Despite VR gaming managing to fill landfills with gamers vomit TV appears to be getting inspired by the new area of gaming. The interactive theme park of new TV show Westworld in particular is running a lot of parallels with gaming. But something still doesn’t feel right about the world of Westworld.
This article will attempt to avoid spoilers but obviously it’s recommend to hold off reading if you’re yet to experience the show.
Westworld revolves around a few square miles filled with android robots. Set in a time of the old wild west of America, human clients can pay disgusting amounts of money to visit the park and ‘play’ along. Despite the vast world most visitors indulge in violence, sex, and robbing. The show comically often pushes that any human characters who doesn’t indulge in these acts receives a stiff raised one-eye brow and a ‘waddya mean ya don’t wanna shag the robot?’ response.
The story of the show revolves around the android robots (think of them as NPCs), their consciousness, and the creators of the park. It scratches at the question of what is sentient life and pretty soon the lines are being blurred between robot, humans, and the real world. At the time of writing there have been nine episodes of Westworld. And as much as I am enjoying the show there’s a voice in the back of my head niggling away at some of the factors of the show; this voice is the gamer in me.
Rootin’ Tootin’ Good Time
The most obvious place to start is with the lack of consequence in Westworld; the human ‘players’ can’t die. They can be hurt but overall it’s a fairly risk free ride for the humans. Watching over the humans are the corporation ensuring everything in the park is kept above board like admins of a game server.
But one fundamental factor of what makes a game is that games have to have consequences. When you play a game you agree to it’s rules. Failure to abide by these rules results in a penalty. Whether it’s your Sim missing their day job, getting sniped in Battlefield 1, or crashing a helicopter in GTAV. But Westworld’s players don’t have consequences. So can Westworld really be called a game if you can’t actually lose?
Thera are strong counter-examples on gaming that could be used. Games like Second Life spawns players back safely at home if they dod die in the game. The argument could also be made that in a virtual fully-engaging environment not having any risk is what makes the game so fun to play in the first place. Otherwise entering Westworld would just be like real life.
So if we consider that Westworld is a world with no consequence and where the player can’t lose, shouldn’t it be utter bedlam? Westworld almost feels pretty tame in this respect. Before a game of Overwatch starts you and your comrades wait for thirty seconds in a ‘safe room’. Ever seen what the players do? They go nuts. They bounce around. They shoot walls. They face-plant against locked doors. And this is the nature of playing a game. Place a gamer in a fantastical environment with anonymity and they dance around like a ping pong ball in a washing machine.
But Westworlds players overall behave themselves and buy into the experience. They drink, smoke, dance, and chat with robots. Occasionally they may cause some action that in the real world would be seen as insane, but generally speaking the world runs as normal. Why is the Westworld not in a constant state of chaos? Why are the humans not running amok, ransacking, and murdering every single android in their way?
Interestingly you don’t have to look to far to find examples in the world of gaming that contradict this view point. Eve Online and World of Warcraft both have strong systems of respect and law. Other games like GTAV even adopt mechanics, such as bounties, to try maintain a form of order in their worlds.
Super Run-Away Mine Cart Deluxe
One major difference between Westworld and a modern games is that the world of Westworld is very real. The androids pass the Turing test. The barrier between the player and the game is zero. Unlike today where a headset, controller, or screen keeps us from being truly immersed, Westworld has no constraints. We don’t know really how players would act in world that they actually felt was real. So maybe the lack of chaos in Westworld can be put down to that even with a player knowing they are facing an android; a sane person would feel uncomfortable killing this ‘person’ due to the realism. Hell, I felt awful for weeks when I killed a Barney for his ammo in Half-Life and he only looked like a real human if you squinted from across the room.
Like most games killing is a big part of Westworld. The writers have the luxury of killing of characters with little concern. All it takes is an a new lick of oil and the deceased character returns to the show in a few moments fresh as a metal-daisy. But what about the humans? The show hasn’t really explained how a human knows if someone else is a human. As gunfights break out involving dozens of individuals, is it not possible that a human can kill another human? And for a gamer watching the show these sorts of questions keep occuring; the question of how the game world actually functions.
Maybe Westworld has explained all this in a scene I missed. Maybe there was a monologue the I blanked out during. Or maybe the viewer is expected to just take the show with a pinch of salt. But as a gamer recognising the notion of games-design in the world of Westworld I’m itching to understand the rules of play that are set in the world. Hell I’m even excited about it. I want to play Westworld! But what are the constraints? How does a player leave the game? How does a player ‘pause’? What are the rules? When does the game reset?
Westworld is not a bad show. It’s very watchable. And I would recommend gamers especially to watch the show. The reason is that the show opens up interesting debates around games design set in VR and MMO worlds. Westworld is not crazy science fiction. It is a concept only a few decades away from delivery. Maybe even sooner. And if Westworld is the ultimate direction games could head in, it’s interesting to watch the show now and as gamers think “wait, how does this game work again?”