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.
The tale begins with Part one: I’m a transdimensional dopplegänger.
My immersive story adventure began with a flurry of revelations. Due to an advanced technology known as OpenMind, I had begun hopping dimensions. One moment I would be walking around SXSW, covering the festival as a journalist with The Verge. The next, I would be in an alternate timeline, having swapped places with that world’s Bryan Bishop, the inventor of OpenMind technology. His friends, his colleagues, and most importantly, his wife, Faith — a senator — were unable to tell the difference between the man they knew, and me, the imposter.
After the end of that first morning, I learned I was expected back at my hotel room at just past 8PM to take part in a photo shoot in my hotel room that was being organized by the colorful, Santa Fe-based art collective Meow Wolf. But during the in-between hours, the sheer weirdness of the experience began to gnaw at me. I scanned faces in the SXSW crowds to see if I recognized the people I’d met: Dr. Everett, Paige the Verge intern, or Faith. And since I’d never given my room key to anyone, how exactly was Meow Wolf going to set up an art installation there?
I walked back to my hotel at 8 and headed to the elevators. I suddenly heard that same warbling sound I’d noticed before. I whipped around — it may have come from the trash can in the lobby — but I immediately knew what it meant: I’d just crossed over into the OpenMind timeline.
When I opened the door to my hotel room, there wasn’t a kaleidoscopic art installation waiting — just the scent of perfume and a set of woman’s clothes laid out on the bed. Faith, the senator, was in my bathroom, wrapped only in a towel. In this timeline, this was the hotel room she and her husband shared. Apparently Bishop had promised her a date night, but she was quick to jump on my confusion and hesitation. It was clear things weren’t going well in their marriage, and a nice night together was precisely what they needed.
It was another moment of truth: should I pretend to be the husband or come clean? I still had no idea how to fix the situation or stop the transferences, so I played along with my Bishop identity. We had plans for drinks at a nearby bar, so at Faith’s insistence, I changed into a nicer shirt and shoes and helped her zip up her dress. She grabbed my hand as we walked the few blocks to the bar.
The details that emerged along the way struck me as both beautiful and incredibly sad. Faith and Bishop met at the University of Texas, at a period in their lives when they were full of hope. Now, their dynamic was strained, full of secrets and constant mistrust. As we grabbed a drink at the bar, it came out that she had been flirting with a fellow senator — all in the name of political gamesmanship, she said, but a warning sign for a struggling marriage nevertheless.
In the middle of our conversation, we were approached by a man who thought he’d recognized me as the founder of OpenMind. His partner had been in an accident a few years back, he told us, and the doctors assumed he was brain-dead. But OpenMind technology allowed them to understand that his brain was still functioning, which led to treatment and eventual recovery.
Here’s where the membrane separating fantasy and reality became thin: I was impersonating another man, taking credit for achievements that weren’t my own. Yet when that stranger thanked me, it still felt damn good.
Much like with Dr. Everett earlier that day, however, Faith began to pick up on the fact that I was being vague about certain things and didn’t seem to remember vital details that her husband would know without hesitation. Even worse, I learned that she had talked to Dr. Everett, who told her something was awry.
When she confronted me about my identity, I struggled and stammered, wondering once again how to explain the inexplicable. It’s one thing to watch a movie where a character tries to explain a bizarre truth, knowing they probably won’t be believed. It’s harder to do it yourself. But when I explained the transdimensional transference problem, Faith was actually happy.
She’d lost her husband a long time ago, she told me; his constant experiments had become an addiction and ruined his mind. The time we’d spent together that night was the closest she’d felt to their old rapport in years. In fact, she said, she didn’t want her husband to come back to her timeline at all.
In that moment, it was a tempting prospect. The bar was overflowing, but Faith and I were tucked away in a quiet corner, and in the privacy of that moment, I was utterly immersed in the fictional world, without any sense of my true self. I wondered: what would it mean to stay in the OpenMind timeline permanently and never return to my own? That wasn’t a “move” I could make within the world of this story, of course, but I could see the outlines of what it would be like. It was another sign of the walls between truth and fiction falling down. I wasn’t just present in this alternate world; I was envisioning what it would be like to never leave it.
Ultimately, I turned to more reasonable solutions. I suggested that if we could stop Bishop’s experiments, perhaps his mind would return, and perhaps Faith’s husband wasn’t lost for good after all.
Faith said he carries a device with him, a “gizmo” that seemed to be the cause of his transdimensional hopping. We decided she would try to steal it from him and destroy it, hopefully putting an end to his experiments — and my presence in his world. She wanted to leave and take a walk, to wrap her head around everything she’d just learned. It was a melancholy moment, both of us feeling that we’d discovered some truth and a real connection in that crowded bar, while also realizing that, depending on how things played out, we might never run into each other again. We said goodbye, and then she was gone.
I walked back to the hotel through the SXSW crowds, not knowing whether the day’s story was over or still ongoing. I hadn’t heard another sound cue to let me know the sequence was over. I wasn’t sure which timeline I was in, or who I could expect to run into next.
When I finally got back to my room, it was empty; Faith’s belongings had vanished. It was as if nobody else had ever been in the room at all. Not in this timeline, anyway.
Join us for the next installment of The SimuLife Diaries, where I’ll be abducted by a steely resistance group dedicated to bringing down OpenMind at all costs.