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‘Westworld’ Is Inspired by Video Games, but That Doesn’t Mean It Should Be Treated Like One

The Man in Black is trying to “100 percent” the park the way gamers do in a game. Is he—and some obsessive fans—missing the big picture?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Spoiler alert

Watching new episodes of Westworld can feel like taking a pop quiz. Finding the double and triple meanings in every line of dialogue, the symbolism contained in every shot, and the biblical or mythological themes of every narrative has become a sport within the show. There is nothing new about television shows having hidden symbolism, deeper thematic meaning, and meticulous attention to detail (Look no further than the dozens of easter eggs throughout Breaking Bad). But where most shows insert those details as an ancillary way to enhance the viewing experience for the most obsessive fans, Westworld’s approach makes tiny clues feel like required reading.

I’m all the way down the Westworld rabbit hole, but I’m also sympathetic to viewers who don’t want TV shows to assign homework. The cradle, one of the biggest plot points of Season 2, was introduced to subscribers of Westworld’s newsletter three weeks before it was explained on the TV show. Bernard’s story stretches across (at least) three timelines, and many on Reddit believe a barely noticeable scar on his temple is the key to differentiating those timelines. (And if it isn’t the scar, it’s the different aspect ratios of certain shots.) Westworld is consumed differently than other television shows. That’s not surprising considering the spiritual inspiration for Westworld wasn’t just TV, but video games.

The premise of the Westworld park is that absurdly rich people can pay $40,000 a day to play Red Dead Redemption in real life. Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, the married couple who created the show, discussed at an E3 panel on video games and Westworld in Los Angeles earlier this month how they played countless hours of video games while conceptualizing Westworld, including Red Dead Redemption and Grand Theft Auto. William’s “introduction” to Westworld in Episode 2 of Season 1 is partly inspired by the tutorial in Skyrim. Twice this season, William is healed with a med-pack. Joy and Nolan even cast Steven Ogg, the voice of GTA V’s Trevor, as Rebus. Nolan and Joy created Westworld with some of the DNA from open-world games, and now the experience of watching the show is a hybrid of gaming and television culture.

In many of the games that helped inspire Westworld, players can see the percentage of the game they have finished. The main story line may cover only 50 or 60 percent, so “beating the game” requires finishing every side mission, learning every skill, winning every competition, and collecting every easter egg to reach the coveted “100 percent.” The pursuit encourages players to explore and engage with the world in ways they wouldn’t otherwise. It also foments obsession for fans to complete Herculean tasks. Grand Theft Auto IV featured 200 pigeons (called “flying rats”) scattered across a near-full-size replica of New York City the player can hunt down. Fallout 4 required scavenging more than 1,000 items to reach 100 percent. Completing Skyrim could take hundreds of hours for the main game and hundreds more to explore the rest of the map.

Full completion can often seem impossible, and some video game creators are in on the joke. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild had 900 different Korok seeds for players to collect. Once they were all gathered, the player was rewarded with “Hestu’s Gift”... which was a golden piece of shit. “We just kind of thought it would be funny to make that a big joke,” the game’s director, Hidemaro Fujibayashi, told IGN.

If the Westworld park is an open-world video game, William is the player obsessed with getting 100 percent completion. “[The Man in Black] is the best gamer there is,” Joy said at E3. “He’s incredible at this. He’s been coming to the park for many, many, decades, and he is literally at the top of his game. He’s the alpha predator. And why does he keep playing? What is he looking for? He’s frustrated with the game. He keeps saying he wants the stakes to be real. He wants real meaning and real consequence.”

At the same panel, Nolan compared Ford to a video game designer.

“In our show, you take a great game designer and add 30 years into the future, spoilers. We couldn’t come up with a better actor to portray that person than Anthony Hopkins,” Nolan said. “You think about the totalitarian narrative designer, the person who is going to say, ‘This is the story I’m telling and you fit into this story, even if you have free will.’”

This analogy clears up Ford and William’s relationship. William is an obsessed gamer who wants to unlock some kind of legendary achievement or secret mode now that he has done everything else, and all of his conversations with Ford are equivalent to angry messages is written on Reddit. William hopes that finding the end of the game will justify the 30 years and immeasurable energy he invested into Westworld. Of course, that justification can only come internally. (If you don’t enjoy the journey to 900 Korok seeds, Hestu’s “gift” won’t make it all feel worth it.) William gets so lost in his quest for 100 percent completion, so wrapped up in the questions of who is a host and who is not, that he kills his own daughter.

The irony is that some fans have the same relationship to Westworld the show as William does to Westworld the park. William wondering whether Emily is a host impedes any emotional reckoning with murdering his own daughter, and the fans (myself included) debating whether Emily is a host, or whether William is a host, or whether they’re both hosts, or whether everyone is a host, or whether this is all in a simulation, lose the emotional impact of a crushing scene. Suddenly a show that fostered a desire to deep dive into conspiracy theories is warning its viewers about deep diving into conspiracy theories and is perhaps critiquing the fringes of its own fan base the same way Ford taunts William for two seasons every time he asks, “Did you find what you were looking for?” The inevitable question is if it is worth searching for those clues at all.

The fans who search for every clue in Westworld are applying a video game mentality to the show. We can’t explore Westworld ourselves, so that curiosity is channeled by turning over every terraformed rock for clues. Are the continuity errors in the first episode proof Bernard is being looped through time? Did Sizemore peeing on the map in Season 1 foreshadow the mystery sea in Season 2? Is the Westworld map actually a human brain? It is unlikely that Westworld can tie all of the loose ends of these disparate plot threads into a tight resolution. Any fans hoping that the Westworld season (or series) finale will provide a grand meaning that will justify their time investment might be disappointed to find a bunch of shit shined to look like gold. To answer Ford’s question, what we’re looking for isn’t in the answers, but in enjoying the questions themselves.