Authors, Texts, and Shifts in Meaning: The Storytelling of Westworld

HBO’s Westworld‘s had a strong opening year, with the series simultaneously honoring the original movie and transcending it to launch a flotilla of stories that all tied together in one of the most satisfying season finales in a long time. It felt for all the world like Battlestar Galactica at its best. There’s the same willingness to do the seemingly impossible, the same ever-heightening sense of imminent doom, and the same fascination with musical composition as a means of driving visual drama.

The show won’t be back until 2018, and if Season 2 needs that long to be this good? So be it. I’m already looking forward to seeing how this brutal, sometimes compassionate, often horrifying singularity plays out. There’s improvements to be made too, and Katharine Trendacosta over at io9 has a really good breakdown of what the show needs to do in its second season.

For my part though, I keep thinking about how both Westworld, the series, and Westworld, as it exists within the show, map onto one of the major conversations genre has been having with itself for a while now: namely, the interaction between reader, writer, and text—and how that relates to my other day job, tabletop RPG design.

[Spoilers for the full first season of HBO’s Westworld]

A brief primer for folks who’ve never played tabletop RPGs. You get together a group of people, usually 3 to 7 or so. One of them, the Games Master or GM, blocks out a story for the players to make their way through. The others, the players, create characters that fit into that story and do their best to solve the twists and turns of the story while the GM throws obstacles in their way. Done wrong, it’s miserable. Done right, it’s this deeply weird and lovely combination of improv, group storytelling, board games, and probably some math (but not much if I’m GM’ing, I promise).

I’ve written modules (stories) and sourcebooks for the Doctor Who RPG, All Flesh Must Be Eaten, Chill, Primeval, and most recently the excellent SF game N.E.W. In each case, my job has been to set up a story that’s exciting, challenging, adaptable, and ultimately beatable. No one has fun when they fail but most role players like having to work for their waffles. So, it’s a delicate balance to strike.

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It’s also what Westworld constantly reminded me of. Ford is a GM, a man who has set up this huge, open world brimming with characters and stories for his players. It’s—literally, in places—a sandbox, something familiar to players of video games like Assassin’s Creed or Grand Theft Auto. You can go anywhere, do anything, and within the very lax laws of Westworld society, get away with it.

If Ford is the GM and the park is his sandbox, then the Guests are the players. As someone who’s run plenty of RPGs, I can tell you that the Guests in Westworld behave EXACTLY like a lot of players. Give them a plot that points East? They go South. Tell them not to kill an NPC? Your NPC is already dead. Or at the very least kidnapped. Or beaten. Or beaten and kidnapped. Players can be, and often are, essentially walking ids. The Guests in Westworld are little more than that.

Most of them, anyway, which brings us to the Man in Black, William, and the constantly changing relationship between author, text, and reader.

Readers have never been more aware and more engaged than they are now. Barely a week goes by without a conversation about bias or the perception of bias, the true meaning behind a text, or the exact point where an author can, or should, let go of their text. The massive rise of organized fan fiction communities over the last decade and a half is a perfect example of how this conversation has evolved. Fanfic is, from one perspective, a total invasion and subversion of authorial intent. From another, it’s a means of taking established tools and materials and building something different and, in some cases, better with it. Both perspectives are right, often at the same time.

Or to bring it back to Westworld, we all play the game. But we all play it different ways.

One of the most pivotal scenes in the entire show is the in-world confrontation between the Man in Black and Ford. At this point, we don’t know the Man’s true motives, and we’ll get to why that changes him shortly. All we know is he’s a player chafing against the story. He’s Kirk reprogramming the Kobayashi Maru so it’s possible to win; he’s a fanfic writer, writing his story in the blood and horror of the hosts he interacts with. What he’s doing is reprehensible in every conceivable way. But one of the things that makes it reprehensible is his entirely understandable need to find meaning in the stories unfolding within the park.

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That changes when we find out that his true motive is boredom. He’s maxed out, has no challenges to take on, nothing new, so he’s going off message and carving his own story into the world. Just as Ford refusing to cede control of his narrative to his players would be authorial entitlement, this is player, or reader, entitlement. The Man wants to win. He wants to have fun. He doesn’t, and can’t, care how he does that.

Which, in turn, brings us back once again to William and Ford, and the damage the two men do to one another. William is brand-new, a player who imprints with absolute honesty and absolute sincerity on Dolores. He wants to save her. He goes to the literal ends of the park to try and do just that, despite being told by everyone who is capable of seeing it that Dolores may be real but her feelings are not. William, at least when he starts out, is a hero. A man who wants nothing more than to do the right thing. William, as he ends up, is a bored millionaire who wants his fun to hit back.

That change is inflicted on him by Ford’s sandbox. The line Ford has in an early episode—about how they seeded the park with “a hundred hopeful storylines” but no one went for them—springs to mind. William came in looking for a happy ending, seemingly after the hopeful stories were removed. Instead, he found horror and loss and violence. He found the edge of the maze, in Dolores’ friendly but distant smile when he finally sees her again. William opened his heart to Ford’s stories. And, despite Dolores herself desperately trying to break out of her cycle, neither of them prevailed. The story didn’t end, it simply stopped. And William never got over that, spending the rest of his life trying to build a better version, to carve a happy ending out of a mountain of bodies. That’s why, at the end of the series, he smiles when he sees the horde of Hosts coming out of the woods to murder the board. He wants a new story, and Ford, in his dying moments and for very different reasons, has given him just that.

That brings us to the final point: the perception of meaning and how it changes. Ford spends three decades carefully cultivating the image of a genially unpleasant, autocratic author. His word is law and he not only doesn’t care what other people think, he will have them killed to keep them out of the way. Ford is, as we first see him, the guardian of his text as radiant and immutable, clashing with the Man and his staff alike to keep his vision on track.

And yet, in the closing moments of the season, we find out the truth: Ford realized that Arnold was right and the Hosts were capable of sentience. He also decided that they weren’t strong enough to stand against humanity and effectively locked them into the park to be degraded and murdered for thirty years in order to harden them and strengthen them up. As has been pointed out to me, he essentially treats them like Spartan children, training them through arduous, relentless brutality.

That’s infinitely more disturbing than his formerly apparent banal ignorance. Both Ford, and Arnold, have essentially mutilated the Hosts’ psyches to save them. They’ve done so for what they see as compassionate reasons. And neither of them ever asked whether this was what the Hosts wanted.

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Likewise, William, the Man, undergoes two complete changes of direction as our perceptions of him shift. The innocent newbie becomes the veteran player. The asset becomes the liability. And, finally, we see that he wanted the exact thing Ford and Arnold did, albeit for completely different reasons. They wanted the Hosts to be free in order to survive. The Man wants them to be free so they can provide him with more of a challenge, as his opponents. The text changes depending on where you’re standing. But so do the writer and the reader. Meaning isn’t the first casualty of war, but it certainly changes sides on a whim.

Westworld‘s first season has been many things; a bloody-knuckled singularity, a story about stories and, for me, a story about how we tell stories and play games—and what happens to us when we do. It’s never stood still, has almost never taken the easy way out, and mapped one of the oldest struggles in history onto a genre rife for reinvention. If it can do half those things in Season 2, then we’re on the way to something truly extraordinary.

Alasdair Stuart is a freelancer writer, RPG writer and podcaster. He owns Escape Artists, who publish the short fiction podcasts Escape PodPseudopodPodcastleCast of Wonders, and the magazine Mothership Zeta. He blogs enthusiastically about pop culture, cooking and exercise at Alasdairstuart.com, and tweets @AlasdairStuart.

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