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A few years ago, I went through an experience at a TechCrunch event. It was Westworld in virtual reality. I shot some guns and walked around in VR — enough to give me a hunger for it. Then I never saw it again. And now HBO and Survios have shown me what Westworld VR, now dubbed Westworld Awakening, has become.
And it is totally different and ready for prime time. [HBO said the early effort was marketing content for the first show]. Only later on did it bring aboard Survios, the maker of popular VR games like Raw Data and Sprint Vector. They tapped the common thread between video game characters and the show’s AI personas.
They created a new Westworld VR, set during the havoc of Westworld Season 2, when the AI servants on the show are rebelling against their masters and destroying the Westworld amusement park.
In the first part of the experience, you play as Kate, one of the “robots” of Westworld, in the midst of the park. You explore an old mansion in the Wild West, and then encounter a serial killer.
In the second part of the VR experience, you awake as a sentient AI in the place where the keepers normally rebuild the AI people killed by the real ones in the amusement park. But the lab is in a state of chaos, as the robots are killing their masters. You move around and try to escape, feeling like you are hunted.
I played the experience for a half-hour and then spoke with Adam Foshko, the director of story and narrative design at HBO; and Michael Patrick Clark, a producer at Survios.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: It sounds like you’ve been looking into this for a while.
Adam Foshko: I think you could look at the first one as almost a proof of concept. With the way that Westworld, the world and the story, has been evolving — there a number of ways you can think about telling an interesting and exciting story there. It would lean toward introspection, because there are a lot of themes that run through Westworld, like memory. How real is your memory of the past? There’s the reclamation of power. It all leads back to a format that’s intimate.
When we were going down the road of trying different platforms and trying to tell an interesting story, particularly one that interested [Jonathan] Nolan and Lisa Joy back then, it seemed like VR. The thing you’d seen was the first attempt. We could tell an interesting story that has an edge to it, that’s concise and short, that delivers on a wedge of an experience, but with some depth. It leaves you asking a lot of questions.
This is different. Obviously, the show has evolved and matured. The storyline has evolved and matured. Our approach to it has evolved and matured. I’d also say–it’s a full-length approach.
Michael Patrick Clark: This is a full-length experience. This isn’t a taste. This is a full product that you’re going to enjoy.
Foshko: To be clear about that, it’s five acts. We figure between four and six hours of play. It tells an extremely deep story that is very emotional. It has resonance to it. It would be hard to–I come out of the triple-A space. It would be harder to do with some distance and playing with a controller. But being immersed in it–very much like the first one, we were focused on the character. The character performance was critical for us. In this case, particularly doubled down on story. Those are the critical differences. You can see the continuation, if not in actuality certainly in spirit.
GamesBeat: The main character of Westworld Awakening, Kate, is not in the show, right?
Foshko: No, she’s not in the show.
GamesBeat: Why did you go that direction?
Foshko: When we sat down and began to think about what we might do next — Kilter Films, the producer of the show, Jon Nolan, Lisa Joy, and the producers — we began to think about what kind of story might be interesting. We hadn’t really thought about it much more than that. We didn’t know how long it would be. We didn’t know exactly how we were going to do it. We just know it would be about characters and story.
We began to think about what kind of stories we could tell. As we did that, we wanted again–we’d seen Westworld Season 1. This takes place in parallel to Season 2. But as we were looking at those events we thought, well, Westworld is a place full of mystery. You have a lot of questions. Some get answered and some don’t. There’s a lot we can dig into with the second season.
As we did that, as we began to think about — not just the story, but how we would tell it — it became clear to us that we needed another character that hadn’t been seen on the show. We could take her from her beginnings all the way through an arc that would be satisfying, but extremely interesting. We could put people in that position. We couldn’t do that if we took any of the characters from the actual series.
GamesBeat: This “Who am I? What’s my identity?” question is a big discovery?
Foshko: Identity plays a significant role in Westworld, obviously. There’s always the idea of the untrustworthy narrator, or that’s what they called it in college. That plays heavily not just in the show, but also with us. Whatever Kate thinks she remembers may not be the thing that is. Her journey, part of it is to reclaim who she is and who she was, to empower her to be who she’s going to be.
GamesBeat: With Season 2 and three we’re getting outside of Westworld. Is this entirely inside Westworld?
Foshko: This is inside, yes.
Clark: These are events preceding and parallel with Season 2. The particular story we tell is tied specifically to those moments and those beats as an adjacent plot.
Foshko: The insight is just deeper.
GamesBeat: Does it lead down a particular path within the timeframe of Season 2?
Foshko: It’s within the timeframe, yeah. It’s right around the second uprising, before and during the second uprising. It’s meant to coincide with those events. Kate’s story comes to a satisfying conclusion for her arc, but it still leaves you with questions. It’s meant to fit into the culmination, plus or minus, of Season 2.
GamesBeat: The world looks beautiful. How do you then give people interesting things to do in it, mechanics that will keep them moving around?
Clark: We have a number of mechanics. Westworld is a world of danger and mystery. Mechanically that’s mirrored in the game. We have a variety of puzzles and exploration gameplay, as well as evasion. Kate’s journey is one of regaining agency and regaining power. You’re not going to go pick up a gun and start capping people. That’s not the goal. Instead, you’re avoiding Hank, the serial killer, the host who stalks you through the park — you’re introduced to him in the very beginning of the game — as well as QA and anyone else who doesn’t have your best interests at heart. There’s a variety of puzzles and evasion, stealth.
GamesBeat: She lets herself get stabbed in the face.
Clark: Well, that’s the whole thing. If you look in the bottom right, your motor functions are frozen. This is her story. That’s the fate she’s trapped within. Over the course of the game, that plot–she’s going to awaken and she’s going to regain agency. You’re not going to be a passive bystander to things that happen. You’re going to be involved and active. But it’s important to establish that baseline of — as a host, that was her life. That was all that she gets to do.
Foshko: Terrible things happen to them.
Clark: That’s an incredibly cruel fate, and so this is really about denying that fate that was written and moving on. That’s reflected in the agency that you’re granted over the course of the game.
GamesBeat: Is there a metaphor here? I’m not in a TV show. I’m in a video game. I can actually do something.
Clark: VR grants you, as a player, a lot more agency than you have in a regular video game, just by the increased amount of–you’re moving your hands, as opposed to having those synched up. Westworld’s narrative of narrative designers creating a theme-park experience parallels game design and game development. We don’t play up the trope of “you’re in a video game as opposed to you’re in a TV show.” But you are a host in Westworld, so for all intents and purposes–a host in Westworld is like a video game character. This is about her awakening and about her breaking out of that cycle of being the damsel in distress that gets knifed every night for the guests who are there to watch.
Foshko: Unlike a character in a video game–her performance is so much better. That’s something we were concentrating on. No one’s going to come out and deliver a soliloquy and try to tell you the story. It really is about–even down to capturing the subtext in her face, the faces of the characters and their movement. We put a lot of care into telling the story on a bunch of different levels, thinking about how the story would be absorbed by people working their way through this world.
Every room you walk into, there’s a story in that room. It’s not just set dressing. It’s meant to convey a sense of where you are and when you are. There are things you find that give you more information and the deeper and deeper you go. But again, this is five acts, between four and six hours. This is a long-play experience. You could run through and have a particular experience, but if you dig deeper, it adds to the context of the story that you’re in.
GamesBeat: This awareness that you’re in something artificial — it’s obvious to the audience and the player. But to the characters, is this a challenge, to constantly try to get outside of what you’re supposed to be doing?
Foshko: The VR experience itself, yeah.
GamesBeat: That’s what I like about the show. It’s aware of whatever tropes are happening on the basic level, and then it pulls you out of that. It lets you see it in some different way.
Clark: That’s one of the things — given that it’s a story about storytelling, you can lay down — the relationship between Kate the victim and Hank the killer is a very straightforward trope. We’ve seen that countless times. But then we’re able to use that as a launching point. Rather than telling that story, that’s taken as a given, and then we can tell a much more elaborate story about that relationship and that purpose and why they are.
Foshko: That also throws into sharp relief the nature of the narrative designers who created that story. Even they talk about it. One guy is a bit more of a hack about it. “A serial killer, that’ll be great.” The other guy says, “No, this is terrible; it’s schlocky.” But she believes in the character in terms of what she could be. Similarly, the fact that they have made other hosts, not just Kate, a victim to start, and then this other character is cast to kill her repeatedly — it does speak a lot to human nature and to these particular characters besides.
This actually takes place during the uprising. It’s all thrown into sharp relief when the status quo is upset. She now has sentience. She’s breaking out of her loop. Now she has control for the first time, really. She actually has to regain an understanding of who she is. We’re on that adventure and we’re driving that as well, driving that journey. It is about empowerment when you get down to it. The show is about power and who has power in so many different ways. Who’s driving the boat?
A lot of it is then self-direction. To take a step back from it, obviously, we are self-directing, because we’re inhabiting her. But she’s taking those steps for the first time and we’re seeing that for the first time. We’re marrying those two things pretty close together.
GamesBeat: How is this a sort of VR 2.0 experience? If you guys had started a few years ago and gone down that road and finished whatever it was, it would have been an early VR experience, the kind that people don’t make so much anymore. Brief things that transport you somewhere else, but that’s all they do. You’re graduating from there and going into a deeper, longer storytelling experience. What are the advantages that you see in doing this now that it’s a more mature medium?
Clark: At Survios we’ve built a lot of different technologies to help build and navigate worlds in virtual reality. For example, we have our fluid locomotion system that we created for Sprint Vector to solve nausea and a lot of the VR sickness issues people have. That becomes the basis of how you’re going to navigate, because this is a game where you’re going to move through Westworld. Years ago, moving through a space of your own volition was actually considered a big risk. Now it’s something that I think you can take for granted.
One of the things we discovered is that the physicality, even if it’s not one to one, just having a physical motion that moves you around greatly reduces that. That’s one of the things we’ve done to make the game approachable to all Westworld fans, not just Westworld fans who are deeply already embedded in VR. We’re at a point now where we can tell long-form stories. We can move through spaces. We can do all these things that are part of the dream of VR, things that years ago, with that original experience, still weren’t figured out. They were new frontiers, and now we’ve conquered those frontiers. We’re looking at these greater aesthetic and narrative goals. How do we tell a compelling story, a five-act story, in VR? Rather than just putting you in a room in that story.
Foshko: Similarly, as I said, I come out of the triple-A space. We’ve been trying to tell stories in video games since forever. It could be five hours or 100 hours. But very often the integration, the true integration of story with that experience doesn’t always happen. The visuals can be pretty and the characters can be well-written, but when you get down to it it’s about the game and what you’re doing with it, whether it’s Call of Duty or anything else.
In this particular case, there’s a unique opportunity where the technology can fade into the background. As significant as it is, it becomes more transparent as it becomes more powerful. We can then transport people into situations that, experientially, deliver emotionally. They’re emotionally inductive. But the thing about that, then, as a natural storyteller — that’s what appeals to me — it’s great when you have that moment, but what’s the moment that sets it up? What’s the moment that it builds to, that’s next? How does it continue to build? How does it change? How does it climax?
Now you’re talking about a sequence. Now we’re in the area of, if nothing else, almost episodic television. If you can put somebody in a moment and sell them that moment in that space, and sell them the preceding moment, and the moment that follows, then what you want to do is tell them something. You want to involve them in a story that raises their expectations, and maybe subverts and changes their expectations, but ultimately delivers on that in an exciting way as a series of beats. That’s a longer story.
I think we respond to that. The more the technology becomes transparent and the experience becomes more permeable and easily adaptable, the more that your mind and your senses are open to then be brought into a story. We follow a lot of the same rules when we beat out this particular story. We have it up on the board. We put a writers’ room in Survios. We treated it like we would in television. We broke it up, but then we bonded the emotional beats of the experience with the physical beats of what you’re doing in gameplay. We married them in such a way that you would be taken on a journey–I could say it’s symbiotic, if not just matched.
It was critically important to follow those rules. Naturally we’re used to those rhythms. Again, we weren’t just telling a story about having people talk at you. It was about all the little cues you pick up along the way. You walk around a corner, look in a direction, and look back, you’re going to take information with you that may actually help to reinforce the story that you’re involved in.