‘Westworld’ Ponders the Lives of NPCs

Westworld seems less interested in examining traditional protagonists than interrogating the behaviors and abuses of a fictional world's props, its non-player characters.

No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be; 

Am an attendant lord, one that will do 

To swell a progress, start a scene or two, 

Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool, 

Deferential, glad to be of use, 

Politic, cautious, and meticulous; 

Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse; 

At times, indeed, almost ridiculous— 

Almost, at times, the Fool. 

— T.S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Profrock”, 1915

The premise of Westworld is made clear pretty early on in its first episode. Westworld is a kind of theme park, whose visitors lay out a big chunk of change to visit. Westworld simulates the Wild, Wild West through the creation of an environment that resembles our conception of 19th century America and a host of robots that appear like the citizens of an Old West town.

In other words, Westworld resembles a video game, a fictional world in which players take on the role of someone else and make choices about how they interact with that fictional world and its artificial inhabitants.

Rather cleverly, one of the first characters that the show introduces its viewers to is a man named Teddy, who is riding a train into town. Teddy wears the garb of a cowboy, but his arrival and his encounter with one of Westworld’s robots, Dolores, who declares that he has “returned” and that he really isn’t a cowboy (he is just dressed like one), implies that he is, perhaps, one of the protagonists of the show, a visitor to the park.

A kind of brief love story is suggested through their encounter. Once again, its implication suggests that he is a visitor (or player) who has fallen in love with one of the world’s “hosts” (or in video game terms, one of its non-player characters). This love story is cut short, though, when the Man in Black arrives, a mean looking outlaw of sorts, who after failing to be gunned down by our supposed “hero” Teddy, “executes” what is actually simply another robotic NPC in the world of Westworld. The Man in Black is able to act on both Teddy and Delores. Thus, we understand that he is a conscious agent in the world, a player in Westworld. Teddy’s inability to act on the Man in Black indicates that he is simply a prop, a non-player character, anything but what one would understand to be the hero of a video game.

This upending of the viewer’s expectations also upends that viwer’s expectations of who it is that the show is ultimately concerned with, which seems less to do with how conscious agents in the artificial theme park act and more to do with how the scripted objects of the world, hosts like Dolores and Teddy, are treated by the park’s guests. In other words, at least in part and when seen as analagous to a video game, Westworld seeks to ponder the lives of non-player characters and the value that these representations of humanity may or may not have.

After the Man in Black “kills” Teddy, he drags Delores off to rape her. After all, to him she is just an object to do with as he wishes, a prop in a larger game that he has bought into. The horror of this situation would be immediately recognizable to critics of violent video games, ones that often assume that such actions are common in video game worlds.

And certainly many games do allow players to involve themselves in some pretty nefarious activities. The obvious example is, of course, Grand Theft Auto, a game whose critics have long challenged, suggesting that the idea that the symbolic acts that are allowable within that game’s world and that the player can participate in are problematic and, perhaps, correlate with real world attitudes and behaviors. Witnessing a horrific act on screen is, perhaps, viewed as less troubling then directing a character within a fictional world to take an obviously immoral action.

While I don’t really hold with the idea that fictional actions have some kind of direct correlation with one’s morality (“killing” pixels on a screen is a morally neutral action), I have always been interested in the ways that video game choices do allow one to reflect on one’s morality. I have spoken in the past on the Moving Pixels podcast about my squeamishness in enacting things that are required to progress the plot of God of War, for instance. I also have talked about feeling some sense of symbolically enacting a moral boundary for myself when refusing to complete “The Dastardly Achievement” in Red Dead Redemption. In other words, I find the fact that I have a response akin to guilt to some types of behaviors asked of me in video games to be interesting (see my essay “Forgive Me, Father, for I have Simmed”, for instance.

Now, don’t get me wrong, and I’ll say this again: I think killing pixels on a screen is a morally neautral act. I know it’s a game. I know that my actions take place in imaginary universes. I know those universes are symbolic. However, I also know that fictional and symbolic acts are meaningful to human beings and produce very real emotional effects on them. I feel outraged for Hamlet that his father was murdered by his uncle, who then married his dead brother’s widow, the queen. Being able to recognize injustice and cheer for someone who seeks retribution is what makes Hamlet a compelling play. It isn’t real, but it raises real emotions in its viewer.

And, after all, while I love Grand Theft Auto despite the very nasty things that I have done in that game, I wouldn’t ever play the infamous rape simulator Rapeplay. That act, symbolic or otherwise, is not something I want to engage in at all, ever. Engagement with symbolic action is a thorny discussion in this context, vacillating as it does between reality and the imaginary, while still trafficking in the symbolic, meaningfulness, and significance.

In a sense, this seems like an issue that Westworld wishes to grapple with. Additionally, in the first episode of the show, the designers of Westworld address a concern with the elision that sometimes seems to occur between representation and reality. Westworld’s cheif architect and programmer has recemtly upgraded some of the robots with something he calls “reveries”, scripted gestures made by a robot that make them seem more human because they are a response to a memory, essentially “physical quirks” that are manifestations of mental operations. The game’s chief writer, the man who creates the narratives and sub-narratives that the guests of Westworld can experience as they visit the park, suggests that there is something troubling in doing so. He says that guests want to remember that they are participating in a fictional world, with fictional people. After all, how can one enjoy abusing something that seems more like a “someone” than a “something”?

Of course, the association of memory with the idea of “reverie” is what aids in raising this moral concern about player character interaction with non-player creations. Blade Runner, another famous work that wrestles over the relationship between the human and the robot or the human and the android, uses memories and photographs to raise concerns about self awareness and the moral concerns that go along with it. Memory in part drives the human impulse towards moral evaluation.

However, no matter how many times I have stomped on that first goombas head in Super Mario Bros., that little mushroom man never remembers the experience. Westworld raises a concern about what it might mean if its NPCs do begin to remember their abuses and abusers and how that might change the symbolic relationship between the two. If memory aids an artificial intelligence in something that, perhaps, resembles learning does that change ones relationship to it?

In some sense, this latter point interests me less, though, than the earlier one, that simply raises the question of how we come to view the objects that we abuse when those representations have obvious symbolic significance to us. The memory issue raises more of a sci-fi gaming of this problem than the psychological or philosophical one that simple involvement in symbolic abuse does. At this point, of course, I only have the barest sense of what the series might conclude about these notions or if it simply wants to raise the spectre of these questions and bat different ideas around about it. Regardless, I do simply find it interesting to take the spotlight off of the most obvious protagonists of a game-like drama and to instead attempt to ponder the significance of th life of the seemingly banal props that make up a fictional world — even if that means that focusing on them really just makes us reflect more on our own character, moral or not, real or imagined.