Your Westworld Logistical Questions Answered

Westworld premiered this week on HBO, and I very much enjoyed the first episode of Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy Nolan's expensive and beautiful small screen adaptation. But I was left with many questions, though not many of the plot-specific mysteries that Jacob Hall brings up in his extensive Westworld spoiler review. I'm more interested in his first question: How does this park actually operate?

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I Have a Lot of Westworld Logistical Questions

I was left wondering about the nerdy logistics of how such a "theme park" operates. Does the park shut down when it's getting refreshed? What happens to the guests during this time? Where is that backstage headquarters located? How big is this western expanse? How is it that the guns work in this park? As a Disneyland fanatic, I tend to find myself sucked into the question of how it all actually works.

When I was on the set of Jurassic World, I kept asking questions about the film's fictional theme park as if it were a real place. I loved the in-depth answers from the producers as to how the gyrospheres worked because it seemed like every piece of the park had an explanation and was engineered to work on a real level.

Jonathan Nolan, who has written some of his brother Christopher Nolan's best films, seems to keep things grounded in reality even when dealing with big complex science fiction ideas. The showrunner told us that he tends "to prefer film or TV where I'm allowed as an audience member to do some of the math myself."

At the same time, I also like stuff that's layered and dense. We knew we wanted to tell a complicated story, but we also knew from the beginning, when J.J. first approached us for the project, his suggestion had been to consider the perspectives of the hosts. We took that suggestion and ran a country mile with it, up to and including and turning inside out the entire narrative where we could.

Lisa Joy says they have thoroughly mapped out the rules of this park, although we should not expect too much of it to be spelled out in the series:

Though we don't explicitly address rules that much within the episodes, there is certainly an underlying rule set. The reason you don't explicitly address them is because we're trying to root it in the hosts' point of view and gradually come to understand how the world works with them, to be mystified by it sometimes but then to realize the underlying logic of it becomes clear.

So I'm sure they have answers to everything, some of which we may learn in this upcoming season, others which may never be directly answered on screen. I went in search for the answers through many interviews with the Westworld showrunners and here is what I found.

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How Do the Guns Work?

In Westworld, the park guests can kill the hosts with their guns, but the gunfire from the hosts seem to have very little impact on the guests. This makes sense as you wouldn't want to have your theme park attractions killing the visitors like in Michael Crichton's other creation Jurassic Park. But how do the guns work in the reality of the world within the series?

Jonathan Nolan has explained that "It's not the guns, it's the bullets."

We thought a lot about this. In the original film, the guns won't operate guest on guest, but we felt like the guests would want to have a more visceral experience here. So when they're shot it has sort of the impact. They're called simunitions. The U.S. military trains with rounds like the ones we're talking about. But there's a bit of an impact, a bit of a sting. So it's not entirely consequence-free for the guests.

So this explains why we do see a BB-gun type impact on the guests. But the real question is, what's to stop one of the hosts from taking one of the guest's guns and using the real ammo?

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What Year Is This Anyway?

Jonathan Nolan reveals in a behind-the-scenes video that the series takes place in the 21st century. But how far into the future? We don't know. Nolan told EW that the setting outside of the Westworld park is "something for the audience to discover" so I'm sure we'll find out more as the season plays out.

One character in Westworld claims he has been a customer for 30 years (he comes off like one of the many entitled Disneyland Annual Passholders, referred to by some cast members as "Passholes"), but it seems as if the park has existed for longer than that. Nolan has compared the park to Disneyland in the press, saying that he imagines that in the world of their show, "Westworld has become an institution, a place that people can come to, and they bring their kids back to."

78-year-old Anthony Hopkins plays a character named Dr. Robert Ford, the creative director, chief programmer, and founder of the park. You might think this give us some clues to the park's age. However, later in the 21st century, they may have discovered the keys to extending life, so his appearance might not be so telling. Remember, Ford says that humanity can now "cure any disease, keep even the weakest of us alive."

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Where Is Westworld Located?

We are to believe that Westworld is an actual physical place and not a virtual world. While most of the show's exteriors were shot in Castle Valley in Utah, that might not be the real setting for this fictional theme park. Joy has said "exactly where and when we are is something we're going to be exploring and revealing through the eyes of the hosts later on down the line" but that we would see the ways the park is terraformed.

Not only are the hosts and wardrobe and dialogue are designed meticulously, but also the land is also designed for the park.

Now I can't wait to see the 3D printers that turn out that huge landscape.

From that gigantic computer projection of the property, Westworld looks like an enormous, expansive place. But how big is it? We know that the world is made up of not just one town but a bunch of different towns. Sweetwater is the central town that we've been introduced to in the pilot.

Will We See the Outside World?

All this talk about the park itself makes me wonder what lies beyond the park boundaries. Is it a post-apocalyptic future? Or is it a more futuristic version of our modern society, something like Minority Report? Nolan continues to remind us in his Westworld press tour that the point is that the show is mostly limited to what the hosts understand about their world, and we don't see much beyond what they have seen:

And they don't understand much; they don't know what that outside world is, they don't know when that outside world is. They're coming to discover that. But their world has been sort of fabricated and filled with cultural references. Their dialogue features allusions and homage. That music in the saloon.

Here he's referencing the modern songs which appear in this world through a Western-era remix, but drops a mention that the hosts will discover the outside world. In the pilot, we see one of the characters interacting with a photograph which appears to be from the outside world. I'm not sure we'll see much of the outside world other than the behind-the-scenes areas of the Westworld facility. This mystery will probably be something we explore more of in the future seasons. But Joy has previously confirmed that we will see outside of the park's walls in the first season.

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Where Are the Backstage Facilities Located?

During the pilot episode, we see the backstage areas of Westworld, which look like big concrete warehouses, but where are they? At one point we see some of the behind-the-scenes characters overlooking the world from a cliff facility. Where does all the behind-the-scenes of Westworld take place? Nolan may have been borrowing from Disney World's tunnels as apparently most of the facilities are underground, but in a different way.

Production designer Nathan Crowley has the whole world mapped out, including the underground behind-the-scenes facilities. Joy describes the backstage area as "a 100-story building skyscraper that goes down instead of up, which for us was also a visual metaphor for the age of the park."

When you're in the older portion of it [far below the surface], the cold storage, it has been clearly repurposed from something that used to be more grand. The more functional bloody aspects of host maintenance are literally down further on the totem pole and when you get to the top of the mesa structure – that pool area you see in the episode – that's a detox area from people coming out of the park. The idea being, you wrap up your stay in the park and spend a night or two on the mesa having a cocktail, reliving your experiences with a little R&R before you go back to the real world. So the shock of coming out of full vacation mode – or homicidal mode, or whatever your fancy is – is buffered somewhat by conventional modern luxury before you go back.

But what about the behind-the-scenes human workers? Joy says that the techs, depending on their station or pay scale, have accommodations in the facility. Some of them have better residences based on the importance of their jobs. And we'll see in future episodes characters making a reference to "getting leave," which gives us a sense that the staff is on location "in the park for several weeks at a stretch before they rotate home."

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Is the 1973 Movie the Canonized Backstory For This Park?

We have been told that the park "hasn't had a critical failure in 30 years," which is a little more than a decade shy of the original 1973 Westworld movie. Is it possible that this is a reference to the events in that film and that the series is a quasi-sequel? Nolan writes off the mention as being a "playful" nod but notes that it's "not meant to be literal."

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How Much of the Hosts' Stories Are Written?

We learn that the techs have written all of the storylines in Westworld. And Lisa Joy told us that each particular character has a series of storylines which are looped over and over again:

Certainly a part of the thinking about theories has been mapping out the loops of all the different hosts, some them major characters, some of them minor characters. It's really exploring a bunch of different storylines that we've only seen the tip of the iceberg on. Then it involves maps of what Westworld actually would look like and different towns within it and what those towns would involve and the different mythologies that would exist there. That's a constantly fun thing to engage in. It's kind of like playing with a giant set of intellectual Legos and just building and building and building.

But how long are these loops? How many of these loops does each character have? How often does that robbery scene happen? We are not told this information. Jonathan Nolan has said that he has been inspired by video games:

I was fascinated by the concept of writing a story in which the protagonists' actions aren't part of the story. In games like The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim,Red Dead Redemption, or the sandbox games that Bioware make, morality is a variable. How do you write a story in which the hero's moral component exists on a spectrum? That's a fascinating challenge. I'm also fascinated by how non-player-characters in video games have their own lives. In Skyrim, when you walk into a village, you aren't necessarily the most important person there. The NPCs have lives that happen whether you're there or not. I was listening to directors' commentary from Ken Levine about building Bioshock Infinite and the affection that game developers and designers develop for their characters. It's a qualitatively different relationship than the one screenwriters have with their characters, because video game characters don't just recite dialogue—they do s***, and the players interact with them. It's a relationship that I think Crichton anticipated to some degree, but it's become much more complicated than even he could imagine.

Ed Harris' character The Man in Black seems to be experiencing Westworld like a video game, trying to discover the hidden secrets of the world. Harris told us at the TCA's that we will learn about who his character is in "the outside world, his past, why he is here and who exactly he is."

He's been coming here for 30 years. When he first came, he was not the man in black. This is a character he has assumed and developed over the many years he's been coming to this place. I think initially when he first arrived, he was exploring what his place was like. I can do whatever I want. I can kill people if I need to or make love to strange robotic prostitutes. I think something happened to him at some point that this part of him that's very dark, very violent, all of a sudden he recognized this was a real part of him he'd never really lived with in his life outside, obviously repressed in civil society for many years and realized this is a part of myself I should check out and see where this takes me. But there's also a much deeper purpose for him being here at this point. He thinks there's some deeper level to what's happening in this park. I'm not sure what it is or why, perhaps Tony's character is in charge of something that's not really obvious on the surface. I think he thinks the more chaos he causes, the more destruction he can create with the A.I. folks, [the better], but it's not random. There's always some narrative he's following. Someone gets in his way and he has to blow them away.

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How Safe Are the Park Visitors?

Even with simunitions, there are a plethora of chances for Westworld park guests to get hurt or killed. Guests could attack other guests, they could get thrown off a horse, or accidently fall into a ravine.

Nolan says he imagined clients signing a very comprehensive release form before being admitted to Westworld. The first episodes don't show the guests filling out paperwork, but we heard it straight from Nolan. And the whole world is designed to try to keep the guests safe. The hosts are programmed not only to play their part in the elaborate storyline but more importantly, to go off script when a situation presents itself where a guest's safety is in jeopardy.

Part of what the hosts have been designed to do, we have a feature in the program called The Good Samaritan Reflex or Function. Wherever they can, the park is populated by hosts and part of their responsibility, part of their subconscious programming is to try to protect the guests in whatever capacity it can. So if you've got a drunken guest who's careening towards a cliff edge, you're more likely than not to have a host nearby who, without breaking that narrative, is going to find a way to gently steer them back. They're cannon fodder on one hand, but they're also the all-purpose minders of this place.

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How Much Does a Ticket Cost?

How much does it cost to be a guest in Westworld? Can anyone attend this theme park or is it only for the richest of the rich?  The marketing for the show reveals that it costs guests around $40,000 a day to attend this western theme park.

It seems like creating this huge expansive world would be very very expensive. I'm sure this will be revealed as we dig further into the mystery of the motivations behind the company running the operation.

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And Even More Questions Unanswered

I have many more questions about this world and the science fiction western theme park at the center of it all, but these are the only answers I could find in the dozens of interviews I searched through. Here are a few of the logistical questions I still have:

  • How long does a guest get to stay inside the world? Ed Harris' character has been coming back for thirty years but how long has he spent inside this park?
  • How does Westworld reset the characters and the world? Is there a day off where tech crews come in and fix all the damage? Or are whole parts of the world "closed" to guests while the hosts and the world are "reset"?
  • What is allowed and what is not allowed? What are the rules for park guests? It seems like the Man in Black is being allowed to do whatever the hell he wants, but is he breaking any rules? Or is it just like a video game and after you gain admission you're allowed to do whatever you want? Nolan has mentioned that guests are not allowed to hurt other guests in the park.

If you liked our Westworld logistical questions, please check out our other Westworld features:

  • 'Westworld' Cost How Much? It's HBO's Biggest Premiere in Almost Three Years