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 wasn’t happy with its earlier efforts, and it brought aboard Survios, 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 characters.
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 adult fantasy 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, director of story and narrative design at HBO, and Michael Patrick Clark, 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 Jon 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 one. This takes place in parallel to season two. 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 two 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 two. 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 two?
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 two.
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.
Having those little pieces, those little appetizers, as we did once upon a time, that was really interesting. They sell the idea. They sell the concept. They sell the what-ifs of it. But really, as we’re becoming more mature storytellers and we’re telling more mature stories–we have three generations of people who are used to interactive. Maybe not VR necessarily. But there’s the promise of VR and then what we can actually deliver. I think people are hungry for interesting experience. They’re hungry for stories. It seems a no-brainer to say that we’re going to double down on story and character, and then put it into a very approachable method of telling that story. That’s the road we’re headed down.
GamesBeat: Is some of the experience a bit like Alien: Isolation? Where you’re constantly hiding from something.
Clark: We don’t fit cleanly into any one particular sort of game, but Isolation is definitely–there’s that same sense of fear and hiding and evasion, as opposed to a stealth game like Metal Gear Solid or whatever. That’s what our evasion gameplay plays into. Definitely the notion of being pursued by a stalker that you cannot meaningfully stop–you need flight rather than fight instincts. That’s definitely a good genre touchpoint.
GamesBeat: Why do you think that works well here instead of the opposite, something more like a shooter?
Clark: Having a gun–it’s an incredibly powerful weapon. It’s incredibly empowering. We wanted to tell a story of agency lost and agency regained, power regained. To give you a gun creates a tremendous ludonarrative dissonance. Why do I feel fear when I’m packing heat? Instead, by forcing you to have to survive without that firepower agency, we can tell that story of how you regain power without direct violence, without these sorts of traditional gaming conceits. We wanted to make something that wasn’t just a shooter.
Foshko: There are other characters in this universe who have guns, and they don’t all do well. There are other things coming into play.
GamesBeat: I think we’re getting to why this is a story better told in VR than a regular video game, a 50-level PlayStation 4 game.
Foshko: It’s not a shoot-’em-up. We’re telling a story that–we’ve played this thing a bunch of different times and I still get surprised. We had a writers’ room. We played it often. The tight loops that we had between the writers and the different departments, that was extremely important. We didn’t just hire a writer and hope for the best, as sometimes happens, and then engineers deal with it or they don’t. This was a highly collaborative process. Kilter Films was involved. We had a writer from Kilter. We were involved. We would work very closely with the departments.
With all the playing and all the trying to tune things to where the actual scenes and moments would play out, I can put it on and walk in and still get surprised by certain things. It’s really effective, because I look behind me. I can look above me. You can do all these things. You’re literally enveloped in it, as opposed to–I’ve played a bunch of games, and I’m always looking at two-dimensional panel in front of me. There’s always that separation. There’s so little of that here.
You do forget, after a while–yes, you’re doing this, but it fades away. You really aren’t thinking about it. The more you engage with things–Kate is relying on her newly-established wits. We’re doing the same thing in this environment. It’s a very synonymous sort of journey. But quickly that fades away and you’re focused on the sense of where you are. You’re in these moments. I’ve never experienced that fully. I always felt like I would see myself playing the shoot-’em-up du jour.
This is something where you’re thinking. You’re not just relying on targeting or running and gunning with a weapon. You’re literally thinking, where am I? What am I doing? You need to rely on your wits and the things in front of you. That makes me super open to the environment. It causes me to think. It engages me in a way which is very unusual. This is a very interesting and unique situation, one that had to be done in VR. It’s a very intimate and personal story, told in a very intimate and personal way.
GamesBeat: I don’t know if this is a parallel, or if it’s just apocryphal, but I heard this story that Lionsgate has never done a Hunger Games video game because the author felt like it was a commentary on violence in society.
Foshko: Yeah, it would celebrate it in some ways. I have heard this.
GamesBeat: She didn’t just want to turn it over to game makers, traditional video game makers. I wonder if there’s an ethic here as well, in a sense that–in normal video games, you just create characters are objects, that can or can’t be killed, maybe. The show is one of these that steps back and analyzes whether you should do this or not, treat these things as things or treat them as humans. It seems like there’s an ethic here, that you want people to think about this.
Clark: Absolutely. The hosts in the Westworld mythos are video game NPCs. A lot of the attraction and the horror of these situations is, what if all those video game NPCs that you were mindlessly mowing down–what if they were people with hopes and dreams and desires and lives? Yes, that’s definitely the ethos. We didn’t want to reduce this to a more basic sort of video game thing. We wanted to build a relationship with these characters.
Being in a world, contextually, where you’re never broken out by the necessities of a video game–if you’re solving a puzzle while you’re being stalked by Hank and you’re trying to bypass a door in the shadows of the lab and get to safety, you’re not doing that by disconnecting from the world and diving into the puzzle interface, changing your sense of how you manipulate things. You’re doing this with your physical hands. You’re touching things, pulling levers, wiring things. You do that intuitively. You do that while you can look over your shoulder and think, “Oh, no” when you hear footsteps behind you.
Foshko: It’s very far away from regular video gaming. Also, there are other dangers. We talk about Hank, but there’s a lot more in Westworld that’s much more of a problem. There are other dangers, other stuff as well. You constantly have to be concerned. Nobody wants a host that’s a sentient being. There’s a lot of motivation. It seemed like these were the right things to bring together to make this kind of story for this kind of product.
GamesBeat: VR controls maybe still haven’t gotten to a point where they’re super precise, the way you might like them to be, like with a traditional game controller. Did that cause you to design this in a different way as well? I can’t imagine that you can do some things really rapid-fire in this environment.
Clark: There are times where you’re moving through the environment, avoiding people, and you need to either move stealthily or quickly as you’re crossing an open area or whatever. We’re not overtaxing the player. The goal here is not to make this be an experience that requires tremendous feats of agility. The goal is to have a continual tension, a continual risk, and a challenge in front of the player, but not one that’s requesting Street Fighter-style pattern recognition and reflexes or whatever.
It’s not so much the technology so much as it’s the ethos of the game. It’s not one that’s going to require immediate, perfect execution on the player’s technical level. I feel like that would introduce a barrier between the emotional connection to what’s going on and what the player’s doing, if you suddenly have to perform extremely precise movements or inputs to solve something.
Foshko: Also, as we were saying earlier, multiple generations are familiar with interactive, but–this should be fun and challenging for people who play games with some regularity, but the people who like Westworld, who aren’t the most precise people in the world, who aren’t perfectly comfortable with shooter action, they should be able to pick this up, put it on, and engage with the story and characters in a way that’s like their own lives. You still have to coordinate and do different things, but in a way that’s very natural and organic. They should be able to take to it, as Michael said, while keeping that tension, which I think it does provide. But not having to feel like they’ve had to train for a long time to be good at something and compete with a system that, like with most games, is always against you.
Delos is against you. Westworld is against you, because of who your character is and who you are. That’s enough of a challenge. You really are engaging with it in a very organic way. But we want the majority of people to be able to play this.