Before I’d seen a single episode of Westworld, a journalist reached out to me for comment about it. The show touches on the question of AI consciousness, narrative design, the evocation of empathy with non-player characters, and the morality of gameplay, which may be why it seemed like I might have some thoughts.
If you’re not familiar with the series, it’s an HBO show in which rich people can visit an incredibly detailed western-styled theme-park full of AI-driven robotic characters, called hosts. The human players are called guests. It quickly becomes obvious that they come to Westworld primarily in order to misbehave: they have sex with the prostitutes at the brothel; they assault the daughters of the ranchers; they maim and murder hosts casually or with elaborate sadism. And all of these things take place within the context of storylines crafted by narrative designers and then meticulously supervised. The hosts are able to improvise slightly in response to the input of humans, but then eventually they will revert to their core loops, playing out the same narrative tracks over and over again.
Naturally, when initially asked, I said that I hadn’t watched it and so couldn’t offer much direct insight. I added that I thought full AI consciousness in the sense imagined by science fiction was some way off, and that art about that possibility is often really about something else: about groups of people who feel entitled to the labor and service of others; about the self-perpetuating, semi-human, half-programmed entities that already exist in our world in the form of governments and corporations.
I have now seen Westworld, and I still think the same. The narrative design and the AI aspects are handled competently enough to frame the story, but Westworld is by no means a master class in what interactive narrative design actually entails, or how people actually use games to explore their morality, or again in the way a sort of pseudo-personality emerges in current AI research.
To the extent there’s a thematic point here of interest, it is about the nature of human identity, the role of suffering in how we understand ourselves, and the ways we construct ourselves. I would have liked to see the show go much further, but the plot is often allowed to trump the characters.
I am now going to dig into all those assertions in more detail, with spoilers. If you are interested in watching the show yourself, you should probably do that before going forward.