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The Movies, Books, and Video Games That Influenced 'Westworld'

Sunday is the season finale, but these movies, books, and video games will help tide you over until season two.
A screenshot from 'Red Dead Redemption'

"Are you serious?—do you really believe a machine thinks?" This is the opening of Ambrose Bierce's 1899 short story "Moxon's Master," about a chess-playing robot who murders its master. While written more than 100 years ago, Bierce's story contains some of the core elements of robot fiction—debates about what makes consciousness, egotistical inventors, and deadly robot rebellions—that are still used today in HBO's hit drama Westworld. As a show that takes place in a robotic amusement park, Westworld is a story about stories, and as such it's deeply conscious of the genres that it operates in. The show comments both on how stories engage fans—"They come back because of the subtleties, the details," theme-park mastermind Dr. Ford (Anthony Hopkins) says—and consciously plays with the genres of science fiction and Westerns that the show inhabits.


Westworld's season finale airs this Sunday, but if you are itching to read, watch, or play in similar worlds, here are some works that you should check out:

'Blade Runner,' adapted from Philip K. Dick's novel 'Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?' Photo courtesy of Warner Brothers


In addition to Bierce's "Moxon's Master," one of the most important early depictions of robots is weird horror master E.T A. Hoffmann's "The Sandman." Published even earlier, in 1816, the story features people falling in love with an automaton (a sort of early robot) as well as plenty of horror and twists. The story is so powerfully unnerving that Sigmund Freud discussed it at length in his essay "The Uncanny."

Philip K. Dick's entire catalog is invested in how technology affects our sense of reality, consciousness, and freedom, so almost any of his books could be mentioned here. But the obvious influence is Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the influential 1968 novel about a bounty hunter who retires android "replicants" who are almost indistinguishable from humans. Like Westworld, Dick's novel (and Ridley Scott's film adaptation, Blade Runner) wants to you to question what it is that makes us human and what it means that we are so inhuman to other beings.

Another book that fans of the show should read is How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu. Yu's novel about a time-travel technician searching for his father shares Westworld's interest in memories and meta-fictional commentary on the nature of genre and stories. It also shares a writer, as Yu works on the show and co-wrote one of the best episodes, "Trace Decay" (that's the episode where Maeve hilariously rewrites the action of the park after her brain upgrade).


In addition to being a science fiction show, Westworld is a blood-soaked Western, and there's no more influential work of violent Western than Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian. There's nothing sci-fi about McCarthy's horrifying (if gorgeously written) examination of American violence, but it is so gruesome and uncompromising, it makes Dr. Ford's bloody Wyatt narrative look like a children's cartoon.

A screenshot from 'Red Dead Redemption'

Video Games

The actual park of Westworld functions like a role-playing game. The guests interact mostly with "non-player characters" in pre-written scripts who send them on side quests and other adventures. As such, it isn't a surprise that open-ended video games like Grand Theft Auto and Skyrim are some of the biggest influences on the show. Probably the two biggest ones, though, are Bioshock and Red Dead Redemption.

Red Dead Redemption is a bloody 2010 Western game where you play a gunslinger in a world of murderous gangs, brothels, and beautiful vistas. Like the park in the show, this game is open-world and players can travel wherever and do whatever they want. If you wish that you yourself could visit Westworld, playing Red Dead Redemption is probably as close as you can get.

The creators have also said that the Bioshock series—specifically, Bioshock Infinite, which takes place in a floating steampunk city—was an influence. Series co-creator Jonathan Nolan called the games "the most literate and thoughtful pieces of entertainment that I've seen in the last ten years." The series has mostly been inspiring in an indirect way, though. At that same Comic Con panel, Nolan talked about the sad fate of the game's AI characters in a way that clearly influenced the Westworld's focus on the tragic lives of the robot characters who are thoughtlessly murdered every day by the guests:


"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."

Films and TV

Westworld itself is a reboot of Michael Crichton's 1973 movie of the same name. The original, written and directed by Crichton (it was his feature film debut), is more comedic and straightforward, but also features an amusement park for rich people to shoot and fuck robots… that goes horribly awry. The film is worth watching for Yul Brynner's rampaging robot gunslinger alone ("It was my best role," Stephen Malkmus sings from the point-of-view of Brynner in the song "Jo Jo's Jacket"). Crichton, of course, recycled this conceit for the more famous Jurassic Park, which is another obvious influence.

Last year's Ex Machina shares a lot of DNA with Westworld, and is a must-watch for any fans of the show. Both feature conceited inventors who create near-perfect humanoid robots, but insist on keeping them under their control. Ex Machina is also as gorgeous and moody as anything Westworld has done.

A scene from 'Ex Machina.' Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures

Westworld recently revealed that one of its main characters was secretly a robot. The move was shocking to some, but no show holds a candle to Battlestar Galactica in the secret robot reveal front (for better or worse). The 2004 show, itself a reboot of a 1970s show of the same name, takes place in a future where realistic robots called Cylons are at war with the last remnants of the human race. Not all of Battlestar Galactica's many mysteries and twists fully succeed, but the show features plenty of brilliant moments and, like Westworld, is invested in the consequences of creating artificial life and the moral choices that life forces on the characters.

As an HBO Western, Westworld has a lot of the look and feel of Deadwood. Both shows also feature a mostly lawless frontier where people can create a new identity for themselves. Deadwood sometimes gets overlooked in favor of two other HBO shows that overlapped it: The Sopranos and The Wire. However, David Milch's profanity-filled Western easily holds up alongside those rightfully acclaimed shows.

Sunday's finale will bring Westworld's excellent first season to a close, but these movies, books, and video games can help tide you over until season two airs next year.

Follow Lincoln Michel on Twitter.