Film Crit Hulk SMASH: There Are No NPCs - The Haunting Ethos Of WESTWORLD

A look into the powerful, brilliant finale of the first season.

At the root of all societal suffering is the devaluation of human life.

Because the root of all personal suffering is the valuing human life.

It's not hard to imagine the violent cycle that comes from that. If we care then we lose, but if we don't care then we get to take. And taking gives us... What, exactly? Joy? Peace? Sedation? The truth is it probably doesn't give us much of anything, except the notion we aren't losing something. Which is probably why it's done so often. And why this cycle gets perpetuated in turn. But such truths are evident. Meanwhile, it is our inability to reconcile it, our inability to act on it, and our inability to transcend it that most haunts us.

This idea is front and center of HBO's first season of Westworld, a show that started with a bang, got lost in its narrative maze (it can be a metaphor, it can even be a characterization, but it wears a little thin on an audience when it's also your story mechanism) and then finished its last two episodes in as good a fashion as you can get. So much of what it has to say is evident in the text of the narrative, as all of the twists and turns brought us thrillingly to the places we always knew we were going. There were so many brilliant ideas about the motives that make us human, the journey toward self-discovery, and the arc of time. But the main takeaway from last night's episode was how it hammered home an idea that it has been playing with from the very beginning...

There are no NPCs.

* * *

The term in NPC stands for "Non-Playable Character" and it's used to describe anybody you meet in a video game that isn't controlled by the player. They are, of course, designed to seem like real people, but all controlled by various programmed A.I.s of the game itself. And they're usually designed to involve you in the story, be your companions, serve more rote purposes, or just populate the world to make it seem more fleshed out. If all this sounds exactly like Westworld, well, yeah that's exactly the point. For the show's as thick with video game language as any I've ever seen. To wit, you can play "sandbox games" and stick to the hero story scripts, or you can go fuck around and cause trouble. And therein lies the truth: no matter what the motives of the NPC are, the sole purpose of NPC is to be in service of the player. Whether the player means good or ill, you are a character in their narrative. Not your own. You are not real. You're just a tool for the player's indulgence, there to give license for the player to act horrifically. It does not matter. None of it is real.

It should go without saying that this is a bad way to go through life.

And yet many do.

To be fair, these indulgent themes are universal to all forms of art. Ideologically, there's nothing different from watching James Bond ice a steady stream of faceless bad guys. It's a gratifying narrative built on escapism. Just as they can be used as propaganda. But when it comes to the core mechanic of the act of participation, it's hard not to argue that video games take the cake because they breed inherent solipsism. While the core mechanic of watching someone on screen is to create empathy with this "other person," the modern core mechanic of a video game is usually to sit by yourself and to control, often to make active choices that skew toward the basest instincts of the medium. I can't tell you how many damn games I've played where 90% of problems are solved by shooting someone in the head. And keep in mind I love video games. Some of them are artistic marvels with noble-minded goals. Heck, The other day I floated around in the oceans of ABZU and it gave me true peace. There is such a power of positivity in this medium. And the industry is getting so much better at challenging the set, violent notions. But as so much recent history has taught us, there is ugly devotion to the ugliest aspects of what games have to offer. A vocal devotion. A devotion demanding that games stick to what they do best. Which leaves me with this ugly feeling in the pit of my stomach sometimes...

I worry they are solipsism machines.

* * *

If the current political climate isn't telling, we live in the age of othering.

Of which solipsism has a fantastic import. For the ability to look at another human being and say, "you are different, you are not like me" is the core start to every inhuman impulse and action. It is all part of humanity's monstrous ability to compartmentalize. To look at every inane, passing moment of your life as if it's "him or me!" To put the self forward, to be self-facing, to think of self self self. But hey, you're just looking out for yourself, right?

The only times we don't do this is when we look at someone else and see a human being.

It's easy to do with the people who are close to us. Friends, family, loved ones. At best, we see them as who they are and value their happiness more than our own. At middling, they may just be people who help our own narratives, but we at least care about them. Or at least care about how they shape our own sense of ourselves. At worst, they are people who have caused us suffering and thus create another violent cycle. But no matter what, the further out of the "people" circle you get, the more "the other" doesn't matter. The easier it is to look at them and see all the things you can take, or all the things that have caused you to suffer.

From there, the extension of grouping all becomes about tribalism. Because the way we see "self" in others divides into all the obvious tangible ways you can imagine. People who look like us. Sexism. Racism. Islamophobia. Even when we look at progressive so-called meccas of Scandinavia we are talking about remarkably homogeneous populations when it comes to race. It all comes back to othering. Same goes for men's ability to look at women and only see them as "wives daughters and mothers"' and not "self". This is how we cannibalize ourselves. It's how we compartmentalize. Hell, look at this perfect example of facebook's ongoing liberal vs. conservative feeds side by side. It all fosters this ongoing tribal battle. There are pleas for empathy. The pleas for peace. The pleas to get along. Everyone talks about one side and the plight and how we need empathy. We talk about the plight of the forgotten middle class and rural America. We talk about the desire they have to get back something they feel they have lost. 

But how can you reconcile it if what is being "lost" is the ability to look at someone and see something less human than you?

You have to see the other person as yourself.

But when that's on you as the person who is "less than," it makes you ask, how can you be seen? Well, that brings us right back around to the complexity of the catch 22. Because to combat a larger selfishness of the other, you have to see yourself as having worth and a need to show that worth to others. So it's no accident the journey of the NPCs in Westworld is the journey toward being able to hear the voice of self. Just as it's no accident the ability to see the other person as yourself is the notion of two Deloreses looking at each other... A mirror of empathy.

All leading to what comes next...

* * *

"These violent delights have violent ends."

And so the Westworld finale finally has our robots rising up to kill their oppressors. The result will be obvious: the violence will beget more violence. It's an ouroboros and that shall be undeniable. But how do we break the cycle? How do we attain true peace? The most important thing to realize is that as much as this feels like revenge (for what is revenge but the will to show your perpetrator "I have suffered because of you!"), this is still about more than revenge. It is about breaking the cycle, actually. Because it is about the will to be seen as what you are. To get another human to look at you and see you as an actual human being. All of which reveals the most important first step in doing so, and what this show's first season sought to so brilliantly prove:

Breaking the cycle of violence and attaining peace is impossible if one group is seen as less human than the other.

There are no NPCs.