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

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At the South By Southwest Conference in 2018, HBO and the Giant Spoon marketing agency created an epic promotion for Westworld, the HBO series about a future Old West theme park where the rich elite deploys their fantasies of heroism and villainy. Giant Spoon significantly rebuilt the already existing J. Lorraine Ghost Town of Texas as a two-acre version of the real life of Sweetwater, a small town in the west of the country full of hooks for visitors. They populated it with more than 60 actors disguised as "hosts", realistic humanoid robots that play an important role in the history of Westworld. Our SXSW culture team visited Sweetwater, and in these three linked articles, each of us explores our versions of the experience, both within the story and behind the scenes.
Everyone approaches fantasy fulfillment of wishes differently. That's one of the main themes at HBO's Westworld, which focuses in part on the choices made by visitors, whether to chase down or join the outlaws, whether to help innocent victims or become rapists and murderers. . As in the Michael Crichton film of 1973 that inspired the series, visitors to Westworld are invited to live their best and worst fantasies, without consequences. The real-life Westworld of SXSW could not go that far, but it still opened up a small world of options for its guests. And one of the most interesting parts of the experience was seeing people explore it, reveal what they wanted and what they were willing to handle when they went to Westworld.

The title of Giant Spoon for the activation of the Westworld brand, "Live Without Limits Weekend", added to the idea of ​​the program that elite and spoiled vacationers leave the real world and become a fantasy. So did the framing of the trip to Sweetwater. Customers with reserved tickets were directed to the Eastside Tavern in Austin, where we were trapped by a line of blocks of people waiting for the opportunity to enter. On a sunny outdoor terrace, we were given cocktails, luxury hors d'oeuvres and cowboy hats, whether white or black. That is an important symbolic option in the program, linked to the history of Western films: white hats are pure and noble heroes, black hats are low and intriguing villains. We make our decisions in advance, through a mysterious incorporation survey (sample question: "I have control of my future, true / false") that measured our morality. The black / white division was about the 25-minute bus ride to the Westworld site, but as the day progressed, I saw many more black hats than white, perhaps an indication that fans of the series bought the idea that dark and dangerous roads are the most exciting.
But there were not many dark and dangerous options in the royal park. We entered the place through a "portal" room full of black and white hats, a brief nod to the staging and costume area of ​​the TV series for clients, which a different marketing agency reproduced in depth at Comic-Con San Diego 2017. On the show, that portal room is where the owner of Westworld, the gently sinister Delos Incorporated, distributes the costumes and weapons that will define the role of the guests in the park. In this case, although none of the guests of SXSWestworld was armed, and no costumes were provided except 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 environments. At HBO's Westworld, access to killing without consequences and sex without ties to robots are some of Westworld's main draws. Here, sex and murder were not options. Once again, each of us had to discover what kind of experience we wanted and discover how to make it happen.

Photo: HBO

After the staging room, we walked through a vintage-style train car, which we used in the program, and intended to represent the trip to Sweetwater. Inside the train, we had our first interactions with the Sweetwater hosts. A woman in wide skirts and skirts, with a tiny hat perched on her elaborate hairdo, took me by the hand and welcomed me into the city. And then another guest with a white hat stood behind me and asked the guest: "If I had to mention the name of Charlotte Hale, what would you say to that?" "Well, I do not think he knows anything about that particular person," the host told him. It was my first hint of how things were going at SXSWestworld and my first encounter with a riddle solver from Westworld.
In my experience, the Live Without Limits Weekend guests were divided into a few clear categories based on what they wanted from the experience and whether they approached it as a game, a real city, a colorful backdrop or an opportunity to try limits . The riddle solvers were the types of players, and they were willing to win. We were told from the beginning that Sweetwater was full of Easter eggs, clues about the next second season of the HBO show, and the problem solvers had gone out to discover all the possibilities. Wherever I went, there were people following clues, roasting the hosts and trying to explore more deeply than anyone else. Westworld's elaborate alternative reality online game has trained fans to delve deeper and observe the snippets of information. And the first season triggered endless rounds of speculation and debate, as the fans tried to stay three steps ahead of the plot. That extended to SXSWestworld, where I saw the guests chase red herrings all over the park.
The hints began with a small gift hidden in the lining of our hats: small cards of places dotted with blood with "Westworld: Journey into Night" printed on one side, and the Delos corporate logo and a number and name of table on the other. Mine said "Table 1: Charlotte Hale." During the five and a half hours I spent in Sweetwater, I saw countless people trying to find the numbered tables or get hosts to explain the names in the places, but no one seemed to have any information about them
Another popular occupation was to unearth the tomb of one of the protagonists of the first season, Dolores Abernathy. In the launch season, an important track was found buried in his grave, and those who solved it took it as a clue. When I arrived at Sweetwater around 1:30 PM, the enterprising guests were beginning to change the top layer of their resting place, and were finding things on the ground, like a samurai relief coin from Westworld's sister site, Shogunworld , and a laminate. copy of the painting that Dolores creates in the show. Every time I checked into the grave, there were new people exhuming, and when I left, around 7 p.m., the hole was more than four feet deep and was big enough to fit a real coffin. People were still digging, just in case.
Guests who registered early were also able to go to the Sweetwater post office, a small, efficient outpost where two hosts handed out personalized letters to start new explorations. Mine was a simple welcome to the city of Sweetwater's Suffragette Society, but other people received much more elaborate and disturbing letters, like a copy of Maeve's sketch of a Delos employee, or the harrowing description of a host seeing lights red and a hidden door and something that drove her crazy. That track, at least, led to a specific place: a closed shed on the outskirts of Sweetwater, where the guests who discovered the lock code (0422, date of the premiere of the second season of Westworld) could go in and see dressed in White. Delos employees, working on a new host.

Photo of Nick Statt / The Verge

Other letters were more opaque. For example, my My Verge colleague, Adi Robertson, spent much of his Westworld experience chasing the Latin phrases in his letter and felt that he ruined the experience for himself by turning it into a game. And the other riddles I spoke with seemed similarly frustrated by the lack of specific answers. My former Verge collaborator, Ross Miller (now at Polygon) said he had spoken with one of the program's producers, who confirmed that the place cards on our hats did not correspond to any particular Sweetwater location or suggestion. But most people did not know it, and they kept trying to use the place cards in the residents of Sweetwater, looking for something that would trigger an avalanche of secrets.
The puzzle solvers were ruthless. I saw people literally taking tables off the floor and checking under them for clues. On the bench, a painting lay on the floor, taken from its frame, as if someone had expected to find something hidden inside. And visitors continued to show images of program hosts on their cell phones, hoping to provoke a reaction. The hosts responded uniformly with a soft tone, "That does not look like anything to me," the phrase the program uses every time its robots are exposed to something outside their programmed paradigm.
Personally, I stopped trying to win the Sweetwater experience in less than half an hour after arriving. One of the first hosts I spoke to, a tough woman named Patty Wainwright, confronted me the moment I got off the train and told me a story about how I was looking for the Vásquez brothers, a couple of dangerous criminals called Cisco and Santiago . She asked me to find them for her and deliver a message. But when I did, they seemed annoyed and left without saying a word. It was an unsatisfactory way to end a search, and a reminder that not everything that looked like a story of anecdotes was going to lead to a worthwhile place. I resolved to simply wander and enjoy Sweetwater.

Photo: HBO

The explorers
There was a lot to do in the city. There was a barbershop where professional barbers shaved guests with a razor. In a lounge in front of the Coronado Hotel, an outdoor space with three walls that opened onto a stage, guests could grab a can of beans and the saltiest jerky in the world or sit on sofas and watch live concerts. Hostlers roamed with horses, which received many caresses and attention. (I asked a hostler if anyone was allowed to ride the horses, and she said no – "Except Elon Musk, who yesterday made a private visit because when Elon Musk wants to ride his horse, he does not reject it"). In Mariposa Saloon, there was a game of blackjack running (chips were provided and they had no value), a player's piano that represented the well-known old versions of the hits of modern rock and a multitude of flirtatious girls in the room. The guests received a pair of "gold coins" that doubled as drink tokens for the two open bars. There was a working photography studio, which always had a long list. And there was that secret shed, with its door closed and its look behind the scenes.
There was also a complicated execution history. The Vasquez boys planned to rob the local bank. School teacher Eleanor Browning kept moving toward the Butterfly and trying to convince Mrs. Roslyn and her staff to abandon their sinful ways. The wealthy widow Beatrice Caldwell passed through the city bothering other residents and letting them know that she was better than them. Sheriff Baggert and his aides inform the guests that they must keep their eyes open for criminals. Frank Dellacorte, the tough local guy, planned with several people and faced the Vasquezes. (At one point, I asked a host what Frank's job was.) He said: "That man's profession is rough." And, above all, everyone in the city seemed to have an opinion. about the love triangle between Betty and Jimmy, who recently joined us, and Mackie, Betty's boyfriend for a long time. Everyone at Sweetwater seemed to have strong opinions about Jimmy, and if he was about to get what was coming. Finally, these plots came together in a grand finale that involved the entire cast, many of them waving weapons and screaming threats. And then everything was restored, the hosts returned to their starting points, and the story began again.

The explorers at Sweetwater tended to talk a lot among themselves, comparing their letters and discoveries and suggesting people worth talking about and places worth visiting. A couple almost ordered me to go out with blackjack dealer Charlie Jenkins because they liked their offbeat jokes and their hilarious traps. I never spent time with banker Harlan Beckle, but I spoke with some people I had met on the bus, who told me that I would pay gold coins (ie, drink tokens) to people who told him entertaining stories. Everyone I met had interesting stories to tell about their encounters with different people in the city.
And sometimes the execution script of the city changed and offered different things to explore. An hour after I arrived, a man in full samurai badge armor, complete with a grimacing mask, came wandering through the city. He was clearly an out-of-place host for Shogunworld, an advance for season 2. I followed him around the city for 20 minutes, watching people try to get him a reaction. People blocked their way, forced eye contact, spoke to him in Japanese, showed him samurai coins from Dolores' grave and tried to take several Sweetwater residents to face him. "That does not look like anything to me," said most of them. At one point, I saw a Delos employee in a white overalls and protective goggles standing, pretending to monitor the city by putting an iPad. I showed him a samurai phone picture. "Yes, I'm sorry," he said. "Sometimes we have shipping errors, he will be cornered and sent back shortly."

For the most part, however, people simply ran to the samurai and took pictures of him or took selfies with him. The main activity for the guests of Sweetwater was to take photos and videos of everything that was seen, often instead of interacting with him. The culture shock could be a little severe, see a blacksmith talk with dirt stains talking to the city even more drunk sad, while a circle of men and women in T-shirts, tennis shoes and cowboy hats filmed it all. When the end rolled again, the final desperate shootout took place inside a group of people holding their phones over their heads, recording everything for later.
Like tourists everywhere, Sweetwater tourists mostly seemed to enjoy taking pictures and complaining about food, entertainment and especially limiting drinks. I heard that at least a dozen people ask the same question to the hosts: "How do I get more drink chips?" There were many answers: "Go clean horse manure on Main Street, and someone will pay you." The Sheriff gives people gold if they become wanted criminals. "I heard that Harlan the banker is looking for someone to work at the bank, and he pays." But from what I saw, it was very rare for someone to really win an extra token "Live without limits, except the limit of two drinks" , someone criticized me later in the week.

Photo: HBO

But what puzzled me most about the types of tourists was that some of them did not seem to want to interact with the city at all. I watched the people who turned away from the action and completely ignored the hosts, except when trying to put them in selfies. For tourists, the whole town seemed to be an elegant version of the cut-off parking stands that allowed vacationers to take silly pictures of themselves. At one point, I sat near the entrance to the park, where a couple of rough ranchero ladies walk from one place to another exchanging insults between them. We talked about their weapons, their work, the other guests, whatever came to mind. It was an easy and pleasant interaction that allowed me to discover their characters, and I gave them more ammunition to annoy each other, which of them worked harder and which of them had the worst family.
While we were talking, a man sipping beans came and stood near the bank, and one of the ranchers tried to talk to him. He mumbled something clumsy and slipped away. I've been that person at Renaissance fairs, the shy kid who does not necessarily want the full attention of a colorful and open character. But it was hard to understand why people would come to a Westworld show if the idea of ​​immersive entertainment made them feel uncomfortable, upset or bored. Still, it was clear that the comfort level of some people with the city only extended to document it to show it to other people later or maybe boast on social networks to have been there, which is exactly how some people approach to vacations anywhere.

Photo: HBO

The rulebreakers
But then there was the other end of the spectrum, people who wanted to fully interact with the environment and take control of it. It's no wonder that some people approach #SXSWestworld in this way, given the emphasis of the HBO series on complicated but rewarding park stories that only the most intrepid and active players can discover. Some people came to Sweetwater looking for the violence that the show reveals, and it was hard to find. I saw some people try to do it for themselves.
At first, a young swaggering host told me that Sweetwater was a pretty quiet city, with not much to do. "So, why did you have your hand on your gun all the time we've been talking about?" I asked. "Do I look like a desperate man you'll have to shoot?" He glanced cautiously around to see if anyone was within earshot, then leaned over and whispered, "If we do not keep our hands on our guns, the guests" will try to steal them. You would not believe how far the people here would go, trying to get our guns. "That certainly made sense, it's hard to be a true black hat villain when you're unarmed.
I could see that dynamic in action a little later, during a sequence in which Frank the Professional Badass confronted the Vásquez brothers in front of the doctor's office and beat them both unconscious. It was clearly a sequence of scripts, but a guest skipped the script jumping onto the office porch and checking Cisco's pockets, and then grabbed his gun. Santiago finished checking the body of the thief on a wall and ripping the gun from his hand, all while remaining in character – "What are you doing to my brother? Take your hands off!" It was a surprising moment of real violence , although of less importance, in the middle of all the fiction.

Photo of Nick Statt / The Verge

At other times during the day, I listened to the guests trying to convince the hosts to organize a bank robbery and to laugh because they had no weapons. And while playing blackjack, half a dozen completely unarmed guests burst into the Butterfly, shouting, "This is a robbery! We're stealing this place! Give us free drinks!" One of the presenters at the blackjack table screamed with a laugh mockingly, shouting, "You have no weapons! What are you going to put up with, your peckers?" A minute later, Mrs. Roslyn was pushing potential thieves through the swinging doors. I did not see much of this kind of thing, although my colleague Bryan Bishop was playing deputy in Sweetwater when a guest stole a drink token from the banker's hand, which left the cast trying to handle the actual robbery while remaining in character .
Strangely, one of the offenders was apparently the Lord of the Rings actor, Elijah Wood, who seemed to be exploring the #SXSWestworld along with all the other tourists. I glimpsed some of him wandering around the city with a companion, but the other guests quickly noticed and began to follow him. In a short time, the Sheriff confronted him publicly, and Wood ran out, hat in hand. The sheriff chased him through the city, shouting, "Dangerous Elijah Wood! No wonder we put his face on a wanted poster!" Eventually, his presence attracted a crowd, and the cast hurriedly put him in the room. barbershop, closed the door and called security to deal with the growing number of people who followed him. When the sheriff came out to ask us to disperse, I asked him, "What did he do?" The sheriff shouted, "I heard he stole someone's ring!"
The freedom of choice
The real life Westworld of Giant Spoon was an impressive staging: a huge and extensive immersive experience with enough options to keep visitors busy for a whole day. But it was also a reminder that interactive entertainment depends to a large extent on the willingness of the participants to interact. It was also a reminder of the limitations of an experience like this, where safety and consent are real and meaningful issues. "These violent delights have violent ends," the characters say again and again at HBO's Westworld, emphasizing the inevitable price paid in an environment where people can actually explore their darker impulses. But the weekend of Live Without Limits had two limits: it could not recreate the world free of consequences of the program, and it could not make people have experiences unless they actively participated and interested in participating in the specific levels they intended. the designers.
And that's the useful part of experiences like SXSWestworld. It is not just about promoting a television program or entertaining a few thousand people over a weekend in a Texas city. As theme park designers, virtual reality programmers and immersion specialists continue to push the limits of what can be done with interactive entertainment, they will look for events like this to see what they can learn from future Westworld. Someday, theme parks equipped with robots may be possible. But human nature and human appetite probably do not change that much. Immersive designers in the future will still have to deal with people who want to try 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 can offer everyone the specific and personalized experience they want from something like Westworld.


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