Westworld – Storytelling in HBO’s Big Bold New Series

I have never seen Michael Chricton’s original film Westworld starring Yul Brynner, but I have seen The Simpsons episode “Itchy and Scratchy Land”, which pays homage to Westworld‘s theme park robot rebellion.  Thus I came into Jonathan Nolan’s and Lisa Joy Nolan’s new series fresh.  I’m glad I did because I really dug this pilot episode.  From the marvelous set design by Nathan Crowley (a Christopher Nolan regular) to the music by Ramin Djawadi (that “Paint It Black” cover!!!!!!!!!!!!!) the technical aspects of this series was on point.  You could see the craft and the care that went into the design and realization of this futuristic world that mimics the Wild West.  This is a believable world inhabited by very talented actors giving very good performances and it is a world I am excited to further explore.

Spoilers Below….

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One aspect of the pilot episode that I really enjoyed was its nuanced meta view on storytelling.  Through the character of Lee Sizemore played by Simon Quarterman, we are introduced to a character working for the resort by writing the complex interweaving storylines for the 2,000 androids in the park.  Sizemore might be an arrogant asshole who tries to shimmy his way up the corporate ladder by asking questions about the true management’s motivation behind the park, but he raises an important idea about ruining the illusion of the story if 200 of the androids were brought offline to fix a potentially damaging bug.

As he says, each android has a unique storyline that interweaves with others and can allow for contingencies by park visitors.  A just-past-the-uncanny-valley robot may go about her business for an entire day without interacting with an actual human.  These are not the stilted mechanical beings at a rolling skate park that sing scary and awful songs that come to life only when the patrons are nearby.  They have their own paths, their own bits of dialogue, their grandiose speeches (or at least they would if a rich dude doesn’t shoot the bot through the neck), their own interactive lives.  Everything is scripted, and each android is programmed to react according to its character and main directives.  There is room for improv, but it is limited to mostly emotional reactions.

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For the guests, it’s all highly interactive with plenty of choice options.  This choose your own adventure writing style is similar to modern day open world video games, where players have choices that may or may not have impacts later on in the game.  The patrons of Westworld have the same choices.  The non-playable characters (NPCs) are the androids.  You can choose to interact or you can completely ignore them and go to the bar.  This sense of choice and freedom in an interactive world is freeing and exciting to the characters, as it is to us in our own world.  For that’s how life works.  We have the choice to interact with others and learn their stories, or we can walk by and live our own.  I appreciate the Nolans’ choice in subtly portraying that meta portrayal of storytelling, because it makes the possibilities of this world intriguing.

To slowly see these androids move further from the intricate “subtle” writing of Mr. Sizemore is exciting.  I wanted to see what they could get away with and see if they how they would react to unprogrammed interactions.  As it is in any good storytelling, the surprises and the depth of the story can make it great.  The park Westworld aims for those surprises and depth in the multitude of potential interactions that could occur. But as seen in the pilot episode, those surprises are more than the guests expected and more than what Sizemore and the programmers wrote.  For some of most exciting stories aren’t beholden to limited interaction of NPCs and limited programmed improv.  They are the ones that are so good, they write themselves.

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