HBO’s SXSW Westworld Park is gloriously creepy and I’m never going back
Thanks to Capital One for sponsoring this post.
For a few minutes, okay, maybe 15, I began to wonder if our meandering bus trip was somehow part of the immersive Westworld experience. As I took note of highway landmarks passing by for the second time, I wondered if we’d ever reach the “Life Without Limits” HBO’s SXSW Westworld experience was promising us. Even if I did, would it be worth it? Westworld is just a TV show, an involving, dystopian view of a robot resort/playground for the rich, but still just a show.
Eventually, our bus…er Delos Shuttle…did make it and, yes, it was worth every creepy, crazy minute.
HBO spent months building Westworld: Live Without Limits Weekend, a recreation of the show’s late 1800s Sweetwater town somewhere outside of Austin (producers asked us not to reveal the actual location of the “park”). Even though little was known about the experience before HBO invited Press on Thursday night, they’d already filled half the available reservations online.
There will be more tickets released for the limited three-day stay though HBO isn’t saying how many or when. SXSW conference goers will not be able to peek inside or stumble into the park. It’s only accessible via a 20-minute bus ride and only after registering and waiting at the EastSide Tavern just outside Downtown Austin.
Hop in, pardner
That’s where my journey began; staring at the more than a dozen eerily-lifelike robot head molds adorning the bar’s terrace space wall. The closer I got to the casts, the more life-like they looked. The eyes seemed clenched shut and I detected hairs on their upper lips and chins.
While we waited, “Hosts” (as the robots are called on the HBO show) dressed in crisp, white attire dolled out drinks and, yes, cowboy hats, encouraging us to wear them to the experience.
Something’s not right
We arrived well after dark and stepped through a velvet curtain where another host stood over a case of weaponry, greeting each of us with “Welcome to Westworld.” Oddly, she didn’t offer to let us pick a weapon. Behind her was a single wooden door. Looking at it, I was reminded of the door to Willie Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. This one, too was a gateway to another world.
It led directly into a Pullman-style train car, where a pair of characters/hosts/actors were arguing whether you could experience true happiness without knowing sadness. Here, as in most places in the park, the actors freely engaged with us, taking note of our odd dress and technology, but mostly with confusion. I did have a lengthy discussion with a bandito who told me he was searching for Carl, a fat man who smelled bad. He planned to shoot him between the eyes and cut off his…you get the idea.
Initially, it all seemed a little quaint, but the detail, craftsmanship and slightly off-kilter verisimilitude was exquisite.
Outside the train car, there was a full-scale replica of Sweetwater, with real cowboys, prostitutes, shop keepers, lawmen and thieves. More than a few of the hosts were “drunk.” And guests could get a little tipsy themselves with real drinks from the barkeep.
What to expect
Prior to arriving at Westworld: Live Without Limits Park, I’d signed a quick release that warned me about, among other things, “sound effects, sudden movements, knife-throwing, stunt fighting involving firearms, horses, uneven terrain, surfaces, and wooden structures.” That all turned out be true.
There was, for example, an old guy repeatedly throwing a large knife into wood stumps. There were numerous disinterested horses (I bet they were very confused), fighting, shooting and the occasional fake death.
It was like a fun Western town, except for the persistent element of weirdness that ran through the enterprise like a swollen vein. Occasionally, a host would glitch and either freeze in place or stutter.
Even when the hosts performed normally (there are 60 of them, along with 6 stunt people), they were not really connecting with guests as much as they were running scripts. When I walked back into the bar almost an hour after my first visit, the same prostitute approached me earlier stepped in front of me and repeated the line, “What brings you here?”
HBO is playing here with the best and core premise of the show, that the illusion of control is just that. The robots are performing their tasks adroitly, except when they’re not. Westworld is not Disneyland. It’s a fun house mirror house of horrors.
There was also a puzzle element to the whole enterprise, though I don’t think I ever fully grasped what it was all about. Some people got handed coins, others were told that the cowboy hats we’d been given might have something special inside.
The best bit, though, were the letters. Everyone who registers gets a physical piece of mail, complete with their hand-scripted name on it. Mine was a love letter of sorts that literally degraded into code: the robots feel love and it appears to be destroying them.
The Park also offers glimpses of the machinations behind the fantasy curtain. In one space, we saw a technician working on an unfinished robot. It was all white and sinewy. In the second bar, we found a shogun warrior, clearly a host that had wondered off Shogun World into this park.
As I wondered around the dirt-and-gravel-covered park, exploring the bank, another bar, and the barbershop, the hosts suddenly announced that a bank robbery was in progress. We all ran to the square where a desperado was facing off with, I think, a lawman.
Someone was shot and there was a lot of confusion, but then a pair of characters stepped forward, two men whom I assumed were also robot hosts, and began hooting and hollering about beating it, “finally beating this narrative.’ It was two actors playing guests. As in the show, they were repeat visitors to the park who’d been trying to beat the part of the broader Westworld narrative for ages.
With that, the Hosts grew rigid — oh it was so odd — and started herding us toward the park exits. Whatever personality the hosts had up to that point drained away.
Even though we were encouraged to spend an hour and a half in the park, our experience was a slightly truncated version. Other visitors will go through a “personality assessment” to determine if they get a white hat (good guy) or a black one (bad guy). Someone just handed me my 10-gallon hat without much fanfare.
Look, I’m already a fan of Westworld and had every intention of watching it again when it returns to HBO on April 22. This park experience didn’t change my plans, but it did make me uneasy. Ever since I first read Michael Crichton’s Westworld in the 1970s and then watched the ground-breaking film, I’ve wanted to travel to Westworld, but when I finally got there, I honestly couldn’t wait to leave. It just felt wrong, which I guess is the point.