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Is Westworld the Ultimate Analog for Gaming?

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Have you ever wished there was a place where you could indulge yourself in all of the baser instincts of your animal being, without the real-life consequences that those decisions might entail? If so, HBO has just the ticket you need.

Westworld premiered last night to generally favorable reviews and while there was plenty to take note of in a series that looks to be both a successor to Game of Thrones (HBO’s heavy hitter, which is ending in two seasons) and Lost (JJ Abrams is an executive producer on Westworld), one of the most notable things about it is how closely it emulates the experience of playing a video game.

Sure, this isn’t the first time that a film or TV series has attempted to translate this feeling to another medium but generally they’re either too out of touch (eXistenZ), too mindless (Gamer), or too wrapped up in their own mythology (The Matrix) to properly communicate this notion to the viewer.

Bernard Lowe and Dr. Robert Ford, two of the overseers of the fantastical Westworld.

Bernard Lowe (Jeffrey Wright) and Dr. Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins), two of the overseers of the fantastical Westworld.

Where Westworld manages to hit the mark that its contemporaries missed is by nailing down why the experience of playing a video game can be so gratifying and addictive. The reason that the so-called “Newcomers” have come to Westworld is to live out some kind of fantasy or other. Westworld is an alternate reality based off of the American frontier, an infamous time of depravity, murder, and debauchery. While some of these fantasies are more run of the mill, such as saving a damsel in distress, or joining a posse on the hunt for an outlaw, others are much more unsavory, as seen in The Gunslinger (played with menacing ease by Ed Harris), who returns regularly to murder a man and rape his lover.

Of course, no one can truly be “murdered” or “raped” in Westworld, and that’s part of the appeal. Westworld is a place where you can do and say just about anything without fear of judgment or reprisal. Sound familiar?

This is just the promise that video games have been offering to the public for decades. While none of them can manage the insane level of immersion that Westworld offers, many have taken off specifically for their ability to replicate the player’s needs for escapism. Take the hugely successful Grand Theft Auto series for example, or the best-selling Call of Duty franchise. Doubtless these are two of the most service level examples but it is just that sense of obvious appeal that has led to their massive successes. After all, who hasn’t fantasized about being a badass super criminal or a heroic soldier? Unfortunately, in the real world, striving for either goal is liable to get you killed.

The mysterious and sadistic Gunslinger (Ed Harris) is a particularly unnerving denizen of this world.

The mysterious and sadistic Gunslinger (Ed Harris) is a particularly unnerving denizen of this world.

In a video game, though, you can do anything. The recent Dark Souls series has even taken this one step further by allowing you to kill any character in the game, even your allies. And once they’re dead, they stay dead.

Two more examples that really hammer the point in are the God of War and Final Fantasy franchises, both of which regularly center around the murder of a deity to free the main characters from the chains of their destiny, and save the world from a tyrannical God-like figure.

All of these ideas, and more, are tantamount to the human need for escapism, a need so primal that it echoes all the way back to the very beginning of our species, where our progenitors paraded around in animal skins while sharing increasingly fantastical tales around the fire.

Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) is the oldest Host in Westworld, though she is only now beginning to realize the truth of her existence.

Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) is the oldest Host in Westworld, though she is only now beginning to realize the truth of her existence.

Though we’ve only seen a brief snippet of the series thus far, it’s already shown a keen ability to tap into these underlying urges, almost like a more risque version of the Joss Whedon series, Dollhouse, which focused on re-programmable humans that could be rented out to the highest bidder. Not sidelined by network TV, however, HBO’s Westworld is free to follow the idea all the way down the rabbit hole.

Just how far viewers will be willing to go with it remains to be seen, but if the success that the similarly grisly and grim Game of Thrones is any indication, it will be far enough indeed.

Mike Worby is a human who spends way too much of his free time playing, writing and podcasting about pop culture. Through some miracle he's still able to function in society as if he were a regular person, and if there's hope for him, there's hope for everyone.

6 Comments

6 Comments

  1. ex fact0r

    October 4, 2016 at 12:46 am

    The comparison to video games doesn’t really fly for me. The show’s whole concept is a lot more similar to a theme park or an elaborate costume party than it is to a video game if you ask me.

    I also made the Dollhouse connection while watching. I guessing you think Westworld is the more risque of the 2 simply because it’s an HBO show with tits and dicks in every other scene, but I think Dollhouse was easily the more risque premise, as it actually had real people being used as slaves, and the events took place in the real world rather than some safe zone… I miss that show.

    Anyway, the Westworld premiere was pretty good. I’m not sold that it’s HBO’s next big thing, but I’ll keep watching.

    • Mike Worby

      October 4, 2016 at 8:26 pm

      See that’s interesting, as for me the video game comparison occurred almost instantly. Particularly something like Majora’s Mask where you can walk around in real time and interact with people who are always in varying stages of the same day, or even Life is Strange, where you can make different choices on how you interact with people and see different results play out.

    • Mike Worby

      October 7, 2016 at 3:56 am

      See that’s interesting, as for me the video game comparison occurred almost instantly. Particularly something like Majora’s Mask where you can walk around in real time and interact with people who are always in varying stages of the same day, or even Life is Strange, where you can make different choices on how you interact with people and see different results play out.

      • ex fact0r

        October 7, 2016 at 7:22 pm

        That’s a valid point, but I was thinking about it from the perspective of the concept actually existing… like if I had the option to go to Westworld right now, would I approach it like I approach a video game? I don’t think so… when I boot up a game I’m put into the shoes of someone else, someone who more often than not has exceptional powers of some kind. If I were to walk into Westworld, I’d just be me, surrounded by a bunch of actors (essentially). I wouldn’t be able to pick up a gun and wield it like a pro (since I’ve never held a gun b4) and I wouldn’t be able to ride a horse very well (since I’ve never done it b4). Sure, my actions would be without much real-life consequence, which is where the biggest parallel I see can be drawn, along with the general concept of escapism, but while watching all I could think of was how Westworld was essentially a theme park that had its rides removed and replaced with robots and set pieces that evoke the feel of the wild west. As someone who considers video games to be one of my main pass times, when watching the premier of the show the comparison to games honestly never crossed my mind, lol. It’s interesting to see you make the connection though; Thanks for the article.

    • Ricky D

      October 7, 2016 at 6:08 pm

      The creators and the stars of the show have all stated that modern video games are their main influence. So there’s that …

      • ex fact0r

        October 7, 2016 at 7:26 pm

        I’m 99.9% sure that the creators’ “main influence” is Michael Crichton’s film of the same name 😉

        But yeah, if the creators have stated that games are an influence, that’s cool. I’m just saying that for me, I didn’t make that connection at all. At least not while watching the premiere. Maybe later episodes will bridge the gap for me.

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