At SXSW 2018, I was invited to take part in a four-day immersive story experience called a SimuLife. Mounted by the Austin-based creative lab Interactive Deep Dive, SimuLife is meant to blur the line between fantasy and reality by letting me interact with the story as part of daily life. It’s like David Fincher’s movie The Game, executed in the real world. Other than those broad edicts, I wasn’t given any advance information about the experience. I’m documenting my journey through the story — wherever it leads.
It started with a meeting with a new Verge intern and ended with plans to destroy a mysterious device that swaps matter between dimensions. Just your typical Saturday.
On Friday, The Verge’s Silicon Valley editor Casey Newton messaged me, letting me know that a woman named Paige Keane was going to be joining our tech team over the summer and was interested in talking about experiential entertainment here at SXSW. It’s an area I’ve been covering for the last two years, which has taken me through wild horror experiences and immersive alternate reality games where I became wrapped up in a ‘70s-style paranoid thriller. It turned out Paige was friendly with a producer from Meow Wolf, the immersive art collective from Santa Fe, New Mexico, that was working with Interactive Deep Dive on my SimuLife experience. Given that I was meeting with that same producer on Saturday, Paige suggested we grab coffee beforehand, then asked if she could come along to the sit-down.
The truth is, covering festivals like SXSW can be intense, and I wasn’t in love with the idea of bringing an intern into what I thought was going to be the beginning of my immersive story experience.
Turns out, I really didn’t need to worry. The story itself had already begun.
The moment I sat down for our coffee appointment Saturday morning, two men in suits rushed me. I’d never seen them before, but they clearly recognized me. They excitedly called me “the mind behind the mind” and said I’d gotten a raw deal on something that happened in December. I figured this was the immersive show starting, so I played along as they mentioned some big meeting set for Monday. Then a blonde woman in professional attire showed up with an assistant. The two men addressed her as “senator” and leaned down to give me a peck on the cheek. (Apparently she knew me as well.) Then all four of them rushed off. I heard an odd noise — what sounded like a warbling ringtone from a phone — and suddenly Paige Keane, intern-to-be, appeared and introduced herself.
The timing was suspicious. The actors from the show appearing at the exact time Paige and I were set to meet suggested she was in on it. But if she was, that would mean Casey was in on it, too, which seemed unlikely. And it’s generally a bad idea to accuse a potential new Verge employee of being a fictional character, so I erred on the side of caution and didn’t say anything. Paige and I chatted about her interview process — she said she’d spoken with our managing editor, T.C. Sottek, which seemed to establish her bona fides — and then we headed to our meeting.
We were late to arrive, and couldn’t find the producer. Eventually, Paige shouted that she saw her, and ran around the corner to flag her down. I followed, but Paige was gone. Instead, there was an older gentlemen staring at me, a man with kind eyes and a gray mustache. He seemed to know me as well — only he thought I was one of his former students.
Dr. Everett brought me into a classroom on the University of Texas campus for a proper chat. He was surprised I was willing to talk to him at all; we’d had a falling-out, he indicated. Then he asked about the senator. In the process, I learned her name was Faith, and Dr. Everett was convinced she was my wife.
Dr. Everett quickly called me out. The Bryan Bishop he knew wasn’t a journalist, he was a genius who founded a company called OpenMind. (The comment from the two men that morning suddenly clicked into place: they’d meant “You’re the mind behind the Mind.”)
OpenMind had created technology that was able to access and store thoughts in the human brain, leading to advances in big data that yielded tremendous benefits to society. But the man Dr. Everett knew — everyone seemed to refer to him as “Bishop,” whereas my real-world friends and family simply call me Bryan — had also been too single-minded for his own good, experimenting on himself in the early days of OpenMind when he couldn’t get proper regulatory approval. Bishop also saw greater potential in the core OpenMind technology. He worked from the assumption that we live in a multiverse, with an infinite number of possible timelines all coexisting. He thought if he pushed the technology hard enough, he might be able to swap physical matter from one timeline to the other.
And as we talked, Dr. Everett became more and more convinced that his former student had succeeded, and that I was periodically swapping places with Bishop. I’d phase into the OpenMind timeline and take the place of the company’s founder, while he would phase into the Verge timeline and take mine.
I am fully aware that this sounds like the ravings of a madman, but that’s what most characters say when something bizarre or fantastical happen to them, isn’t it?
The doctor and I traded numbers, and then he headed to a class. As I waited for the elevator, I heard another sound: a weird ticking from the water fountain nearby, and my mind started racing.
The thing about immersive stories like this is that they work best when it’s not clear what’s real, what’s fiction, and what’s some user-generated combination of the two. The trick to these pieces is that the players are investing emotionally as themselves, which brings a level of immediacy to the storytelling that isn’t really possible when you’re watching a movie or a TV show. It’s not some spandex-clad superhero or big-screen actor facing these scenarios; it’s actually you, so every emotional beat and plot twist is heightened because it’s unavoidably personal.
The dark side of not being able to tell reality from fiction, however, is that you start seeing connections everywhere, like a conspiracy theorist with too much time and red string on your hands. Was the fountain ticking a sound effect? A trick of the plumbing? Or was I just starting to lose it? Thankfully, the elevator doors opened, and soon enough, I was outside.
Paige was there, and she was not pleased.
While I was hanging out in the OpenMind timeline, apparently Bishop ran into Paige and the producer and gave them both nasty looks before running off. Which meant Paige was clearly part of the story, and I definitely couldn’t trust my Verge colleagues. Now that I’d learned about the multiverse theory, should I share it? If I did share it, how would I not sound like a lunatic?
It was a Jenga stack of conflicting emotions and impulses. There are multiple ways to approach an immersive story like this. You can try to game it, figuring out what you think the storytellers are going for, and playing along for what you hope might be the coolest possible outcome. And you can always try to keep it safely at arm's length, in the hopes that you’ll never get fooled, played, or betrayed by someone who ends up being a character. But what I’ve found to be the most rewarding approach is to truly fall into the story emotionally, without reservation. Michael Douglas’ world was upended in The Game because he believed everything was real, after all, not because he was trying to work the system. And here I was, being challenged emotionally both within and outside the game — and finally, I let those Jenga blocks tumble to the ground.
There was no point in trying to be self-aware. There was nothing to be gained by trying to strategize a next “move.” The best and only option was to succumb to the story, utterly and honestly. I told Paige everything that had happened. I still felt like a lunatic. But at least she believed me (or pretended to).
We eventually parted company, after scheduling another coffee chat for Sunday. But Paige also told me that the producer we never found wanted to do a photo shoot in my hotel room that night. Meow Wolf is famous for its colorful, eccentric installations, and she said they wanted to give my room the same treatment and that I should stay out of my room from 7 to 8PM.
Wait until 8PM. Sure, no problem. What could possibly go wrong?
Join us for the next installment of The SimuLife Diaries, where I find myself on a romantic night out with Bishop’s wife, the senator.