In 1973, Michael Crichton created the concept of Westworld as an adult theme park which was an extrapolation of the idea of combining Disneyland with play-acting. While I may deride Michael Crichton for not believing in global warming among other eccentricities, I will never fault him as a futurist. His idea of a theme park predates the concept of tabletop roleplaying games, live action roleplaying games, modern video games, and the MMORPG.
For those unfamiliar with the original Westworld, it's basically the story of two guys who buy tickets to experience life in a Wild West theme park where robots replace the actors you'd normally find. This opens the experience up to having sex with, killing, or otherwise engaging in all manner of mayhem with the machines. Eventually, some jackasses upload a computer virus (before such a thing actually existed in the wild) and the robots rise up to murder the guests.
|Teddy and Dolores are two sickeningly sweet stock characters who exist to be murdered by the guests.|
I'm a big defender of video game violence as immaterial to actual violence. It doesn't matter how many people you mow down with your car in Grand Theft Auto, it doesn't represent your ability or desire to mow down real people. However, dehumanization is one of the major sources of evil in society. Most people aren't innately evil but if you give them an excuse to why it is justified, nay even a good thing, to do something horrible then they gain the ability to do so.
|The cast seems to know they're in a Michael Crichton novel so they're overprepared for Robot RevolutionTM.|
But it's not just Man in Black as the rest of the park goers generally take Westworld as a chance to go wild with no consequences. Again, I see no particular problem with as a heathly fantasy life is a perfectly valid thing even if I'd prefer to be the hero rather than the villain. I suspect this will be my greatest issue with Westworld as it requires you to sympathize with the machines and be repulsed by the behavior of the park goers.
|Ed Harris is less a hardcore villain than an obsessive nerd who loves playing "Evil" in KOTOR.|
The first episode nicely subverts a lot of my expectations as when the first few "glitches" emerge, the park's security immediately clamps down on the robots and rolls them back. They're extremely conscious of guest safety and paranoid about accidents. Even so, the Westworld equivalent of Walt Disney, Mister Ford (Anthony Hopkins), is a more clever programmer than his staff. Hopkins plays Ford with a kind of barely concealed disgust for humanity and sympathy for his machines, who are the most advanced robots ever created but used as nothing more than sex toys and walking targets.
|Despite a small role, I really like Thandie Newton's brothel madame.|
The plight of the "Hosts" is the meat of the show with the heart of the first episode being Dolores' Sisyphus-like torment. While some have criticized the off-screen sexual violence against her, I actually think it was a necessary storytelling prop here. Dolores is, like the majority of the Hosts, a robot designed for sex with the guests or whatever other uses they find for her. She is programmed, however, with a boundless optimism and girl next door quality which makes her a Pollyanna-esque figure. Dolores, like the other park androids, has no memory of what happens to her every night but wakes up every day to loop through the same horrible experience which always ends with her parents murdered in a "scripted" event. Starting to remember that would break even Batman or Wolverine, I think.
|I admit, I might be inclined to destroy humanity too if my carefully-made A.I. children were treated this way.|
Ultimately, Westworld is a much-much more complicated creature than the original movie. It's easy to guess HBO hopes to use it as a replacement for Game of Thrones but I'm not sure the concept has the legs to sustain itself for more than a few seasons. Eventually, the machines will either prove themselves sentient and be released or will be destroyed when they realize the animatronics at Disney World do not represent a valid army for Robot RevolutionTM.
|The treatment of poor Dolores really verges into the bleakly comical by the end.|
The acting is impressive all round and while I think the show is built around a fantastic aesop which has no real relevance to either dehumanization or gaming, that doesn't mean it's not entertaining. We're still quite a bit away from Mario and King Koopa coming after us for all the abuse we've put them through but that doesn't mean it's not fun to speculate on what it would be like if they did. That, however, means that I actually think of West World more as a hard R-rated Toy Story than any deep social commentary.
|I always found "Your toys are secretly alive" to be a nightmarish premise.|
Then again, I would also be revolted by some of the behavior there, just as I can't stomach the commentary by male gamers whenever the specter of feminist revision of female characters comes up. My ideal Westworld experience would probably be the family-friendly pan-handling section.