TV

'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.


Westworld

Airtime: Sundays, 9pm
Cast: Evan Rachel Wood, Thandie Newton, Ed Harris, Anthony Hopkins
Subtitle: "The Original"
Network: HBO
Air date: 2016-10-02
Amazon
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.

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less
Features

The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton



9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton



8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge



7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge



6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

Scholar Judith May Fathallah's work blurs lines between author and ethnographer, fan experiences and genre TV storytelling.

In Fanfiction and the Author: How Fanfic Changes Popular Culture Texts, author Judith May Fathallah investigates the progressive intersections between popular culture and fan studies, expanding scholarly discourse concerning how contemporary blurred lines between texts and audiences result in evolving mediated practices.

Keep reading... Show less
8

Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

Keep reading... Show less
3
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image