“Why don’t you look up and watch where you’re going, you dipshit,” a man said to me moments after I walked into the Westworldexperience at SXSW. Now, in pretty much any other situation, this would be grounds for me to be at least offended, let alone a little angry. But this was the sheriff of Sweetwater I was face-to-face with—an actor playing an authority figure in a branded experience for an HBO show about sexy, violent robots at marketing event at a festival. There’s nothing to get mad about here. This is just a corporate brand experience—a very expensive marketing ploy to build hype for HBO’s already expensive, overly hyped sci-fi program.
I brushed it off, but the thought still lingered in the back of my mind: Why out of all the idiots holding phones did this asshole single me out? Why didn’t I say anything to defend myself?
I was already experiencing the subversive psychological manipulation of HBO’s Westworld experience at SXSW. Typically I’m jaded, if not outright hostile, to such preposterous displays of expendable marketing wealth. Yet, out of curiosity, I boarded the bus with dozens of other target audience tourists to ride 30 minutes outside of Austin to a pop-up theme park in the style of Westworld. I was alone, of course, because no one else I knew visiting SXSW had four hours to kill going to a version of Westworld without any of the disgusting thrills depicted on the TV show.
Certainly, I had some questions: Would I be forced to make problematic moral decisions? Would I question my own humanity? Would I fuck a robot? And I had my doubts: Would I be trapped in the middle of Texas with a bunch of adult cosplayers in a cheap half-assed TV stage?
We started at a bar on the east side of Austin, where we each received a hat (mine was fittingly black) and a complimentary cocktail before we marched onto a bus to the park. There, I met a guy named Johnny, an Austin local sitting next to me, who’d already gone to the park once before and assured me it was really cool. He had all the tips; he knew all the secrets. Privately, I suspected that he was a strategically placed HBO agent whose job was to guide lonely members of the media. Or maybe he was an actor who was secretly a robot. (Spoiler alert: He just worked in insurance).
Johnny and I reached our destination after a comfortable ride on the Westworld bus, which Johnny told me had actually broken down for a friend of his on another trip—an idea more terrifying than watching a lifelike robot get beaten up outside of a saloon. We left the bus, walked into the staging area of fake Westworld, and instantly found ourselves in a stunning recreation of the Apple store-meets-video game of the real show. There, a woman stood behind a glass counter that contained old-timey guns and knives, a wall of hats lining the walls behind her. From there, we moved into the Westworld train to Sweetwater, where Johnny and I met a man named Silent Allen, who basically told us he wanted to fuck the owner of the restaurant.
The best way I can describe this whole thing is as kind of an interactive play similar to the immersive theatrical production Sleep No More. Once you leave the train car, you’re inside the town of Sweetwater, where the guests have free reign to wander into any of the buildings and interact with the “hosts” (AKA paid actors and not real robots, I’m assuming). So when Silent Allen gave us a message of love to bring to Josephine in the restaurant, that opened up a possible storyline for us to explore at our own free will. It was upon exiting the train that the sheriff of Sweetwater called me a dipshit, as I frantically tried to write down the message Silent Allen gave us (my memory was hazy after the complimentary drink before the bus ride).
And even though I knew exactly where I was, the insult still elicited a real emotion in me. Brand experience, interactive play—whatever this was, someone called me a dipshit, and I felt it.
We continued to walk through the town. We tried to track down Josephine, we got our photos taken, we watched some dude get arrested. Drunks stumbled through the streets, folks walked horses through town. There was an atmosphere of authenticity (despite the idiots in cheap hats pointing their phones all over the place). The costumes, the stage design, and the acting was more on par with Disneyland than the sad, over-produced haunted house I expected. We got some mail, where we got a clue to a secret door that showed the mysterious backend of Westworld—reminiscent of the show itself. There were a few show Easter Eggs: A Samurai walked silently through the crowd invisible to any of the Western “hosts,” and guests were asked to dig a grave for Dolores.
But the real genius of this place was how it worked as a psychological experiment. These actors never broke character. No matter how many jokes I made, they played their part in improvising as completely unaware theme-park robots. (The most likely explanation is that my jokes weren’t funny; regardless, these people stayed in character.) When a woman in the Mariposa Saloon approached one of the dudes in my posse, I could see the conflict in his eyes as an attractive woman flirted with him. We sat down at a table to play some cards, but before the host could deal a hand, one of the guests got in an argument with another host about cheating. This guy was simply playing along, but he got into it and stood up and screamed at the host: “Around these parts, we hang a man for cheating like that.”
In what situation would a guy be comfortable yelling something like that? I was around a bunch of strangers I’d never see again in my life (no offense to my new friend, Johnny), but I’d never get so caught up in something like this. Yet, it was intriguing—almost a test in itself to see if you would be one of two people: someone who wastes four hours of a weekend to go 30 minutes outside of Austin not to have any fun, or someone who wastes four hours of a weekend to go 30 minutes outside of Austin to let loose a little bit.
I thought of what the introduction video said on the bus to Sweetwater—“Be yourself, we won’t tell”— and I decided I wanted to land somewhere in between. Off to the restaurant, I marched to go find Josephine so we could get our dude Silent Allen laid.
We went to the local restaurant and asked around for Josephine. She wasn’t in yet, so we decided to post up, eat some beans and jerky, and wait it out. Finally, we saw Josephine walk in—a regal woman with a fine dress and fan. She chatted up a few patrons until she came to greet us. Full disclosure: I was a few cocktails deep at this point; for as phony as the rest of this stuff was, the alcohol was very real. I couldn’t remember poor Silent Allen’s exact message to the woman of his dreams, but long story short, Josephine wasn’t into Silent Allen, and she had a pretty savage burn when she pointed out that he’s not that silent. Bad luck: Our dude wasn’t going to get laid. But before we had time to grieve his sex life, we heard gunshots from outside.
All the hosts rushed to the middle of town, where one of the storylines had climaxed in a showdown between the sheriff—the same guy who called me a dipshit—and some rough riders. The guests and the hosts circled the commotion, where each party screamed at one another, until two new people pushed through the crowd and shot the sheriff in the back. “We finally did it!” this newcomer celebrated. It turns out this guy was another guest to Westworld—a tourist like us who finally got to the end of a rather difficult storyline.
Suddenly, all the hosts froze and out came people in white coats to deal with the body. As the hosts reset and the white coat people dragged off the sheriff, I thought about the time he called me a dipshit, and couldn’t help but feel a little bit of justice.
Like the show itself, this experience was about escaping reality, forcing us to interact within the confines of a different societal structure—and, yes, sell us on Westworld’s second season. But the ways in which people chose to adopt the wild west slang and improvise with the actors was truly fascinating. Some followed the storylines and dug into the web of mysteries. You could go as deep into this as you want. You could let loose and forget about the tacos and RSVP lines and panels back at SXSW. You could get as close to Westworld as possible today. And, plus, I got to keep the hat.