of human catharsis. It also dared to combine the binary genres of Science fiction and the Western, a mix that has since failed to inspire mainstream audiences and critics. But where Michael Crichton’s 1973 cinematic version touches on marvels and ideas that would seem fantastical and startling to audiences in the 1970s, HBO’s updated episodic revitalization startles because the technologies and sciences behind virtual reality and artificial life is already on our doorstep.
**The following contains discussion of Westworld episode one**
There are numerous elements that make Westworld pointedly postmodern, abstractly playing upon our notions of reality and morality. The show’s hosts, the artificially created population residing in Westworld‘s ‘Western’ inspired society live their lives routinely, programmed to unwittingly perform the same constructed role play everyday in a groundhog day scenario at the behest of the corporate minds who oversee operations. Human newcomers, or guests, enter this constructed reality for their own enjoyment and catharsis in what is essentially an open-world filled with all the imaginable features of the wild west you can think of, and they can interact with the world and it’s participants however they please. But the world’s hosts cannot harm the human guests, and so all sorts of atrocities and desires can be performed against them. This was ever so evident in Westworld‘s opening episode “The Original“, as Ed Harris’s ‘ The man in Black’ chillingly rampaged through the world’s town consciously free from consequence. Yet if the artificial hosts display increasing levels of human likeness, what could it do to the conscience of the human guests and indeed the host’s creators?
The idea of humans immersing themselves into other worlds to escape the everyday is no longer restricted to fiction. In 1973 there were limits to our capabilities of imagining artificial reality, whereas nowadays technology allows us to stamp our own personalities into immersive virtual worlds.
Westworld‘s association with video games has been discussed by the show’s creators and stars. Speaking to Ricky Camilleri for Entertainment Weekly, Jeffrey Wright (who plays Bernard Lowe, who oversees programming at Westworld) says that:
“The guests in the park have really stepped through the virtual reality lens into the experience… So now they’re interacting in full form with the game that is the park, and with the characters and hosts in a way that now, we kind of experience through GTA V and these type of role-playing games.”
Jeffery Wright continues, acknowledging the levels of technological advancement since Michael Crichton’s 1973 movie:
“When the Michael Crichton movie was made, we were playing Pong, right? So now we’re playing these more advanced games; we’re going to project even further down the road and try to imagine what it would be like if we actually stepped through the console and interacted with [Artificial Intelligence],”
These words are echoed by one of the shows creators Jonathan Nolan. Quoted by Digital Spy and speaking recently at New York Comic Con, Nolan, discussing the show’s sadistic ‘Man in Black’ explains:
“The way that we act in our simulations is not […] how we act in the real world, That binary aspect of his personality is something we’re exploring.”
Nolan highlights various video game influences, including Grand Theft Auto V and Bio Shock, whilst Westworld recalls other open-world games such as the Western based Red Dead Redemption. The human guests of Westworld can almost pass as the player in a video game. For instance, some guests explore the extensive landscape. Already mentioned, the mysterious ‘The Man in Black’ freely causes mayhem and carnage. Others enter in the hunt for a wanted criminal or treasure, their pursuits much akin to that of video game quests. Other guest desires are sexual in nature. But how far does the show’s video game inspiration go? With such a link in mind, scrutinizing the world of Westworld as a video game evolution, there are many instances that reflect the virtual nature of the show’s world and our own. We see the malfunction of the show’s hosts, which to the human guests appears as an anomaly in the Westworld‘s reality. Likewise too does a glitch in our gaming or computing experiences temporarily break our attention, alerting us to the artificiality of what we are experiencing.
The video game industry has taken momentous strides in technological advances. Sandbox games offer the gamer a new, unpredictable experience each time they play, allowing players to shape their world. The video game No Man’s Sky boldly allows the player to explore a whole universe, making new unique discoveries with millions of planets and systems to explore. And the impending release of virtual reality headsets could spark another major advancement in virtual connectivity. Yet even those who don’t regularly play video games interact virtually in similar ways, with social media essentially acting as a virtual extensions of ourselves. The extension of the guest’s personalities in Westworld have no boundaries. Whether it be the ethics concerning artificial creation or virtual reality, Westworld ponders on the serious questions that arise from technological and scientific advancements, and how we as humans adapt to these dramatic changes. These platforms for expression show us who we are, what we can be, and what we want to be.
In the strive for perfection, to an end that is suspiciously as yet kept secret in the show, Westworld‘s artificial hosts undergo frequent upgrades to improve their human likeness, in order to provide a more convincing experience for their clients. But again this is a concept not so alien to our own strive for technological perfection, with new versions and constant upgrades to all forms of devices and machines, to such an extent that we realize the potential flaws these progresses and advancements may have while undergoing necessary improvements. The faulty hosts in Westworld get recalled just as a faulty car or mobile phone would if they are faulty on mass. This is because the artificial hosts are seen merely as products by the corporate entity and the guests. Though we may seem different attitudes and treatment of the hosts should they become more human. Westworld‘s artificial hosts go through multiple versions and upgrades, and those with faults beyond repair are hoarded away in storage. But the closer the virtual environment gets to reality, and the closer the artificial hosts become to humans, in turn the ethical and moral boundaries surrounding them become increasingly complicated.
Westworld is even looking to further explore the virtual relationship with it’s audience, their website offering another level of interaction online. The show expressively explores the themes of artificial life and virtual inclusiveness and the questions its creation, advancement and evolution offers. And perhaps it stands as a warning to our own future. Westworld may be a risky venture, merging genres, retreading common Science fiction themes and burdened with the weight of high expectation. But Westworld‘s true markers are hauntingly similar to our own progress today, and we wait to see whether the influences discussed will come into further fruition as the series goes on.
What do you think? Is there a clear ‘video game’ influence in Westworld? How well does Westworld explore the moral dilemmas of artificial reality? Feel free to comment on you thoughts!