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 story starts with Part 1: I’m a transdimensional dopplegänger.
Everything had been building toward Tuesday.
It was the day Faith and I planned to blow up Cooter & Cooter’s acquisition of OpenMind in her timeline and the day I’d be meeting with Kai Goodwin in mine. Each offered an opportunity to halt the progress of OpenMind in our respective worlds, but they didn’t account for Bishop. We would need to find another way to deal with him.
But the first message I received that morning was from Paige. The previous night, she’d sent me a poem, the result of a new writing schedule she’d decided to adopt after we’d discussed her career ambitions. The poem was fierce and defiant, and I praised her effusively. She wrote back how much it meant to her and asked if I’d be willing to read more.
Part of me obviously knew Paige wasn’t real, but I still felt real friendship toward her. In a lot of ways, we’d become constants for each other over the past few days. But I also knew Tuesday was the final day of the story, and there was a melancholic twinge as I told her how happy I was that we’d met.
My meeting with Kai was set for noon, with the C&C press conference scheduled for an hour later. I could only hope that Bishop’s dimension-swapping would land me in the right places at the right times, but at 11:30, everything went sideways. My phone rang… and it was Nikita. I stammered a reply: “Wait, how are you—”
“How am I what?”
Calling me on this number, I thought. I hadn’t heard the dimension-switch sound, yet here I was, receiving a call from the OpenMind timeline. Had I switched over while in the shower? Had I simply missed the sound? But there wasn’t much time to worry about the mystery: Nikita told me she was at the library, and she had some information I needed to see immediately.
I ran out the door, and a few blocks later, my phone lit up. This time it was Marilyn, saying Ruben was in jail because he’d hacked some servers. Later, I realized he’d followed through on our plans from the previous night and deleted the OpenMind code from the Goodwin Communications servers. But all I could think about in the moment was that I was somehow flipping back and forth between timelines, seemingly at random.
A few steps later, another text — Nikita this time. It was all happening so fast, I could hardly keep track of where I was, but she told me I had to find Faith. My mind raced. I had no way of contacting Bishop’s wife, but one thought came to mind: the hotel room. I rushed back, hoping against hope that I’d find her there, just as I had on Saturday night. I touched my keycard to the lock and threw the door open. Nothing.
I had one long-shot idea left. Faith knew Bishop was supposed to get together with Kai today, so I headed to the location of my noon meeting on the off chance she would be there. When I finally arrived, Kai was nowhere to be seen. I sat down at a table in front of the store, and then I heard it: wub-wub-wub-WHOOSH. I’d switched timelines. Whether back to my own or to OpenMind, I wasn’t sure — until I saw Faith crossing the street.
I had a queasy feeling in the pit of my stomach. Everything was in turmoil, and in that moment, I wasn’t sure who I could trust. But she quickly explained what had happened. Last night, when Bishop was in the shower, she’d tried to steal the dimension-hopping gizmo. But he’d caught her in the act, and he knew she was trying to sabotage his plans. Bishop then vanished in the middle of the night and must have been pinging between worlds ever since trying to contain the damage.
But the fact that Bishop was now meeting with Kai in my world gave us a window. He’d be preoccupied, so Faith had moved the big press conference up an hour. That would let us tear down the deal with Cooter & Cooter before he even had a chance to come back.
We found Nikita and Jules outside the library. The information Nikita had alluded to on the phone was a gold mine: a leaked set of internal emails from C&C CEO Harold Cooter himself, breaking down the company’s larger aspirations for OpenMind. With the press conference drawing closer, we walked inside the building, then ducked into a side room to give the documents a look.
They were horrifying. References to “mental vulnerability techniques,” “cognitive hacking,” and “neuromarketing.” C&C intended to use the OpenMind thought-reading technology to create complete psychological profiles of people, then use that data to creating marketing campaigns and advertising that would permanently change the way people perceived reality. It wasn’t just about finding a more efficient way to target the most receptive audience; it was about secretly programming people to become loyal, willing C&C customers.
It was the kind of leak that could bring the whole operation down, and we all knew it. Then Faith slipped, referring to Bishop in the third person. Nikita caught the mistake in a flash — why was she talking about Bishop like that when I was right there in the room?
Nikita and her colleagues had put themselves on the line to get the leaked documents, so I decided it was time for me to do the same. I let them know the truth about who I was and where I’d come from. I’d like to say they believed me because I’d earned their trust, but I don’t think that was the case. I think it was the emails — after reading C&C’s terrifying plans, absolutely anything seemed possible.
It was time for Faith and me to make our entrance, so we split off from the others and opened the door to the press conference. Seeing my furrowed brow, she leaned in and whispered a reminder — “happy faces!” — and then with smiles wide, we walked inside.
The press conference was being held in a large room inside the special-events wing of the library. Pockets of press and photographers were already waiting, along with 50 or so observers. The OpenMind board members and Cooter & Cooter executives were waiting on the stage, and as Faith and I wound our way to the front, the announcement began.
We suddenly heard a commotion in the back. Nikita’s protesters burst in, shouting and holding up anti-OpenMind signs. One of the C&C executives calmed everyone down, and then Hayden stepped forward to announce her resignation — the one I’d demanded as a condition of the acquisition.
Then, it was time to sign the documents that would formally close the deal. The head of the OpenMind board was up first; Harold Cooter came next, showering the crowd with a litany of buzzwords and marketing hype-speak about what great things C&C would be able to do after rolling OpenMind out on a truly global level.
Then it came time to announce Bishop’s return.
Bishop returning to the company was going to be the PR masterstroke for Cooter & Cooter. A huge corporation taking hold of this kind of thought-reading technology could have raised immediate concerns, but with him joining as chief visionary officer, they would have a face the public was already comfortable with standing beside them, assuaging fears even as they rolled out sinister initiatives behind the scenes. Bishop was the stamp of approval they needed to make the whole thing work, and why they’d been willing to pay over $1 billion for the overall deal. But that’s also why Faith and I knew we both had to use this moment to blow the whole thing up and make sure no other company would be interested in moving forward with OpenMind in the future.
A video started playing about the origins of OpenMind, building excitement for Bishop, but I didn’t even have a chance to see it. Faith’s assistant Dede had quietly appeared and delivered some news. Faith’s aunt had a medical emergency, and Faith needed to go. I’d have to take the lead and handle this myself.
Bishop’s role as CVO was announced, and I walked onto the stage, showered with applause from the audience and boos from the protestors. I shook the hands of the various board members, carefully keeping a fake smile plastered on my face. I stepped forward to address the crowd and admitted that when I was ousted from OpenMind last year, I thought my time at the company had come to an end. And so when C&C approached me about coming back, I said, I was excited about the possibilities.
But there were some things the public didn’t know about OpenMind, I admitted. I shared that in the early days, the project never received regulatory approval, so I began experimenting on myself. There were no safety checks; no studies about long-term effects. And while the technology worked, there were problems. It caused mental health issues, and people had also died because of OpenMind.
The C&C executives started to get nervous and tried to shut me down, but I waved them off. Then I turned to the subject of the leaked emails.
As I laid out the corporation’s sinister plans, the crowd grew more indignant. I said I would share the documents with any members of the press that were interested, and that I couldn’t let the technology be used in this way in good conscience.
The chant from the crowd was coming from all sides: Rip it up! Rip it up! To my right, a C&C executive pleaded for me to just sign the deal. Instead, I picked the contract up in both hands, leaned into the microphone, and announced that the deal was not happening.
I ripped the pages in two, letting them fall to the ground on either side. It was a moment of pure catharsis, the four days of the story culminating in one single, triumphant moment. For that split second, I felt like I was capable of anything.
I felt the noise before I heard it. It came from right behind me, but the crowd was too loud for me to make out exactly what it was. It sounded, of all things, like a gong, and when I turned around, I was greeted by a flood of balloons spilling out onto the stage. Where uptight corporate executives had been moments before, there were now dancing, gyrating party people.
I hadn’t really thought about what the end of my four-day SimuLife would look like, but it appeared that I was looking at it: a full-on rave. It was so surreal, I didn’t know how to process it. Then somebody handed me a glow stick, and I jumped on the floor along with everyone else and started dancing. Someone began chanting “Conga!” and a man in a blue, full-body elastic suit grabbed my hand and began dancing. It was Day-Glo chaos, and it was glorious.
The Blue Man led me outside, and when the crowd dispersed, he pulled back his costume, revealing a face I recognized from the other timeline: Dr. Everett. But outside the fiction of the story, I knew that face belonged to Jeff Wirth, director of Interactive Deep Dive — the Austin-based creative lab that had designed my story experience. That seemed to be the signal: the story was over.
I talked briefly about what an insane few days it had been. Jeff simply smiled and nodded. He asked if I was going to a previously scheduled meeting with a producer from Meow Wolf later that day, and gave me the time and place. I thanked him for this mind-bending ride, then headed back to my hotel.
Going through an experience this intense, with this much emotional investment, had been exhilarating, and as I walked the streets of downtown Austin I was ebullient. But still, one thing nagged at the back of my mind: Bishop.
The story experience had been expertly crafted, with every narrative setup leading to a dramatic pay-off. Yet in the end, the show had simply fizzled out, leaving the main villain on the loose. The morning’s finale had been a satisfying moment, but the story itself didn’t feel complete. Nothing’s perfect, I told myself. Not every experience can stick the landing.
I simply had no idea what was coming next.
Join us for the final story installment of The SimuLife Diaries, where I finally have a chance to save the world from the threat of OpenMind — at terrible personal cost.