HBO's latest drama Westworld finally premiered on Sunday, October 2nd, after much anticipation thanks to a delayed production schedule. But the pilot failed to definitively answer one of the biggest questions about the sci-fi western, set at its titular futuristic theme park. In it, the uber-rich pay $40,000 a day to enter an old Western town called Sweetwater, complete with animatronic residents called "hosts" which are available to satisfy the guests' every desire. Though the hosts are physical robots, which we know from watching engineers tinker with them, the nature of the guests is unclear. Is Westworld a dream place?
The show's creators notably dodged the question in a press briefing last week. All the clues we have are in the pilot and Westworld's HBO-powered "Discover Westworld" website, which gives us an idea of what it would feel like to be a guest. We know from the pilot that guests enter Sweetwater by train, and the website provides information about guest accommodations, including a hotel they stay at. But the question is, do guests go to a physical place to experience the park, or is the game an elaborate, VR dream space, á la Inception or The Matrix? The engineers engage with the hosts physically, both in the lab, and when they enter the game to run diagnostics on hosts after a recent update glitch. And the lab seems to be sitting atop the real physical landscape of Westworld.
But there's also a sort of hub in the lab, where engineers can engage with a 3D, interactive model of the park, accessing multiple parts of it at once, and witnessing storylines play out in real time. So is the model just a part of some fictional, futuristic cyber monitoring technology we have yet to create IRL? Or is that really where the game is playing out, with the guests stored off-site somewhere in some sort of dream-state or virtual reality chamber? This is one of the key moral issues the creators wished to explore in making the series. Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan touched on it in the briefing, questioning whether morality would become more of an issue to players in a physical game than in a video game. Said Nolan:
"Morality isn’t a problem in video games because the simulation — a character says this in the pilot — the simulation is poor enough that you don’t conflate the experience...The morality of what you do in that world becomes a lot more confusing when two things happen: when the simulation is indistinguishable from reality and when the intelligence of the non-player characters you interact with eclipses a certain level. Then it’s much more problematic."
This suggests that creators are perhaps playing with the idea of Westworld being a physical place in order to tease out the ideas of technological responsibility and human nature when it intersects with incredibly lifelike replications of humanity. It would certainly be a more interesting story if Westworld was a physical place, but it would also be more difficult to tell. Dreamscapes give writers the opportunity to be more inventive and less restricted by the laws of physics. We'll have to wait and see which side Westworld comes out on.