As I sit here, finishing up the very last of Westworld, I find myself with far too much to pick apart and discuss for a mere review, but I find myself wanting to review it from an unusual perspective.
The series is fantastic, well written, brilliantly performed, layers of philosophy woven with drama, all brought to a satisfying conclusion that ties loose ends neatly but leaves a whole new string to unravel. And yet above all, I’m left with a complaint that makes me strangely unsatisfied with the series as a whole.
Westworld is a bad game.
“But why?” I hear one person say amidst the cries of “Oh gods, what now?”
I’ll start by saying that I’ll keep this as spoiler free as I can. I won’t be delving into the rich narrative of the series, the powerful questions it raises through a new but familiar lens; my focus here is on the game, the theme park. The general idea being that rich people seeking escape immerse themselves in the romanticised wild west, a great expanse of beautiful scrub land, desert, and soaring mesas populated by alarmingly life-like robots who function as the NPCs, Hosts. For the safety of the guests, the Hosts are naturally incapable of damaging guests, pain is fine, but bullets just bounce off, and they’re incapable of allowing edged instruments from touching the skin (unless offering a good shave).
The Hosts encourage guests to join them on adventures, attracting their attention with short bursts of action (a fight in the street, a simple stumble in the mud), conversations (recruiting for a posse, approaching the “new face” in town) or by simply being someone real that the guests feel like they can engage with and talk to. The adventures themselves are as varied as in any game, they might involve hunting down and killing bandits, taking sides in a war, robbing a bank, or something more personal like helping them bring two people together.
If guests want nothing to do with the narratives, quests and, story lines then they are free to do as they please in the park. There’s a huge wilderness to explore, towns and villages lost for years, secrets hidden in the farthest reaches, and absolute freedom to do what you please, Some simply indulge their darkest desires, revelling in the freedom of killing the human simulacra and enacting whatever terrible acts they’ve refrained from for fear of the consequences.
So it’s a theme park, sure, but definitely has strong game elements too. My question is, what kind?
In the wild west there’s certainly plenty of fights to be found. You can’t spend too long in a bar without getting into a fight, but there are also wandering troops who haven’t let go of the war, packs of aggressive natives still fighting for their land, bandits robbing trains and smuggling goods. As a guest you’re free to choose sides, grab your gun and start shooting.
The problem lies in the lack of challenge. The whole point of action is the threat and danger, the possibility of failure, and when you’re practically invulnerable strolling through a world of fragile machines it’d be impossible not to feel godlike and beyond failure. Everything you attempt you will succeed, without the need to try over and over again. Therefore, despite the guns, the thrills and excitement, this is not really an action game.
Throughout we hear about “The Maze” and what might lie at its centre. A smattering of our main characters pursue it doggedly like it’s the only thing that really matters, and it follows a trail of sorts, a line of clues most of which can only be deduced through multiple visits to the park.
However (here’s where there’s some light spoilers) the maze is not part of the game, at least not one intended by the designers. Even if it was, I have to comment that there seemed to be absolutely no logical connection between phases of the puzzle, just characters to follow, a grand total of two clues – one of which was literally under a host’s skull, and blindly chasing after a character that seems to be some kind of myth. If this is a puzzle, we’re going to need more than a walkthrough.
A big part of your entry into the game is in how you dress, and in the great morality decision in the form of a western trope, the choice of white or black hat. Interactions are heavily dialogue focused and will change based on how you react and the decision you make. You are effectively taking up a role. This feels a lot closer.
If it is an RPG we’re missing a few elements that some might deem necessary, character progression, a single overarching story, and perhaps more importantly a role. You adopt the character of white or black hat, and after that your decisions are entirely up to you. A guest might choose to give themselves a character but are under no obligation to do so, in fact most don’t even bother, and instead take the time to be themselves and don’t even bother to play along with the setting, let alone any of the hosts or stories. Sure, in Elder Scrolls games you never play the story, but at least you engage in the world.
Here’s where Westworld must be applauded, the NPCs are simply incredible, and are the major focus of the game and the degree of immersion that guests feel. More than a few guests have fallen hook line and sinker, bought fully into the performances and a few have lost their grip on reality in the process. A little repetitive, stuck on their paths, and made very obvious when confronted with conflicts to their programming, but otherwise incredible feats of engineering, manufacturing, and applied psychology.
The writing is superb across the board but the large number of writers and their conflicting egos do make for some very obvious issues with some of the stories and behaviours of the hosts.
The construction of the park makes for a realistic environment with stunning and widely varied vistas. The terrain is so vast that there are entire towns that casual, or even well engrossed players may never see them. Immersion is not the problem, and immersion is the park’s major selling point, but only a smattering of players commit for long periods of time, and engage with the game as a game, instead of just a theme park.
As a theme park the guests can experience thrills in relative safety, they even describe the stories as “rides” in the series, but it seems an odd comparison (although there’s certainly plenty of riding goes on) to call a story or quest a “ride”.
So Westworld not quite any kind of game, and it’s a very weird theme park. It’s damn good TV, definitely worth a watch, but you have to wonder that if it were a real place, would you pay through the nose for a rather repetitive experience, even if it is the most immersive? We have day-jobs for that.
The good news is that the studio apparently have a spinoff in the works, and the original creators are less likely to be heavily involved, which is always a boon for an IP.