Electric Sheep

WestworldOpeningHorse
I was two when the original Westworld came out, so there’s no way I could’ve seen it until the early 80s. I don’t remember anything about the movie itself. But it had so much pop cultural weight that I vividly remember images from it, in particular Yul Brenner’s Gunslinger, and especially the image of his face coming off. It’s one of those iconic images of the 1970s, right up there with Steve Austin fighting a Sasquatch and Charlton Heston cursing at the Statue of Liberty.

Which is a big part of why I think the reversal in the first episode of HBO’s Westworld is so brilliant. It’s not just a silly attention-grabbing twist like having Captain Kirk’s most famous lines delivered by Spock and vice versa. When it’s revealed that The Man in Black played by Ed Harris is actually one of the guests and not the robotic hosts, it’s packed with a lot more significance than just a fake-out callback. It’s an overture for the entire series.

Where do your sympathies lie, and how quickly do they change? Why do they change once it’s revealed a character is “real” or not? If you can’t tell the difference between the hosts and the guests, then why is there a difference at all? Are the Man in Black’s actions still reprehensible when you consider that he’s just playing a game? And what happens when we realize we’re at least one level removed from everything, and the question of “real” or “fake” is moot because everyone’s a character in a TV series?

The Assassination of Teddy Flood by Some Griefer smh!

On the podcast Shall We Play a Game?, the hosts (human, I’m presuming) JJ Sutherland and Chris Sullentrop have spent a couple of episodes talking about Westworld, specifically how the central conceit of the theme park compares to open-world video games.

They were disappointed that the series focused so strongly on the implications of artificial intelligences becoming sentient, because that’s a concept that’s already been exhaustively explored in decades of science fiction. Here’s a TV series that has the opportunity to be fully informed by video game culture, and it seems like a waste to spend that just doing a retread of all the Star Trek episodes about Data.

In particular, Sullentrop felt that the show clearly wanted us to empathize with the hosts and find the Man in Black completely reprehensible. But he’s merely playing the game (or, as we later find out, the meta-game). If he’s been visiting Westworld for 30 years, then he’s seen the cycles repeat over and over. He’s seen all of these characters be murdered and come back the next day with no signs of trauma and no memory of what had happened. He’s seen the older models, which are just barely removed from current-day Audo-Animatronics and couldn’t possibly be mistaken for a human.

By that measure, the Man in Black was just killing an NPC in a video game, but the series was playing it up as grand tragedy. That’s the same kind of thing that’s been used as a gag, like Austin Powers asking why nobody thinks about how things affect the family of a henchman.

I don’t quite agree with their criticisms. The idea of AIs gaining sentience isn’t a new one, but I think Westworld is combining it with the notion of interactivity and intent to add more nuance to the entire question of ethics and culpability in arts and entertainment. It’s a discussion that came up a lot about games in the early-to-mid-2000s, as opportunists tried to create a panic about “murder simulators” like Grand Theft Auto. Everybody who played and/or made video games was forced to take a step back and consider the question: is it obscene, or at best unhealthy, to be enjoying a hobby that’s disproportionately focused on murdering ever-increasingly realistic computer-generated human beings?

At the time, I thought we generally came to a consensus, and the consensus was a resounding “…err, probably not?” Whenever a watchdog group tries to go on a crusade against an artistic medium, all the hand-wringing and pearl-clutching ultimately falls to the basic fact that most adults can distinguish fiction from reality. Players do things in games like GTA specifically because they know they’re not real. So much time was wasted criticizing the game for glorifying violence, when it would’ve been better spent criticizing the game for believing that its adolescent bullshit was howlingly clever and biting satire.

Stay a While, and Listen

Westworld responds to the whole discussion with the question: “okay, fine, but what if the NPCs were really convincingly realistic?”

Episode two introduces us to a new everyman protagonist William and his douchebro companion Logan, two for-real-this-time guests who give us a chance to experience the park as an outsider coming in. William’s a first-time visitor who’s guided through an orientation by a beautiful woman. He asks, indirectly, whether she’s one of the android hosts or an employee of the park. Her response is one of the core ideas of the entire series: “If you can’t tell, does it matter?”

The characters tend to use the term “theme park” to describe Westworld, but most of the terminology throughout the series treats it like an open-world video game. There are mentions of levels, zones, and easter eggs. We see the guests get invited on quests in much the same way they do in video game equivalents: a seemingly random encounter with a character who introduces a side story.

When William gets approached by one of these — a grizzled old prospector with a story about a missing treasure — Logan warns him not to waste his time on such a “low level” distraction. When the same prospector tries again to tell his story, later inside a restaurant, Logan responds by stabbing him. He pins the old man’s hand to the table, causing him to scream in pain and shock and bleed all over everything in the middle of dinner.

There’s no question that the character is an android, or that it’ll quickly be reset with no memory of the event, patched up to give his quest to someone else. There’s also no question that it’s a supremely dick move on the part of Logan, vulgar and needlessly cruel. Knowing that it’s not “real” doesn’t do much to mitigate the fact that he chose to violently attack someone that could scream and bleed. Westworld‘s not content to say “they know it’s not real” and leave it at that.

Whoroborous

Earlier in the series, there’s an important scene in which the park’s narrative designer pitches a new storyline to the board of directors. You can tell it’s an important scene because it’s got a ton of extras and an Anthony Hopkins monologue. The narrative designer is describing a dark and violent adventure that would tick off all the “adult content” boxes in a video game or, for that matter, an HBO series. There’s “self-cannibalism” and “something I like to call the whoroborous,” which I have to admit is genius in how economically it reinforces that this is an irredeemably loathsome character. He promises that the experience will give guests the “privilege of getting to know the character they’re most interested in: themselves.”

After his pitch, he’s completely shut down by Hopkins as the park’s co-creator and ineffable creative director. He dismisses it as nothing but cheap thrills and parlor tricks. The guests “already know who they are. They’re here because they want a glimpse of who they could be.” And then the unbreakable combo burn to cap it off: “The only thing your story tells me, Mr. Sizemore, is who you are.”

It works as a statement about the “death of the artist” and an encapsulation of about a decade’s worth of online discussion about narrative games. With any game that’s not purely abstract, there’s going to be a tension between systems and narrative. I think it’s a nice touch that Westworld depicts them as two separate divisions within the company who each have no respect for the work of the other. It’s also interesting that the show so far has seemed a lot more sympathetic to the systems team than the narrative designers, considering that the show runners are both writers.

For a long stretch in the early 2000s, there was a backlash against narrative in video games, after AAA developers abused the whole notion of interactivity with over-long cut-scenes. The overriding sentiment seemed to be that narrative was a stopgap until we could realize a fully systems-driven interactive environment. Like Star Trek‘s holodecks, or of course, Westworld. Procedural generation, environmental storytelling, and emergent narratives were the future! So it was interesting to see a fictionalized account of that technology idealized and perfected, and the fiction still demands narrative designers.

The unique power of interactive entertainment is that it deals with potentials and possibility spaces. It’s well-described by that idea of players being able to discover who they could be, instead of who they are. A designer imposing a pre-determined story on players is narrowing all the thousands of possibilities down to one or two. For the player, it’s passive listening.

But a guest in the 1973 version of Westworld would be exposed to the opposite extreme: nothing but settings, characters, and systems. The only story driving the experience is the guest’s own, so there’s little chance for discovery.

The original movie and the new series have similar scenes: a newly-arrived guest comes into his own by shooting a bad guy. In the original, the new guest (Richard Benjamin) gets bullied by the Gunslinger, his pal (James Brolin) tells him to kill him, and so he does. He does it a second time, is put in jail, and his pal helps him escape by blowing up the side of the jail and murdering the sheriff.

In the new series, William leaves the orientation and chooses a white hat as his last decision: as we heard earlier, “the guests already know who they are.” Later, bandits start a shootout in town. William discovers that he’s not completely invincible in Westworld, as he gets shot and knocked back. He’s about to stay back out of the fight until he notices one of the prostitutes is in danger. He responds by aiming his gun at the threatening bandit, and he fires it for the first time, killing the bandit and saving the girl.

He’d already defined himself as a good guy, but it wasn’t until the story surprised him and pushed back against him that he took action. Without both the audience and the artist taking part, there’s little chance for discovery. It ends up like having a conversation with yourself, or having your head up your own ass.

(Incidentally: re-watching the original Westworld, I was pleasantly surprised to see the park had a NASA-style control room complete with rows of computers with spinning tape drives. They’d monitor the guests and respond with events like “initiate the queen’s infidelity” or “cue the bar fight.” It’s like a live action version of the “narrative engines” that people have spent over a decade pitching in video games, like a perpetual motion engine run on snake oil).

How The West Was 0x01

As much as I liked the series, I initially assumed that keeping the Western setting was a weird, clumsy anachronism. I’m not a huge fan of all of Michael Crichton’s work, but he was indisputibly a genius at recognizing trends and being able to exploit them. He came up with Westworld right as the western was fading and dystopian sci-fi was getting popular. But now, like Kris Straub says in his webcomic, we don’t even make movies about the Old West anymore. If it were made in 2016, it’d have to be Game of Thrones But With Robots. It’s weird to expect Westerns to have a resurgence at a time that’s far enough in the future to have androids indistinguishable from humans.

It may not be plausible, but for storytelling, it makes a ton of sense. The American frontier setting has just the right connotation of adventure, lawlessness, freedom, and familiarity for a theme park where rich people shoot and have sex with robots. Westerns in particular are all about symbols that got encoded into pop culture over decades: white hats, black hats, guns, “savages”, gallows, saloons with world-weary madames. You can instantly distinguish between the “theme park” and “real world” on sight, and you can pick up on characters’ identities, relationships, and back stories almost as easily.

One of the things that impressed me so much about the HBO series’s pilot is how economical it is at setting up the story. It focuses almost completely on Dolores and how everything relates to her. The show doesn’t spend a lot of time explaining the concept of the theme park or details about how everything works, trusting that audiences will be able to follow along through context and that amazing opening sequence. All the traditional introduction — William’s orientation and his arrival at the park — is saved for the second episode. It’s no longer strictly necessary by that point, so can mostly serve as character introduction for William and Logan.

Much of that economy of storytelling is possible because of the iconography of Westerns. The stories don’t have to be that complicated; they just have to be understandable. They’re all in service of the “real” story, which at least at the start, is all about headier stuff like what it means to be sentient and how our actions define us.

That’s also what’s so impressive about Evan Rachel Wood’s performance as Dolores. She often has to play multiple versions of the character within the same scene, constantly switching between them not just in attitude but in accent. It’s especially remarkable in her “sessions” with Bernard (Jeffrey Wright), where she has to go from being completely in character, to being an android playing that character, to being an android, to being an android who’s starting to gain sentience. Each shift has to read instantly, because it often lasts for only a single line of dialogue.

There’s a scene in which Dolores is alone with Teddy (James Marsden), delivering a conversation that was written for them and that you can tell they’d both acted out countless times before, and you can tell immediately when she’s gone off script. She’s started asking questions a real woman would ask, and Teddy’s unable to answer without another cliche.

Lady Westworld for Her

Making a story that plays with well-worn stereotypes always seems to make some audiences suspicious. I’m not sure if it’s actually a new phenomenon, but over the past few years I’ve noticed that critics of popular art like games, comics, and TV series, are extremely reluctant to recognize intent on the part of the creators. Emily Nussbaum’s “The Meta-Politics of Westworld in The New Yorker is far from the most egregious example, but it’s the one I read most recently.

Presumably because she’s coming at the show not as a video game player but as a TV critic, Nussbaum believes that the metatext in Westworld is about television: it “introduces itself as a science-fiction thriller about cyborgs who become self-aware, then reveals its true identity as what happens when an HBO drama struggles to do the same.” She concludes that the first four episodes have their moments, but that the series never goes beyond its premise “into something profound.”

I think by making assumptions about the show’s ambitions and influences, the essay does the series a real disservice. Nussbaum ends her essay by contrasting the sexist Westerns of the 50s and 60s with the new series’s focus on characters like Dolores and Thandie Newton’s Maeve Millay, but concludes:

This is not to say that the show is feminist in any clear or uncontradictory way — like many series of this school, it often treats male fantasy as a default setting, something that everyone can enjoy. It’s baffling why certain demographics would ever pay to visit Westworld. Would straight women be titillated or depressed by cyborg hookers? Why would a lesbian guest — coded, obnoxiously, as less than hot — behave with a prostitute exactly as a straight man would? Where are all the gay male bachelor parties? […] So female customers get scattered like raisins into the oatmeal of male action; and, while the cast is visually polyglot, the dialogue is color-blind. The result is a layer of insoluble instability, a puzzle that the viewer has to work out for herself: Is Westworld the blinkered macho fantasy, or is that “Westworld”? It’s a meta-cliffhanger with its own allure, leaving us only one way to find out: stay tuned for next week’s episode.

Except it’s really not a difficult puzzle. The only things that make it tricky are the assumption that depicting something is the same as endorsing it, and holding onto an ostensibly open-minded but ultimately prescriptive notion of gender. That’s especially unfortunate when you consider that so much of the series is about how we’re defined as people by our actions and behavior instead of a predetermined identity.

Westworld doesn’t seem to be focused on gender, because its core tension isn’t men vs women but humans vs robots. The park is a movie-and-TV fantasy version of the Old West, so like its inspiration, it’s disproportionately male and women are confined to homesteads and whorehouses. But the series treats gender as arbitrary.

As far as pure representation goes: both women and men are represented at every level of the organization from management to tech staff to artistic staff to operations. Even “on stage,” the show makes an effort to show women — and robots designed to look like women — in prominent roles, like a bandit leader or a deputy.

But the criticism of Westworld as being a “male fantasy” is about more than just representation. And here, it makes assumptions about gender — the demographic split between stuff boys like and stuff girls like — that I’d hoped we were all maturing out of. It assumes that of course, straight women and “gay bachelor parties” wouldn’t want to ride horses and shoot guns and have lots of sex. In video games, players and publishers both have spent years trying to defend the shitty depiction (or lack of depiction) of women in shooters and open-world games by asserting the patently false statement that women just don’t play those games. It leads to a gross notion of demographics split down binary gender lines, where presumably, Westworld is for boys and Sex and the City is for girls (and gay men).

Even if you accept the traditional definitions of masculine vs feminine qualities, Westworld has indeed been feminist in an uncontradictory and unambiguous way. It’s in a sequence about Maeve, her appeal to the guests, and a systems tech named Elsie (Shannon Woodward). Over the course of the second episode, we see the staff reacting to Maeve’s declining popularity as a sexual object with the guests.

We see three versions of the scene where she delivers a short written monologue in which she arrived in America and discovered that she had the freedom to do “whatever the fuck I wanted” (because when Westworld has an idea, it likes to drive it home all the way). After the first fails because Maeve has a severe flashback to an earlier “life,” a pair of techs from the narrative division come in. The man does a quick exam and concludes “I’d fuck her,” and the woman orders him to double Maeve’s “aggression” characteristic; “She’s a hooker. No need to be coy.”

After that, we see Maeve deliver the same speech to an intimidated guest, who slinks away bashfully. With so many failures, she’ll have to be decommissioned! That’s when Elsie steps in, does an analysis, then undoes the clumsy changes from the “morons in narrative.” She restores aggression to normal but increases Maeve’s perception and “emotional acuity.” We see the scene play out a third time, Maeve nails delivery of the story, and she hooks up a guest with exactly who he wants, in the form of a different prostitute.

Choosing empathy over aggression: it really couldn’t be less ambiguous without delivering another explicit monologue.

The Man Who Made Out With Liberty Valance

I find the criticism annoying because one of my favorite aspects of Westworld is how it avoids explict moralizing. The show depicts sexuality and orientation as being almost as arbitrary as gender.

Either the park has a disproportionate number of gay or bisexual employees and guests, or the show is depicting a future in which nobody’s as hung up on sexual orientation as we are, and everyone’s a little bisexual. (I hope it’s the latter). Either way, neither the characters nor the show seem to care one way or the other. Logan pairs up with both a male and female host the second he arrives at the park. Later, he’s shown having sex with two different women and a man, and it’s not made explicit who’s a host and who’s a guest.

In the first episode, Elsie is shown making out with one of the female hosts when no one is looking. The show does pay attention to it and treat it as ominous, but not because it’s two women. It’s notable because it shows how even the employees are unable to stop thinking of the hosts as if they were people.

(Anthony Hopkins’s character reinforces this idea later on, when he notices that a worker has put a gown around one of the hosts. He chastises the worker, tears off the gown, and cuts the host’s face with a scalpel to prove that it’s just an object. “It has no modesty to be preserved,” he insists, even though I side with the poor worker. I wouldn’t want to spend every day at my job with a dong in my face, anthropomorphized or not).

We see two different women guests taking advantage of women prostitutes, so I’m not sure who’s the one Nussbaum describes as “coded, obnoxiously, as less than hot.” Regardless, it’s the most obnoxious part of her review. For one thing, I can’t imagine the actress would be thrilled to hear that she’s somehow not hot enough to be a positive representation of lesbian and bisexual women. For another, they’re guests. Almost all of the guests are “coded to be less than hot.”

In fact, we should’ve been able to tell that Teddy wasn’t one of the guests from scene one. Simply because he’s played my James Marsden, who has a face too handsome to look quite real. All of the hosts are cast to be striking — either traditionally attractive like Evan Rachel Wood, Thandie Newton, and Marsden; or character-actor memorable. The guests and the employees are supposed to read as real people. (Which is why someone who looks like Shannon Woodward is made to look movie-librarian average).

If You Can’t Tell, Does it Matter?

So if the puzzle is how Westworld feels about Westworld the place, there are a few clues. Like how the employees all seem miserable, paranoid, and lonely. How they comment how horribly the hosts are treated and the only redeeming factor is that they can’t remember any of it. How a guest is shown shooting a bandit leader in a clumsy anti-climax of a dramatic scene, and then he goofily gets his wife with him to pose with the corpse. How the man running the park’s “story” is vulgar, self-important, and thinks in terms of lurid, cheap thrills and stereotypes. How a drunk guest interrupts another scene by killing Teddy for no reason, right in the middle of a conversation, and then unloads his gun into the body and shouts “now that’s a vacation!”

There’s another scene from the original Westworld that has a parallel in the HBO series. It’s after Richard Benjamin’s character has murdered the Gunslinger just for spilling his drink, then had sex with a prostitute robot with the sound of gunfire from a bank robbery coming in from the street outside. He was also in a pointless bar fight that destroyed the entire saloon, shot and killed the town sheriff while escaping from jail, and murdered the Gunslinger a second time, but I honestly can’t remember what happened in what order. But at some point after his murder and sex spree, he leans back and tells his pal that he’s having a lot of fun, and they smile knowingly and the scene ends.

In the first episode of the new series, the scene cuts to a shack out in the wilderness in which HBO Series-style sex is happening all over. A generically handsome guest stands up from the bed and tells his pal that he’s having a lot of fun. His pal is “coded as less than hot” but it’s Kyle Bornheimer, who Hollywood casts as Average Everyman but we all know is really pretty hot. In any case, Kyle does more than just smile knowingly, he says how this is just the beginning and Teddy, their guide, will take them on an adventure. And if they get bored, “we’ll just use him for target practice.” The camera moves to Teddy, staring blankly with no reaction as a fly crawls across his face.

The original Westworld is an uncomplicated movie. It’s a sequence of events with no larger message apart from “don’t give guns to robots.” The new series shows sad and lonely people pouring their loneliness into robotic companions, companions who are gradually gaining sentience due to the memory of the horrible torture they’re subjected to. It expands the ethics of interactivity into a meditation on how our actions define us. I’d say that if you can’t tell the difference, it does matter.