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The best part of real-life Westworld was learning what people want from Westworld

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SXSW created the town of Sweetwater, and it was a perfect way to see how people approach entertainment’s immersive future

Photo: HBO

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.

Everybody approaches wish-fulfillment fantasy differently. That’s one of the major themes in HBO’s Westworld, which centers in part on the choices visitors make — whether to chase outlaws or join them, whether to help innocent victims or become rapists and murderers. Just as in the 1973 Michael Crichton movie that inspired the series, Westworld visitors are invited to live out their best and worst fantasies, free of consequence. SXSW’s real-life Westworld couldn’t possibly go that far, but it still opened up a small world of choices for its guests. And one of the most engaging parts of the experience was watching people explore it, revealing what they want — and what they’re prepared to handle — when they go to Westworld.

Giant Spoon’s title for the Westworld brand activation, “Live Without Limits Weekend,” fed into the show’s idea of elite, coddled vacationers stepping outside the real world and into a fantasy. So did the framing of the trip to Sweetwater. Patrons with reserved tickets were directed to Austin’s Eastside Tavern, where we were whisked by a blocks-long line of people waiting for a chance to get in. On a sunny open-air deck, we were handed cocktails, fancy hors-d'oeuvres, and cowboy hats, either white or black. That’s a major symbolic choice in the show, tied to the history of Western movies — white-hats are pure and noble heroes, black-hats are low and scheming villains. We made our choices in advance, through an eerie onboarding survey (sample question: “I am in control of my future, true/false”) which gauged our morality. The black / white split was roughly even on the 25-minute bus journey out to the Westworld site, but as the day wore on, I saw a lot more black hats than white ones — maybe an indication that the show’s fans have bought into the idea that the dark and dangerous paths are the most exciting ones.

But there weren’t many dark-and-dangerous options at the actual park. We entered the place through a “portal” room lined with black and white hats — a brief nod to the TV series’s staging and costuming area for clients, which a different marketing agency reproduced in depth at 2017’s San Diego Comic-Con. On the show, that portal room is where Westworld’s owner, the mildly sinister Delos Incorporated, doles out the costumes and weapons that will define guests’ role in the park. In this case, though none of SXSWestworld’s guests were armed, and no costumes were provided except the hats. We were also warned not to touch the actors — an important rule, given the reports of sexual harassment or groping in similar immersive-entertainment settings. On HBO’s Westworld, the access to consequence-free kill-sprees and no-strings-attached sex with robots are some of Westworld’s primary draws. Here, sex and murder weren’t options. Again, we each had to figure out what kind of experience we wanted, and figure out how to make it happen.

Photo: HBO

After the staging room, we walked through a vintage-style train car, used on the show, and meant to represent the trip to Sweetwater. Inside the train, we had our first interactions with Sweetwater’s hosts. A woman in wide petticoats and skirts, with a tiny hat perched on her elaborate updo, took my hands and lavishly welcomed me to town. And then another guest in a white hat pushed up behind me and asked the guest, “If I were to mention the name Charlotte Hale, what would you say to that?” “Well, I don’t think I know anything about that particular person,” the host told her. It was my first inkling of how things were going to go at SXSWestworld and my first encounter with a Westworld puzzle-solver.

The Puzzle-Solvers

In my experience, guests at the Live Without Limits Weekend broke down into a few clear categories based on what they wanted from the experience and whether they approached it like a game, a real town, a colorful backdrop, or an opportunity to test the limits. The puzzle-solvers were the gamer types, and they were out to win. We’d been told up front that Sweetwater was full of Easter eggs, clues about the upcoming second season of HBO’s show, and the puzzle-solvers were out to uncover every possibility. Everywhere I went, there were people following leads, grilling the hosts, and trying to explore more deeply than anyone else. Westworld’s elaborate online alternate-reality game has trained fans to dig deep and watch closely for scraps of information. And the first season set off endless rounds of speculation and debate, as fans tried to stay three steps ahead of the plot. That extended to SXSWestworld, where I watched guests chase red herrings all over the park.

The hints started with a little gift hidden in the linings of our hats — little blood-spattered place cards with “Westworld: Journey into Night” printed on one side, and the Delos corporate logo and a table number and name on the other. Mine read “Table 1: Charlotte Hale.” Over the five and a half hours I spent in Sweetwater, I saw countless people trying to find numbered tables or get hosts to explain the names on the place settings, but no one seemed to have any information about them.

Another popular occupation was digging up the grave of one of the first season’s protagonists, Dolores Abernathy. In the kickoff season, an important clue was found buried in her grave, and the puzzle-solvers took that as a hint. When I got to Sweetwater around 1:30PM, enterprising guests were just starting to shift the topsoil off her resting place — and they were finding things in the dirt, like a samurai-embossed coin from Westworld’s sister site, Shogun World, and a rolled-up copy of the horse painting Dolores creates on the show. Every time I checked in on the grave, there were new people exhuming it — and by the time I left, around 7PM, the hole was more than four feet deep and big enough to fit an actual coffin into. People were still digging, just in case.

Guests who registered in advance could also go to the Sweetwater post office, an efficient little outpost where two hosts doled out personalized letters meant to kick off further exploration. Mine was a simple welcome to town from Sweetwater’s Suffragette Society, but other people got much more elaborate and disturbing letters, like a copy of Maeve’s sketch of a Delos employee, or a host’s harrowing description of seeing red lights and a hidden door and something that drove her mad. That clue, at least, led to a specific place — a locked shed on the outskirts of Sweetwater, where guests who figured out the code to the lock (0422, the date of Westworld’s season 2 premiere) could step inside and see white-clad Delos employees, working on a new host.

Photo by Nick Statt / The Verge

Other letters were more opaque. My Verge colleague Adi Robertson, for instance, spent a lot of her Westworld experience chasing down the Latin phrases in her letter and felt she ruined the experience for herself by turning it into a game. And the other puzzle-solvers I talked to seemed similarly frustrated by the lack of specific answers. My old Verge co-worker Ross Miller (now at Polygon) said he’d talked to one of the show’s producers, who confirmed that the place cards in our hats didn’t correspond to any particular Sweetwater locale or hint. But most people didn’t know that, and they kept trying to use the place cards on the Sweetwater residents, looking for something that would trigger an outpouring of secrets.

The puzzle-solvers were ruthless. I saw people literally prying boards off the ground and checking under them for clues. At the bank, a painting was lying on the ground, pulled out of its frame, as though someone had hoped to find something hidden inside. And visitors kept showing hosts images from the show on their cellphones, hoping to spark a reaction. The hosts uniformly responded with a bland, “That doesn’t look like anything to me” — the catchphrase the show uses whenever its robots are exposed to anything outside their programmed paradigm.

Personally, I stopped trying to win the Sweetwater experience within half an hour of arriving. One of the first hosts I talked to, a hard-faced woman named Patty Wainwright, confronted me the moment I got off the train and spun out a story about how she was looking for the Vasquez brothers, a dangerous pair of outlaws named Cisco and Santiago. She asked me to find them for her and deliver a message. But when I did, they looked annoyed and strolled off without a word. It was an unsatisfying way to end a quest — and a reminder that not everything that looked like a story hook was going to lead somewhere worthwhile. I resolved to just wander around and enjoy Sweetwater.

Photo: HBO

The Explorers

There was a lot to do in town. There was a barbershop, where professional barbers shaved male guests with a straight razor. At a saloon off the Coronado Hotel — a three-walled, open-air space that opened out on a stage — guests could get a tin of beans and the world’s saltiest jerky or sit on couches and watch live concerts. Hostlers wandered around with horses, which got a lot of petting and attention. (I asked one hostler if anyone was allowed to ride the horses, and she said no — “Except Elon Musk, who got a private tour yesterday because when Elon Musk wants to ride your horse, you don’t turn him down.”) In the Mariposa Saloon, there was a running blackjack game (chips were provided and had no value), a player piano plinking out the show’s familiar old-timey versions of modern rock hits, and a crowd of flirty saloon girls. Guests were provided with a couple of “gold coins” that doubled as drink tokens for the two open bars. There was a working photography studio, which always had a long line. And there was that secret shed, with its locked door and its look behind the scenes.

There was also a complicated running story. The Vasquez boys were planning to rob the local bank. Schoolteacher Eleanor Browning kept edging into the Mariposa and trying to talk the madam, Roslyn, and her staff into giving up their sinful ways. Rich widow Beatrice Caldwell swanned about town hassling other residents and letting them know she was better than them. Sheriff Baggert and his deputies let guests know they were meant to keep their eyes out for criminals. Frank Dellacorte, the local tough guy, schemed with various people and faced off against the Vasquezes. (At one point, I asked a host what Frank’s job was. He said, “That man’s profession is ‘badass.’”) And above all, everybody in town seemed to have an opinion about the love triangle between Betty and Jimmy, who’d recently gotten together, and Mackie, Betty’s longtime boyfriend. Everyone in Sweetwater seemed to have strong opinions about Jimmy, and whether he was about to get what was coming to him. Eventually, these plotlines came together in a grand finale that involved the whole cast, many of them waving guns and shouting threats. And then everything reset, the hosts went back to their starting points, and the story started over.

The explorers in Sweetwater tended to talk to each other a lot, comparing their letters and their discoveries and suggesting people worth talking to and places worth visiting. One couple all but ordered me to go hang out with blackjack dealer Charlie Jenkins because they liked his off-color jokes and hilarious cheating. I never spent any time with banker Harlan Beckle, but I talked to some people I’d met on the bus, who said he’d pay gold coins (that is, drink tokens) to people who told him entertaining stories. Everyone I met had interesting stories to relate about their encounters with different people in town.

And sometimes the city’s running script changed and offered different things to explore. An hour after I arrived, a man in full samurai plate armor, complete with grimacing face mask, came wandering through town. He was clearly a misplaced host from Shogun World next door, a teaser for season 2. I followed him around town for 20 minutes, watching people try to get a reaction out of him. People blocked his path, forced eye contact, spoke Japanese to him, showed him samurai coins from Dolores’ grave, and tried to haul various Sweetwater residents over to confront him. “That doesn’t look like anything to me,” most of them said. At one point, I saw a Delos employee in a white jumpsuit and goggles standing around, pretending to monitor the town by poking at an iPad. I showed her a phone photo of the samurai. “Yeah, sorry about that,” she said. “We have shipping errors happen sometimes. He’ll be rounded up and sent back shortly.”

The Tourists

Mostly, though, people just ran up to the samurai and took pictures of him or took selfies with him. The main activity for Sweetwater guests was taking pictures and video of everything in sight, often instead of interacting with it. The culture shock could be a little severe, watching a grime-streaked blacksmith talk to the even grimier town drunk while a circle of men and women in T-shirts, tennis shoes, and cowboy hats filmed it all. When the finale rolled around again, the final desperate shootout took place inside a ring of people holding their phones over their heads, recording it all for later.

Like tourists everywhere, Sweetwater tourists mostly seemed to enjoy taking pictures and complaining about the food, the entertainment, and especially the limitation on drinks. I heard at least a dozen people ask the hosts the same question: “How do I get more drink tokens?” There were a lot of answers: “Go clean up horse dung on Main Street, and somebody’ll pay you.” “The Sheriff gives people gold if they turn in wanted criminals.” “I hear Harlan the banker is looking for somebody to work in the bank, and he pays.” But from what I saw, it was very rare for someone to actually earn an extra token. “Live without limits — except the two-drink limit,” someone snarked at me later in the week.

Photo: HBO

But what baffled me most about the tourist types was that some of them didn’t appear to want to interact with the town at all. I watched people stand back from the action and ignore the hosts entirely, except while trying to get them into selfies. To the tourist types, the entire town seemed to be a fancy version of the cutout standees that let people on vacation take goofy pictures of themselves. At one point, I sat down near the park entrance, where a couple of rough, hipshot rancher ladies were swaggering back and forth and trading insults with each other. We talked about their guns, their work, the other guests, whatever came to mind. It was an easy, enjoyable interaction that let me figure out their characters, and gave them more ammo to tease each other with, about which of them worked harder and which of them had the worse family.

While we were talking, a man slurping down beans came and stood near the bench, and one of the ranchers tried to engage him in the banter. He mumbled something awkward and slunk away. I’ve been that person at Renaissance fairs, the shy kid who doesn’t necessarily want the full attention of a colorful, outspoken character. But it was hard to understand why people would come to a Westworld exhibit if the idea of immersive entertainment made them uncomfortable, annoyed, or bored. Still, it was clear that some people’s comfort level with the town only extended to documenting it to show other people later or maybe to brag on social media about having been there — which is exactly how some people approach vacations anywhere.

Photo: HBO

The rulebreakers

But then there was the other end of the spectrum, the people who wanted to fully interact with the environment and take control of it. It’s no wonder that a few people would approach #SXSWestworld this way, given the HBO show’s emphasis on complicated but rewarding park storylines that only the most intrepid, active gamers can discover. Some people clearly came to Sweetwater looking for the violence that the show revels in, and it was hard to find. I saw a few people try to make it for themselves.

Early on, one swaggering young host told me Sweetwater was a pretty quiet town, without a lot going on. “Then why have you had your hand on your gun the entire time we’ve been talking?” I asked. “Do I look like a desperado you’re going to have to shoot?” He looked around cautiously to see if anyone was in earshot, then leaned in and whispered, “If we don’t keep our hands on our guns, the guests will try to steal them. You would not believe the lengths people here will go to, trying to get our guns.” That certainly made sense; it’s hard to be a proper black-hat villain when you’re unarmed.

I got to see that dynamic in action a little later, during a sequence where Frank the Professional Badass confronted the Vasquez brothers in front of the doctor’s office and beat them both unconscious. It was clearly a scripted sequence, but one guest blew the script by jumping up onto the office porch and rifling through Cisco’s pockets, then grabbing his gun. Santiago wound up body-checking the thief into a wall and wrenching the gun out of his hand, all while staying in character — “What are you doing to my brother? Get your hands off him!” It was a surprising moment of actual, though minor, violence in the middle of all the pretense.

Photo by Nick Statt / The Verge

At other points throughout the day, I overheard guests trying to talk hosts into staging a bank robbery and getting laughed off because they didn’t have weapons. And while I was playing blackjack, half a dozen completely unarmed guests stormed into the Mariposa, yelling, “This is a stickup! We’re robbing this place! Give us free drinks!” One of the hosts at the blackjack table hooted with derisive laughter, yelling at them, “You ain’t got no guns! What are you gonna hold ’em up with, your peckers?” A minute later, Roslyn the madam was shoving the would-be robbers out through the swinging doors. I didn’t see a lot of this kind of thing, though my colleague Bryan Bishop was playing a deputy in Sweetwater when a guest actually stole a drink token out of the banker’s hand, which left the cast figuring out how to handle actual theft while staying in character.

Weirdly, one of the rule-breakers was apparently Lord of the Rings actor Elijah Wood, who seemed to be exploring #SXSWestworld along with all the other tourists. I caught a few glimpses of him wandering around town with a companion, but the other guests quickly caught on and started following him around. Before long, the Sheriff publicly confronted him, and Wood took off running, hat in hand. The Sheriff chased him across town, bellowing, “Danged Elijah Wood! No wonder we got his face up on a wanted poster!” Eventually, his presence drew a crowd, and the cast hustled him into the barbershop, closed the door, and called security over to deal with the growing number of people following him. When the Sheriff emerged to ask us to disperse, I asked him, “What did he do?” The Sheriff yelled, “I hear tell he stole someone’s ring!”

The freedom of choice

Giant Spoon’s real-life Westworld was an impressive piece of staging — a huge, sprawling immersive experience with enough options to keep engaged visitors busy for a whole day. But it was also a reminder that interactive entertainment depends heavily on participants’ willingness to interact. It was also a reminder of the limitations of an experience like this, where safety and consent are real and significant issues. “These violent delights have violent ends,” characters say over and over on HBO’s Westworld, emphasizing the inevitable price being paid in an environment where people really can explore their darkest impulses. But the Live Without Limits Weekend had two limits: it couldn’t re-create the show’s consequence-free world, and it couldn’t make people have experiences unless they were actively involved and interested in engaging on the specific levels the designers intended.

And that’s the useful part of experiences like SXSWestworld. It’s not just about promoting a TV show or entertaining a few thousand people for a weekend in one city in Texas. As theme park designers, VR programmers, and immersive specialists continue to push the limits of what can be done with interactive entertainment, they’ll be looking to events like this one to see what they can learn for possible future Westworlds. Someday, robot-staffed theme parks may actually be possible. But human nature, and human appetites, aren’t likely to change that much. Immersive designers in the future will still have to deal with people who want to prod at every corner of the experience to define the rules or people who just want to break them. The more they can learn about what people want from this kind of adventure, and how they try to achieve their goals, the more they’ll be able to give everyone the tailored, specific experience they want out of something like Westworld.