Take one part “World of Warcraft,” two parts “Second Life,” season liberally with “Red Dead Redemption,” and bake for 30 years or until the robots start uprising—and you get HBO’s new sci-fi drama “Westworld.”
Originally “Westworld” was a movie directed by Michael Crichton, a man with an apparent penchant for stories about questionable entertainment going horribly wrong.
Now it’s a cable series HBO executives hope will help recoup all the money they paid Beyoncé and keep the “Game of Thrones” crowd entertained long enough in that show’s extended off season.
And, at least for me, it’s working.
The premise is every gamer’s favorite thought experiment: what would you do if you got to inhabit the worlds you play in? If you could do whatever you want with no consequence, what would you do? Would you be the hero or the villain or some nihilistic psychopath?
But before I can start asking myself if I’m a Paragon or a Renegade, I have a few basic questions to ask about the game first.
Where the Hell Am I?
I can’t enjoy Westworld from the comfort of my computer chair. I gotta actually leave my house. The last time I left my house to play a game was for “Pokémon Go” and even then, I didn’t stay out that long—nobody did. So if I gotta put on pants, I wanna know where I’m going.
Where is Westworld? I can’t tell if the game environment is truly open world or if I keep walking in one direction am I going to run up against an invisible wall. The environment has day/night cycles and weather events suggesting Westworld is outside, but if it is, how are they able to monitor that much land? Where are the real animals? How can they guarantee I won’t fall down a canyon and break my neck?
Or is this some kind of Hunger Games-esque situation where the Westworld Corporation plopped a huge dome on a huge section of land then got to work installing cameras and microphones and Wi-Fi and fake animals across every single inch of it? You can ride an elevator from a building that takes design cues from such delightful companies like Shinra and Umbrella Corp. and end up right in the middle of the Wild West.
So which is it? Because I really need to know in case the robot uprising pops off and I need to catch an Uber home.
Can Westworld Keep Me Safe?
I understand you sign a waiver (something I’m curious to see because it’s probably nine miles long) before entering the park promising not to sue, Westworld claims no responsibilities, yadda yadda yadda.
I get that. They have waivers and disclaimers posted for about every ride at every theme park.
But how safe is Westworld? You have this place populated with hosts programmed with their own personalities and designed to maximize guest immersion. Part of that immersion is conflict. I can kill a host, a host can kill a host, but a host cannot kill me.
How does that work?
In most science fiction fare robots are programmed with some form of Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws.
You can’t kill a human.
You must obey all human orders unless the order conflicts with rule #1.
You must preserve your existence unless such would conflict with rules #1 or #2.
These are basic laws that crop up in just about every robot story from “I, Robot” to “Bicentennial Man.”
Westworld robots, sorry hosts, defy guest orders, antagonize guests, and take actions that could potentially kill the guests. But when they do, guests don’t die— they’re just injured. So are the guns programmed to inflict lethal damage against a host but not a guest (kinda like how an induction burner is only hot if you’re a skillet?) And if that’s the case, what about bladed weapons? Does the host programming only allow for conflict up to a certain point? And even if that’s the case, who decides where that upper limit lies? Are there safety measures in place in case I get in over my head? Are hosts programmed with some kind of universal safety word I could shout to get them to stop, or am I supposed to just trust that host with a knife won’t kill me?
And then, what about the other guests?
If you’ve ever played on a PvP server you know people are jerks. That even with an entire world of robots upon which you can inflict the most violent delights, some people will still decide to kill or try to kill other players.
And since they can’t kill other players, they’re going to make those players’ experience miserable by taking away their ability to play the game: by killing all the NPCs—er hosts.
Which brings me to my next question:
What are the Rules?
In Westworld, guests can do whatever they want but there must be limits. What are those limits? Nearly every game has rules that govern the actions of their players. Programs that facilitate cheating are not allowed and their users get banned. Abusive behavior is not allowed and those caught are also banned. But this is an experience where abusive behavior (at least against the hosts) is encouraged or at the very least not a bannable offense: how, then, is this behavior controlled?
Because it has to be.
There’s no way Westworld can allow everyone to do everything they want and remain profitable. There’s going to be a few people whose idea of fun is killing every host they come across. Conversely, there will be people whose idea of a good time will be sleeping with everything and playing a few rounds of poker.
So whose experience do you value more?
I know I’d be pissed if I paid 40,000 dollars a day to interact with these hosts only to have to wait for them to respawn because some jerk killed them all. Not to mention it must be very labor and cost intensive to repair and memory wipe every host killed. So there has to be a set of rules that punish if not prohibit egregious behavior.
What are they?
And if Ed Harris is permitted to carry on however he pleases for the last 30 years, what kind of subscription plan/loyalty program is he on?
And how do I get it?
How Does Westworld Even Exist?
Video games have become the popular moral scapegoat for violence. When people, especially kids, do wrong parents and pundits start asking “What video games were they playing?” Some of that criticism is unearned. You can’t blame video games on childhood violence without placing some responsibility on parents for not better screening the content they allow their children to consume.
And some of that criticism is valid. So much so that certain video games get outright banned in some countries, or come with ratings and warnings advising of what content is inside.
Enough criticism can torpedo anything, or at least get it changed. So with a game that encourages rape and murder, how in the hell is this game still running?
If Westworld were just a virtual game, forums and social media would be lit up with thinkpieces about why this game should be banned if not boycotted. But Westworld is a game where you can inflict untold sufferings on damn near living creatures. You’re telling me these hosts—able to perceive love and hate and hurt: the very definition of sentient —do not warrant the same kind of protection we extend to animals all for sake of entertainment?
There would, should be protests, Senatorial investigations, ethics debates. Folks would be camped out at Westworld headquarters campaigning for host civil rights.
I hope they are.
Because I would really like to be on the right side of history when things inevitably go to hell.
And it will.
Because I can’t believe the same universe that contains “Paint it Black” doesn’t also contain “Jurassic Park” or “Terminator.”
So I think I’m going to keep 40,000 dollars and my butt at home, because those stories don’t end well for humans.
Ash Davis is a fanfiction writer turned freelancer, writing from the intersection at black, queer, feminist, and nerd. If she’s not ducking The Walking Dead spoilers (she’s a season behind) she’s probably writing the next great American fanfiction.