One Key to Westworld: Video Games

The HBO sci-fi drama has begun offering smart commentary on the appeal and limitations of fictional, immersive universes.

Ed Harris as the Man in Black (John P. Robinson / HBO)

There’s a famously irreverent theory about video-game design that posits that players can judge a game’s quality by how quickly they come across a simple wooden crate in a level. According to this concept, the appearance of a crate, an ordinary visual marker that might contain loot or block a player’s passage, signals that developers ran out of original ideas and started recycling old tropes. The so-called “Crate Review System” is largely just a way to poke fun at the limitations of the video-game medium: Crates have long been a comfortable, formulaic hallmark that helped remind the player that they were in a fictional universe.

In HBO’s new sci-fi drama series, Westworld, game design has progressed far beyond the placement of crates, but its players are still looking for the seams. The show poses questions about the ethics of artificial intelligence as it investigates the humanity of its “hosts,” the realistic-looking androids who populate the park where rich humans come to play-act as cowboys. But its fifth episode, which aired Sunday, delved deeper into two of the “guests” driving the park’s stories: one a neophyte and the other a hardcore player, both struggling to find a way to enjoy themselves.

The newcomer, William (Jimmi Simpson), takes the “crates” around him for granted, following his storyline on rails like he’s supposed to. The unnamed veteran, referred to in the credits as the Man in Black (Ed Harris), has come to only see the invisible walls of the artificial world, and now only enjoys trying to break them down. As Westworld methodically builds out its universe, it seems more and more like a commentary on the psyche of the gamer, and the ways the intentionally limited world around them can feel comforting, desensitizing, and eventually stifling.

Until now, the show had mostly focused on the cold, callous nature of Westworld’s programmers, who drag the game’s robots down to the fluorescent subterranean hell beneath the park, clean them up, wipe their memories, and send them topside again to repeat their short, brutal lives as damsels, gunslingers, prostitutes, and black-hatted villains. Episode five, “Contrapasso,” centered around two clients the show has been following through the park, charting their journeys as gamers in a scripted world that’s beginning to malfunction.

William has been dragged along to Westworld by his co-worker and future brother-in-law Logan (Ben Barnes), a more experienced player who sees visiting the park as some kind of manly rite of passage. Logan dresses up in black and enjoys indulging in Westworld’s most lurid features, drawing his pistol at the slightest provocation, and barking at William to be more active. At one point, Logan shoots a host and takes its gun, delighting at the “upgrade,” like a Grand Theft Auto player cheerily swapping a shotgun for a bazooka. But the show’s contempt for Logan is clear. He’s an amateur, looking only to unleash his raging id, and when he’s dragged off by robots after another contretemps in this episode, William, tired of his violent antics, doesn’t try to save him.

Meanwhile, William has been drawn in by one of the game’s core stories. He’s taking part in an adventure with a ostensible damsel named Dolores (a host played by Evan Rachel Wood) who he’s fallen for, while journeying into the park’s “border towns” with an outlaw called El Lazo. The crucial emotional narrative belongs to Dolores, whose consciousness is inexplicably branching into new territories. Dolores’s development is fascinating, but William’s attraction to her is obviously rooted in the fact that she seems “real.” Not real in the sense of her flesh-and-blood appearance, but in the ways she’s breaking the artificiality of the game around her—she immediately stands out in the way that the game’s garish window-dressing (like a ridiculous orgy scene that William and Dolores meander through) cannot.

How directly this relates to the arc of the Man in Black (Harris) is still a matter of opinion. For the last few weeks, fan debate has raged online over whether this mysterious, self-aware gunslinger is just an older version of William, a gamer who has been through the park so many times that at this point he seems to be just going through the sadistic motions. “Contrapasso” seemed to tacitly endorse that theory by showing the Man in Black interacting with a host called Lawrence (Clifton Collins Jr.) almost as if he were an old friend, before killing him off. Then, the show almost immediately cut to William running into El Lazo—also played by Clifton Collins Jr. That the host could have been quickly cleaned up, given a new role, and spirited across the park seems unlikely.

More probable is that William’s story is taking place decades ago, and that the Man in Black is a grizzled future version of him who’s bored by the fictional confines of Westworld. In watching William go through his first major campaign, viewers watch him become inured to its shocking violence, and start to look for the seams in the storytelling he’s moving through. By the time he’s grown old, into a far calmer villain than the trigger-happy Logan, he can spot the crates instantly, and is trying to figure a way around them. If this theory holds, it’d be a fascinating way of illustrating how the appeal of virtual worlds can get exhausted, and how mastery of a video game doesn’t just mean “beating” it, but trying to “break” it, forcing it to behave in unpredictable ways.

In video games, crates often serve as background scenery designed to block off passages in a level, to keep the player from wandering off track while also offering minor obstacles. Westworld represents the next level of game design: the “sandbox,” or a big open world that players can explore. But even in a sandbox, figurative crates remain—even in a fictional city, or country, there have to be borders that a player can’t stray outside of. The Man in Black is looking for a way around or through those borders, hunting for a legendary Easter egg in the game called “The Maze.” He’s Mario hopping over a wall to get to the Warp Zone; he’s a Silent Hill player who’s found every possible ending to the story but is still hunting for more.

The Man in Black’s confrontation with Ford (Anthony Hopkins), Westworld’s designer, at the end of “Contrapasso” was certainly a game-breaking moment. Here was the game’s god descending among its mere mortals, and in a fit of pique, the Man in Black decided to see what would happen if he brandished a knife at Ford. Immediately, the host next to him (a cowboy named Teddy, played by James Marsden) seized the blade with his bare hands, overcome by programming designed to protect his creator. The Man in Black seemed simultaneously delighted and bored; here was another crate spotted, another glitch in reality logged.

The Man in Black’s quest, it seems, is to delve to the bottom of Westworld’s very creation. Ford has acknowledged that he created the game with a man named Arnold, who died before it was launched to the public. Arnold’s philosophy was more geared toward expanding the consciousness of the AI he created, and he and Ford had some deep disagreement over this that has yet to be fully revealed. “The Maze” that the Man in Black is hunting seems key to unlocking this question of consciousness; it’s a deep, buried secret in the code of the hosts, one he’s trying to bring out in some strange quest for liberation. For someone tired of the pre-plotted world of gaming, that makes sense as an ultimate goal: What better game than one where nothing can be scripted at all? It’s a concept that’s fascinating and nightmarish, all at once, and of Westworld’s grand ideas, it’ll be one of the most interesting to see play out.