Westworld is the hot new genre-bending drama on HBO. The show takes place in some unspecified point in the future, when tablet computers have become even thinner, and artificial intelligence has moved well beyond the capabilities of Siri and Alexa. A man played by Anthony Hopkins has used all that technology to create a Western theme park that lets visitors live out their childhood (or very adult) fantasies in a safe way. If the series turns out anything like the movie it’s based on, things won’t stay safe for long.
But what becomes clear as you watch Westworld is that the show takes many of its cues from video games. So much about the show seems inspired directly by games like Red Dead Redemption, Bioshock, and Grand Theft Auto. In fact, the producers have come right out and said so themselves. So how deep does the video game resemblance go in Westworld? Let’s find out.
1. Character creation
The second episode of the show gives viewers a closeup look at how visitors enter the Westworld park. We follow William (Jimmi Simpson) as a host leads him into a changing room, where he has a selection of clothes and weapons to choose from.
If you’ve played certain video games, then this will seem completely familiar. With the changing room, William has essentially reached his own personal character creation screen. In games that let you create your character, you can flip through a series of different types of facial features, as well as body types and races to make your character look however you want. The changing room in Westworld isn’t quite so transformative, since visitors are stuck with their bodies. But both are based on a similar idea: You get to decide what kind of person you want to be in the fantasy world you’re about to enter.
2. Open-world environment
The Westworld park in the show is a vast virtual environment where visitors are set free to go where they want and do what they wish. They can head into town and interact with the robotic “hosts,” who are all but indistinguishable from real people, or they can cast off into the desert to see what adventures lie in store for them there. There are no rules or guidelines.
If you’ve played a game like Grand Theft Auto V or The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, this will all sound very familiar. These games drop you into a digital wind-up world that seems to have existed well before you showed up. Characters go about their daily life, whether that means tending a forge in a fantasy world or driving around a modern city. The only way to shake things up is to interact with people or cause a disturbance, things Westworld visitors are also invited to do.
Open-world games are structured around missions. Most of these missions only pop up when you talk to someone or wander into an area that triggers a side-story. The very same thing happens to Westworld visitors. Certain robotic hosts in the park have been programmed to try to lure guests into scripted adventures. These range from saving an unlucky farmer from a gang of thugs to flirting with an attractive stranger at the bar. In Westworld as in video games, the goal is to entertain and delight the paying customer.
4. God Mode
Cheat codes have gone out of fashion in recent years, but in many older games, you can enable something called “God Mode.” With this cheat in place, you become invincible, leaving you free to explore freely or eliminate the enemies any way you see fit.
Westworld visitors are effectively in God Mode. That’s because the guns in the park only seriously harm the android hosts. When an unsavory outlaw character shoots a visitor, next to nothing happens at all, giving the visitor time to draw a six-shooter and fill the attacker with lead.
Not only does this play into the power fantasy the makers of the park are going for, but it has clear roots in games like Doom and Grand Theft Auto III.
Once you beat a game, you can start over from the beginning. You’ll find everything exactly the way it was the first time you played, with all of your actions the first time through being erased.
Westworld operates in a similar way. Each night, the people who run the park reset it to its original form. Hosts that were damaged during the day are patched up and dropped back into their narrative as if yesterday never happened. And just like in a video game, guests can make different choices the second time around, experiencing things they missed on their first visit.
Many video games offer up puzzles for players to solve. Whether you have to decipher runes in Uncharted or step on tiles in the right order in Zelda, puzzles offer compelling road blocks that feel satisfying to overcome.
Apparently, Westworld has puzzles in store for its visitors as well, assuming they dig deep enough to find them. A character played by Ed Harris and known only as the Man in Black is hellbent on solving a series of puzzles only he seems to have discovered. One of them is a maze he finds on the underside of a host’s scalp he has cut off. Another comes in the form of a young girl’s cryptic utterance after a scene of horrific violence.
The Man in Black doesn’t exactly come off as a hero type, but like many characters in video games, he’s trying to solve a series of puzzles.
Why does Westworld appeal to visitors? Because it lets them pretend they’re someone else. They can play the hero, the villain, the seducer, or perhaps someone they wish they could be in real life.
That’s the same reason many video games appeal to players: Games let players pretend to be someone else in a safe, controlled environment. Take the original Mass Effect trilogy, for instance. It puts you in the shoes of Commander Shepherd, an intergalactic military officer. You get to choose what the character looks like and how he or she responds in every conversation you have. You can be a bold, kind leader like Captain Kirk or a ruthless, loathsome character like the Man in Black. In either case, the game world (and the park depicted in Westworld) is a fixed production, designed to let players be who they want and do what they want.