With HBO's Westworld, watchers were dared to imagine themselves in the full swing of Sweetwater, the town that serves as a hub to the show's first season. Would you be a white hat or a black hat? Would you hang with the ladies of the brothels? Throw back a few whiskeys in the saloon? Or search for clues to find buried treasure? Our reporter got to do all of the above and more at Westworld's awe-striking activation out of the SXSW Conference.
Called “Live Without Limits Weekend,” this event was open to the public. The night before SXSW kicked off, Fangrrls checked out the press preview. The adventure began at the EastSide Tavern, a restaurant serving as Mesa Gold Station. It was overrun with beautiful Delos hosts with big, earnest smiles and dazzling all-white uniforms.
After signing in, I walked past a player piano that's pages were splattered with blood, then into a lounge, where everyone wore cowboy hats, white or black. Unlike on the show, there was no wall for me to choose if I were to be a hero or a villain. Instead, I approached a smiling woman at the hat check-in, who asked my name. She blinked rapidly. And I know she's not really a robot, but it felt like she was scanning her files. She repeated my name back to me and handed me a black hat. A fine Stetson with the Westworld logo emblazoned inside. (And I got to keep it!)
Next, they loaded us onto a bus plastered with horses and Westworld's logo. We rode off as the sun set and wound up 17 miles outside of Austin at in J. Lorraine, Texas. Upon exiting the bus, I was welcomed onto a train. Just like on the show, you travel through the train before hitting Sweetwater. Now, this train isn't moving, but walking through its elaborately decorated cars, each peopled with a few actors who were devotedly in character, set the stage for the intense and insanely detailed activation ahead of us. There was even the swell of steam as you exited, making the atmosphere of the cold, dark night a bit eerier.When I heard HBO was recreating Sweetwater, I expected a saloon and a few photo ops. But HBO spared no expense, building a legit small town complete with a sheriff's station, post office, barbershop, and so much more. You could sling back drinks and eat up beans and brisket at the Coronado. You could interact with the small army of hosts, who all boast Wild West accents, wonderful costumes, and vibrant narratives. Or you could search for clues about season two. I did all of the above!
At the post office, I met a mournful young damsel who begged to hear details of a life outside of Sweetwater. (She dreams of seeing snow someday.) There were hotheaded gunslingers that bristled in bars. A fastidious photographer offered a photo op, which is a bit of a hat on a hat situation as visitors are encouraged to snap shots of every single nook and cranny of this elaborative and immersive experience. (And don't worry about the hosts. If they see your fancy iPhone, they'll shake their head and simply say, "Doesn't look like anything to me!")
But for me, the most memorable experience of a night full of jaw-dropping fun and drama was the brutal gunfight that broke out in the town square. First, there was a ruckus. Guests ran to see what was going on, as two men faced off with shouts and threats of gunfire. Frantic, their women begged them to avoid bloodshed. I was so caught up in one's pleas, I didn't realize I'd stumbled into the action. I'd ended up in the middle of two men thirsty for a fight, and I spun on a heel to get to a safer distance (better vantage point). Just when it seemed they'd lay down their guns, a pair of costumed hoopleheads barged in and callously shot the older gentleman. His girl cried and clutched at his body as he fell and died, while his killer hooted with joy.
"I've been here 17 times and I finally got him!" The crass cowboy cheered. Then, he pulled out a camera-phone and dropped his Westworld persona to pose for photos with the corpse he created. This dead man was just a thing now to gawk at and pose with, even as he was mourned by his wife. Afterward, the killer and his equally rowdy pal walked off cocky, loud, and proud, curring through an astonished crowd. Then, the retrieval team swept in their white suits to carry off the body. They demanded the robots freeze. And throughout the crowd, people in Western gear went so frightfully still that I had to remind myself this is just a game. It's fun. You're not going to cry.
I rejoined some friends, and they asked if I was ok. Honestly, I was shaken to my core. In one brief scene, I'd seen the show distilled: the violence, the passion, the callousness of man, the horrific plight of the hosts. But this isn't all there is to Westworld's installation.
We were told Sweetwater contained Easter Eggs for season two, so we searched high and low. The Hoopleheads dropped one, cheering that maybe they'd hit "one of the other" worlds now. Later, a hint of those other worlds strode through Sweetwater. A Samurai with a scowling mask. He spoke to no one, but could his inclusion mean the robot-worlds will collide in coming episodes? Or will the action leap over to the teased Shogun world?
Still, more clues might be found in the Sweetwater post office, where guests can pick up letters addressed just to them. Your letter may not be the same as your neighbors, so ask around. And here's a tip for free: Check under your hat. Rip away the Westworld logo. (You won't ruin it. It'll reattach with its velcro). There might be another clue under there.Ultimately, this is a can't-miss experience for Westworld fans that'll have everyone craving to revisit season one, and ravenous for the upcoming premiere on April 22. Sure, you can't shoot or frak any of the hosts. But this is as close as fans could hope for a taste of Westworld in the real world.
Check out more from Westworld's "Live Without Limits Weekend" in with this gallery.