Westworld is a Fascinating Mystery

Thursday, October 20, 2016

If there are three things in a story that are certain to grab my attention it's AI, the old west and a good mystery. Westworld has all of these things. I absolutely love it. Even from just the first three episode, it is clear that there is something else going on beneath the surface of things. I can't yet say what that is as I've really no idea what is really happening. All I have right now is a ton of theories, but I am very excited to see where this is all going. If you're unfamiliar with Westworld or only familiar with the 1973 film with Yul Brenner, you'll want to check it out however you can. It really is something very special.

Let's start with some backstory; Westworld is a huge theme park sort of attraction where people come to spend time in an old west setting populated by very lifelike robotic "hosts." Each of the hosts has its own personality and storyline that may lead the host on a number of different adventures. In the film, two men came to Westworld for a bloody, debaucherous weekend but end up in the middle of a robot uprising of sorts. Yul Brenner played the villain of the film, a bloodthirsty robot that has become aware of what he is and where he is. 

The series is, so far at least, much more cerebral. There is a lot of symbolism in the show, every episode is practically dripping with it. The player piano that plays from time to time and features prominently in the opening sequence is a perfect allusion to the repetitive nature of the host's programming. They are doomed to repeat the same days over and over again with only a few different variations on their deaths/ lives. 

One of the things that I really enjoy about the show is how well some of its writing and design of the characters uses some of the basic tropes of game design. The hosts repeat their days in the same way every time. This is called their loop by the techs in the show and it is built to make sure that newly arriving guests have an opportunity to meet a number of the hosts as they arrive in Sweetwater. Put simply, Sweetwater is a social space where the guests come to interact with each other and find quests. Another example is the way the park is designed; Sweetwater is the starting hub for every guest, but it is mentioned a few times in the show that the further you get from town, the more intense the experience becomes. This should be familiar to anyone who's played an MMO in the last 15 years. The further you get from the starting location, the more difficult the monsters you have to face. 

The way the actors have brought the characters to "life" is really impressive. It isn't easy to look like a machine, or to sit unsettlingly still, but there are numerous scenes with the actors rattling off diagnostic info to techs and receiving adjustments here and there. Those conversation scenes are fascinating to watch, if for no other reason than to study how well they can behave like something that is almost human, but not quite there. 

I have a lot of theories about where the season is going and some of the things that are going on in the story, but I won't get into them tonight. There is so much going on, I'm sure that I'm missing more than a few clues to the real nature of the show, and most of my theories are pretty flimsy as is. I encourage you to watch the show if you are able to at all. I haven't seen such clever writing and skillful acting or direction in a long time.