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Thoughts on the Westworld Pilot; Playing the Demo Level


Westworld’s premise is the collision of two rich narrative veins. Firstly, science fiction’s “man playing god” being consumed by its monstrosity, which Mary Shelley synthesised perfectly in the canonical Frankenstein. And secondly, the American Western; but in a way another means of refracting the past to reflect our present and future. Westworld though wants to use the Western, as those of us who have played the Rockstar game Red Dead Redemption will know, to examine the cognitive distance participants place on morality in the ‘lawless’ space of the frontier.

Series creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy have taken Michael Crichton’s sci-fi source material (of the same name) and perfectly repurposed it for 2016. Much like Alex Garland’s enrapturing Ex Machina, the scarily tangible near future that’s being presented has an augmented impact. Immersive game technology, and a gaming industry on the precipice of Playstation VR feels like it’s conceivable that is yet another glimpse into the evolution of distraction consumption.

The first ride in Westworld and one is immediately drawn to the repetition. Series creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy have designed the episode structure with a descending spiral staircase that immerses the audience into the ‘Groundhog Day’ of the Westworld experience. As the thread of the automated piano spins and Evan Rachel Wood’s Dolores opens her eyes to the world and greets her father, we start to make note of the not negotiable AI of the game’s narrative.
From the first moment that you’re starting to see the characters occupy the world and interact according to their scripts, you enter finite spaces. Unlike a traditional Western, the viewing mode is much more about learning to look for boundaries of this literal “open world” space instead of marvelling at boundlessness. You’re interested in understanding “the map’ to understand where our characters are going to find danger, action, respite. It shares that same magic Peter Weir was also able to conjure in The Truman Show; ooh an Ed Harris connection that I hadn’t made until this moment. While repetition is the intrinsic flow of the episode, but as the pilot unfolds, disruption emerges as the intent for the series.

This isn’t a video game, where some game save files and a blu ray disc contain the characters that you interact with; you’re submerged into the stable of cybernetic organisms that have a distinguishable lifespan. When you turn off your console, the characters don’t need to be reconfigured, patched up and monitored for slavish adherence to program. However in Westworld, at the conclusion of every session avatars are reset and memories are erased.

After 10 years of the Westworld experience moving along smoothly creator Dr. Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins) decides that he’s going to make a subtle and profound change to the code. He creates an update, that allows the characters to access fleeting glimpses of their memories to portray more authentic, organic and human contemplation. Humanity it seems lives in the “reveries” of memory. The hubris of the creator makes their torture pleasure of the customers, real for the characters. Jeffrey Wright’s Bernard Lowe, the chief engineer on the ground, first marvels at the touch and then realises that instead of these “reveries” further blurring the lines in the uncanny valley, that there’s a sentience that is awakened.

The mixed initial reactions largely due to the portrayals of violence and what I’m going to call “Lost fatigue.” Having J.J Abrams’ name on the series, has already spawned hundreds of reddit pages hypothesising about potentially endless loops of mystery without any satisfying answers. The deplorable acts from players relishing the opportunity to rape or maim the characters, personified in Ed Harris’ “All-Madden,” “Insane Mode,” “He who has no life,” Man in Black. The violence is a human rendering of the ugliness that is contained in video games is meant to ask a question of the audience’s moral compass rather than any endorsement, so this film analyst would say to stow your protest placards until you’ve seen the whole series.

Westworld is an exciting and prescient concept; in gamer parlance “the demo makes me wanna buy the game.”

Blake Howard – follow Blake on Twitter here: @blakeisbatman

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