Westworld Bestworld: Unique storytelling on the age-old topic of machine consciousness

The theme of machines becoming sentient and what it means to be a person is covered across many different movies and TV shows. I even wrote about one such show on one of my first posts here on Medium. So when I heard how good Westworld was, I took my time getting to it because I just needed a break from it all (not to mention that I didn’t have HBO). But sci-fi tropes aside, Westworld ended up telling the story in one of the most engaging yet somewhat convoluted ways I’ve seen to date.

What I watched:

(Warning: Since it’s an HBO show there may be some graphic images within the videos I use)

Westworld is a theme park filled with artificially created humans/androids called “hosts.” Each host is given a story arch and guide guests along through their narratives, using complex AI programming to interact and adapt to the visitors messing up the world. The challenges of each narrative increases the further away from the main town of Sweetwater. The androids by design in their code cannot kill guests, while guests have complete freedom to help, kill, or have sex with the androids as much as they want. However, there is a power struggle behind the curtain of the park, and some androids are becoming self-aware of their lot in life.

What I saw:

The story of Westworld is told through three main arcs: through the Devos corporate management power struggle occurring behind the curtain of it all Dolores’ and William’s journey for self-discovery inside the park and Maeve weaving her way in between both worlds.

For over 30 years there has been turmoil in the company that runs the park, with Ford being the co-creator and self-described god of Westworld. Ford and his fellow co-creator Arnold argued frequently over whether the goal of the company should be narrative experience, like Ford had in mind, or if it should be about using the technology to give birth to a whole new life form by coaxing the androids into developing consciousness. Arnold died trying to prevent the park from opening once he realized the machines were becoming closer to becoming sentient by programming two hosts to kill all the others and himself in order to take his knowledge of the complex coding with him. Needless to say, the park opened up anyways.

The morality of scientific discovery has plagued scientists since the discipline was formally structured these last two hundred years. Just because a discovery or invention can be made, should it? Ford was in the camp that machines should remain just that, machines, and the creators had no responsibility to encourage consciousness. However, Arnold argued that since they had developed the technology that could potentially develop full sentience, then there was a responsibility to not only see it through, but to treat the sentient machines as equal to humans, not props. The ramifications of creating a whole new life form — a more intelligent as well as stronger life form at that — are huge, and the show doesn’t seem to take a clear stance on whether mankind should pursue that goal or not until the very end.

The consequences of the actions taken by Ford and Arnold is told through Dolores and a new/old guest to the park, William. Dolores was part of a small group of hosts given an update which contained a new behavior modifier called “reveries,” in which the host can draw from past experience and carry out a tic related to it (like holding your hand to your cheek while remembering a time when someone slapped you). This, of course, has the <del>unforseen</del> consequences of the hosts remembering past deaths and narratives which used to be wiped from their memories.

A frayed photo of Times Square found on Dolores’ homestead

Dolores’ loop is broken when her father finds a photo of a woman in Times Square, and he begins to question the world around him because he has never seen a city like that before. Dolores ignores it at first, but the reveries cause her to start to remembering separate past interactions with William; along with clandestine conversations with Arnold about complex ideas which she is on the cusp of grasping.

William and his soon to be brother-in-law Logan cross paths with Dolores. William wants to play the hero and help the damsel in distress, while Logan thinks it’s more fun to play with the bad guys. Since it’s William’s first time at the park, they go along with his plan and follow Dolores on her journey of her growing sentience. That is, until Logan grows bored of it and cuts her open to show she is just a machine. Then Dolores escapes and goes through the much alluded to “maze” left behind by one of the creators of Westworld.

The origin of the Maze

The maze was left behind by Arnold, and was used to describe the path towards sentience. Consciousness is not something that can be achieved directly. It’s a journey. A journey that we see both Dolores and to a lesser extent Maeve, albeit with different results.

Dolores goes from believing everything has a purpose to believing the world is nothing but chaos. In the show, the hosts are able to go into an analysis mode and answer directly why they said a specific phrase, and Arnold probes some of Dolores responses which sound like consciousness. Most times her analysis revealed it was an aspect of her programming caused her to speak a certain way. But is not until she is unable to explicitly explain her actions does he consider her to be truly consciousness.

It has been theorized that true sentience revolves around chaos and uncertainty of our actions. What many would call the soul/self stems a lot from our unconscious actions. A study has shown that our brain acts before our conscience mind is even aware of it. Much of what we do is not derived from our conscious self, and this leaves human beings with a certain level of unpredictability. Only machines could behave perfectly by design, not a sentient life form.

William became obsessed with finding the meaning to the maze despite being told multiple times it doesn’t have anything to do with him. However, after William’s interaction with Dolores as she tries to discover it’s meaning he realized his life lacks any meaning at all. As such, he desperately searches for meaning in the narratives of Westworld. He believed Arnold created a mechanism to where the guests’ victory is not assured at all and may even be killed by the hosts. He believes the maze where the consequences of his actions will become “real,” uninhibited by computer coding or his own wealth and influence in the outside world.

The search for meaning is a huge theme throughout the series. What is the purpose of having the hosts react so realistic if all the guests want are cheap thrills? What is the meaning of the hosts if not to carry out complex narrative?

The journey William undergoes at his first visit in the park highlighted just what kind of person he really is. He was the first to notice that human beings carry out their own loops out of fear of the unknown. Not many people like the idea of taking a leap of faith on something they certain it will lead to success; unfortunately for humanity the only thing certain is death. William learned to break his loop in the park, and became so enamored with the experience he shared with Dolores that he found his purpose in making sure the park continued by investing heavily into it. Unfortunately Dolores’ memory was wiped and her updated consciousness rolled back, William lost sight of his meaning and became a nihilist, lacking any regards for his moral actions since everything in the park resets anyways.

Thus, leading us to Maeve’s story arc. In William’s first nihilistic act, he slaughtered Maeve and her daughter while they played roles out in a homestead. She was one of the hosts to receive the reveries update, and began to remember all her past lives/deaths. She then goes on a hell-bent mission to take control of her own fate, and even gives herself administrative privileges to control other hosts to help plot her escape. A wrench gets thrown in her journey of self-awareness in that Bernard shows her that she was programmed with an escape narrative, and she chooses to believe that she is escaping of her own desire, rather than a desire that is given to her. She almost succeeds, until the memories of her daughter haunt her and causes her to return to the park and seek her out instead.

This is the most confusing part of the show to me, as at first it seems to be a parallel story arc of a host becoming sentient only without guidance from her creator. This leads her to have more loose morals with things like blackmail and killing humans to achieve her goals. Except the idea that her entire purpose of escaping possibly being programmed seems to nullify much of that. This leads to question of whether she is truly conscious, or simply following the directive of another party.

In Conclusion

Westworld has tons of meaning in every episode, and is certainly worth watching if you haven’t done so already. There are many details which allude to other philosophical elements that one can easily lose track of an entire day researching them all. One thing I really liked was the show’s courage to mess with the audience’s sense of time. Dolores journey is revealed to not done through a short span of a week, but over thirty years. She is an unreliable narrator of sorts, and we the audience don’t realize it to the end. This complex storytelling may be off putting to some, but I find it to be really clever.

I’m interested to know what other themes or storytelling elements you all enjoyed, and you can let me know in the comments.

This blog is to talk about some of the deeper lessons in the stories that are told through TV and Video Games