Are We Living In A Simulation? How VR And Gamer Culture Inspire Westworld’s Writers

If you meet Westworld co-writer Jonathan Nolan at a party, don’t ask him if he thinks we’re all living in a simulation. “I get tired of that question fairly easily because in a sufficiently robust simulation there’d be no way of answering of course,” he explained in a recent interview with IGN.

His 10-episode sci fi/western mashup, which will premiere on HBO Canada this Sunday, is executive produced by JJ Abrams. Husband and wife team Nolan and Lisa Joy (Burn Notice) both write and produce. A spinoff of the 1973 Michael Crichton movie which starred Yul Brynner and James Brolin, Nolan says that their modern adaptation of the original is inspired by his interest in video games and VR.


“The idea that our lives could be programmatic, that there could be rules at play that we don’t understand, is something I’ve long been fascinated by—and so is the idea of fate and the idea of an unseen hand that’s guiding events,” Nolan told IGN. “I was a gamer back in the day, and I think that was the other aspect of what drew me to the original concept, was the idea of life ever more beginning to resemble a game. That with enough wealth and sufficient technological advancement that you could get to a point where you live, as a lot of people do, a significant portion of your life in a fantasy universe, whether it’s World of Warcraft or the new VR games that are just coming out… Real life resists narrative through lines. There aren’t hidden levels. There’s just f@#king chaos. But in the game universe there are always deeper levels of meaning. So for us it was like a candy store. There were all these ideas that we wanted to play with in one series.”

The factions that populate Westworld’s robot-run theme park setting are divided into three sets: the guests, the programmers, and the robots themselves. The series will launch with a look at the park from one of the robot’s (played by Evan Rachel Wood) point of view. Anthony Hopkins, Jeffrey Wright, Ed Harris, Thandie Newton, and James Marsden round out the impressive cast, in updated roles designed to turn sci fi and western tropes on their heads. “Not only did we subvert the sci-fi concept by not starting from the human perspective,” says Joy, “but we also subverted the western genre, by not just focusing on the most notable western archetypes but by looking at the women there and people of colour.”


But fans of the movie can expect to see at least one subtle tip of the hat to the original—a reference to an event that took place decades ago. “This is a place with its own history and that sense of history within this place is very important to the story we’re telling,” said Nolan. “This is a labour of love for Hopkins’ character. He’s been there for decades and parts of our story are told in flashback. It was really about establishing a sense that this place is an ongoing cultural institution, with a playful nod toward the movie.”

Westworld premieres this Sunday, October 2, at 9pm ET on HBO Canada. Watch the latest promo below: