Immersive Theatre and Westworld, Part Three: Character
This article is the third in a series of four. I recommend starting with Part One.
The hosts in Westworld are essentially actors playing characters. Their acting and improvisation choices are codified as… well, code. There are teams of programmers who work in the Behaviour department of Westworld to manage how the hosts act, tweaking variables to adjust anything from the smallest mannerism to entire personality traits. Some of this programming is made explicit in the show, which allows us to see some of the principles governing the way that hosts improvise in response to audience choices.
For starters, each character’s personality is designed by the Narrative and Behaviour departments of the theme park staff. This takes the form of dozens of character traits, like Candour, Vivacity, Coordination, Cruelty, Self-preservation, Patience, and so on, each of which is given a value out of 20. Together, these attributes are known as the character’s Attribute Matrix which, as Felix says in Episode 6, is “all the things that make you you . . . Like Coordination, [if] you got a five, you’re clumsy as hell, but a fifteen means you’re an athlete.” If you’ve played a roleplaying game like Dungeons and Dragons, you might recognise these as being similar to attributes like Strength, Dexterity or Wisdom.
These sorts of parameters help govern how a character will respond in a given situation. For instance, the host character Maeve (Thandiwe Newton) has a Patience score of 3/20, so if an audience member tries to tell her a long and boring story, she’s going to be unlikely to sit and hear them out. But she also has a Charm of 18, so it’s unlikely the audience member is going to be annoyed if she interrupts them. And it’s this sort of interplay of multiple, sometimes competing, personality traits that allows for rich, realistic improvisation. Playing a character that’s ‘rude’ or ‘boring’ is much less compelling than someone who’s simultaneously meek, curious, candid and cruel.
Now of course, even the most technically-minded actor is unlikely to complete a 20-point character matrix like this as part of their process. However, it’s a useful way to think about creating rich characters, given that multifaceted personalities will lead to multifaceted improvisations. Giving characters this kind of depth gives your actors a stronger foundation to improvise from — they might know their character is very moral, so they will be outraged if an audience member proposes cheating at cards. Alternatively, given that most interactive and immersive shows involve repeating the same starting points for scenes with different audience members, actors are likely to discover these more nuanced personality traits over the course of many iterations. (In Westworld we even see characters having their personalities tweaked to help enable specific audience interactions; when Maeve’s success rate at getting clients starts to dip, her aggression is dialled up.) As we saw in Part Two, this kind of iterative refinement is one of the many important reasons for playtesting¹ a show with practice audience members before it properly opens.
To support the Attribute Matrix, characters in Westworld are also given a backstory, sometimes a summary of their life to date (Maeve came to ‘The New World’ from England), and sometimes simply a handful of specific ‘memories’ from the character’s past. On the surface, these memories provide characters with anecdotes to flesh out their conversation. But as Elsie (Shannon Woodward) says in Episode 3, backstories “do more than amuse the guests, they anchor the hosts. It’s their cornerstone. The rest of their identity is built around it, layer by layer.” Some of these backstories are very specific and detailed, which we see as flashbacks, and some are very roughly sketched out (for instance Teddy, whose backstory is described simply as ‘a formless guilt he’ll never atone for’).
By anchoring the hosts in this past, it also provides added depth and immersion for audiences — this character doesn’t just live in the one room, waiting for you to come in and talk to them and start the story. The story of this world has already started, and the audience happens to come in during an important part of it. Westworld founder Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins) describes how these two aspects of backstories work together:
“Every host needs a backstory . . . The self is a kind of fiction, for hosts and humans alike. It’s a story we tell ourselves. And every story needs a beginning. Your imagined suffering makes you lifelike.”
– Season 1, Episode 8, “Trace Decay”
If backstories are the character’s past, then goals are the character’s future. Each character has long-term goals that they’re working towards. Some are abstract or internal (Teddy wants to atone for his sins and settle down with Dolores, Dolores wants to escape and see the world). Some are more direct — Sweetwater’s “Most Wanted” bandit, Hector (Rodrigo Santoro), wants to steal the safe in the Saloon.²
Within each of these long-term goals, the characters are also given medium-term goals, steps towards achieving that goal, and short-term goals, played from moment to moment. Again, in the show these are all programmed as code, or at least, represented as code, with short-term goals nested within medium-term goals. We see a sample of how these goals interact in Episode 10, and it includes short-term goals like DECEIVE, BYPASS, INFILTRATE.
The hosts are also given micro-strategies to help achieve these short-term goals. In Episode 3, Dolores asks Bernard a question about his son. He replies by asking her, out of character, why she brought that up. She replies “I haven’t asked you a personal question. Personal questions are an ingratiating scheme.” The hosts are constantly making decisions about the best way to achieve their goals (short, medium or long term), filtered through their personality, based on their backstory, and have a wealth of tools at their disposal to achieve that..
These different levels of goals are quite clearly based on acting theorist Konstantin Stanislavski’s ideas of the action, the objective, and the superobjective. The superobjective is the character’s overall goal, the objective is what a character wants in a particular scene or situation, and their actions are the things they do to try achieving these goals. Although these theories were initially developed as a tool of analysing scripted theatre, giving actors these layers of goals is also very effective in improvised (or semi-scripted, or loosely scored) shows, as it helps provide a structure for a scene and for the actor, without the established structure of scripted dialogue, especially when in scenes with an audience member, who likely has little training in narrative improvisation.
All of these components (personality, backstory, goals) are crucial for both the creators and performers of improvised experiential work, as they provide depth, consistency and realism to the characters populating the world of the show. But to have all these moments, with over 2000 host characters and countless audience members both constantly improvising, still come together to form a cohesive whole, let alone a satisfying audience experience, requires some attention to the overall structure of the narrative, which we’ll look at in Part Four.
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¹ Playtesting is the process in game design of getting people to play a game before it’s finished, sometimes to find design flaws or bugs, or sometimes using a lo-fi prototype to as a proof of concept to check the basic game mechanics work before time is invested in building those mechanics. The movement to use the far-more-comprehensible term ‘testplaying’ has been largely unsuccessful.
² We later find out, of course, that the safe is actually empty. The theme park set designers knew that Hector would never achieve his goal, so there was no need to put anything in there.