*This article contains Westworld spoilers. If you are not completely caught up with all eight episodes, get caught up. Then read this.*
ZOMG! Westworld and Video Games!
“The hosts are like NPCs! By the hyperreal male pattern baldness of Baudrillard! Mind officially blown,” many a blogger has written, comparing Westworld to video games. I have no interest in rehashing the same old tropes about robots, AI, androids, NPCs, fembots, replicants, Stepford Wives, and what it means to be human.
Instead, bearing in mind what we know about Maeve’s experiences in Westworld, I propose new ways of looking at two great games set in the Wild West, Super Amazing Wagon Adventure and Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath HD.
The Wild West
The Wild West is symbolic and legendary. Its mystique is equal parts American national identity and personal greed, trouble and nostalgia. The Wild West reminds us of a simpler time when the Frontier still held promise (to white men of means), rugged individualism reigned, and almost everybody died young from preventable disease for lack of vaccines, anesthesia, and antibiotics. (When it comes to decimating human populations, guns and bullets have never been able to compete with influenza, typhoid, and good old-fashioned dysentery.)
Big Ideas of the Wild West: Exploration and Expansion
To understand “The Wild West,” we must understand exploration and expansion. The term “The Wild West” or “The Old West” refers to the Western territory of the United States, just shy of the Frontier, from 1781 to 1912. The Frontier was the border of the European-American settlement. The Wildness of the West arises out of its unexplored status. The difference between wild territory and domestic territory is the difference between a wild animal and a pet.
Like an animal, the West is Wild until domesticated — or destroyed. Built into the Wild West myth (with its sheriffs and bandits, fallen women and damsels, law and order versus anarchy, et cetera) is the reality that the settlers arrived in the West before the forces of governance.
The Western As a Genre
To this day, American media continue to revisit and re-imagine the Wild West in terms of good and evil in a nobler time. “Things were better back when things were worse,” as the old comic goes.
What about the Wild West is so appealing? Some point to the everlasting cults of John Wayne, Gary Cooper, and Clint Eastwood. Others enjoy Westerns for the visceral thrills established by Sergio Leone (A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More) and Sam Peckinpah (The Wild Bunch, Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia) and re-popularized by Quentin Tarantino (Django Unchained, The Hateful Eight).
Many more get a sense of hope from traditional Westerns’ false moral dichotomies (white hat versus black hat, the “good” gunslinger versus the “bad” and/or ugly gunslingers). Westerns make viewers nostalgic for a time, a place, and an American people that, though seemingly real and historical, never actually existed.
To be fully appreciated, Westworld, Super Amazing Wagon Adventure, and Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath HD all but require that their audiences are aware of the Western genre’s tropes and conventions. Call these three entertainment media Meta-Westerns, meaning literally “after Westerns.”
How cool is Westworld? Way cool. Rich, presumably human “guests” or “newcomers” live out their fantasies in a Wild West themed amusement park populated by lifelike robotic “hosts”. As we approach the final two episodes of the season, there have been a ton of revelations. Everybody has a theory about where it is all going.
The genius of Westworld is in how it reckons with the false, “historical” narratives of cinematic Westerns. When the show is at its best, Westworld uses science fiction elements to tell stories that transcend the traditional Western tropes.
Hosts: Replicants Go West
Basically, for our purposes, let’s say that there are two types of hosts in Westworld: those who accept their scripted identities (most hosts) and those, such as Maeve Millay (Thandie Newton), who have glimpsed the external reality beyond the park’s virtual veil.
The first type goes through motions, follows the scripts, has no idea he or she is, in Blade Runner terms, a replicant in a fake world. To the first type, the fake world is dangerous, strange, as wild as living in the Wild West can be. To the second type, the park’s “Wild West” setting is bland and phony, its “dangers” nonexistent, its mysteries pre-fabricated. It’s the real world outside the park that holds wild promise.
Baudrillard: Philosopher of Simulation, Simulacra, and Reality TV
The mind-bending sci-fi ideas that Westworld explores have been spelled out by the late Jean Baudrillard, philosopher of high-tech post-modernism.
Although Baudrillard used different terminology (Telecomputer Man, simulacra, simulation, reality, hyper-reality, et cetera), the fundamental questions that he asked about reality, artificial intelligence, identity, and virtual reality have not changed.
(The super-clever valentine above is from critical-theory[dot]com.)
In case there were any doubt about the Westworld-Baudrillard connection, in the latest episode, Ford used the word simulacrum, a word popularized by Baudrillard. “I don’t need the simulacrum of an emotionally ruined man,” says Ford. “I need you to be yourself, your true self.”
A simulacrum is a representation of something that bears no resemblance to the “something” it represents. Examples of simulacra include reality TV (nothing like reality) and an android programmed to resemble a human being (nothing like a living being).
Scripted and Off-Script Storylines
Controlled by Westworld’s “narrative” via Bernard’s code, hosts are made to “follow the script(s),” so to speak. Of course, they only become interesting once they go “off-script.”
Maeve: Meta-Western Heroine
Consider what we know of Maeve’s “scripted” and “off-script” storylines. In the scripted storyline, Maeve is the madam of the brothel in Sweetwater, the main township of Westworld’s park. As we learned in the most recent episode, in the off-script storyline, she is haunted by the murder of her daughter.
Off-script, Maeve’s memory of her own death at the Man in Black’s hands does not compare to the trauma of holding her daughter as she bled out. (Do androids suffer from electric PTSD?)
Make no mistake, though. Maeve is the heroine of Westworld. Knowing what we know about Bernard (code-writing murder-droid), Ford (megalomaniac without empathy), Theresa (Bernard, how could you?), Elsie’s disappearance (terrible decision, she was one of the reasons to watch the show), and the tedious, vanilla love story plot line between Dolores (who can’t decide whether to be a damsel or a compelling character) and William (who looks like Christian Slater’s Aryan stunt double in a funhouse mirror), Maeve is the only character who is still worth rooting for.
I hope she rips the Man in Black’s heart out and shoves it down Ford’s throat.
The Games: Meta-Western Simulacra
The following games ask us to be aware of the Western genre’s expected tropes, so that we can fully appreciate when and how they defy them. In their strangest moments, they invite us to see the Matrix of the simulated Wild West through Neo-Maeve’s eyes.
Super Amazing Wagon Adventure
Super Amazing Wagon Adventure is an absurd, fourth-wall-breaking action roguelite that parodies Oregon Trail. Developed by a company called MECC, the Oregon Trail series turned westerly expansion into a strategy game.
You control a settler in a party on its way out West for the Gold Rush of 1849. Will you make it to Oregon, find gold, strike it rich? Will you be attacked by bandits? Or will you die of dysentery? Super Amazing Wagon Adventure makes more absurd fates possible, such as being killed by aliens, dinosaurs, or slow-moving bison.
At a glance, Super Amazing Wagon Adventure is R-Type as a roguelite with Oregon Trail’s aesthetic, themes, and mini-games. Absurd hunting rifles (laser pistol, rocket launcher, dinosaur egg) spawn as collectibles. You unlock new wagons by completing certain procedurally generated sections. Each play-through is procedurally generated. Level variations make different wagons unlockable, such as The Standard (default ox-drawn wagon), The Fantasy (a unicorn-drawn pumpkin carriage), The Alien (ox-drawn flying saucer), and — most importantly, for our purposes — The Glitch (self-explanatory).
The Glitch can be unlocked in a sequence that appears to break the game. Like Maeve, the super-powered self-aware host, the Glitch acknowledges the simulacrum (the video game) only to exploit its weaknesses (by parodying glitch exploits).
Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath HD
Set in Oddworld’s goofy universe, Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath HD is a PC and mobile remake of a third- and first-person hybrid action game for the XBOX. Its version of the Wild West bears no resemblance to either the actual West or the Wild West.
Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath HD is a Wild West-themed adventure game full of weird imaginary creatures, such as Clakkers (chicken-people), Outlaws (ogre-orcs in cowboy hats), Steefs (honestly, couldn’t tell you), and Grubbs (wormy weaklings).
In your role as a Steef called The Stranger, you take contracts in various towns and hunt down Outlaws for the “moolah” you need for a mysterious operation. Outlaws are wanted dead or alive. Alive pays more than dead.
You don’t use guns; you use “live ammunition.” You pick up critters (each species of live ammunition behaves as a different ammo type) and use your crossbow to fling them at an Outlaw. Then, a gadget on your wrist sucks up the incapacitated Outlaw Ghost Trap-style.
By rejecting guns (he even breaks one in half during the opening cinematic), The Stranger subverts the Western genre’s expected tropes. He is more dangerous than any gunslinger because he has no use for guns.
The Stranger is as much a typical gunslinger as Maeve is a typical madam. The Stranger has as much use for a gun as Maeve has for turning tricks, bending to guests’ whims, and “knowing her place.” Like Maeve, The Stranger is a new kind of hero, the perfect fit for a Meta-Western. The Western genre simply can’t hold them.
Now, go into town and collect your bounty.