After watching the first episode of Westworld, I had this to say:
Westworld = eXistenZ + The Matrix + Bladerunner + Firefly. It will be epic if it has something new to say, forgettable if not.
After watching the second episode, I had this:
This show will get inevitable discussion in game dev circles. The setting is essentially a game. Specifically a role playing game. It takes place in not exactly a virtual reality, but an artificial one, that promises total immersion.
The degree of realism is unparalleled by our current capabilities, but the problem with the game is readily familiar to anyone who has a tried to reign in a group of misbehaving players in a tabletop RPG or LARP who refuse to play as though their actions in the game world can possibly cause them to have any real world regret. People who refuse to immerse themselves in the game world and act disruptive ways for their own amusement, are just like these “vacationers” who are told that they can do anything they want, and nothing can hurt them, nothing bad can happen to them. Participants who understand this is the reality will not get into character, and will behave cynically, in game breaking ways.
The game in Westworld fails as a game because everyone playing is aware they are privileged, playing in a sort of God Mode, and this enables them to be as out of character as they want, and ruin the world for everyone else. In short, it’s a poorly designed game system with incredible production values and play mechanics.
There’s also a major subplot with the artificial people who are the programmed NPCs that the players interact with being on the verge of attaining personhood, and the ethical dimension of AI development, which is interesting, but I don’t know whether the show will say anything new on that matter, or if it’ll just make the same old points that have been addressed since at least Frankenstein.
I’m not sure yet whether Westworld will have something new to say, but it is holding my interest so far. It’s well acted, well written, and visually sharp. This hasn’t escaped the notice of others, either.
This comes hot on the heels of another series that featured role playing games prominently, the retro-80’s surprise hit Stranger Things. Stranger Things uses the classic Advanced Dungeons and Dragons RPG to help explain the real-world strangeness that’s happening in the world of the middle schoolers having a paranormal adventure, and their real-world party dynamics mirror and are instructed by their role-playing game. The characters make reference to their game to relate to the situation they’re confronting, and to try to make sense of what’s going on.
I have to say, it’s good to see gaming taking such a meta-role in modern storytelling. I hope we’ll continue to see more of this, and I think it’s likely we will.