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Westworld is a cautionary tale about photorealism and video game murder

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A theme park without consequences isn’t so farfetched

In the debut episode of HBO’s Westworld, narrative director Lee Sizemore makes a case that the futuristic theme park’s team should stop working toward increasingly lifelike androids. “Does anyone truly want that?” he asks. “Do you really want to think that your husband is fucking that beautiful girl? Or that you really just shot someone? This place works because the guests know the hosts aren’t real.”

But it seems Sizemore is on the losing side of this argument. Why stand in the way of technological progress when it could mean truly sentient androids, lacking basic human rights, and controllable by code that allows humans to play god?

Like many of Westworld’s early themes and motifs, this debate has its parallel in the video game industry. Sizemore’s argument against realism is increasingly unpopular in gaming circles, as the steady march toward graphical fidelity and artificial intelligence lets us interact with lifelike virtual representations of people — mostly in violent ways. Sizemore wonders whether the park is trying too hard to offer a perfect simulation of reality, instead of an escape from it. Similarly, game critics and other industry figures are wondering whether we truly need to feel like we’re hurting or killing real people in games — and if so, why.

In Westworld, guests are invited to indulge in violent and sexual fantasies, using the regressive frontier backdrop to explore their wildest, darkest desires. William, a character introduced in episode two, chooses to see the park and its robots as an opportunity to show his moral fiber. Others, like William’s companion Logan and the mythic Man in Black, see Westworld as an invitation to be vile and malicious. Those men exercise the freedom of a world without consequences to test the limits of depravity.

That’s true in games, too. If we know something is fake — just a game, so to speak — we can act out without feeling any of the shame or guilt we’d typically associate with morally reprehensible activities. It’s why we can go on murdering sprees in careful re-creations of American cities in Grand Theft Auto without feeling like something is wrong with us. Those people on the screen are just pixels. They’re poor simulations of the real thing, guided by intricate physics systems and complex code, but lacking the realism required to provoke empathy. And because it’s an open world with no consequences, our actions don’t necessarily reflect our capacity for violence — or our desire for it.

That situation may be temporary. As games continue to approach photorealism, and as higher-quality virtual reality and sophisticated artificial intelligence become more common, the debate will only get murkier. The “It’s just a game!” defense won’t hold as much water when digital characters look and feel so lifelike that it’s impossible to tell them from the real thing, just as it’s impossible to know who on Westworld may secretly be an android. In a VR world, when you actually pull a trigger or swing a weapon, the feeling of harming real, human victims may only intensify.

HBO

On the other side of the debate are games that embrace the art form’s reliance on purposefully non-real imagery. Think of indie developers who use pixel art for aesthetic effect, or the cartoony nature of Nintendo’s Mario and Zelda franchises. These are games that do not attempt to replicate real life, or pass for Hollywood cinema. But then, they’re also marketed in part to children, and companies like Nintendo tend not to take risks when it comes to incorporating adult content.

But there are games that communicate adult themes through violence and graphic imagery without shooting for photorealism. The ultra-violent title Hotline Miami, from two-person indie team Dennaton Games, rewards players for horrific murder sprees, with letter grades at the end of each stage judging the eloquence and speed of the carnage. Instead of high-def imagery in a first-person viewpoint, the game uses a top-down view reminiscent of ‘80s games, with retro and pixelated graphics and a pulsing synth-heavy soundtrack. The game glorifies violence through rewards, and uses its lack of realism as a shield. Yet it also counterweights the theme with subtle narrative threads that paint its characters as mentally unstable. It implies that you, the player, might be burying or obscuring similar traits behind the same excuses.

Gallery Photo: 'Hotline Miami' Gamescom 2012 screenshots

It’s a good example of how a game can communicate controversial and high-level ideas while retaining the escapist qualities that make it fun. (Whether it succeeds at both is more the realm of game criticism.) Hotline Miami doesn’t have to paint its on-screen happenings with the same level of realism as GTA, Hitman, or Call of Duty, all games that simulate murder with frightening fidelity.

This same argument plays out in cinema in a slightly different way. The film industry is currently struggling to understand why high-frame-rate movies repel viewers, when they’re supposed to render scenes more accurately than traditional-frame-rate films. They’ve been likened to taped recordings of a stage play, with obviously fake props and easy-to-see makeup. There are more pixels per frame, and more frames per second, but in most cases, viewers describe the HFR experience as “too real,” or too distracting. As Daniel Engber says in Slate, regarding the upcoming 120fps Ang Lee film Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, HFR doesn’t help us escape into a world, it highlights that world’s lack of reality. It breaks the illusion.

“So a movie shot in HFR suffers from its likeness to less vaunted forms of entertainment: soap operas, sporting events, video games,” Engber writes. “For all its clarity and definition, high-frame-rate cinema comes off as déclassé. In the end, what’s most troubling about HFR is not the way it looks — I mean, come on, it looks fantastic — but what that look connotes. And Billy Lynn connotes, more than anything else, a high-end game.” Games, after all, run smoother and perform better at 60 fps. The faster the game runs, the smoother motion looks on-screen, and the more immediate the connection between your action and its on-screen counterpart.

The argument against video game photorealism and HFR cinema can be linked back to the problem of the uncanny valley. The phrase, coined by the robotics community in the 1970s, describes a level of human likeness in a 3D model or robot that elicits revulsion instead of human empathy.

Courtesy of Indiana University

As androids or computer-generated characters become more lifelike, they provoke stronger empathy responses in viewers. Think Pixar characters, or high-res video game characters crafted using motion-capture techniques. But at a certain level, the gap between the real and the non-real becomes creepy. Looking at the Repliee Q2 humanoid robot, or the ill-fated film Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, it’s easy to see how something can look lifelike, yet profoundly wrong.

Westworld’s androids have made it to the far side of the uncanny valley. That’s because they’re played by real human actors. Early Westworld bots — like “Old Bill,” seen talking to the park’s creative director, Dr. Robert Ford, in the opening episode — looked noticeably fake, like animatronic Disneyland props. Guests might not have gotten the same thrill from shooting one down in a gunfight. And they certainly couldn’t have enjoyed all the sexual fantasies the park advertises. But it appears Dr. Ford (played by Anthony Hopkins) doesn’t believe in a sweet spot. His intentions are unknown, and his moral convictions are murky, but the show establishes early on that he doesn’t acknowledge his creations as anything but technology. That leaves the door open to forward progress, regardless of what guests or Sizemore might actually prefer.

For me, this Westworld parallel evokes the post-apocalyptic game The Last of Us, which came out in 2013, and featured some of the most sophisticated enemy AI the industry had ever seen. The game puts you in the shoes of Joel, an older man looking after a teenage girl named Ellie, who possesses a possible path toward a cure for the zombie outbreak that devastated society. As Joel, you’re able to commit all sorts of gruesome acts, from clubbing scavengers with lead pipes and nail-equipped 2-by-4’s to using molotov cocktails on other survivors.

In some situations, the enemies in The Last Of Us beg for their lives when cornered, disarmed, or beaten down. Some ask if you can work something out, or if you’d look the other way and let them live. But the game encourages players to murder these people. If you let them live, chances are they’ll revert back to aggressive mode and attack you again. Killing them also lets you take their weapon-making supplies, and you’ll want the advantage going forward.

Beyond this unsettling AI, The Last of Us was also one of the most realistic-looking games for the PlayStation 3 when it was released, late in the console’s life cycle. I still remember those brutal execution sequences, and even now, I’m uncomfortable with the notion of a game with enemies that plead for mercy in such a disturbingly real way.

But that conceit did wonders to set the title’s ultra-serious tone. It also felt like the dawn of a new age, when pixels on a screen took on a new, morally ambiguous awareness. In Westworld, the androids are prevented from realizing that they aren’t human, just as the most realistic video games tend not to break the fourth wall. The simulations are real enough to bleed, feel pain, and beg for their lives when cornered. Yet by design, they’re kept from realizing their futile fate as playthings.

HBO

Arguing against these advancements feels like an uphill battle. Violence and photorealism are hallmarks of the industry. And still, for any given half-dozen forgettable shooter titles, there’s one rare gem that uses technical advancements to craft a real masterpiece. But it’s still worth asking what viewers, consumers, and players prefer. How many people actually want a 8K television in their home, or are willing to pay $25 to see a film in 120 fps? On the more extreme ends of the spectrum, who would actually buy a VR serial-killer simulator, or a game with photorealistic torture, or one featuring an interactive version of the kind of sexual violence highbrow television like Game of Thrones is currently peddling?

As far as we can tell, there is no ceiling on a game’s graphical fidelity. Years from now, we will undoubtedly have experiences, both on TV screens and likely in VR, that may look and feel no different from the real world. Sophisticated AI could ensure that, like Westworld’s bots, these characters speak, react, and act out scenarios just as humans would, down to the tiniest details.

“This place works because the guests know the hosts aren’t real,” Sizemore says. But what happens to us morally when we don’t know that? It’s one of Westworld’s more profound questions, and co-creator Jonathan Nolan has revealed in the past that his show has no intentions of answering it, at least not in full. “I don’t think the show is really teaching anything,” Nolan said at a press roundtable prior to the premiere. Instead, he and fellow showrunner Lisa Joy want to shed light on issues in gaming, and provoke their audience as much as possible.

In that, we have yet another game industry parallel. Rarely do video games try to definitively stand for something, to convey a message that players are too vile, violent, or capable of evil. Yet in games, shallow violence is how we most often interact with our virtual counterparts, whether they’re humans across the country, or AI guided by code. It’s the medium’s single biggest source of contradiction. Unlike Westworld, violent games rarely, if ever, help us “live without limits” or “discover who we really are.” They mostly just redefine what can be considered fun — shooting people in the face, hitting pedestrians with cars — and how we spend our time.

Perhaps as games look and feel more real, and their inhabitants become more lifelike, technology can expand the horizons of what games can communicate and convey. There will always be murder simulators, war games, and the zombie apocalypse. But perhaps violence won’t entirely define games as an art form in the future.

Because if Westworld succeeds at anything right now, it’s as a cautionary tale. “How different are we really from these theme-park guests?” it asks. Right now, not very much at all.