At 2018’s South By Southwest Conference, HBO and the marketing agency Giant Spoon created an epic promotion for Westworld, HBO’s series about a far-future Old West theme park where the rich elite play out their fantasies of heroism and villainy. Giant Spoon significantly rebuilt Texas’ existing J. Lorraine Ghost Town as a two-acre, real-life version of Sweetwater, a small Westworld town packed with plot hooks for visitors. They populated it with more than 60 costumed actors playing “hosts,” realistic humanoid robots that play a significant part in the Westworld story. Our SXSW culture team visited Sweetwater, and in these three linked articles, we each explore our versions of the experience, both within the story and behind the scenes.
When Westworld premiered on HBO last year, there were two very different ways to watch the show. The series could be watched as a drama about free will, economic exploitation, and the nature of fantasy. It could also be a puzzle-box. People debated whether the Westworld theory mania was ruining the show, either by making every revelation a disappointment, or by turning Westworld into the sum of its plot twists. So maybe it’s not surprising that an actual visit to Westworld — or at least, the elaborate real-world reproduction that HBO set up at this year’s SXSW show — would leave me wondering if I’d done the whole thing wrong.
My colleague Tasha Robinson mapped out the many ways that people experienced the town of Sweetwater at “SXSWestworld.” I personally stepped off the bus prepared to stumble upon interesting little interactions, like the fistfight that was going on as I entered town. Maybe, I thought, I’d find a few hints for the upcoming season. But I figured that first, I should check out the post office and pick up the letter my fake Delos Incorporated brochure promised. Indeed, the attendant handed one over, inscribed with my name. I opened it and saw a smear of what looked like blood at the bottom of an unsigned, rhyming letter.
“Stop reading,” the letter urged me, telling me not to “lift the veil” behind the place I was visiting. “A letter of lies or a letter that’s true?” it asked. “You should hope it’s the former, Adi. Because they’re coming for you.”
I started rethinking my priorities around Sweetwater. I’d just gotten a blood-stained letter with a suggestion that I was in danger, warning me off a task that suddenly sounded very enticing. Was SXSWestworld more complex than I’d assumed? Had I stepped into my own little immersive theater arc? These questions were easily more compelling than playing blackjack or watching the live band.
A couple of hours later, I was no closer to finding the answers. I’d tracked down the letter’s physical origin by following the address on its stationary, but nobody knew who’d been staying there. I looked for someone who could translate some mysterious Latin phrases, but found only the town’s devious and untrustworthy pastor, who sent me to other potential translators at random. I honestly still don’t know if the letter was an invitation to find something, or just a piece of local color.
I saw plenty of other fascinating vignettes while I was hunting for answers. I watched two planted “guests” kill a host in a gunfight, then stand back as white-suited Delos attendants came to clean up the mess. I followed someone into a nondescript shed and caught a glimpse of Westworld’s inner workings. I argued with the pastor over whether Spanish was the same thing as Latin, while he made fun of the guests digging up Dolores Abernathy’s grave behind him. I had one host beg off answering a question because she needed to greet Elijah Wood, who had casually dropped by the installation.
It was just frustrating to hold a tantalizing mystery in my hand and not even know if it was a mystery. Or to subconsciously worry that I was playing Sweetwater too much like a game, when I intellectually understood that it was a place to be experienced. (“My NPC ran off,” I joked to a colleague when the Coronado’s proprietor went to hunt for her wayward son.) I’d decide I didn’t care about the letter, but wondered if I should check for just one more clue… and then I was back in a video game quest.
The Westworld installation clearly encouraged some level of detective work — other people were guided toward mysterious drawings, or “broken” hosts tracing numbers into the sand — but it was more impressive to watch the actors draw guests into their intricate, cyclical little stories. Now I wish I’d focused more on exploring those stories. As with the show itself, I was caught between enjoying the drama Sweetwater actually had to offer, and wishing for twists I doubted it would deliver.
I’ve looked around online at other people’s write-ups on their SXSWestworld experiences, and haven’t seen anyone else describe finding some elaborate little storyline related to this particular letter. So I’m pretty sure Sweetwater was just what it seemed to be: a remarkable piece of immersive theater. Ultimately, I’ve justified my awkward hunt for answers by deciding that I was simply role-playing a fictional visitor to the TV show’s theme park. Because after all, most of those people are annoying, point-missing jerks.