[Spoilers for Westworld Season 1]
Westworld drew the curtain on its opening season the other week (in a rather dramatic and devastating manner) and we covered some of the interesting philosophical implications contained in it on our review. Throughout the season and leading up the finale, there were also a great many things written, said, theorized and discussed about the show and its intricacies. While all of these subjects are certainly pertinent and intellectually pleasing to ponder, I wanted to explore a specific one that we touched on but didn’t delve into all that much, and tie it into videogaming as encapsulated by the above quote spoken by a young William in his first visit to Westworld. A while back on Syntax Error, we raised a number of open ended questions attached to how Virtual Reality technology will actually affect us in various ways once we assume it is possible to achieve.
Although never outright stated, to me it was somewhat implied that in the world of the show, outside of the park itself, the rest of the population’s entertainment is something like the highest possible level of currently available real world at-home VR. The masses have their console equivalents to satisfy their gaming hobby, meanwhile, only the upper echelon of wealthy elite can afford a trip to Westworld itself. If we are to believe what the show tells us, then early on it’s stated that a vacation at Westworld costs 40k a day, and that was ostensibly 30-some years prior to the present events of the plot. So extrapolating on that as a basis, one can conclude that a trip there is very costly indeed. Which is amusing in the sense that, in this setting, what is essentially live action role playing (or LARPing as often used in negative context in our modern times, thought to be only enacted by the hardiest of hardcore nerds) has become the purview of the privileged, professional few.
The idea of Westworld seems to be the next logical step up from what I’ll call “day-to-day” VR; a real life simulation populated by fully functioning lifelike synthetic beings in a carefully programmed world within which there are no lasting consequences for actions taken by any given human guest of the park. William, and we viewers, see this in the nature of the lives that the android “hosts” of Westworld live out. The NPCs are as real as can be in this place. As William initially becomes infatuated and even starts a relationship with one of the attractive hosts, Dolores, he finds himself drawn into the world more and more until eventually it becomes “more real” than his outside life.
Thus, over time, the naive, sympathetic, well-meaning character of William turns into the ominous and callous Man in Black after coming to a revelation “among the dead” about what kind of person he discovered himself to be. As his former friend Logan observes after witnessing his transformation, “I told you this place would show you who you really are.” At that moment he, and we, truly experience the potential this type of scenario has and what paths it may lead one down.
William goes on to create his own identity and character, remarking 30 years down the line to the designer of the entire endeavour, Dr. Ford, that he always felt the park to be lacking a “real villain,” hence his own “humble contribution.” It’s additionally revealed that his real-world wife later committed suicide after discovering what he was really up to on all those “business” trips to the park that he convinced his company to buy. If that wasn’t the breaking point before, it surely was after, as he relays the tale of his decision to commit a “truly” evil act; that of murdering a host child in front of her mother, Maeve (whose own arc is interesting in and of itself but is not the focus here) in an attempt to feel again in the wake of that loss. The audience has now shared the ride with William and saw where he was led by the rules, or lack thereof, allowed by Westworld throughout his life.
By this point, he has seen and done almost all there is to do; encountered every narrative adventure (read: side quest) and terrorized the hosts in whatever manner his whims decided. He owns the park and knows every trick in it, save one-“The Maze.” William has since become obsessed with searching for another, deeper (and perhaps humorously as I took it-- attempting to unlock a final difficulty setting) level to the game that he thinks is hidden under the surface, one in which there are consequences and real danger for the guests of the park. He never finds it of course, as the Maze is simply a metaphor for the hosts gaining self-awareness and actualizing their own consciousness. It might even be argued he has perhaps helped Dolores to unlock her own maze, and consequently unwittingly found himself in the center of it. Her self-actualization has, in fact, made it so ‘there are consequences and real danger for the guests’. Nevertheless, William has already found the center to his personal maze, and in fact cannot escape it.
The greater issue is that William could be any of us. He mentions to Dolores that business is booming in the park, implying a high demand for the experience. It is therefore the slipperiest of slopes, for if/when (more likely “when”) we are presented with such a world/scenario en masse, it inevitably will raise the questions of who or what we would turn into if we could get away with murder, etc. without repercussions. Would we view the victims of our dark deeds as less than human, seduced by the illusion only to find out they are actually more human...than human, while all the while we were conditioned to be something... less than a man? The answer remains to be seen of course, but as it approaches faster than ever, I for one eagerly await to see what the “Westworld” of our era will be, because whatever it may resemble, that place will be the future.
- Scott Thurlow