How BioShock Infinite Helped Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy Create Westworld

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Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, gamers. Photo: Jason LaVeris/Getty

Since its debut, more than a few critics have pointed out that HBO's Westworld acts as a kind of commentary on modern gaming. The titular theme park bears a resemblance to open-world games like Grand Theft Auto or Skyrim, in which a player can wander around at their own pace, stumbling into subplots and causing as much mayhem as they want. At a packed Westworld panel held during the final hours of New York Comic Con, an audience member asked Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, the show's husband-and-wife co-creators, how games had influenced their process.

"I used to play video games, and now we have children, so no more video games for me," Nolan replied, drawing laughs from the crowd. He pointed out that the late Michael Crichton, who wrote and directed the original Westworld movie in 1973, couldn't have anticipated the way his concept would dovetail with video games, given that Pong had only been invented a year earlier. Nolan and Joy dove into the world of modern games to get a sense of what they could draw from it.

"By the way, how happy was my husband to be like, 'Honey, it's research! You have to play Red Dead Redemption with me!'" Joy recalled.

Nolan said she didn't take to the games as much as he did. "I'm happy to report that my wife is the world's most boring Grand Theft Auto player," he said. "I've never seen anyone who actually obeyed the traffic signals. She's like, 'Can I help her across the street?'"

"The city looks beautiful, if you just slow it down and take your time!" Joy countered. "A lot of work that went into it; it's gorgeous!"

That last sentiment, as it turned out, was one of the most important things Nolan learned from his gaming research. He segued into a story about playing the acclaimed 2013 open-world game BioShock Infinite with its creator, Ken Levine. It was the third installment in the BioShock series, a franchise known for its immersive world-building and elaborate construction of non-playable characters, i.e. the figures that the player interacts with. Perhaps the most prominent of these characters in Infinite is Elizabeth, a woman with metahuman abilities who accompanies the lead character through his adventures.

"I was a big fan of the BioShock video games," Nolan said, "which I thought were among the most literate and thoughtful pieces of entertainment that I've seen in the last ten years." He continued:

I was [with] Ken Levine, the designer of those games, talking about the non-player characters — Elizabeth, specifically, in BioShock Infinite. In a scene, I think I had just run through and shot everyone and kept going. And he was talking about how much craft had gone into all the conversations that the non-player characters had, and all their dreams and aspirations. And I just thought, Oh, isn't that tragic? Isn't that sad? And the player just ignores it all. The bastards.

In other words: If Westworld's robot-glitching plot seems a little too abstract for you, just imagine everyone you've ever shot or stabbed in a video game suddenly coming back to life, stepping out of your screen, and deciding it's time for vengeance. Lord help us all.