This post contains spoilers through Westworld's sixth episode, "The Adversary." Head to Westworld World, our hub for recaps, theories, interviews, and deep dives.
If you watch Westworld, you've probably had a conversation about how the show compares to video games. TV critics, fans, and the creators themselves have cited the violent, morally ambiguous narratives of BioShock, Red Dead Redemption, and Grand Theft Auto in discussing the "open-world" adventures of the button-mashing viewer surrogate the Man in Black, who has been dubbed both "a video game nerd" and a "classic bad gamer." But "The Adversary" posed a different, trickier question: What if the hosts are actually Sims?
Compared to the pampered guests, the hosts have always had it rough. Whether it's following a budding heroine like Dolores or canon fodder like Teddy, the show consistently demands you consider the inner lives of loop-repeating, quest-guiding characters who are normally cast off to the margins of most games. By focusing on the increasingly self-conscious, bird-loving Maeve, the sixth episode explored how it might feel for a video-game stooge to become self-aware. It's like a Mario game that demands you take seriously the plight of a Goomba. Or it's like really thinking about the potential humanity of a Sim.
You remember the enormously popular life-simulation game The Sims, right? You probably created a Sim at some point. Maybe had your William-like Sim work hard and earn a promotion -- or maybe, if you're more of a Logan, you placed your Sim in a pool, removed the ladders, and had it swim to its death. Either way, the classic game provides an interesting lens to look at Westworld's vision of how artificial personalities are created, codified, and maintained -- and then messed with.
Decoding the Attribute Matrix
When Maeve wakes up on the cold steel bed of the robot chop-shop manned by the sympathetic Felix (Leonardo Nam) and the loathsome Sylvester (Ptolemy Slocum), she gets a quick primer on her own programming. In one of the episode's most chilling scenes, Maeve looks under her own hood, and the exposure to her own language patterns, which combine basic scripted responses and some improvisation, are displayed on a tablet right in front of her. Seeing the cognitive limits of her own software, she blacks out and short-circuits. Like when you have too many tabs open and your browser crashes.
After she reboots and fends off Sylvester's attempts to expose her, Maeve takes a rather maudlin, Radiohead-soundtracked tour of the park's backstage facilities. But for anyone who ever played The Sims or designed an inordinately gifted three-point shooter in an NBA game, the best part of the episode came when she gets a glimpse at her own "attribute matrix," yet another fun example of the level of detail applied to everything we see on Westworld.
"It's your personality on a 20-point scale," explains Felix. "Like, coordination: if you've got a 5 that means you're clumsy as hell. But if you got a 15 that means you're an athlete." As Maeve marvels at the map on the tablet in front of her, Sylvester chimes in to let her know she's got an 18 for charm. (Side note: Sylvester definitely has zero charm points -- at one point in this episode he utters the words, "What the fuck, ding-dong?" Who says that?)
Maeve is quickly gripped with the same impulse that many gamers have felt at one time or another: She wants to level up. Is this cheating? Sure, but this is Westworld. From Ford's android-freezing sleight-of-hand tricks to the Man in Black's bulletproof quest for the maze, everyone who has any power in this game has learned to manipulate the "rules" of the world. Maeve is ready to max out. She's about to become the most powerful Sim in Westworld.
So, wait, is Maeve a Sim?
In the first version of The Sims released in 2000, each user-created character (or "Sim") was given 25 personality points to distribute across five benevolent-sounding qualities: neatness, outgoingness, activeness, playfulness, and niceness. In the first two versions of the game, the way you doled out your points was often correlated with your Sim's zodiac sign, giving the game an astrological edge. A Gemini, for example, had seven "outgoing" points. A Virgo would have nine "neat" points. As the game evolved and the third iteration was introduced in 2009, the personality section was replaced with a more advanced "traits" system, which incorporated likes and dislikes, but the core idea of restriction remained: There was always a limit to how many traits or points your Sim could have. Your gifts must be balanced with flaws.
There was always a certain amount of self-diagnosing wish-fulfillment involved in assigning personality points to your Sim. For example, I never understood the value in having a "neat" Sim -- it's a video game, so I'm not going to smell the rotting pizza it would inevitably leave around my charming colonial home -- but I wanted an "outgoing" and "nice" Sim who would be able to make friends with other Sims in my neighborhood. I craved Sim friends to party with, especially because I was saving up for a hot tub to put in my living room.
Systems like The Sims' point distribution or the "attribute matrix" that we see in this episode, with its categories for "courage," "sensuality," and "patience," are both appealing and disturbing as science-fiction concepts. But they're also intriguing psychological thought experiments: People pretty much always want to see the complexity of human behavior boiled down to a number. Think of any personality trait quiz you've ever taken online -- or, to push this to an even bleaker place, consider the ways people use their Twitter follower count or their number of Facebook friends as a measurement of self-worth. The Sims gave you the opportunity to quantify identity long before social media. Plus, with cheat codes, you could easily be the coolest Sim in town. You didn't even need the hot tub.
Westworld explores something darker: What happens to the entity that undergoes that type of personality manipulation? What kind of pain would that inflict? What's the mental toll? Within the world of the show, it appears that someone (Arnold? Ford?) has been making unapproved modifications to the hosts in the park, juking their stats for mysterious reasons. It certainly seemed like Teddy upped his Gatling-gun skills, mowing down a field of soldiers with ease, and Dolores has also shown improvements as a markswoman.
But Maeve is after something more cerebral. She's chasing that Lucy or Limitless myth of using previously untapped sections of your brain. But, as these stories always force us to ask, at what price?
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