Working As Intended: Westworld is a sandbox MMORPG on your TV

Westworld has emerged this fall as the geek obsession TV show, a gunslinger's LOST about which people can't stop talking and theorizing and debating. Don't worry; Massively OP is not suddenly becoming an entertainment website, but I hope you'll indulge me for a round of Westworld in this edition of Working As Intended because in every episode of the show, I see the MMORPG genre: our players, our proclivities, and our many, many problems.

And that's by design. The show's premise is that in some sci-fi near-future, wealthy people are able to pay their way into an elaborate, real-world themepark, where corporate gamemasters and engineers and designers control high-functioning human-like robots ("hosts") in an Old West setting to create whatever roleplaying or entertainment environment the guests are seeking. The players can interact with the robots in extremely realistic ways, from playing cards and having sex to going on scripted quest adventures -- and even murder.

Minor spoilers follow, though I'll avoid the big ones since the season's but half over. Let's talk about Westworld's MMORPG trappings.

Themeparks vs. sandboxes

I've called the "gameworld" a themepark, and it is -- in a real-world sense, like Disneyland. Some of the characters even refer to the various pre-programmed AI loops for the NPC robots as literal "rides," and it's possible for a human player to do nothing but waltz into the starter town, Sweetwater, and just wait for an NPC to show up with a scripted adventure on tap. They may as well have gold exclamation points over their heads -- they look and act real, but after a while, it becomes obvious who's a player and who's a plot hook (mainly because the humans are terrible at staying in-character; their reactions to bloody shoot-outs include giggles and admiration, for example).

map-300But even so, Westworld is more like a sandbox seeded with quests. The sales pitch is that players make choices and determine how they play, where they go, and what happens to them. The park is massive; traveling to some of its more far-flung locations could plainly take days by horse, wagon, or train (and the park has all three). The farther out you go, the less scripted and, well, civilized it all is, quite literally. The questing loops become longer, darker, and more gruesome in tone, and while it appears the most damage a human can soak in stereotypically old-timey Sweetwater is a bruise from a "gunshot," in more distant locations -- like the underworld of Pariah and towns controlled by warring NPC factions -- the human participants can (apparently - spoilers or I'd explain more) be injured and captured, at least until the gamemasters or their designates step in.

"It's hi-sec and low-sec," my EVE Online-playing husband observed, and he's right: Many MMORPGs, particularly sandboxes with PvP, implement gradations of safety. The closer to noob land you are, the safer it is. The further away from home you get, the more danger you're in.

Still, the real "danger" appears low because the humans can't die (and the hosts die all the time, only to be cleaned up and put back in play every night, memories theoretically wiped). As many MMORPG players have long argued, without permadeath, without true risks or a sense of consequence, the superficial fetch-and-kill quests part of the game turns out to be surprisingly boring and unfulfilling for the players. That's exacerbated by just how much slow travel is required to get anywhere, most of which would probably lose its charm for wealthy guests after a day in the saddle. Sound familiar? Ever waited for a boat for the 50th time, or AFKed while your griffon flies you to the next zone?

The players are ostensibly on vacation, too, which makes it hard for them (though presumably not impossible) to truly leave a permanent mark. While they have control over the choices they make during their month in the park, even being able to pull scripted NPCs far away from their loops and into entirely improvised territory, they can't buy up the saloon and take it over forever, for example, since they're ushered out of the park after four weeks.

white-black-hats

Antisocial play: White hats vs. black hats

Logan and William are a pair of future brothers-in-law introduced as human players in episode two, but the only thing they have in common is Logan's off-screen sister and loyalties to Logan's family business. Logan is a playboy and a jerk. Having been to Westworld many times before, he treats the NPC robots like the disposable "garbage" they superficially are, openly mocking, wounding, and killing them with immersion-breaking dialogue. He's "the asshole who won't stay in character during your Dungeons & Dragons campaign," as Polygon aptly put it. "He's the guy who teabagged you, even though you were on his team." He has no interest in the petty, transparent quests of Sweetwater and makes a beeline for babes, booze, and blood.

William, on the other hand, is in Westworld for the first time. As presented in episode two, he's a bit of an everyman, one of the surrogates for the watcher. Initially, he finds the game all too real and can't even initially bring himself to cheat on his fiancee with sexbots intended for that purpose, let alone bring actual harm to the hosts. He finds himself repeatedly disturbed by Logan's outrageously flippant and cruel dark triad behavior even as he's sucked into deeper and deeper story loops and plotlines and finds himself forced to "kill" to protect himself and a robot he grows to care for -- but he still doesn't enjoy pulling the literal trigger. It feels too realistic. At that stage, he doesn't like what the park brings out in people, and he's afraid of what it could bring out in himself.

If you've ever found yourself in the middle of one of those "it doesn't matter that I'm a jerk online; it's just a game, I'm just roleplaying, none of this is real, and you need to lighten up" arguments about an MMO, then you know already Logan and William by heart. And like a lot of MMO gamers who eye griefers and gankers and apparent part-time sociopaths with concern, William suspects that his future brother-in-law's antisocial, narcissistic attitude isn't limited to just Westworld.

Intriguingly, William isn't the only one who's swept away by the immersion created by the elite AI; even Felix, a likeable corporate tech who repairs damaged androids, is so infatuated with the realism of the robots that he's conned into helping one of them boost her intelligence so high it's probably going to come back to bite the humans in the ass later.

Likewise, Robert Ford, Anthony Hopkins' eccentric engineer, notably rejects a proposed story arc for the gameworld because it's just a crass themepark ride, because it lacks subtlety and won't appeal to the type of guest who truly appreciates the nature of a sandbox.

"The guests don’t return for the obvious things we do, the garish things. They come back because of the subtleties. The details. They come back because they discover something they imagine no one noticed before. Something they fall in love with. They’re not looking for a story that tells them who they are. They already know who they are. They’re here because they want a glimpse of who they could be."

Unsurprisingly, that line (and the show itself) has resonated with game developers already.

ww

The Man in Black: Pay-to-win and Bartle's explorer

Ed Harris' character, known so far only as The Man in Black, is telegraphed as the villain initially, a human who seems to take sick pleasure in violating the robots. But as the show's gone on, The Man in Black is revealed as perhaps the hardest-core player in the entire park -- a philanthropist from the real world -- who's on a multi-decade quest to explore the park's deepest mysteries, even if he has to figuratively hack the game and play a bad guy with the hosts to do it. Like Logan, he sees the robots as a means to an end in his quest (though he's genuinely attached to some of them), but unlike Logan, he's not harming the hosts out of malice or sadism.

The Man in Black represents the Explorer type, but I don't just mean the stock Bartle explorer who wants to see all the game's spaces. Harris' character wants to see how the sausage is made, to sort out the mystic from the mechanical. He's convinced there's more to the game than the gameworld and the NPCs in it and isn't above exploring the innards of the robots on his quest to understand the hidden meaning, though he tries to fly under the radar of the corporate onlookers to do it. He's the hacker, the exploiter, the modder who does what he does for curiosity's sake, not to actually move faster through the game. He's not playing the games inside the sandbox; he's playing the sandbox's meta itself.

He also sparks -- literally -- questions about the pay-to-play and pay-to-win nature of the park. There's a moment during episode four when The Man in Black relies on the human corporate gamemasters to propel his escape plot to victory with an explosive trick; we see the tech request approval for pyrotechnics, which is granted by the head of ops, and the explosions happen just as Harris' character requires. Given The Man in Black's history with the park and his apparent wealth, we're left to believe that while every guest gets some degree of personalized attention from the staff, The Man in Black is in a tier of care all to himself because of his bankroll. And we also realize that gamemasters are monitoring both the humans and the AI carefully to tweak gameplay on the fly. Now there's something every MMORPG player wishes for!

Conclusion

Westworld is far more complicated that I've described here, chiefly because the plotline of the show is much bigger than just playing cowboy in the themepark itself, with corporate intrigue and futurist philosophy that will presumably eventually take the show out of the realm of toying with the park and into a much darker place as it explores the nature of humanity and AI and reality. I'm also being cagey about some of the major plot twists that are clearly underway (so do mark spoilers in the comments if you've figured out some of the big clues about the when, where, and who's-who of the show!).

But even beyond the artifice of the story, I've found it fascinating and enlightening that in trying to design a LARP-like game simulation that's believable in a sci-fi TV setting, the showrunners have built a recognizable sandbox MMORPG, with so many of the genre's tropes and annoyances. If there's anything to be learned from the series, it's that the real problem with sandboxes -- people -- may never be solved at all.

The MMORPG genre might be "working as intended," but it can be so much more. Join Massively Overpowered Editor-in-Chief Bree Royce in her Working As Intended column for editorials about and meanderings through MMO design, ancient history, and wishful thinking. Armchair not included.
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68 comments
nosz
nosz

<spoiler>

"These violent delights have violent ends"

And in their triumph die, like fire and powder,
Which, as they kiss, consume.

Until 2018!

nosz
nosz

<M-M-MAJOR SPOILERS>

Ugh Bernard! How many more times do I have to rewatch it because of you?! :)

kgptzac
kgptzac

I'm not a fan of Western genre stuff and certainly not watched this show.  It does sound to me, however, that William needs to quit playing a game which he grew to dislike.  Not sure what other factors are there to prevent "players" from "quitting" the game, but I feel people need to know when to quit when playing a game.

breetoplay
breetoplay moderator

@kgptzac So I think it would make more sense if you did watch it -- it's honestly not a western at all. It's really sci-fi; the western bits are just the setting for the game. William in particular.... well, there are lots of theories about him, and I can't dive into them without major spoilers, but suffice it to say that William's journey into the game and why he keeps playing it is a large part of the plot. :D

melissaheather
melissaheather

Great show so far, yes. HBO pretty much spared no expense to hire an incredible cast.  A nice spin on the old 70s movie too, in this show they spend considerable time interviewing the androids to determine how their A.I. is coping with the fact that their idyllic world is routinely invaded by human tourists who rape and pillage and (seemingly) murder them... and how fragments of past experiences are starting to survive their nightly memory wipes, manifested as demi-dreams.

Damn fascinating show, actually.

Space_Ghostal
Space_Ghostal

I was watching the show was thinking the same thing! Good article Bree! 

Lheiah
Lheiah

Good article. Refreshing!

imayb1
imayb1

Great write-up, Bree!  Good call linking the "What People Who Make Video Games Think of Westworld" article too. I read that a few days ago on Flipboard. It's long, but well worth reading. I finish an episode of this show and always want more. I'm constantly looking forward to learning more about it.

BriarGrey
BriarGrey

That GM oversight of all players and interactions -- I think that's why today's massive MMORPGs lack something that the text-based MUDs had (and still have for those, like GemStone IV, that are still in existence).  As a former SGM for GS4, I know we loved 'spying' on the roleplay going on and coming up with ways that we could affect the game for those players' characters in meaningful ways.  The more you could personalize it without being unfair, the more exciting it got for everyone, and the more invested they were in the integrity of the world and in staying in-character.  That doesn't exist in most MMORPGs even on RP servers without a lot of extra effort and definitely without GM involvement.  And in a game like WoW, for example, the ability to have something "permanent" that you can build upon (aka player housing, shops, whatever) and make you feel a true part of the world is really minimized.  And it matters.  It really, really matters.

Now, on Westworld - spot on with the article, I think!  We're enjoying the hell out of the show, and I'm consistently appalled by the crassness of the average 'player'.  Because it IS so realistic, it really sparks a lot of philosophical and psychological points of consideration -- are those people who are there to rape a woman or kill a man sociopaths? Or do they just have dark thoughts and a harmless outlet for them so they don't act on them in real life?  I tend toward the viewpoint of the former myself -- it's one thing to think it, maybe even to read and/or write about it, but to immerse yourself into something so real and then act upon it? That's a bit line-crossing to me.  

I like shows that spark those sorts of thoughts...and I'm intrigued by where Westworld is going with it all.

Angier
Angier

@BriarGrey Any roleplayer with more dark themes as part of his repertoire will assure you that there is a complete difference between what their characters might be capable of doing and what they themselves would do in RL. Games are meant to create a confined space wherein both game-rules and real rules can coexist without conflict because the game world is virtual and remains so (unless someone with mental issues confuses the game and the reality, of course).

BriarGrey
BriarGrey

@Angier @BriarGrey Guess I wasn't clear, I definitely agree with you here.  It's when you move it to a real world venue with NPCs that are created to be virtually indistinguishable from humans that I believe you cross the line into something much more disturbing.

Angier
Angier

@BriarGrey @Angier What's the difference to dealing with other people in their roles? the realism? Possibly.

breetoplay
breetoplay moderator

@Angier @BriarGrey I think this is a critical point. Most dark roleplayers -- and I've done it myself, though I lean more grey than black hat, ahem -- are actually playing a specific role, a character they've designed, and they're trying to cleave to that character as much as possible, as if they're faithful actors. In Westworld, you're not really playing a role or a character; you're you. And that's where it gets complicated: People like Logan aren't faithfully recreating a character within strict confines. They're just being themselves without social or legal rules.

Angier
Angier

*People* are not the problem of the sandboxes. Designers are, not realizing that "they come for a glimpse of who they might be" does not end with the player characters but is what makes ALL the allure of a sandbox. You might join a sandbox MMORPG for what you heard it has and has not but you *stay* for what immediate ideas you have about what *could* be. If these possibilities end up being shallow or early terminated by the designers it kills off the entire game, immidatly. That is why consequences inside a game MUST be also coming from inside the game and why scams, cheats, exploits, griefplay and what not MUST be solved within the confines of the game and not by outside effects like a change in ToS or nerfs or bans.

Angier
Angier

@BriarGrey @Angier I wouldn't give anyone a pass. But I do expect designers to think outside of the box full of sand they design to see how the metagame actually brings depth to the game. Just as Westworld suggests.

BriarGrey
BriarGrey

@Angier Designers are people too.  It is both players and designers who can be part of the problem - players do not get a pass on this.  

paragonlostinspace
paragonlostinspace

Great read Bree! Apologies, just now catching up on my Massively reading, was a bit busy the last few days. I'm so glad you decided to do the article about this after talking about it the other day in the Podcast etc. Agree with all your points and observations so far about Westworld, really spot on. They're totally nailing the player mindset of many mmorpg players.


Btw a great read from some twenty to thirty years ago is the Dream Park books that were based on similar ideas/concepts. Basically taking tabletop rpg gaming, LARPing or online gaming for that matter to the next level.(link below) Anyhow not a lot to add to what you already wrote about, just wanted to say how much I appreciated your organized thoughts on this. :)


https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dream_Park



ohforfs
ohforfs

If only Blizzard had seen this before they did the movie "Warcraft"


Digest
Digest

@ohforfs Well its what they do best. Wait... Wait... Wait... Then copy ideas from others and slap on that "polish" thingy and shove it to their fanbois who will get it no matter what and they'll be celebrating its the best game there is. 

Jacobin
Jacobin

Nice tie in, its a very interesting show for MMO addicts

Mylicia
Mylicia

Great article! For all those that haven't watched it yet, you really need to give it a try! It's a great show so far.

Archebius
Archebius

I've been meaning to watch this, just haven't gotten around to it yet. It's pretty high on my list.

Ceder
Ceder

I wonder how much some of the considerations of the show in the article will differ once the shows first season has ended....

Craywulf
Craywulf

Fascinating article, glad to have gotten a chance to read Nolan's insight (even if it's in the comments section).

agemyth
agemyth

zomg Massively is becoming IGN+every other big game site and just covering everything "pop culture". /s

I haven't actually read the article yet (why the hell am I in the comments section then?), but I will.

BalsBigBrother
BalsBigBrother

@agemyth wait what?  you are supposed to actually read the articles before commenting, oh I am so screwed :p

PurpleCopper
PurpleCopper

I'm pretty sure the producers and writers of Westworld DELIBERATELY compared Westworld to a video game.

nosz
nosz

@PurpleCopper Here's an interview with creators and showrunners Jonathan Nolan (The Dark Knight, Interstellar, Person of Interest) and Lisa Joy (Pushing Daisies, Burn Notice):

http://www.vice.com/read/westworld-jonathan-nolan-lisa-joy-interview

Excerpt:

VICE: The show reminds me a lot of playing open-world RPG video games. Were video games something that you guys were thinking about while creating the show?

Jonathan Nolan:
Yeah, very much—I used to play video games, before we had a three-year-old.

Lisa Joy:
And a TV show. [Laughs]

Nolan:
A lot of interesting storytelling that's happening right now is in video games—which literally didn't exist when Michael Crichton was writing the original film. Now, video games are a bigger industry than film or TV. I've never worked in that industry, but we have friends who have, and I was fascinated by the concept of writing a story in which the protagonists' actions aren't part of the story. In games like The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim, Red Dead Redemption, or the sandbox games that Bioware make, morality is a variable. How do you write a story in which the hero's moral component exists on a spectrum? That's a fascinating challenge.


I'm also fascinated by how non-player-characters in video games have their own lives. In Skyrim, when you walk into a village, you aren't necessarily the most important person there. The NPCs have lives that happen whether you're there or not. I was listening to directors' commentary from [video game developer] Ken Levine about building Bioshock Infinite and the affection that game developers and designers develop for their characters. It's a qualitatively different relationship than the one screenwriters have with their characters, because video game characters don't just recite dialogue—they do shit, and the players interact with them. It's a relationship that I think Crichton anticipated to some degree, but it's become much more complicated than even he could imagine.


BKone
BKone

So that makes Warcraft: The Beginning the ultimate themepark then lol...

FistyFisterson
FistyFisterson

The fact that it is a sandbox is one of the major reasons I love it. It's nice to see someone pointing it out  Fun show.

Pashgan
Pashgan

It could be much more interesting if it wasn't an adaptation of Genesis in android entourage with addition of Sumerian Lilith and Gilgamesh myths. Can predict whole plot after episode 1. So it's more like themepark.

nosz
nosz

@Pashgan The anime Log Horizon has also a similar premise, only that the players are actually trapped in an MMO and are considered gods by NPCs, because they can ressurect themselves!

The meta there is to find out, how that happen, so players break in to the "gold/loot redistrbution chambers" for mobs to change the game's rules, so NPCs are able to buy housing and guild halls as well, for example, to disrupt tensions between them and NPCs. So they can be more on equal terms.

nosz
nosz

"and finds himself forced to “kill” to protect himself and a robot he grows to care for — but he still doesn’t enjoy pulling the literal trigger. It feels too realistic. At that stage, he doesn’t like what the park brings out in people, and he’s afraid of what it could bring out in himself."

<spoiler> Well, that already happened in the same scene, where the third and last host he kills, was not involved in the beating before, still raising his hands at safe distance and asking not to pull the trigger, so William wasn't forced to kill the 3rd one at all!

nosz
nosz

"but unlike Logan, he’s not harming the hosts out of malice or sadism."

<spoiler> Did I miss the purpose of his rape of the host Dolores? o.O

breetoplay
breetoplay moderator

@nosz <SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER>

((Watch the scene again. Don't think he raped her at all. It's just misdirection.))

nosz
nosz

@breetoplay & @Dystopiq  <spoiler> Until now I simply thought, he's both: Philanthropist and rapist! That's what Westworld brings out of you: ALL of your sides as a human!

Well, I'm gonna rewatch it now! :)

Morpayne
Morpayne

@breetoplay @nosz didn't rape her? Dragging a screaming woman by her hair into a barn and slamming the door shut behind you after saying "lets celebrate" must mean something else I suppose. 

breetoplay
breetoplay moderator

@Morpayne @breetoplay @nosz <TONS OF SPOILERS HERE>

That would be the misdirection, yeah. You're meant to think he rapes her at first. At that point you've only just realized Teddy is a host / the MIB isn't, and you assume he's bad and that his interest in Dolores is genuinely rapey. It's a dirty trick they play on us. It takes a few more episodes of context to realize the MIB isn't in the park for that at ALL. Knowing what we do know about the MIB and his backstory/motivations, he's just playing along with the "plot" (the bandits DO rape Dolores if no human intervenes or if Teddy has been pulled off loop) as a way to shake off the "GM" spies he doesn't want knowing what he's up to. Now, I don't know whether he scalps her like he scalps Kissy or whether he's hunting for a different clue on her. Guess we'll find out later.

Witches
Witches

@nosz The purpose was to trigger her, we have seen that some hosts are triggered by extreme situations to reveal hidden clues, and by his dialogue you can tell he met Dolores many times before, we were supposed to think he always raped her in the first episode because we didn't know exactly who he was then, but we now know who he is and what he is doing, so he probably tried many other different approaches to try and trigger her before.

breetoplay
breetoplay moderator

@nosz @breetoplay @Dystopiq <SPOILERS> When you rewatch, ask yourself two things: WHO is the MIB, and WHEN? We're on our second watch through now (gotta keep mind off reality, right), and asking those questions changed the show for us in a Fight Club "holy shit" twist kinda way.

Dystopiq
Dystopiq

@nosz We don't know what he did to her. I'm sure that's a plot point that will be revealed later on when Dolores runs into the MIB again. There's a reason behind his actions plus he doesn't strike me as a rapist.

hugmonster
hugmonster

Great read. Awesome stuff, Bree! I hope the Christmas Special edition of the podcast is about Westworld this year.

hugmonster
hugmonster

That's exactly what I was thinking :D

breetoplay
breetoplay moderator

@hugmonster That's a really fantastic idea. By then, I think we'll have seen the whole season too (right)? So I don't have to be so cagey about spoilers and Reddit theories and such. :D