Monday, October 31, 2016

Westworld and Meta-Narrative

I have a theory about Westworld. It's not about the world outside the park or whether or not Ed Harris is a cylon. My theory has to do with the show itself, which seems fixated on the concept of narrative. Westworld is already drawing comparisons to Lost and Battlestar Galactica, two shows that trafficked heavily in managing and playing with viewer expectations, but they were still narrative shows that took place in their own worlds. Westworld is a slightly different animal. Thematically, it's about entertainment that turns against its consumer. So while it has echoes of Lost and BG, and the obvious antecedents of the 1973 Westworld film and Jurassic Park, I think there's a strain of influences that are more akin to The Ring and Mulholland Drive, horror movies that invite the viewer to be just as much of a victim as the characters on screen. The former posits a world in which viewing a film is a death sentence. The latter creates a distorted and disorienting world that makes the viewer feel just as lost as the characters.

In short, here's my Westworld theory: Westworld is messing with us.

The world-within-a-world of Westworld presents itself almost like an MMORPG. There's a central hub where guests can play around, and there they will find a series of small repeating events that are inviting them on sidequests. Then there are the huge out-of-the-way quests for completionists (read as: Ed Harris, who may or may not be a cylon). Then there are big events, like Hector's shoot-out. Finally, there's whatever happens just because the guests were farting around and shooting people. That's four layers of story interacting just within the world-within-a-world. But the television show adds a few more: there's Arnold's long-con, there's Theresa's corporate politicking, there's Ford's rabid defense of his creation, and then whatever-the-hell Bernard's been doing. And oh yeah, there's Logan's company trying to buy out Delos, Westworld's parent company. Also apparently there's some corporate espionage going on.

I'm thinking this is all distraction. Ostensibly, if Westworld-the-world is an MMORPG, then Westworld-the-show is about what happens when the NPCs come to life. As such, all of this world-building is background to the Pinocchio narratives around Maeve and Dolores. Despite all the mystery and narrative, the show is about the robots, and the show has devoted a fair amount of time towards making the robots seem human and relatable while making the human characters flat and static--especially those who work behind-the-scenes. This is not a catastrophe narrative, as it was in the 1973 film. This is a revolution narrative, and in this narrative, the humans are the bad guys. So, add Ex Machina to the list of influences.

But what does that have to do with us, the viewers? Well, humans are the bad guys, and we're the humans. I think the show is priming us for some real-life scares. It's already been playing fast-and-loose with chronology and neglecting to establish some very important practical details--how, for example, does Dolores get from the middle of a parade to underground-and-naked to have a conversation with Ford and then back without anyone noticing her absence? Was it, in fact, a dream? What the hell happened to that guy who died in episode three? Then there's the ever-present player-piano, which sometimes plays recognizable songs to remind us that this is all fake, but then sometimes doesn't. Also, we know practically nothing of the outside world of the show. We've seen a few glimpses from Bernard and the photo that set off Dolores's dad, and nothing indicates that this show actually takes place in a far future. There've even been some film-technique shenanigans. In that same conversation between Ford and Dolores, Ford asks if she remembers "the man I used to be" while the camera pans behind her head. This is a classic technique for a visual reveal, but when the camera emerges on the other side, we still see Ford. Nothing has changed. Our gut-level intuitions about storytelling don't necessarily apply in this show.

Given the reported delays and reshoots, it's easy to dismiss some of this as sloppy storytelling and slap-dash editing. But it's important to keep in mind that this is the newest prestige drama from HBO, the same channel that assured us that [REDACTED] was really dead for good on Game Of Thrones. It would not surprise me at all if some of this was HBO managing the viewers, setting them up for whatever bombshell is going to drop in episode nine. And if you think about it, all of this is laid out in the opening credits--from the initial shot of moonrise over the desert (that's actually a work-light rising over a half-finished torso) to the skeleton hands playing the piano that then recede, because it's actually a player-piano (there's that damned player-piano again). The show starts at nothing-is-what-it-seems with viewers expecting to have the rug pulled out from underneath them. But I think the show has grander aspirations than just the rug--I think it wants to pull out the whole floor.

So yeah, I'm pretty sure Westworld is messing with us. If the player-piano starts playing Rains of Castamere, get ready.

PS: did you know that Westworld has an companion ARG-style website? Of course you do, we all signed up for HBO Now and got the link. Anyway, this show that's going to try to scare us in real life has all of our email addresses now, that's what I'm getting at.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Her Story

Since I'm not working on a novel right now, I took the opportunity to play through a few PC games that had been on my radar, one of which is Sam Barlow's Her Story. I have some quibbles with it, but on the whole I found it very engaging as a piece of experimental storytelling.

The premise is that you have been given access to a series of police interviews from the 90s, which feature a young British woman. You type in a search term and the database returns up to five videos with that search in it. You are prompted with the first search term: MURDER. Who died and why you are investigating a decades-old murder (a clock in the game establishes that it takes place in the present) are mysteries to be unraveled.

The fact that this is more-or-less a game-ified version of Alta Vista is interesting in itself, but the deftness of the game is in the way it guides the player towards certain revelations. The first videos that come up give you a number of details that send you chasing down details. Because the results are always chronological, and the juicier details about the story will obviously come out in later interviews, the challenge becomes finding ways to narrow your search. The character has strikingly different outfits in every interview, which helps gives the player a timeline. Since you don't get the interviewer's questions, only detached answers, everything feels a little disjointed and context-less, which adds to the puzzle element. And, of course, there are many juicy details to be revealed.

It was interesting. Not great as far as game-play is concerned, but it was a very different way to experience a story, and I enjoyed it quite a lot. But I also found it frustrating. After about two hours I had uncovered all of the relevant plot points but only about three-quarters of the videos. But the game doesn't end until you tell it you're done--at which point it will roll credits (and then give you some cheats to reveal anything you've missed). What this means is that you essentially keep playing until you are so frustrated that you have to stop. And there's a sequence of videos in the middle that seems designed to troll completionists, so a game/story that I enjoyed quite a lot left me with a bit of a sour taste in my mouth.

I must also quibble about uneven production values. There are a bruise and a tattoo that feature, and neither of them look good. The bruise is barely noticeable, and the tattoo looks fake. Considering the effort that went into recreating 90s-era video artifacts, I had to assume that the fake tattoo was supposed to look fake, and that had some story implications. It ended up being a distraction, when it was supposed to be a supporting plot element.

But I still overall liked this game, and considering the price point ($6 on Steam, but frequently discounted--in fact, it's on sale for $3 right now), I definitely recommend it.

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Below are my spoilery quibbles. Don't read them if you want to play the game and be surprised:

SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS Highlight to read.

  • The fake tattoo supports the fan theory that Hannah and Eve are the same person. But nothing else does. I don't buy that theory, but it took up a lot of brain space while I looked for clues around it.
  • I've had Eve's traditional folk ballad stuck in my head for days.
  • Seriously, what the hell was up with that polygraph sequence!?
  • I got seriously confused keeping track of all the pregnancies. So when I exited and it's revealed that you're playing as Sarah, my reaction was "Wait, is she even alive?"