AAA game culture thrives on “immersion.” It promises complex simulations of life, of economies, of love and emotions. We’re given godlike powers over worlds crawling with people and goals for us to accomplish or ignore. Our need for violence, sex and domination can be gratified with the press of a button. That culture developed as games progressed from Nintendo’s family friendly fare through the ‘90s teen rebellion of Sega and Doom to today’s glut of M rated violence found in best sellers like Grand Theft Auto and The Witcher 3. Eventually, as robotics and augmented reality improve, it might even break free from our televisions, as in the depressing future presented by HBO’s new science fiction series, Westworld.
Westworld is the amusement park of the future, utilizing life-like (and infinitely repairable) android “hosts” to offer high-paying clientele a fantasy that they can reach out and touch. If you want sex, there are host prostitutes. If you want to be a tough guy, shoot up some bandits. If you just want to see the sights, the good-looking and valorous Teddy can show you around town. And if your desires are darker, nothing’s stopping you. The hosts can’t fight back. This fantasy of Westworld is nearly total. The hosts resemble aggressively attractive humans. They can approximate human emotions. But their sentience is denied. They are forced to exist inside an infinite loop of the same day over and over again. “Slight improvisation” is possible; they can respond to minute changes in their scripting, but if anything too drastic occurs, their programming can’t keep up. At best, they glitch out into a babbling shell. At worst, they become self-aware.
The park isn’t too conceptually different from a Bethesda open-world RPG, both as we see it and as its scripter defends it as he attempts to preserve the fiction he’s breathed to life. Characters “exist” outside of the player’s actions. They have schedules and they live their lives at their pace until a “player” interrupts that routine. They have emotional lives and wants and needs. As the “player,” you can help them achieve those needs or you can impede them. They don’t exist to service their own needs. They exist to be interacted with by you. Those needs they have exist only as a pretext to make the world feel alive and meaningful beyond the player’s immediate actions.
Westworld asks us to contemplate the ethics of creating individuals with just enough of a semblance of “life” that we want to mistake them for “real” even though their triumphs/suffering/experience only exist for our entertainment. And it asks even more uncomfortable questions about what compels us to commit ills against those who only exist because we decided to create them.
One of my favorite Stephen King books is his romance/ghost story/political thriller, Bag of Bones. The title comes from a Thomas Hardy quote, “Compared to the dullest human being actually walking about on the face of the earth and casting his shadow there, the most brilliantly drawn character in a novel is but a bag of bones.” King’s novel ends with one of his more obvious stand-in author protagonists deciding to give up writing lurid crime novels because the sickening violence of the genre finally became too real, and he wasn’t willing to exploit that actual suffering to sell a couple more books.
Grand Theft Auto V’s Los Santos is a vibrant and teeming world. Los Angeles traffic is simulated in all its “honk your horn ‘til it breaks” misery. Throngs of humanity crowd the streets. Wildlife roam its version of the Southern California countryside. And the game is mostly marketed on the player’s ability to wreak havoc in this system. Shoot dudes walking down the street cause you don’t like their hat, punch somebody in the face cause they’re texting as they walk up a mountainside, run a hooker over with your cause ‘cuz fuck it, why not. Virtually every Ubisoft game of the last five years has let players loose in almost pornographically detailed worlds and then told them that the only real way they get to interact with this beauty is to kill things. And most players are more than excited to oblige. If you aren’t allowed to kill enough things in your game, someone’s liable to label it a “walking simulator,” and god forbid a game be meditative.
You can take a shotgun to random pedestrians in GTA and not feel guilty about it because they don’t have a full personality. You aren’t meant to feel upset when you kill any generic guard in an Assassin’s Creed game—they exist to be killed. They aren’t bags of bones; they’re loose sacks of skin. But as gaming narratives become more complex, those bags of bones start to fill up. We start to care for characters. We want to see their lives. We want to see their loves. We want that moment where they cease to be bags of bones. We want the illusion to be real.
We crave that illusion. We want our fictional heroes (and the people around them) to be real, to be more than hollow reflections of a life we’re currently inhabiting. And then we want to torture them. Two of the most popular shows on cable TV are Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead, two series predicated on the notion that every single character can and probably will die a horribly gruesome death, and everything about their life will be miserable before that death comes. If they’re on Game of Thrones, there’s a good chance rape and mutilation will precede their death.
In Westworld, humans pay good money to be the rapists, murderers and mutilators. I can’t name any AAA videogames that let you commit rape, but I can only name a handful of non-sports AAA titles that don’t let you murder and mutilate. We might not have the tech yet for Westworld or Star Trek’s holodeck, and we’re decades away from self-aware, sentient artificial intelligence, but with the tech buzzword of the day being “immersion” and the growing market for home virtual reality (Sony’s Playstation-ready VR system arrives next week) and the increasing ability for players to escape into power fantasies that court their every desire and whim, the essential themes of Westworld’s narrative barely feel like science fiction.
Maybe we should be worried about that.
Don Saas is a music and games journalist based out of West Virginia. If you want to see his rants about movies and pro wrestling, you can find him on Twitter here.