HBO has a real gift for creating shows that people want to really dive into. The level of creative freedom the network provides lets some of the greatest programs the medium has ever seen flower – The Sopranos, The Wire, Game of Thrones, Todd McFarlane’s Spawn. And now it’s looking like Westworld is going to go on the same pile.
The updated version of Michael Crichton’s novel turned 70s movie is tapping into a lot of things the population is insecure about – machines taking our jobs, digital escapism, the morality of artificial intelligence. And it’s a gripping, rewarding watch that we can’t wait for every week.
Of course, it’s also delivering heavily on the mysteries and conspiracies that we expect from a TV show in the post-Lost world (unsurprising, because J.J. Abrams is partially behind the wheel on this one too). But what we’re most interested in Westworld is the geek perspective – most importantly, the idea of the park as a “game.”
Although there aren’t really explicit goals or missions for guests once they enter, Westworld is a structured experience like Red Dead Redemption, not a sandbox like Minecraft. But guests have a great deal of freedom in how they interact with the world. So far aside from the brutal Man in Black, most of the guests we’ve seen have gone along with the pre-designed path. But gamers? We’re not so into that.
Here are our pointers for how the show would go if real gamers shelled out the $40,000 a day and bought themselves a week in Westworld.
Anybody who’s played a Japanese RPG knows that you search every single box, barrel, and cupboard for useful items. It’s like the digital version of “there’s always money in the banana stand,” and NPCs typically don’t get miffed at you for rifling through their underwear drawer to find a Phoenix Down. Especially in the world of Westworld, where hosts are forbidden by their programming from harming the guests.
Assumedly there’s some kind of rule in place to keep you from taking anything out of the park. But we’ve seen plenty of games that encourage hoarding – who doesn’t have a Fallout lair full of coffee cans and scrap metal? It’s easy to see gamers just tearing the environment down for scrap.
The Genocide Path
If you’ve played Undertale, you probably have some thoughts about how video games seem to encourage the wholesale slaughter of every living thing that crosses your path and doesn’t give you a quest. While the “simulations” of Westworld don’t cause any harm to other guests (preventing PvP, a smart choice), they are capable of putting a Host out of commission for the length of your stay. Although the body count is usually high, we haven’t seen anyone try to take out literally every NPC.
In the show, we’re told that there are “overseers” who keep guests in line (except for the Man in Black, who has an “all access pass.” It’s fair to say that if somebody got too rowdy with their six-shooter and started doing a Magnificent Seven on the town, the DMs would sweep in and deal with them. But as any MMORPG player knows, messing with the system is where the fun really begins.
Even though guests can’t shoot each other with their pistols to great effect, the possibilities for griefing are endless in Westworld. You do sign a liability form before you enter the park, but if it’s anything like the EULA you click through when you install a game, nobody reads those things. The possibility for other kinds of injury are present – the horses don’t appear to be robots, for one thing, and if people can get themselves killed at Disneyland they sure can do it here.
This all opens up remarkable possibilities for somebody with the “dark triad” of personality traits – narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy – that bubble to the surface when gamers try to ruin other people’s good time. Griefers could not only purposefully injure other guests, but they could also get in the middle of their role-playing and act out in ridiculous ways, or kill important Host characters. Who would spend $40,000 just to ruin somebody else’s day? You’d be surprised.
One of the things that’s most missing from Westworld as a game is one of the gamer’s greatest powers: our ability to solve problems together. Even though the Man in Black seems to have advanced knowledge of the ins and outs of the park, a more likely possibility is that long-time visitors have been documenting everything on message boards and sites like GameFAQs. The idea that after 30 years in operation, the park could hold any mysteries at all is pretty silly, but people are still discovering new Mario 64 speedruns.
We would be amazed if there weren’t some site out there that already had the Maze mapped out, a description of how you get there, and what comes afterward. When we find secrets, we don’t keep them to ourselves. We share them with other gamers so they can enjoy the challenge. The Man in Black just needs to work on his Google skills.
This goes along with the last one. If there’s one thing that we’ve learned in our lifetime of gaming, it’s that we can get along pretty well if there’s a lot at stake. That’s why most MMORPGs let you guild up and form a raiding party to cooperate with each other. Although we’ve seen guests come to Westworld together, true gamers wouldn’t just show up and let things go their own way. They’d organize, assign roles – some people would tank to draw the attention of the Overseers, others would maximize DPS on Hosts – and achieve their objectives.
That’s the thing that’s most confusing about the Man in Black’s plotline. If he really wants to get down to the next level of Westworld and find the maze, why doesn’t he bring a bunch of allies in with him? If he’s got the money to spend so much time in the game, he could easily buy a few “alt accounts,” as it were. We see Logan and William come to the park together, but they’re not organized at all.
If there’s one thing we know about gamers, it’s that they want their money’s worth. One look at the reviews section of a game on Steam will teach you that. We know that the park has “seasons” where the owners change the narratives and situations that guests can experience. But what if you visited a few years ago, want the same story you had then, and don’t get it? We’re surprised we haven’t seen more crabby complainers inside the park feeling ripped off and agitating for a full refund.
What is the policy for getting your money’s worth out of Westworld? It’s highly doubtful that people who can shell out 40 large for a day’s entertainment are going to do so without some sort of guarantee. When the ending to Mass Effect 3 stunk, gamers banded together in the thousands to protest, and that game only cost like fifty bucks. A bad trip in Westworld for the wrong gamer (like, say, one with a big YouTube channel) could get the entire park shut down if they don’t make things right.