The identity of The Man In Black continues to be one of Westworld’s most talked-about mysteries. The internet is full of theories about his history, his occupation, his motivations, even whether his story takes place in the same time period as everything else on the show. Like any other J.J. Abrams-touched puzzle-box of a TV show, all that speculation could be entirely pointless. In the end, Ed Harris’ devious gunslinger might just turn out to be—as has been suggested briefly on the show—some rich dude who loves to take a break from his philanthropic work at a respected foundation by killing and maiming a bunch of robot cowboys. We may or may not learn the whole truth before the first season is up, but one thing is already clear: Deep down, The Man In Black is a video game nerd.
Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan, Westworld’s showrunners, have talked at length about the series’ gaming parallels. Westworld itself is a place where attendees pay to escape reality and indulge their fantasies, no matter how dark or destructive. It’s a realization of the lawless power trips found in a game like Grand Theft Auto (or more pertinently, Red Dead Redemption) where the “people” players encounter, although closer to flesh and blood than the animated ones and zeroes that walk the streets of a video game, aren’t meant to be people at all. These androids—“hosts,” in the parlance of Westworld’s creators, and “non-playable characters (NPCs)” in the idiom of gamers—are built to go about their programmed routines, get murdered, be revived by the park engineers, and return to their day-to-day without any memory of the experience. Players can follow them along on their boilerplate cowboy adventures, or they can just hang around shooting townspeople and having sex with robot prostitutes. It’s their call.
If Westworld is an incredibly advanced meat-space video game, The Man In Black is its top player. After 30 years of attendance, he’s played the game so much that he’s beyond its cheap thrills and the veneer of verisimilitude that keeps other players in check. He knows all the characters and their motivations and how they’ll react in certain scenarios. He knows this world’s secrets and how they add up to something predictable and controllable. He’s wrung the game dry. The only thing that’s left for him is to push past the creators’ intended boundaries—to find something he wasn’t supposed to see, some meaning he believes Westworld’s creator was trying to express. And he uses all the knowledge he’s built up and exploits all the tricks he’s learned during his many runs through the game to do it.
A recent article by Vulture’s Kathryn VanArendonk compared The Man In Black’s violent pursuit of a deeper meaning to the actions of a “bad gamer,” suggesting he’s meant to be a nuisance. “He is a critique of every bad fan,” she wrote, “every gamer who plays the game ‘wrong,’ every player who’s more interested in taking the game apart than in appreciating it for what it is.” VanArendonk criticizes his vision of “the game as just a game” and his inability to see the humanity of Westworld’s robots, while suggesting there’s something wrong with wanting to look beyond the functional surface of a game to find meaning, or to dig too deeply into the underlying architecture that’s just waiting to be broken. In her reckoning, “good gamers” play by a creator’s rules.
There’s an inherent contradiction to this line of thinking. As far as we know—at least this early on—Westworld’s “hosts” weren’t designed to make players question their own morality or give them greater insight into humanity. They were designed to be the chess pieces and parts of the scenery The Man In Black sees them as. We have no reason to believe he’s sympathetic toward or even interested in the flickers of an evolving consciousness some of them have displayed, the way that someone like white-hat newcomer William (Jimmi Simpson) is. While they may have constructed the park to accommodate boy scouts and sociopaths alike, The Man In Black’s detachment and readiness to play is exactly what Westworld’s developers had in mind.
Any empathy we feel for the hosts—and any insistence that The Man In Black is a monster for not feeling the same—is only informed by the time we’ve spent watching characters like Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) and Maeve (Thandie Newton) slowly becoming self-aware. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, series co-creator Lisa Joy elucidated this conflict herself: “Our sympathies are so aligned with the hosts it’s easy to think of The Man In Black as absolute black evil with a wry smile,” she said. “For him, he’s looking at this as just a game and he’s an expert-level gamer.” If there’s anyone who isn’t appreciating the game for what it is, it’s us.
But there’s nothing wrong with looking for meaning in a creation you love—whether it’s Westworld, the show; Westworld, the cheesy 1973 movie; or Westworld, the living video game. To imply that dismantling a game and yearning for a deeper meaning in it are acts of disrespect is to discount what games are, what games can be, and how much they mean to the people who love them. The Man In Black is obsessed with finding a maze that’s somewhere in the park, but as he declares in the most recent episode, what he’s really after is “something the person who created it wanted to express—something true.” He’s no different from someone who searches for meaning while watching a film or reading a book.
It’s just that, in this case, finding that message requires physically going deeper into Westworld than anyone has gone before—and to do that, The Man In Black needs to bend the game to his will. Lucky for him, all that time he’s spent playing adds up to a depth of tricks that only the most diehard of a game’s fans possess. He has less in common with your average completionist, the obsessively thorough players VanArendonk compares him to, than the speedrunners who use a combination of encyclopedic knowledge, extreme dexterity, and game-breaking glitches to finish their favorite titles as fast as possible, broadcasting their exploits online for the world to see.
Their daredevil methods—which often include exploiting embarrassingly spectacular bugs to finish a game in a fraction of the intended time—often draw the same kind of “You’re playing it wrong” scrutiny that VanArendonk applies to the The Man In Black. But like him, speedrunners have a deeper connection to the games they break than most anyone who’s playing it as the creators “intended.” They’re scientists of these manufactured worlds, digging behind the facade to understand and exploit their inner workings. They’ve spent hundreds of hours inside them and learned the purpose and potential of every pixel. They appreciate aspects of these works that most people never even consider. Like The Man In Black, who confesses to one of the park’s robots that they were way better back when they were less human, speedrunners appreciate the artificiality of these creations and the “million little perfect pieces” it takes for one of them to run. It’s what makes them easy to manipulate.
What’s more, game developers—the people who spend years of their lives crafting things that speedrunners dedicate themselves to disassembling—have largely embraced their practices. Why wouldn’t they? The kind of devotion they display, and that The Man In Black displays, is the stuff of a creator’s dreams. He’s been visiting Westworld for 30 years and seen all there is to see, and yet he’s still digging, far past the vulgar titillation that he and the park’s chief architect, Anthony Hopkins’ Dr. Ford, find so frivolous.
While Ford might ultimately want to keep The Man In Black away from whatever secrets are at the center of the maze—a fact that likely reflects his own dastardly deeds more than any desire to stymie his best customer’s personal mission—he recognizes that The Man In Black appreciates his creation in a way that not even Westworld’s other developers do. There’s more to this place than the killing, drinking, and fucking. It’s the details that make it come to life, the stories that make it worth exploring, and the potential of a grand mystery that’s long laid undiscovered. His methods might be gruesome to us onlookers, but what’s more human than the pursuit of truth, meaning, and the unseeable forces that make a world work? These are the the things that make the game worth playing, again and again and again.