Westworld, as a show, has a fair few video game-ish qualities already, with Ed Harris’s Man in Black basically treating it like playing Grand Theft Auto when you’re in a bad mood (or bored, or hungry), at one point even using a medkit that might as well be magic. And while the park exists in the physical reality of the show, it is inhabited entirely by robots – much like a warehouse is inhabited by boxes – so you could argue it’s a form of virtual reality experience, or at least you could have before the robots became sentient, broke their programming, and ran amok.
Of course, what Westworld also is, is unremittingly bleak and unpleasant. The backroom areas of the park, where the hosts are maintained and repaired, have the feel of interrogation chambers of some secret police, or a military black site where they test biological weapons. Evan Rachel Wood and Jimmi Simpson’s characters, our ostensible main protagonists for much of the first season, turned out to be a pair of evil bastards in the second. So for Westworld Mobile’s art style to be chummy cartoons, all going ‘hey buddy! Come force these sentient beings to dance for the amusement of our customers!’ feels like, to put it politely, a misstep.
Where the main interface isn’t straight-out cartoony, it’s shamelessly reaching after Fallout Shelter (“Hey Norm, this Fallout mobile thing did real well! You thinking what I’m thinking?”) with a sprinkling of Westworldian aesthetic. Given the general way Fallout is, this basically translates to anything computery being a bit less pixellated.
It is not, in strictly technical terms, a bad art style. It is, however, somewhat incongruous with the actual content. The bloodless, eyes-Xed-out form the violence takes in the game is completely at odds with the fairly lurid stuff of the show, especially since it is – like the nudity, which the game also reduces to a harmless form – meant to emphasise the dehumanising way in which the hosts are treated. Instead, it comes off like a living museum at a ghost town, where you can get candy revolvers and a plastic stetson from a little stand.
The gameplay just about merits the name. If you’ve ever played Farmville, or any other installment of the frozen, half-dead billions of click-and-wait mobile games, you’ve played this. Rather than waiting for crops to grow, this time around you’re waiting for guests to be done having their fun with the hosts (don’t worry! It’s not always using them for sex) – then, get your shiny reward, and repeat. The rest of it is, again much like Farmville, maintaining and upgrading your tools, each step of which also requires its designated waiting period.
As you progress, you unlock more instances of the same things, with different hats. The rewards come thick and fast early on, gradually diminishing as time goes by, in much the same way as scientists need less and less cheese to keep the rat running the maze. Perhaps that’s an unfair comparison, as the rats aren’t receiving regular encouragement – though via the cheese, they are at least receiving nutrition.
Speaking of running mazes and getting treats – yes, there’s the requisite shop where you can pay real money for in-game items and premium currency. The best I can say about this is the game has the dignity to not constantly harass you with subtle suggestions that you give them hard currency, as I know many similar titles do. Granted, it’s a free game, they have to make their money somewhere. And in this case, as with every game that functions in this way, they will be making their money from the small minority of people who lack the self-control not to spend far too much money on it (‘whales’, in the biz) to a level which is viewed as a genuine psychological problem.
(This is a topic which has been covered many times before as each fandom has a similar game thrust upon them. DeadHomerSociety wrote a lengthy takedown specifically through the lens of The Simpsons: Tapped Out, and South Park did an entire episode castigating ‘freemium’ games before they swallowed their pride and spat out South Park: Phone Destroyer.)
Most of your favourite robot park workers are there, to give you hints and generally pat you on the back for playing the game. And their characterisations are fairly recognisable, albeit flatter than in the show. Sizemore, in particular, is a lot less prone to pointing out shaky writing and lines that fall flat for some curious reason. However, the amount of actual verbal interaction you can have with the hosts is strictly limited, so half the cast are cut off for most of the time. This is part of my wider complaint about the hosts, which is that when they malfunction you’re forced to fix them and can’t simply let them go berserk and frighten the guests.
The title was, when it comes down to it, doomed from the start. It was never meant to stand on its own two feet in any way, it’s a tie-in to an existing media property – and, as such, the people ultimately responsible for its creation, development, and release will be seeing it in much the same way as they do Westworld: The Lunchbox. That’s not a link to where you can buy Westworld: The Lunchbox, or any other fine consumer goods, it’s an old Cracked article about the chronic problems of the gaming industry, which shows its age by not even mentioning the click-and-wait genre – but does make the strong point that the best film tie-in games typically didn’t come out alongside what they were adapting (and are like needles in a haystack), the obvious example being FPS granddaddy Goldeneye.
If nothing else, this cynical idea probably explains why it was adapted in such a simplistic way. If you wanted to do a ‘run your own Westworld’ game, then do it properly, with something in the vein of a Rollercoaster Tycoon which encouraged the player’s darker impulses – and would likely have enough scenery options to start to cover the other parks we’ve seen in the show, like Rajworld and Samuraiworld.
This is just scratching the surface of Westworld’s potential as a game, though. A GTA-esque Man in Black simulator is probably off the table, as it would be stepped on by the upcoming Red Dead Redemption 2 – by which I mean, there basically already is one. A more apt option would be some kind of atmospheric, story-driven game where the player gradually realises something’s wrong with this world, and ultimately that they’re a host – although to make it work, neither the box nor the promotional material would be able to even mention Westworld, so again, it’s unworkable for practical reasons.
The whole ‘this world is wrong’ aspect is obviously Westworld’s narrative strength – that, and the blurred lines between human and robot, and how at a glance it’s nigh-impossible to tell which is which. 2016’s slo-mo shooter Superhot, which has won several awards for VR gaming, was already hinting in the direction of both in its story mode – even if its graphics are pared down to the minimum, this didn’t detract from the strength of its narrative, which had themes similar enough that a Westworld game using a similar style would at least be interesting.
However, a better gaming parallel might be Rockstar’s one-off hardboiled detective joint LA Noire, which, like the park in Westworld, was an immaculately recreated period piece, and more importantly, had a mechanic where the player had to scrutinise the (motion-captured) facial expressions of suspects to determine their guilt. You can probably see where this is going – it’d be a series of Blade Runner-style Voigt-Kampff tests, where, in one-on-one interviews a la the Bernard/Dolores scenes from Westworld, the player had to puzzle out who’s a human and who’s a robot. You know, something that draws on and develops the ideas and themes from the original work it’s adapting.
The game we got, though, makes a lofty claim that it lets you run the park, when in reality something like the opposite is true. A world where you constantly repeat the same subroutines to keep up part of a wider narrative you have no particular control over, all to the benefit of some large, shadowy corporation – why, it’s just like being one of the hosts.