Westworld: Griefer’s Paradise
(Starts Humming That Weird Al Song)
You Know, “Amish Paradise”? Yeah, That One.
So, getting away from my usual topics of game reviews no one reads and game materials no one reads, I thought I’d try media commentary no one reads.
The producers of Westworld, Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, have said many times that they got a lot of inspiration from “open world” games like Red Dead Redemption and Grand Theft Auto. This shows in the design of Westworld… because it’s the ultimate single player (or perhaps private server) game. As a multi player game with a single “server”, aka “reality”, it, uhm, has some serious design flaws. And no, I’m not talking about the “everyone gets butchered by outraged androids getting all Robespierre on the players” part.
This post will contain spoilers for the first and what’s been shown of the second season. I’m going to try to keep them relatively minor, as the aspects I’m discussing are more or less the background of the show, not the main plotline. But I’m also not going to quadruple guess myself about what might be considered a “major” spoiler to any random person. (“Oh my god, the robots kill the humans? I would never have guessed a show about a futuristic amusement park would involve things going horribly wrong! How dare you reveal that unexpected twist!”)
(Oh, if it sounds like I’m harshing on Westworld as drama, I’m not. Complaining that it uses the “technology goes wild” trope is like complaining a murder mystery has a murder in it. “The robots start killing people” is an inherent assumption, a given. It’s how the trope is used that matters, what’s done with it, what’s new and interesting. Westworld is one of the best written, acted, directed, and produced shows on the air: “Premium TV” at its best, a signature example of this true “Golden Age” of TV we live in, and, unusually for me, there’s not one whiff of sarcasm or irony in that last sentence. I mean every word as sincerely as I can mean anything.)
But from a world building and game design perspective…
For those of you blissfully free of experience in MMORPGS, “griefing” is the tactic of using/abusing game mechanics in order to ruin other player’s fun, usually without any other purpose or rationale. Screwing with other players is the goal.
Not griefing: Killing all the chickenrats in an area because you have a quest to kill chickenrats. It might annoy someone else trying to kill the chickenrats that you’re killing them, too, but you’d be killing them even if no one else was there, and once you kill all the ones you need, you leave.
Griefing: Killing all the chickenrats in an area when you’re vastly overpowered for the region and have no reason to do so, using your high-level abilities to slaughter them in such numbers no other players can kill the ones they need, doing so with that as your purpose: You don’t get loot or XP or an achievement, you’re just being a dick.
The more “open world” and “free form” the mechanics, the more ways there are to use them solely to harass other players. The argument that the victims can “do the same thing” is bullshit. First, griefers usually target less-powerful players whose ability to control the game world is notably inferior, and second, the victims don’t want to spend their game time being dicks. They want to complete the quests/see the world/level up/whatever. Arguing they should just “grief the griefers” means that the minority of assholes gets to impose their “playstyle” on everyone. Since there’s plenty of competition in the MMO space, any game that permits griefing to go on will find themselves with no players but the griefers, and griefers don’t have fun if there are no victims to harass, so they quit, too.
Raph Koster once said “No one pays $15.00/month to be someone else’s bitch.” Except for EVE Online, an exception in many ways to most general MMO rules, he’s right. You notice there are no other games with EVE’s playstyle and comparable subscriber numbers? There’s room for exactly one sandbox full of assholes in the gaming world, and that’s the one. But I digress.
In Westworld, the filthy rich of the nebulously near future (roughly mid 21st century) spend 40 grand (and up) a day to spend time in a world filled with “hosts”, android (previously robot) simulacrums who believe they’re alive, and respond dynamically and vividly to the “guests”, easily passing all but the most stringent of Turing Tests. The hosts are all part of “narratives” – plots and story lines – intended to amuse and involve the guests. You can stop a robbery (or join one), help the grizzled old prospector search for treasure, romance a rancher’s daughter or a handsome bandito, etc. The stories are intended to be complex, dynamic, and multi-branching, as the AI of the hosts interacts with other hosts via a wireless network and the actual park employees keep an eye on things, adjusting events to keep things running smoothly.
Due to SCIENCE!, guns fired at a human leave a small bruise, while guns fired at a host (the same guns and ammo, mind you) leave a bloody mass of twitching, screaming flesh begging for mercy.
In an MMORPG, an NPC will usually respawn very quickly if they’re killed, so that if you need to kill Blorg The Bloodthirsty or turn in your 17 lemur entrails to the crazy wizard, they’ll be there for you. In Westworld, each host is a unique being with a complex personality, history, and storyline. If killed, they’ll be repaired, but only overnight. If taken off on an adventure, then, they’re not there anymore. If a guest is deep in a multi-day narrative (wink wink, nudge nudge) with Hector, Hector isn’t robbing the brothel every morning like he usually is. If you came to Westworld hoping to spend your three days (total cost, 120 grand) on a specific storyline involving Hector, too bad for you. You’ll just have to have sex with Clementine. Or Teddy. Or both. Yeah, you’ll live.
So that’s a design flaw, but not a malicious one. The possibility of malice arises when you consider the humans are basically invulnerable (well, until the sudden but inevitable robot uprising), while the hosts are designed to die easily.
There you are. You’ve spent a small fortune to have a week living a semi-quiet life on the Abernathy ranch, having saved the pretty rancher’s daughter from her nightly bandit assault. (Yeah, you, uhm, seeing why the hosts feel pretty justified in their “kill all humans” policy?) But every day, some random asshole hangs around the ranch and kills everyone not a human, just for giggles. And any story you were developing goes up in (gun)smoke, as the hosts reset after being killed. You spend three days romancing Dolores, then you start all over. And you can’t shoot your fellow human. Attacking them physically might work, or it might get you kicked out of the park with no refund. After all, they were playing by the “rules”, which allow them to murder, rape, and rob the hosts to their black heart’s foul content. You were breaking the rules by attacking a guest.
See the problem?
This ripples through the entire idea of the park as a living web of storylines. Any of them can be derailed at any time. This has come up, but only in the context of the head writer (the archetype of every frustrated GM, if you ask me) throwing fits that those damn players won’t follow his brilliant stories! We haven’t seen (and likely won’t see, what with the robot uprising and all) the impact of player asshattery on other players.
Does this matter?
To the dramatic story Westworld is telling, no.
To the verisimilitude of the park existing, profitably, for 30+ years? Yes. Especially since it’s been established (and justified in-universe) that the park’s stories have barely changed in 30 years. (It’s big and complex enough that there’s ample room for repeat visitors to discover new things.) There will be, in the setting, endless “hint books”, guides, cheats, and walkthroughs detailing the many secrets of the park… well, the ones intended to be found by the guests, not the ones that drive the plot. And there will be people using and exploiting that knowledge not for their own adventures, but just to mess up other people. In particular, the super-super-rich, who can make an annual 2-week trip to the park with their spare change, will likely delight in ruining the experiences of the merely very wealthy, who might save for several years to have one long weekend of old west hedonism.
And that, really, won’t go on for 30 years. The advances in technology needed to drive the plot are part of the disbelief you suspend as a price of entry, but all the other rules of reality don’t get rewritten. The world of Westworld, outside of the park, is surprisingly not a dystopian hellscape; it’s been strongly implied part of the park’s appeal is that most of society leads a life of relative comfort and the park provides more visceral experiences – the discomforts of the Old West are a selling point. If the outer-park world is not post-scarcity, it’s, uhm, ‘pre post scarcity’. Even so, it’s also very much a capitalist world where a business that allows customers to be screwed over by other customers is going to lose money. Even if the technology of Delos is singular enough there’s no direct competition, no one’s going to pay for this unique experience if their ability to actually experience it is at the mercy of whether or not any of their fellow guests’ sociopathic urges aren’t satisfied by the hosts.
The main story of Westworld is, clearly, about the park’s future (and uncovering the roots of its twisted past) – not about the day-to-day running of the park when robots aren’t engaging in a riotous rampage of revenge. So my game design concerns are unlikely to be addressed, and that’s fine, because they’re telling their story, not my story. I do think, however, that with the inevitable flood of licensed spinoff material, a book, comic, or web series could be done that just tells the stories of normal visitors to the park and how the “game” plays out when you’re not about to be gruesomely killed by a (justifiably) pissed-off rancher’s daughter.
I still remember some smeghead on a forum complaining that it was a “spoiler” that Sinestro was the villain in the Green Lantern movie. Uhm… he’s called Sinestro. It would have been less obvious he was the bad guy if he’d been called “Hitler von Stalin-Mao”.