Brow Beat

Westworld Is Coining a New Genre Altogether: The TV Show as Multiplayer Game

This may not make for great episodic TV, but it is a great interactive game.

John P. Johnson/HBO

A few light Westworld spoilers within.

In retrospect, perhaps it was naïve, if not downright incurious, that I watched the first four episodes of Westworld without once wondering if any of the alleged humans on screen were really robots. The HBO drama is about a Western theme park populated by extremely lifelike, increasingly sentient machines known as “hosts,” who service ill-behaving but high-paying humans, referred to as “guests,” living out their darkest fantasies. Since at least Blade Runner, any fiction about humans and artificial intelligence is always flirting with the possibility that one, or the other, is not who they seem to be. Furthermore, Westworld was co-created by Jonathan Nolan, a man who had a hand in writing Memento, The Prestige, and Interstellar, all directed by his brother Christopher and all obsessively interested in providing a twist. And yet unlike the thousands of viewers who saw the early episodes of Westworld and saw nothing so much as a provocation to identify potential secret robots, I did not dream of electric sheep.

What grabbed me about Westworld, what I liked about Westworld, was that it was a show grappling with big ideas. In the theme park, mostly white men let their ids loose, entertaining themselves with allegedly harmless but graphically extreme sex and violence. The abused hosts are surreptitiously smuggled out of the park, patched up, their memories wiped, and sent back in for another round of torture. The hosts may just be machines, as far as the guests know, but they are cast as the subjects of audience sympathy. It seemed to me the show wasn’t just rehashing still-interesting notions about what makes us human but using the setup to think about how we paper over historical atrocities and steamroll historical memory, to say nothing of the way the show worked as a juicy metaphor for the compromises inherent in making television and video games themselves.

What grabbed me far less were the early intimations, by now a spurting gush, that the show had ambitions to become a mystery, the sort of series that has an encyclopedic “mythology” and an addiction to surprise plot developments that focus the audience on getting “answers.” It’s now clear that is exactly the sort of show Nolan and his co-creator and wife Lisa Joy really wanted to make: a puzzle. I now find myself totally disappointed in Westworld and duly impressed with how successfully it has become the thing it apparently always wanted to be—more a multiplayer game than a straight-up TV show.

As a TV critic, I have an innate bias toward stories, not games. I think Westworld has made itself a much worse story. But, oh boy, do I admire the ease and skill with which it has turned itself into a game! Over the last few episodes, Westworld has methodically turned away from its themes to send its characters, and its audience, on various quests. These quests give the show a structure but one that puts everything—character, arc, ideas—in the service of plot and suspends them in a bog of supposition and theory. If nothing is as it seems, the rug can be pulled out from under the audience at any time, a momentarily fun feeling that will eventually makes a hash of the show’s emotional and logical coherence.

Follow me, for a second, down a murky rabbit hole (that probably a few hours on a Reddit thread would “clear up”). In the fifth episode, which airs Sunday night, Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood), a host and the series’ most sympathetic, heroic figure, transformed herself from damsel in distress to gunslinger, changing her storyline seemingly by force of will. Not only did I find this momentous character beat to be semi-upstaged by its distracting adjacency to the popular fan theory that Dolores is operating in a past timeline, around 30 years ago, one that exists solely to “surprise” audiences with the fact that devoted white hat William (Jimmi Simpson) grows up to be the vile Man in Black (Ed Harris), I found it to be further undermined this week when we learned that “someone” is messing with the host’s programmed qualities. Did Dolores grow and change, or did someone reprogram her, as someone did Maeve (Thandie Newton) and probably, based on his new personality, Teddy (James Marsden)? Was such messing around happening 30 years ago, and then also in the present? Was Dolores hearing voices 30 years ago, while her peers are hearing them in the present? Is Westworld so poorly run that it has allowed its hosts to become fully sentient not once but twice? Are these even interesting questions? I don’t know! But while I was obsessing about them, Dolores’ character development got hijacked by much less interesting male characters and a show hellbent on providing twists.

And yet as much as I think Westworld is muddling its own story, I am full of admiration for the canny way it has formalized a new TV genre: the multiplayer game show. It is genuinely hard for me to imagine a more cagey way for a show to announce itself, in this particular moment, than to debut as a prestige drama working through the consequences of sex, violence, systemic injustice, and exploitation, and then pivot, prestige bonafides well-enough in hand, into a kind of game fueled by Reddit message boards and comment threads. On the path where the first season of True Detective walked accidentally and Mr. Robot bushwacked wildly, Westworld is laying asphalt.

Writing about Episode 5, the critic Alan Sepinwall expressed many of the same reservations I have about the show’s direction. He elaborated that the show Westworld seemed insistent on becoming is particularly unsuited to episodic TV. The time-lapse between episodes lets the audience get out ahead of the story, to predict what is going to happen too easily, and thus spoils the surprise. The show contorts itself and then can’t even deliver a thrill. I agree that this is what is happening but counter that if you think of Westworld as a game, rather than a story, it doesn’t actually matter at all.

The episodic TV structure in fact becomes ideal, because it gives the audience time to try and solve the puzzle together, to crack it, get there first. David Foster Wallace (look, I’m sorry, the guy said some good stuff sometimes) once remarked that, “If the writer does his job right, what he basically does is remind the reader of how smart the reader is.” At this point, that’s basically all Westworld is doing. If knowing the plot in advance undermines the experience of the show itself, it doesn’t undermine the experience around the show, the collaborative sleuthing, the theorizing, the guessing, the chatter, all the stuff that keeps you entertained all week, when the show is off the air—and, not for nothing, keeps the show central to the conversation.

And despite recent developments, I am holding out a little hope for Westworld’s future. If the series follows its gamer aesthetic all the way to its logical conclusion, we are in for the most nullifying twist this side of The Sopranos. In contemporary video games, there is no end, just another beginning. After all our searching, maybe at the end of the season, we just start over.