More than a feeling: How "Westworld" made this gamer feel empathy for our virtual companions and the NPC

Doing violence to virtual humans is a part of being a gamer. But will "Westworld" change our attitude toward NPCs?


Melanie McFarland
October 18, 2016 3:00AM (UTC)

At the outset of the third episode of “Westworld,” the theme park’s programming division head Bernard Lowe (Jeffrey Wright) asks an android host Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) to read him a passage from Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”:

“'Dear, dear! How queer everything is to-day! And yesterday things went on just as usual. I wonder if I've been changed in the night? Let me think: was I the same when I got up this morning? I almost think I can remember feeling a little different. But if I'm not the same, the next question is, Who in the world am I?”

Viewers are still getting to know Bernard, a man obsessed with the tiniest details that make us human and still grieving his son’s death. His admission to Dolores that he used to read to his son triggers a faint sensation of anguish, and it feels normal when she asks Bernard in the sweetest, most comfortable voice, to talk about the lost child.

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But Bernard catches himself, demanding to know what made Dolores, a synthetic human ask about his flesh-and-blood boy. Dolores flatly replies, “We’ve been talking for some duration and I haven’t asked you a personal question. Personal questions are an ingratiating scheme.”

This serves as a reminder that hosts like Dolores — the show’s version of nonplayer characters — only appear to care. She lacks a human soul and capacity for feeling, as humans understand the concept. As the Western theme park’s founder Dr. Ford (Anthony Hopkins) brusquely declares later in the same episode, the hosts don’t feel cold, don’t feel ashamed and don’t feel a solitary thing they have not been programmed to feel.

Knowing this doesn’t stop Bernard or the viewer from emotionally connecting with Dolores, a feeling with which gamers like me can relate.

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Video games have been part of my existence from the moment I was tall enough to reach the joystick controls on my favorite arcade games. My courtship with my husband began over many games of “Mortal Kombat.” (I won. And no, he didn’t let me.) We recently traded in our worn out Xbox for a PS4.

I’ve witnessed primitive avatars rendered in gigantic square pixels smoothed out to the point of exquisite realism, at times even veering into that danger zone popularly known as the uncanny valley. (This is the phenomena that explains why realism in humanoid robots and computer illustrations can actually repel people more than impress them.) As video games have evolved, so has our connection with them.

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Playing video games is both an intensely personal experience and a conscious practice in separating the real from the virtual. They’re controllable power fantasies, with players assuming the roles of beings with tremendous physical power, intelligence and, more often than not, supernatural ability. They allow us to peer into other existences, live different lives and hold power over others, especially over nonplayer characters.

And the evolution of the emotional complexity written into nonplayer characters, or NPCs, has been fascinating to experience over the previous decade or so. Game designers have imbued NPCs with abilities and enough simulated emotional affect to make them into virtual companions.

They watch your back, heal you, even die for you. Some games require the player to protect them. Other ask you to sacrifice them.

These also are options in “Westworld.”

Westworld is a theme park where wealthy guests, known to the hosts as newcomers, can indulge in any desires they can think of. The heart of the park is a town called Sweetwater, where men and women can drink and satiate carnal urges in the brothel, eat a fancy meal and marvel at the synthetic Western surroundings.

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The farther away that a guest ventures from Sweetwater, the more intense the adventure becomes. There are immersive experiences and quests in Westworld, but there are also deeper gaming levels. The deepest is being sought by the mysterious Man in Black (Ed Harris), who represents the ultimate gamer, a man who has been playing for so long that he has no equal, gives no quarter and shows no remorse. Getting to that ultimate level, a legendary maze, is his only mission, and he's already blown through crowds of hosts on his way to fulfilling it.

But he's also marveled at how amazingly realistic the hosts' behavior can be, how genuine their fear seems — even in the moments before he puts a bullet in one of their manufactured brains.

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Not long ago in the real world, nonplayer characters were basically background extras. In early console games they were programmed to mutter a few words and strut around aimlessly to add to the landscape. In games such as “Grand Theft Auto” — which “Westworld” creators Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan played as part of their research, along with “BioShock” and “Red Dead Redemption” — players gained the ability to exploit NPCs to earn money or used for target practice.

In more intricate game plots, nonplayer characters may force players to make morally challenging choices to unlock puzzles or possibly halt potential dangers further down the road. Some playable plots also offer players the opportunity to commit vile acts simply for the chance to gain an achievement. “Red Dead” contains a secret one that requires the player to seek out a female NPC in order to hog-tie her to train tracks.

Cartoon fanatics recognize this as an ode to Snidely Whiplash of “The Rocky & Bullwinkle Show.” The difference is in the video game, there is no Dudley Do-Right coming to save her from the 3:10 to Yuma. She simply is chewed up by the locomotive.

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Does this “achievement” offend me as a woman? Absolutely. Yet I and many other gamers like me, male and female, can choose to not do it.  I can also reasonably assume that most of the people who decide to unlock this achievement pose no threat to real human beings. The achievement, though heinous in concept, is part of a nonexistent environment. The individual is welcome to find such an act abhorrent but no actual people come to harm, only simulations of people rendered in code.

You're denying them what you think you yourself hold,” Joy said in a recent interview, referring to the individual’s concept of artificial life forms. “There was a point when we were asked by someone who watched [the pilot], ‘Does it matter if [the hosts] don't remember the things that happen to them?’ For me, I always thought there was an answer to that, and I always thought yes, it absolutely matters.

She continued, “The fact that other people didn't see that — and not like evil people; they were just trying to be helpful in communicating what they saw — was eye-opening to us.”

Games don’t even have to be complex to elicit a sympathetic connection between the human player and her digital companion, anymore than a stuffed bear has to look like the real thing to become a magnet for a child’s love.

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The choice to send an NPC to its death in a basic first-person shooter such as “Left 4 Dead,” a longtime favorite of yours truly, can come down to how much a player likes one digital persona over another.

The player does not choose her verbal interactions with the NPCs in that game; every conversation is scripted, and the artificial intelligence powering the NPC reacts only to threats generated by the game, not to humans. My behavior in the game has no bearing whatsoever on whether an NPC will help or even appear to like me.

In a Gamasutra blog post that talked about using elements of psychology in the creation of NPCs, writer Florent Levillain explained that scripting a complicated personality into a program “is certainly more difficult to implement than a simple chasing behavior. But by taking into account principles of psychological attribution we can alleviate the computational requirements, by offloading critical inferences to the player’s brain. . . . We expect the mind of the observer to fill in gaps of the AI’s behavior.”

Thus, regardless of how human an NPCs appears to behave, a player may assign human feelings toward a synthetic personality, which can determine if it lives or dies. If two of my “Left 4 Dead” companions are critically injured, whom do I heal: the nice guy in the tie that resembles her pals or the gruff biker who spouts more entertaining and off-color dialogue? What does that selection say about me?

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This is the very response that “Westworld” is playing with. Bernard has his own very personal reasons for secretly interacting with Dolores; in a sense, he’s making her into a surrogate child so he can mimic the experience of what it’s like to cultivate curiosity and intellect in another “living” thing. We’re bound to witness that risky activity bearing fruit, no question.

A similarly connection may be developing between Behavior Department diagnostician Elsie Hughes (Shannon Woodward) and Maeve Millay (Thandie Newton), the madam host of Westworld’s tavern and brothel. When Maeve started to glitch, Elsie’s colleagues wanted to retire her. Elsie tinkered with Maeve’s emotional responses and saved her — perhaps out of practicality, but with notes of affection for the android in doing so.

It’s reasonable for Elsie to behave in a protective manner toward Maeve; Elsie’s fingerprint is one of many on the host’s creation and ongoing operation. Even so, there may be another level to Elsie’s estimation of that host: some odd kinship we can’t quite name yet.

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Until then, the park’s guests pay for the right to treat Maeve however they want, in the same way that gamers can choose to hurt or kill NPCs with impunity. The difference is that as we watch “Westworld,” we’re getting to know Maeve and Dolores. We don’t want them to be hurt. Gamers, in contrast, don’t know or care about the backstories of innocent NPCs in a first-person shooter, which probably makes mowing them down a lot easier.

Behaviorally speaking,  I do draw some lines as I'm playing. But my refusal to shoot or hurt noncombatant NPCs, for example, doesn’t make me any better than any players who decide to commit “Red Dead’s” dastardly deed, which I previously mentioned. This is the strange gray area in which gamers exist, in a realm where digital violence, whether justified or cloaked in moral odiousness, is accepted — albeit grudgingly at times — as an entirely neutral act.

But that notion doesn’t completely wash for “Westworld,” where the viewer is being primed to cheer for Dolores’ inevitable emergence into consciousness or to feel pity for the fact that Maeve is doomed to be engulfed in violence and exploitation for its own sake, for as long as her system can tolerate it.

One’s propensity for committing violent acts in the video-game realm does not necessarily have a correlation to one’s desire to commit it in real life. But what happens when the game is tangible, when the blood may not be the genuine article but still looks red and feels wet? Can it really be safe for humans to take the darkest parts of ourselves out for a stroll? And how can we expect to not track that synthetic blood back home with us?

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If we gamers were passing through Westworld’s central town of Sweetwater, like the park visitors in the series, would we treat the hosts as irreverently — and would we judge the humans in the series as harshly?

We don’t have a Westworld theme park in real life — yet — but gamers are at the early adoption stage of virtual reality, adding yet another level of immersion. Experiencing a violent game such as “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare” on a screen is one thing, but VR removes the physical distance between the human and game play, literally putting the experience of shooting and stabbing opponents directly in players’ hands. This potentially adds another layer of morality for people to analyze, if they were inclined to do so.

It may be quite a while until humans will have to face these questions quite literally, as synthetic humanoid pawns stand right in front of them. For the time being, allowing “Westworld” to ask them for us and — of us — will have to do, even if we eventually discover that the answers aren’t anything we would expect or even like them to be.


Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's TV critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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