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Storytelling Content Creation

Welcome to Westworld: What Your Brand Story Can Learn from a Western Sci-Fi Dystopia

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If this world were a Salvador Dali painting, we’d be swimming through the drips off our smartwatches.

Indeed, our increasingly intelligent devices have become so integral to the fabric of our lives that every brand story includes a preface to prove authenticity: “I know this sounds like science fiction, but it’s not.”

Our skeletal structures are affected by the amount of time we spend craning our necks to send text messages, check email, or browse social media. Our brains are becoming conditioned to instant gratification such that a fraction of a second can change our relationship with a person or a brand. (Think about how you feel when you’re waiting for a text back after a first date.) And on the reverse side of things, our technology is becoming better conditioned to understand us: algorithms are increasingly evolving to understand and anticipate human speech patterns, our wearables can make recommendations based on their interpretations of biological responses and neurological impulses—and may eventually be able to alter our emotional states—and soon, chatbots will be able to talk to us in a way that makes them almost indistinguishable from other humans.

tech

Enter Westworld—equal parts blast from the past (if you’re a fan of the original movie, that is) and futuristic dystopia—a television series that seems altogether too timely at a time when the lines between the digital and the organic are quickly blurring. Centered upon an amusement park comprising artificially intelligent, incredibly lifelike robots that spend their days acting out storylines with which visitors can interact, the show evokes an eerie familiarity, almost like you’ve been to that park or heard of it before.

That’s the near-magical experience of Westworld—a vague memory married to a newness that leaves you with just as many questions as it does answers. And there’s something to be said for a show that can effortlessly carry that much weight in just one episode. So, as content creators whose job it is to tell story after powerful story in ways that keep readers coming back, let’s take a closer look at the three things Westworld does best.

1. It takes an almost-tired topic and spins it on its head.

Not only is the Westworld TV series inspired by Michael Crichton’s 1973 film, but it really does, in many ways, echo the calls of science fiction writers past: most obviously Asimov’s Laws of Robotics, but you can’t help but get that same feeling you feel reading Orwell, or Huxley. The story is equal parts prediction, threat, and fantasy.

The show itself openly plays to things viewers largely know about the past. It’s laden with history and references to the Wild West with meticulous accuracy. Every detail is there: the saloons with their player pianos, the local flora and fauna—even the costumes appear impeccable. And yet, with the knowledge that this is an amusement park where robots outnumber humans, it feels somehow strange and new.

If you listen closely, the music echoes yet another reimagined past: the player piano’s set to play Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun,” “Paint It Black” laces a fight scene. Even the songs of our not-too-distant past feel nostalgic and exciting. They keep us on edge; they make us pay attention.

For brand stories, especially B2B brands who might be approaching allegedly “drier” topics, this is a important. You might feel like there are only so many ways to talk about your product—but by paying attention to the state of the world, and twisting your story on its head, there’s an opportunity to create something new. By asking the right questions of your audience at the outset of your content creation process, and using that information to consider their needs on a larger scale, you can ensure that you’re delivering this content to them at the right time.

2. It understands humanity—and it proves it.

Westworld gets me.

Not just me—it also gets all my friends, and their friends, and their families and, well, most of the planet. In some ways, I guarantee that it gets you.

How do I know that? Because it creates complex relationships that almost everyone can understand with just a few words and intonations. “Daddy,” for example, as a blonde robot daughter walks out onto the porch where her father sits in a rocking chair, shows an unquestionable understanding of a daughter who feels warmth and love for her father. Or “Your path leads you back to me,” spoken between lovers, speaks volumes of their relationship: sometimes he has to leave, but he always returns. You almost don’t question the relationship’s dynamic when you hear a phrase like that.

father and daughter

That quick recognition of a powerful relationship leads audience members more quickly toward empathy, meaning we recognize something of ourselves in those characters and relationships, which makes us feel invested in them. Empathy is a key component in good storytelling—one that brand stories need to utilize to keep audiences with them for the long haul.

How can readers evoke empathy? By taking that understanding of their audiences and using it to create characters and situations that are real and resonant. Don’t ask a generic question of your readers: “Have you ever had toothpaste squirt all over the place?” and, in an if-you-build-it-they-will-come mentality, expect the few who have had that experience to find you. Meet them where they’re at. Show them situations they have actually been in. Once they feel understood, they’ll trust you to carry them toward a better (or at least, more interesting) future.

3. It involves the audience in its story.

Perhaps the most important thing Westworld‘s first episode does is create an experience that completely envelopes the viewer, including them as a protagonist in the story. By leaving out the right questions (about the robots’ engineers, for example), in some ways, we’re left to feel as confused as the robots we follow. We’re shocked when we witness moments of unexpected violence, and when we enter the cold, dark, world beyond the amusement park. Other times, we’re thrown into the middle of homes, of fights, of bars, as though we’ve been there all along—with that aforementioned level of familiarity that makes it almost feel like we have been there all along—and we’re given enough information that we, like the robots, feel like we know what we’re supposed to do next. And given the sprawling, crisp visual setting in which the show takes place, we really feel wrapped up in the world. Like we could turn around and see a cow—or something more sinister.

The value of creating an immersive user experience cannot be overstated. In writing, as in filmmaking, as in life, anything that distracts a viewer or takes them out of your world is enough to lose them. That’s why it’s crucial that your story, visuals, and user experience all align in your brand guidelines, to create a comprehensive user experience that allow your audience members to feel like they’re part of something. In that way, your brand story serves the purpose of both informing, teaching, and empathizing, but also of moving audience members along, inviting them to explore the world of your brand.

While I absolutely don’t know what’s up next for Westworld, I can say with certainty that I trust the show completely and am excited to find out. That’s the power of a good brand story, too: it’ll always bring your audience along for the ride.

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Content Standard Editor, Cofounding Editor-in-Chief of Spry Literary Journal. Past lives include: Poetry Editor for Mason's Road, Student Editor for the Bryant Literary Review. Previously written work has appeared in such publications as Now What: The Creative Writer's Guide to Success After the MFA; future work includes Idle Jive, a poetry collection in progress.

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