Westworld creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy have been thinking a lot about simulations. The creative duo have divided their last few years between writing for television and raising their first child. Nolan, the brother and writing partner of Dark Knight and Interstellar director Christopher Nolan, has built a career around highbrow thought experiments in cinema and TV. Among other things, he wrote the short story that became Christopher Nolan’s film Memento. He also created and scripted the TV show Person of Interest, about a crime-predicting surveillance system. So it seems typical of Nolan that he and his wife have been wondering how much of their daughter’s life will be spent "in simulated realities instead of base realities."
It’s a poignant observation, with virtual reality imminently around the corner, and so much of our lives spent looking at screens. But it takes on new meaning in light of Nolan and Joy’s latest project. HBO’s meaty science fiction morality play Westworld explores the logical extreme of our obsession with escapist fantasies. Speaking at a roundtable event with reporters last week at the Four Seasons hotel in Palo Alto, California, the writers explored the show’s dizzying number of themes, from its observations on human consciousness to its critiques of modern entertainment.
The theme park in 'Westworld' is essentially an open-world video game
In Westworld, rich guests have the opportunity to pay around $40,000 a day to visit a Western theme park full of lifelike androids, and treat them however they please. That means murdering them on a whim or exploring revolting sexual violence. The androids are designed to pretend to be human. They respond to painful stimuli, mourn their lost loved ones, and display an unsettling fear of death and violence.
The robots are also incapable of realizing their situation. They’re programmed to perform melodramatic stories, and improvise just enough to incorporate the human guests who interrupt their carefully choreographed lives. At the end of each day, or when their storylines come to a close, the bots’ memories and wounds are wiped and reset. But Westworld’s technical staff are concerned that the AI systems are getting too sophisticated. By exploiting a programming flourish from the lead architect that lets bots draw on past memories, the creations begin to go off script, and consider their own existence. They don’t change their programmed motives, they just modify them, blurring the line between human and machine intelligence.
The theme park, originally conceived by Jurassic Park author Michael Crichton for a 1973 movie, is essentially an open-world video game. The androids are non-player characters, and guests play the focal point of their own storylines. The show describes how the park’s programmers craft narrative loops for the androids to follow, relying on software to override and course-correct any human-caused randomness, just as game developers do. And just like many modern games, Westworld and its theme park is regularly punctuated with gleeful violence.
Talking about the brutal treatment of Westworld’s androids, which is visceral and bountiful in the show’s premiere episode, Nolan says, "We’re no more sadistic than watching our friends playing Grand Theft Auto." He says his wife Joy is the only person he’s seen drive a car in GTA by following the in-game traffic signals. Everybody else just mows down pedestrians.
Players seem to take the same approach to Westworld. An admittedly heavy-handed scene in episode two divides its guests between the rare few who choose the white cowboy hat, and the vast majority who are paying to don the black one. Video game fans can draw connections to Fable, a game centered on players’ moral choices, or the more apt Red Dead Redemption, a Western title from GTA creator Rockstar Games that tracks players’ noble and criminal deeds with an honor system.
Those titles are the most palatable examples in a world of increasing photorealism in games. GTA tends to attract a lot of flak for its more questionable additions. One franchise staple is players’ ability to hire, then murder, prostitutes. The latest game in the series forced players to torture a captive suspect with pliers and electricity, a scene meant to satirize the US government's euphemistic "enhanced interrogation techniques."
"We’re no more sadistic than watching our friends playing 'GTA'"
And there are more calculated violent games out there. The Hitman series has always handed players a diverse tool-set to commit assassinations. Its latest game, released episodically over the past six months, has scenes so beautifully rendered, you could mistake them for photographs. In some cases, you can slip rat poison to victims and then drown them in a toilet in a secluded bathroom as they’re throwing up. In another situation, you can pose as a victim’s therapist, hold a pillow over his head, and put a bullet in his face. These acts are in-game achievements for completionist gamers to check off from a list in the main menu.
Really, though, pick any popular modern game from last year — Bloodborne, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, and Call of Duty Black Ops 3, for instance — and you’ll find integral activities revolving around dismembering opponents, or mowing them down with gunfire by the hundreds. This is the state of the industry. Violence has been a default mode of video games since the medium began simulating real-life scenarios. Nolan points out during the roundtable how we started with Pong and eventually ended up where we are now, with violent games dominating sales.
So Nolan and Joy note how Westworld is intended as more than just a drama about the dawn of a new type of artificial intelligence. It’s also a critique of modern entertainment and technology, specifically video games, and the potential pitfalls of virtual reality and the pursuit of realism. The heart of the show’s premise is a question: at what point are we responsible for, or influenced by, our actions in a setting with no consequences?
That’s a controversial debate in the gaming community, with steadfast game fans quick to point out that any virtual character is just a series of pixels. This line of argument says that simulated murder is simply escapism, blowing off steam, or experimentation with a sophisticated software system. Mentioning the idea that gleefully doling out violence even in ultra-realistic settings like GTA could reflect of a person’s psyche — or even indict that activity’s moral purpose — invites a torrent of criticism and links to psychological studies that claim violent video games don’t make people more violent. There’s science to prove it!
Westworld is asking a different set of questions. It’s not trying to say that people are inherently terrible, although you could certainly make that argument from the show’s first few episodes. Instead, Nolan and Joy suggest a careful series of thoughts about where we’re headed as a society, and where the line might exist between a simulation and its real-life counterpart.
If we’re so accepting of the kinds of video games we play today, and so indifferent to what we see in those games and on television and the big screen, at what point does it stop? As VR develops, the debates will only get closer to the real world: what does it mean to commit violence against people who feel entirely real. The argument that we can do whatever we like when the consequences don’t involve physical or emotional harm to real people can be extended endlessly, to any future scenario. Westworld is refuting that idea, not by laying down a concrete condemnation of consumers or creators, but by wondering whether there is such a thing as "too far" or "too much."
'Westworld' wonders whether there is such a thing as "too far"
In that sense, it’s easy to imagine the Westworld theme park becoming a reality decades down the line, when AI has grown exponentially more sophisticated, and video games don’t provide the same kind of thrill as physically pulling a trigger. Nolan says he and Joy conceived Westworld’s purposefully ambiguous near-future as a place where VR is for the masses. Only the truly wealthy can indulge their fantasies with genuine sensory responses. "With Westworld," Nolan says, "we’re looking for the next moment" beyond video games, beyond VR. In the scripted words of the park’s marketing team, Nolan’s pitch to prospective attendees is, "Forget VR. Come here because it’s real."
What that kind of moral freedom says about human nature is a question perhaps too complex for Westworld alone to answer. But it raises it nonetheless, to probe "when the simulation is indistinguishable from reality," Nolan says. Or as an android host in episode two explains to a first-time guest, who’s perturbed to discover he’s been conversing with an AI, "If you can’t tell the difference, does it really matter?"
That line might best capture the show’s essence, and how it translates to our love of violent entertainment and our desensitization to that violence with ever-more realistic simulations. When asked whether HBO was considering turning its newest property into a video game, Nolan paused. "A Westworld video game," he says, "would be deeply ironic."