After the credits rolled on Westworld‘s blood-soaked Season 1 finale, HBO invited fans to react to what they’d just seen with a card that read: “What just happened? Ask a host now,” before directing fans to the website DiscoverWestworld.com.
For most of the season, DiscoverWestworld has been presented as a typical promotional website for a vacation destination run by Delos Incorporated, albeit one with an intriguing terms of service contract (in which guests give Delos the rights to their “skin cells, bodily fluids, secretions, excretions, hair samples, saliva, sweat, blood, and any other bodily functions not listed here,” to be used however the company sees fit) and a virtual host called Aeden who is programmed to cryptically answer all your questions including hints about the show’s ongoing plotlines.
But after the finale, which saw the hosts rise up against the park employees and board members, the website got a makeover leaving the AI known as Aeden in control with a Choose Your Own Adventure-style input, allowing fans to glean some hints about Season 2, either by following the prompts or typing in their own questions.
DiscoverWestworld and its corporate backend, DelosIncorporated.com, are part of an ambitious digital marketing effort designed by show creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy in collaboration with HBO’s marketing team.
“When youre working with IP thats as layered and complicated and intelligent as this, it feels so ripe for extensions and worldbuilding in digital,” says Sabrina Calouri, HBO’s senior vice president of digital and social marketing. “The real challenge for us was how do you innovate on this kind of story world extension? How do you take the parks campaign, which is almost like a marketing trope these days, and really add the kind of intellectual complexity and darkness that is core to this series? That was really what we felt was our mission on the digital marketing side.”
In addition to strategies HBO conceived, Nolan and Joy came armed with ideas, viewing the websites as a way to flesh out the Westworld universe between episodes.
“Even with 10 hours of TV, theres such a world that were trying to build here, theres plenty of material,” Nolan explains. “So the website, that experience, is a great opportunity for us to be telling story and enhancing the audiences understanding of how this world works in ways that are really constructive.”
For Nolan, who has built a career on high-concept narratives that encourage fan engagement (The Prestige, The Dark Knight, Interstellar and Person of Interest are some of his previous works), his passion for viral marketing began with his first movie, Memento an indie film with a limited marketing budget that he worked on with his brother, Christopher.
“That was a moment in which The Blair Witch Project had come out and made a splash using internet marketing to bypass the amount of money youre accustomed to spending to try and get that many people to watch a film,” Nolan recalls. “And I just thought it was a great opportunity for storytelling Ive always felt that the marketing materials should be part of the storytelling of the show that theres not a distinction between them, they should all be pushing in the same direction.”
Having done some computer programming in college, Nolan partnered with a friend and made the website for Memento himself, telling Mashable, “Its still up there; we did it as an effort to extend the storytelling into the marketing in a fashion that allowed the audience to start sinking into the world and the characters of the film even before they sat down and watched the movie.”
Nolan and Joy applied the same approach to Westworld, which is designed to be an experiential journey for both its characters and its viewers, allowing the producers to find new avenues to deliver plot details: from the websites to the promotional posters to a virtual reality experience that takes fans inside the show.
Westworld‘s hidden Easter Eggs are just as satisfying for the creators themselves as they are for curious fans, Nolan says: “Theres a limit to how much storytelling you can do in an hour of television or two hours of a film, so the ability to get out and play in that world is always welcome for me. Its an exciting outlet for us as storytellers for some of the material that we potentially werent able to cover or dont want to burden some of our characters with explaining.”
In many ways, Westworld feels like a spiritual successor to Lost both shows are produced by J.J. Abrams’ Bad Robot Productions and feature mysterious Men in Black, non-linear timeframes and densely packed mythology, just for a start.
Westworld is also arguably one of the only series since the ABC hit to incite such fervent speculation and sleuthing from its audience (its closest analogue is another HBO series, True Detective, which immediately captured the zeitgeist in its self-contained first season, but failed to retain it during Season 2).
Many shows have tried to incorporate a mystery engine into their high-concept dramas since Lost ended, but most of them ran into the same problems that Lost encountered during its run the story got buried under the weight of unanswered questions and labyrinthine mythology, and viewers either grew frustrated and stopped watching, or never bothered to engage in the first place. Remember FlashForward, The Event or Touch? Us neither.
Westworld neatly sidestepped those issues by making sure that the answers to the questions it posed were never the show’s ultimate destination, simply signposts along the journey another step through the maze on the path to consciousness.
“As a storyteller, the thing that you really fall in love with is these characters. Its really fun to embed reversals and surprises and things that happen, but then fundamentally, you grow a very organic attachment to the characters themselves,” Joy notes. “When it comes to character growth, thats not something thats about spoilers, thats about being on the journey together and feeling their condition with them, whether its one of pain and suffering or one of joy and triumph.”
Addressing the show’s tendency to inspire scrutiny, Nolan says, “I think theres more here than just a puzzle; I would hate for the show to just feel like that. If theres trickiness in the storytelling here, theres a purpose to it, and its to speak to the frame of mind of our protagonists, how little they understand the world around them.”
But the puzzle has proved compelling in itself, spawning endless threads on Reddit designed to decipher the show’s many dangling questions most of which were thankfully tied up in the Season 1 finale.
“As a marketer and even as a content team, you hope and you dream of this level of engagement with a property. We definitely had high hopes for it, but weve been very, very happy with the response,” says Calouri. “I have a team thats working on this property and on the site, and were fans as well, so its been a lot of fun to dive down those Reddit and Twitter threads. We certainly are looking at them and paying attention to where theyre going and thinking about when and how those [theories] should be brought back into things.”
As a creator, Nolan admits that he has an “odd relationship” with Reddit and other forms of social media, since he’s also prone to trying to guess a show or movie’s twists before they happen.
“I love Reddit, Ive been part of Reddit for probably the better part of a decade at this point. I love the community there, I love the thinking that goes on there. For my favorite shows, I tend not to go to the subreddits for those shows because I dont want to spoil it for myself,” he says. “We look at it every now and then. I think youve got to be careful these are long haul projects that youre on where you have ideas that you dont want to be swayed one way or the other by what your audience is making of your show. I think that can be a trap.”
For Nolan, the main rule is, “you have to play fair with the audience. Ive always respected narratives where tiny things, little breadcrumbs, were tossed in my direction so that the shape of the narrative gave me the chance to participate in it, so I didnt feel like the rug had been pulled out from under me. You have to lay those in for the audience that isnt analyzing it obsessively online.”
Joy agrees, “There are people for whom its a collaborative thing, like a giant mystery that they go on together, trying to decipher things, and for that audience because they are by far the most intense in their scrutiny you want to make sure that things make sense and add up.”
That explains why eagle-eyed viewers had already figured out that William (Jimmi Simpson) was the younger version of Ed Harris’ Man in Black, and that Bernard (Jeffrey Wright) was a host version of Arnold, long before the show confirmed those theories.
Westworld might’ve been playing coy with some details, but all of the clues were there, hiding in plain sight just like Michelangelo’s own hidden Easter Egg in the “Creation of Adam” painting we see during the finale: the shape of the human brain surrounding God.
“The divine gift does not come from a higher power, but our own minds,” Ford points out to Dolores an observation that ties into the show’s overarching theme of humanity’s tendency to play God, but also perhaps a meta wink to the fans from creators who are appreciative of their imagination.
While the intricate layers of plotting are a testament to Nolan and Joy’s capabilities as storytellers, Nolan says, “For me its not about credit due the audience is doing a credit to the show and to our work to watch. Theyre giving us their time, the most valuable thing theyve got, and their imagination. And theres something beautiful about that.”
For Nolan and Joy, the most satisfying aspect of the show is in its collaboration both with the cast and crew while making the series, and with the fans who consume Westworld once it’s on our screens.
“You look at the Star Wars universe, you look at comic book movies, there is at least as much fan imagination and effort that has gone into those worlds at this point as there is effort from the filmmakers,” Nolan points out. “Its a beautiful lie that we all construct together, and thats great fun. When the audience is bringing as much imagination and thoughtfulness to it as you are, thats a very privileged position to be in.”