HBO’s Westworld is Archaeogaming

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[This post is spoiler-free.]

[Updated October 25, 2016]

I came to the 2016 HBO series Westworld as a skeptic, wondering how the series would differ from the 1973 original film written and directed by scifi/thriller auteur Michael Crichton. I binged the four episodes so far, and realized minute-by-minute that what I was seeing was archaeogamingais it will likely be in the next hundred years. I’m not just talking about the antiquarian setting (a reconstructed, re-imagined 19th-century Wild West set in Utah) or the fact that the Man in Black (played by Ed Harris who seems born to the role) refers to Westworld as a game with many levels, including an endgame. There is also archaeogaming philosophy, artificial intelligence, ethics, and yes, glitches.

For those of you who have yet to see the show, Westworld is an amusement park for the super-wealthy where they can do whatever they like, from the basic (drinking, killing, and sexxytimes) to exploring the open world, completing quest chains. Westworld is an MMO made real, stocked with hundreds of NPCs (called “hosts” in the show), mini-bosses, and one big boss (“Wyatt”). The show is adept at showing how the NPCs complete their loops, their routines, their dialogues, their repeatable quests, and how they interact with visitors. Guests can “grief”, shooting up an entire town of quest-givers. They can raid. They can even upgrade their weapons. There is treasure to find, and bounties to earn. It’s as if Red Dead Redemption met World of Warcraft and then decided to get drunk with the science fiction half of Assassins Creed prior to watching Deus Ex.

In the show, we see the developer and his chief architect, plus programmers, level designers, and even community managers. We watch as the world’s creator, Ford (played by Anthony Hopkins) introduces an expansion to the game, one with subtlety and danger, that eclipses the schlock proposed by his lead writer (perhaps another nod to some of the expansions in Rockstar Games Grand Theft Auto series — Rockstar also producing the excellent classic Red Dead Redemption). The new narrative disrupts the lore of Westworld and introduces new backstories and new programming, which leads to confusion and to glitches that may or may not be tied to NPC cognition. We’ve seen this before in the Elder Scrolls series, with Elder Scrolls Online introducing new content and mythology that does not dovetail well with Tamriel as the players know it.

Westworld itself is a sterling recreation of the Western United States ca. 150 years ago, merging authentic-looking architecture and period clothing with the tropes visitors associate with the myth of the Wild West. There are gunfights and jails and saloons and whorehouses, mysterious indigenous people, forever-vistas. It’s a true open world with the most difficult quests ringing the edges. Video game archaeologists interested in how the past is recreated in games now will ask the same questions of Westworld. It is new wine in old bottles, mixing virtual reality with augmented reality with plain-ole reality to create a visceral, believable experience that allows players to play however they like, from role-playing to PvP to PvE to solo quests to pick-up groups. Guests can quest alone or together. They can bring their morals with them, or can truly play as freely as they like within the world created for them. Just like in modern, open-world games.

I personally find the most interesting questions in Westworld to be the ones surrounding glitched NPCs and their possible self-awareness. With the games we have now, the complex coding and artificial intelligence is good to the point that the best games allow the AI to learn player behavior in order to become better adversaries. In 100 years, the AI should be at a point where the Turing Test is passed by NPCs without even trying. And if AI is that good, then why wouldn’t it become self-aware? Westworld’s architects know this and attempt either to control or facilitate that curiosity. The ethics become murky and echo questions asked of human cloning, of sex robots, and whether humanity is the province of humans alone.

Archaeogaming seeks to explore these ethical and philosophical questions while considering AI, computational complexity, and emergent/glitched behavior. It also plays on that other level of game design, story, and the public perception of history and how developers write games to meet that perception while injecting variety into what can be a tired format (e.g., the Western), merging the reality of history (as we know it), with fantasy (history as we want it to be).

I am keen to see where Westworld takes us next, as artifacts are found (including NPC-created art), a new instance is discovered, permadeath is introduced, an endgame unlocked, and how the new expansion toys with everything that came before. As an MMO, Westworld has been around for 30 years. From a “dirt” archaeological perspective on technology, that’s half an eternity. We watch as Ford’s machinery changes the physical world upon which Westworld is built. What is left behind? Who will find it? And what will they think, especially when the discoverer is an NPC with highly developed AI? We can also think about the production of the actual show: I wonder what was left behind in the Utah desert for archaeologists to find here in the real world (much like the Star Wars sets in Tunisia). Layers upon layers.

Westworld is all threads of archaeogaming spun into one strong rope, and it is uncanny to see what show-writers/creators Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan ask of those virtual worlds we create and inhabit for pleasure. And for the Man in Black, perhaps the archaeologist in all of us? What truth, he wonders, can be learned from such a game?

-Andrew Reinhard, Archaeogaming

 

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