HBO’s new hit series Westworld has wowed audiences with its thought provoking narrative and engaging cast. The underlying themes of robotic ethics and the limits of human greed and ambition are what make the show so terrifying and wonderful. However, the ideals expressed in the show weren’t simply pulled from thin air, as showrunner Jonathan Nolan was heavily influenced by other forms of entertainment that grappled with the same themes, mainly video games.
Of the multitude of video games that could have had an influence on Westworld, the three that stand out the most are Bioshock, Red Dead Redemption, and System Shock. While the connections to Red Dead may seem the most glaring, it is rather the elements from the other two titles that are the most intriguing. The plot of Westworld revolves around a theme park designed to look like the American wild west. Human park goers intermix with a wide array of vividly lifelike androids called Hosts. The Hosts exist strictly for the pleasure of the attendees, as the humans are able to live out their wildest fantasies, no matter how violent or perverted.
The philosophical sticking point addressed throughout the series revolves around the idea of man playing god, and having to pay the price for his mistakes. By the end of the first episode both the audience and main characters are left asking themselves: what would happen if the Hosts became conscious of their own existence, and what would they do if they could hurt the park guests? This idea of androids realizing their true potential, and turning against their human masters, is the same driving force behind the System Shock series. Just as the A.I. SHODAN became fully aware of her true potential and strength in System Shock 2, so to do the androids of Westworld become aware of their horrific existence within the confines of the park. What’s more, the ignorance of man towards what the androids are truly capable of ties directly into the plot lines of both System Shock and Westworld. Park guests don’t think twice about the actions they take against the Hosts, seeing as how they believe they are just mindless husks with no concept of human emotion or logic.
One of the prominent plot lines running throughout the show revolves around the park’s creator, Dr. Robert Ford, trying to maintain the utopian playground that the park was meant to be. However, his efforts begin to crumble as the Hosts become self-aware, and outside human interference sends things into disarray. This refers back to the plot line of Bioshock, as billionaire Andrew Ryan sought to create a utopian society free from the shackles of religion and government, only to witness it brought down by bigotry and the quest for perfection. Dr. Ford’s obsession with keeping his guest immersed in the world he’s created conflicts with keeping the Hosts inhuman. The more lifelike he makes the androids, the bigger chance they have of realizing their own synthetic humanity. The most exciting part about this connection with Bioshock is seeing if the show will deliver the same impactful revelations that made Irrational’s landmark game so fantastic. There are already several mysterious subplots developing within the show, and the level of detail put into exposing Dr. Ford’s true intentions, as well as the hidden agendas of some of the guests, will be interesting to watch unfold.
The third and most obvious influence on Westworld is Rockstar’s masterpiece game Red Dead Redemption. The story-driven open world western gave players the chance to live out their wildest cowboy fantasies in the American Southwest and Mexico. This plays right into the narrative of Westworld, as the park is quite literally built around the same premise. However, the connection between the game and show is more self-aware than with the other two games. The show almost acts as a theatrical representation of what players would do in the game. What’s more, the actions of some of the guests in the show highlight the darker side of human emotion and power. While killing animated people inside the game may seem trivial and harmless, watching it happen in the show brings out the true inhumanity in these actions.
Westworld receives an increasing amount of critical praise with every passing episode, and it would be wrong not to think that part of this stems from what inspired it. Without the influence of the aforementioned titles, the show would not have taken the intricate form that it now inhabits. The success of this show is further testament to how strong its influences are, and how polished and rewarding the end result will be.