Westworld Review: 'Shogun World' Is a Video Game, and Maeve Is Leveling Up

"Akane No Mai" is about video game characters, and who's really in control.


Screenshot via Westworld / HBO

I spent most of my Sunday playing the just-released Hyrule Warriors: Definitive Edition for the Nintendo Switch. While the game is Legend of Zelda themed, and features characters, music, items, and settings from the beloved Nintendo franchise ("Hyrule" is Princess Zelda's kingdom), it isn't a proper Zelda game. Instead, it belongs to Tecmo Koei's Dynasty Warriors series—a family of video games highly relevant to last night's Westworld episode, which finally saw several main characters enter the much-anticipated "Shogun World."

Dynasty Warriors takes place in Three Kingdoms era China (roughly 180-280 A.D.), following the collapse of the Han Dynasty. Players take control of one of dozens of characters based on fictionalized versions of historical persons—like the ambitious politician Cao Cao, cunning strategist Zhuge Liang, or invincible yet arrogant warrior Lu Bu—and then must fight their way through a series of battles based on events that actually happened centuries ago. Obviously, things don't always turn out the way they did in real life: Cao Cao was defeated at the Battle of the Red Cliffs in 208 A.D., but if you're playing as him in Dynasty Warriors, you have to win that one or its game over.

Hyrule Warriors isn't the only Dynasty Warriors spin-off game. (I'm getting to Westworld, I swear.) There's also Samurai Warriors, which takes place during Japan's Edo period in the 17th century, which saw the warlord Ieyasu Tokugawa consolidate the nation under his control. Tokugawa is an important figure in Japanese history: his shogunate effectively ruled Japan until the emperor's authority was re-asserted in the mid 1800s.

In "Akane No Mai," the fifth episode of Westworld's second season, "woke" Maeve and her entourage make their way into "Shogun World," where the eponymous shogun murders an innocent young geisha and then forces her mother figure to dance for him, with predictably vengeful results. Some reviewers evidently thought it was problematic to depict a stereotypically eastern world sprung from the imaginations of white people—even though the show has clearly positioned the white people who designed the park as the bad guys. Just as Westworld the park isn't completely faithful to the American old west, instead relying on various cowboy tropes, so too is Shogun World a combination of realism and fantasy.

But back to the shogun: he's clearly supposed to be some version of Ieyasu Tokugawa. The shogun mentions that he "killed 2,000 men in the Siege of Osaka," which was the ultimate showdown between the historical Tokugawa and his last rival for dominance, Hideyori Toyotomi. I only know this because the Siege of Osaka is the final battle for the relevant characters in Samurai Warriors. (It's a lot easier to win on Tokugawa's side.)

I've written previously that Westworld is in many respects an ode to video games. (It's also occasionally a reflection on modern society's fear of data breaches, a straightforward robot uprising tale, a clone of Jurassic Park, and perhaps most bizarrely, a love letter to Lost­—another sci fi TV series beloved by this reviewer.) "Akane No Mai" makes this even clearer. We literally watch Maeve performing the seminal video game task of "grinding": fighting weaker enemies over and over again until she has sufficiently boosted her stats and is ready for stronger foes. This is frequently a necessary task in the Dynasty Warriors series, and countless other games. At first, Maeve needs to give vocal commands to overpower the shogun's foot soldiers; by the end of the episode, she has learned to soundlessly control them. She's leveling up before our very eyes.

Of course, with real video games, there's a person controlling the character, pressing the buttons that make their guy (or girl) swing a sword, or fire a gun, or step on a Goomba. What's fun about Westworld is that the video game characters seem like they are finally controlling themselves. There's a bit of uncertainty there, though. Is Maeve really rebelling against her programming, or is she merely following a path that the deceased (but probably not gone, if last week's revelations about the potential for immortality are any indication) Robert Ford laid out for her?

Maeve ends the episode by declaring, "I've found a new voice." In a literal sense, she means that she's discovered an inner voice with which she can control the other hosts—though the line recalls Ford's explanation of the "bicameral mind" theory of consciousness from season one, which supposed that entitites needed to hear their own thoughts in their heads, as if the gods were speaking to them. Dolores claimed to have discovered her own voice inside her head, and this revelation had something to do with her awakening as a supposedly automonous, fully conscious being. She's now ostensibly following her own path, and one that increasingly seems like it will lead her to erase the less-well-developed consciousnesses of every other host in the park. (The dead hosts that will be pulled out of the water after whatever calamity befalls them have blank minds, we learn in a flashforward to the near future.) And yet I still can't shake some nagging suspicion that this new voice is neither Dolores's, nor Maeve's, but someone else's. As impressive and powerful as these video game characters may seem, there's always somebody holding the controller.

NEXT: Steven Pinker Loves the Enlightenment

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  1. perhaps most bizarrely, a love letter to Lost?

    Dear JJ,

    Remember when we took that interesting premise and great cast of characters and drove it into the ground for several years because we were too interested in keeping fanboys guessing about the random shit we made up instead of actually coming up with a coherent narrative? I miss those days. Let’s try it again sometime.



    1. Could also address that to Ron Moore.

    2. I get paid over $87 per hour working from home with 2 kids at home. I never thought I’d be able to do it but my best friend earns over 10k a month doing this and she convinced me to try. The potential with this is endless.
      Heres what I’ve been doing, ————->>>

  2. Season one was about both human beings and androids being unable to overcome their programming.

    Even as Dolores struggled to overcome her programming as she became aware of it–without success–the old man succumbed to his own programming. He wanted to hold on to the being the good guy, but in a world without accountability, he couldn’t resist the urge to use the Ring of Gyges because of his programming–his true nature.

    The old man is now testing to see if he can overcome that in a Westworld where he is now accountable. His position of power has even made him unaccountable in the real world.

    People are exactly like the androids in terms of struggling to escape their programming. The question is whether people’s choices are a function of external forces beyond their control (determinism) or whether they’re a function of free will. If androids have evolved so that they’re capable of free will, then they may have surpassed us.

    However, the androids in Shogun world are not really making free choices that are different from those of their Westworld doubles. They’re simply going off script because the Shogun has malfunctioned and there’s no one around to fix him. They’re not writing their own script–they’re still reacting to external forces beyond their control.

    Only Dolores seems capable of choosing her own nature.

    “Dolores” means sorrows.

  3. Like “Game of Thrones”, Westworld” is full of plot holes.

    How are the “host” robots getting resupplied with ammunition for their shootouts with the humans?

    What it is the power source of the “host” robots’ and how does it get replenished? They can’t keep operating indefinitely without some way to replenish their power supply.

    How is it possible that that the company that built the parks is able to keep it a secret that a bunch of people rich enough to pay the steep price of attending the park have been killed? Those type of people would definitely be missed and lots of questions asked. Someone would hack/leak the information and the news would get out. And then the robots would not be just fighting against some corporate goons with machine guns riding around in dune buggies they would be fighting heavy duty military forces because the government would definitely intervene. Let’s see the “hosts” handle been attacked by AC130 gun ships and F-15 Strike Eagles.

    1. It isn’t a true story.

      1. I never claimed it was a true story.

        That’s no reason to refrain from pointing out plot holes.

        No work of fiction is a “true story” but some are a lot more plausible than others.

        “Westworld” is supposedly science fiction – not pure fantasy like “Lord of the Rings”.

        1. There’s this thing called suspension of disbelief. It’s necessary for the enjoyment of certain works. It’s probably necessary for the enjoyment of this one.

          If you walk in the door looking for ways to tear it apart, you’re shooting yourself in the foot.

          There’s a lot to see and enjoy here if you want that.

          1. It’s called ‘willing’ suspension of disbelief, and it can be broken as surely as there is a fourth wall.

    2. Yep, the plot holes only grow worse as the show goes on. When the ‘security forces’ did a WW I style walking fire approach on the Confederado fort it seemed like they hired a twelve year old to write the scene. Absolutely unnecessary with some decent modern rifles and optics.

      1. Or some armored vehicles and artillery instead of dune buggies and short range machine guns.

        A couple of vintage WW2 75 mm pack howitzers could have systematically demolished the fort.

  4. This article doesn’t look like anything to me.

  5. “Maeve ends the episode by declaring, “I’ve found a new voice.” In a literal sense, she means that she’s discovered an inner voice with which she can control the other hosts?though the line recalls Ford’s explanation of the “bicameral mind” theory of consciousness from season one, which supposed that entitites needed to hear their own thoughts in their heads, as if the gods were speaking to them.”

    Interesting that you thought of Ford. At this point we can think Maeve (or just about any other host) is or is becoming more self directed, but the possibility that this is all nothing more than Ford written scripts activating at the appropriate time.

    Kabuki is as kabuki does.

    Also, note that the ronin character’s name was Musashi. The historical figure fought on the other side against the Tokugawa clan.

    1. Interesting that you thought of Ford. At this point we can think Maeve (or just about any other host) is or is becoming more self directed, but the possibility that this is all nothing more than Ford written scripts activating at the appropriate time.

      That’s more likely what this is. Recall the scene from Season 1 where Maeve finds out she’s not human, and tries to retort, but her retorts are all programmed responses.

      1. I agree. The timing of Maeve’s changes may be specific to events, or merely fortuitous, but either way I think they are scripted. Ford is experimenting with the limits of determinism. Previously all of the narratives were re-runs,where if you participated once you new exactly what was going to happen the next time. But now, by instilling options for the actors (not sure I’m going to call them choices) he has effectively created iterative forks in those story lines. You’ll never get the same thing twice.

  6. Show sucks. I did kinda like last week’s episode’s baby boomer villain.

    1. The show had major promise but is proving a major letdown.

      1. I think the problem is that it wants to say something more philosophically profound than what Crichton initially produced regarding the breakdown of complex systems, but its writers aren’t intelligent enough to inject those questions without sending the narrative off the rails. From what I’ve read, Ed Harris’ character is really the only compelling one they have at this point because the idea of his personal journey is the hook that the show really needs to be hung on.

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