For ages, Hollywood has tried to make bank on the video game industry’s fan base that has allowed it to become a billion-dollar industry, yet time and time again they fail. Sure many avid video game followers have their favorites despite the lack of quality within these films, but with each adaptation, there is a certain element missing from these films that cinema simply cannot replicate — the player. As a player in each game, no matter what you are playing, you ultimately become the emotional center of the story regardless if your avatar is Laura Croft or Nathan Drake.
Enter HBO’s new series WESTWORLD, a show that seamlessly combines our love of both themed entertainment with a video game element by allowing the audience to take the role of the player. I’ve always been a fan of Michael Crichton's work, and the original WESTWORLD was brilliant in the way it addressed the rising popularity of themed entertainment with a timely commentary that still remains relevant today. Now, with technology exceeding at an ever expanding pace in the realm of Artificial Intelligence and with entertainment companies starting to explore uses for virtual reality, the newer version of WESTWORLD doesn’t seem far off.
Any video game enthusiast who’s played RED DEAD REDEMPTION can point out the similarities between WESTWORLD and the cherished game. Sure WESTWORLD is not so much an adaptation but takes the elements of sandbox gaming — a style of game in which minimal character limitations are placed on the gamer, allowing the gamer to roam and change a virtual world at will — and brings them into the story of WESTWORLD. In short, WESTWORLD succeeds because it acknowledges the gamer. The guests represent the viewer while the hosts, our video game counterparts.
As many of the characters state, there are multiple stories within WESTWORLD with multiple outcomes. Since WESTWORLD doesn’t necessarily have a determined outcome like that of GAME OF THRONES, we as the audience are forced along for the ride. What Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan have done is make the audience an active viewer in this world thereby allowing us to take on the role of the player. The uncertainty of who is or isn’t a host puts us on edge and give us a sense of danger one that, regardless if we are holding a controller, works in both realms cinematically.
Furthermore, it acknowledges gaming devices on purpose. Multiple storylines, the result of character choices, even glitches in the programming — not only are these all familiar terms with gamers but have now been actively put in to play as possible story outcomes within the very story of WESTWORLD itself. WESTWORLD has the timeliness THE MATRIX had on the verge of the millennium, where instead of exploring the ever expanding world of the internet, technology is moving forward, stepping out of our screens and into our everyday lives.
Active viewing puts your audience in the driver’s seat or at least gives that impression. Many video game films seem to focus on the richness of the world and spectacle, but to assume this is why players choose a specific video game is to misunderstand video games themselves. As writers we like to put ourselves into the shoes of other characters, live lives we would never otherwise have the opportunity to experience. You make your audience an active viewer by not taking the audience for granted.
Great horror movies rely on this all the time. Allowing the audience to imagine scares that may or may not be present; to essentially place them into the horror with the characters. As a writer, you are challenging your audience to think and experience the outcome for themselves without knowing or sensing the outcome. Let's use GAME OF THRONES, another hit HBO show as an example. Ultimately, as an audience, we can sense the end goal — at the end someone worthy and just will win and sit on the iron throne. With all the surprising deaths that have come our way and all the twists and turns that have gripped us along the way, there is a deep sense that good will win out in the end.
In a sense, we know the outcome, but are along for the ride anyway in the same sense that when you step onto a roller coaster, you know that there will be some twists and turns but at the end of it all you will step off with that sense of euphoria and want to go another round even though you know the outcome.
In shows like BATTLESTAR GALACTICA, BREAKING BAD and WESTWORLD, part of the phenomenon lies in the unknowing. To hide the outcome makes the viewer actively experience the journey as the character. Now, this is easily done with Television which has been one of the biggest reasons for its successes in recent years, but could an actor or Director do the same with a film. To some degree, films rely on the sense of an ending, but then again there are films like MAD MAX: FURY ROAD, GRAVITY, THE MATRIX, DUNKIRK and nearly anything by David Lynch where you are not simply a viewer in the passenger seat but are thrown into the fray.
The prime element here for creating this tension can be found in adding reversals into your script. The best way to create unsuspecting outcomes is to write your characters and yourself into a corner. The best reversals I've come up with are the ones where even I have to step away to contemplate how to get my character out of a sticky situation. The audience is always working to second guess you.
Yes, sometimes you can get away with the unexpected, Superhero movies have delivered this with much success creating a rollercoaster ride where at the end you know that you will land safely on your feet, but to truly anticipate your audience’s guesses and reactions requires a smart and cunning writer. Not to mention lots of rewrites and hard work.
Perhaps if more time was spent placing the audience into the POV of these video game characters in a way that would in a sense allow the audience to become the protagonist then maybe we will experience a change in quality just as comic book films in the early 2000’s changed when IRON MAN stepped onto the scene.