July 03, 2018
(Or how I learned to stop worrying and obsess over a story well told about avenging humanoids)
Among many other things, Westworld is about sentient machines, hyperreality and the perils of living out your darkest fantasies. Since it first aired in 2017, the HBO series has sparked plenty of thought-provoking discussion about the artificial intelligence (AI) portrayed in its brave new worlds. It’s also a confounding, wildly ambitious show filled with meta commentary and self-critique of the very entertainment it brings to the screen.
Being a fan of science fiction, I thought it might be a good idea to take a quick look at what makes Westworld tick and resonate with our current experience with technology.
“The real world is chaos. An accident. But in here every detail adds up to something.”
Set in a futuristic theme park populated by servile robots programmed to gratify the most inherent vices of its human guests—up until phantom threads of artificial consciousness set in and all hell breaks loose in a robot rebellion—Westworld covers rather familiar dystopian territory. Stranger things have happened elsewhere.
What sets Westworld apart is in just how differently it is constructed, marketed and consumed by its audiences. Every artifice and plot detail have been carefully orchestrated to expand its narrative possibilities, within the television medium and beyond. And what’s truly exciting is how the show’s creators yoke together their lofty ideas (about AI, human nature and the evolution of sin in an age of machines) and influences from literature, mythology and video games into one swashbuckling feat of storytelling.
“I believe that stories help us to ennoble ourselves, to fix what was broken, and to become the people we dreamed of being. Lies that told a deeper truth.”
Westworld and its characters sure like to spin a good yarn. But I’d be the first to admit that I often sit through entire episodes in utter confusion, struggling to make sense of the labyrinthine narrative.
The show seems intent on confounding audience expectations, building an elaborate puzzle maze for viewers to decode. (Via Reddit communities of course, where a thousand fan theories bloom.) As a viewer, I enjoy burrowing deep into its many references that take on greater significance as the show progress. Not unlike how a video gamer might obsessively track down secret clues and Easter eggs to navigate multiple storylines.
As a content marketer, what fascinates me are the multimedia experiences HBO created as a digital extension of the storytelling behind Westworld. From a fictitious microsite cleverly embedded with plot revelations to promotional multimedia VR experiences, HBO pulls out all the stops to take fan engagement to the next immersive level. It’s even experimenting with AI via the recent launch of its own voice-enabled Alexa game.
“Wasn’t it Oppenheimer who said any man whose mistakes take 10 years to correct is quite the man? Well, mine took 35.”
In promoting the series, the showrunners have expressed concerns about the rapid advances in AI technology. And they’re not just talking about robots going rogue. Westworld mirrors our present curiosity and anxieties about the possibilities of AI, algorithmic systems and the digital afterlife. Or our fear of being unwittingly entrapped by the data collection practices of corporate entities.
As we edge closer to having AI woven into our daily lives, stories that offer a deeper contemplation of the ethical challenges around AI and data privacy remain a vital part of popular culture. I look forward to seeing how Westworld grapples with these topics as it builds towards its endgame: for these violent delights have violent ends.