In the depths of the maze, all I heard was the clinking of an ice block against my old fashioned glass. A dark, snaking labyrinth of barnwood walls circled into dead ends under a star-filled Texas sky. After an embarrassing 15 minutes of trying to find my way out, I emerged to the sound of Dallas Acid, a local ambient band that sounded like Brian Eno in conversation with David Lynch. On a rickety stage, two bearded men in Western wear stoically played Moog synthesizers. A tall blonde woman in a vintage dress kneeled before a gong.
A horse trotted past, as another guest in a black cowboy hat filmed an Instagram story of the whole scene. The host holding its reigns stared blankly at the guest’s phone and delivered a line of dialogue I recognized from television: “That doesn’t look like anything to me.”
I was at a ghost town just outside of Austin, which HBO had taken over to recreate the experience of Westworld, the popular show chronicling the adventures and mysteries behind a western-style theme park populated by androids. In the town, which is called Sweetwater, guests have unlimited freedom, meaning lots of sex and violence. The androids, who are referred to as “hosts,” act out narratives like bandit chases or treasure hunts, but eventually begin to self-actualize and rebel against their makers. Season 2 begins on April 22, and to promote it, HBO had invited fans to experience Westworld first-hand at South by Southwest, a natural hub for such an intersection of entertainment and branding.
In the show, characters wear either white or black cowboy hats to signify their morals. Many treat the park like Vegas; what happens in Westworld stays in Westworld. The cosplay has no boundaries, and the sandbox environment supposedly shows who you really are. But this version of Westworld had one very, very crucial difference: You couldn’t touch the hosts, who are played by real people who might presumably have something to say if you tried to beat them to death with a shovel.
Before embarking from a bar in East Austin, every participant received a hat. Nobody was allowed to choose, but the black hats still greatly outnumbered the whites, presumably to encourage a sense of adventure. After a half hour bus ride, I entered the park through a mock train car where a brooding bandit slumped in a tufted vintage armchair, nibbling a cigar. He introduced himself as Drunk Steve, then mumbled something incoherent.
Immediately, I met eyes with a beautiful woman in a lace white dress, sitting in the corner. She looked at me with a demure expression, and jerked into action as I walked in her direction. “What?” she said in a curt farmhouse accent. “You ain’t never seen a pretty girl before?” Despite my black hat, I reacted in typical white knight fashion by stumbling an apology, and scurrying away.
True to the premise, stepping off the train was like entering another world. Texas ghost towns aren’t particularly novel — they often host concerts or similar activations — but this felt distinctly more polished. Usually only a few token buildings are open for exploring, but the entire town was rebranded in the style of Sweetwater, as a team of 40 production workers spent five weeks upgrading the ghost town to HBO standards. There were plenty of neat, interactive details, like wanted posters with photos of actual guests hung on the walls of the jail. (Our pictures had been snapped back at the East Austin bar).
The dusty path outside the train led to a row of old timey storefronts, and before I considered entering any of them, a crouching, ponytailed runaway greeted me from the shadows, where she polished a gun. She asked if I’d seen Drunken Steve, and scowled when I pointed her toward the train. A moment later, the deputy greeted me outside the jailhouse, and warned me about someone named Patty Wainwright.
“I’ll tell you right now, do not toy with her,” he said. “She’s about yay tall, got her hair tied back, looks like a teenage boy. She is trouble, she’s wanted in the territory for a couple of shootings.” When I said I’d just met her, and that she seemed harmless enough, he disagreed vehemently, and told me it’d be safer to hit the Mariposa Inn for a drink and some brisket. If I needed to stay the night, rooms at the Coronado cost the premium price of a dollar.
The deputy was one of a cast of 66 actors, each complete with professional hair, makeup, and period-perfect costumes. They’d memorized their lines from a script that was apparently 444 pages long. The acting felt more like the immersive theater of Sleep No More, opposed to the hokey recitations of a ren fair. When one intimidating huckster type told me I could use a friend like him if I want to live in Sweetwater, I asked him how I might move here. Without missing a beat, he leaned uncomfortably close to my face and barked that it was a rhetorical question.
There was plenty to do — get a straight razor shave, take a tintype photo, gamble — but the most fun part of the experience was interacting with the hosts. I took the deputy’s orders and headed to a bar for barbecue and whiskey, chatting with a few damsels courting distress and drifters holding court at a blackjack table. I went over to the post office, where a dutiful older couple — the white-bearded train conductor type, and a woman whose face wrinkled under what must’ve been decades of acting — helmed the busy mailroom.
Drunk Steve wandered in and unsuccessfully tried to order a whiskey. Once he was kicked out, the postman informed me he had a letter addressed specifically to me from one Victoria Hale. The letter was emblazoned with my name, and contained a typewritten message about how happy she was I was coming to town, since it would allow us to meet. It closed with a cryptic warning: “Please be careful and trust nobody. The grand city of our childhood is the Naples to this weathered island.” I asked the postman where I might find her, and he said she might be in the saloon.
Back at the Mariposa, I ordered another old fashioned poured over a Rubix Cube-sized ice block. The bartender I recognized from Justine’s, a hip Austin restaurant, but he played it straight; when asked what he thought of Sweetwater, he responded without a wink by saying it was the only place he’d ever known. Victoria hadn’t been around these parts for a few hours, he said, but she might’ve been around the jailhouse. She was in a blue dress, if I wanted to keep an eye out. After finishing my drink, I walked out into the street, and found her surrounded by guests holding letters.
Victoria was a suffragette drumming up general support for the movement. I decided to be a true villain by playing devil’s advocate, and engaging her just to say I didn’t think women should be able to vote. She launched into a passionate feminist speech, as the other guests looked on incredulously. (Not surprisingly, no one backed me up.) Cowed, I told her I’d come to the meeting. The catch was that I needed to bring along two women, which Victoria implied might be a tall order for someone of my social graces. After looking for some takers, that proved to be true.
The fake Sweetwater was filled with references that only fans would understand. Dolores Abernathy’s grave, where a shovel sticks out of fresh dirt, was a popular spot (No Evan Rachel Wood, unfortunately.) A shogun warrior wandered around the park, foreshadowing the season two plot twist that (spoiler alert!) Westworld isn’t the only robotic theme park run by Delos Incorporated. Pushing a big red button inside a nondescript building opened a pair of hydraulic doors that revealed a window into a laboratory, where a technician was building robot that looks like a porcelain mannequin.
But the best secret, hands down, was the maze. It was easy to miss, but not too hard to find if you knew where to look. (Hint: It was behind the dusty sign that said “The Maze.”) In the show, the Maze is not actually a physical place, but rather a metaphor for the hosts finding self actualization; here, it was just a fun exercise in claustrophobia. The winding fence posts leaned at acute angles; certain points were almost too narrow to pass. I called out, but no one answered, I was alone in here.
The path repeatedly doubled back on itself. It was dangerously dark; I expected a jump scare at any moment, but never thought to pull out my camera light. I genuinely lost my sense of place and retreaded the same path several times, spinning in circles. I’d been exploring the park for almost two hours and was on my third drink, so every dead end started to look like an outhouse. I was tempted to relieve myself — after all, I was wearing the black hat — but again I made the moral (if not sanitary) choice.
I finally emerged to a huge commotion. Every able-bodied man in Sweetwater had sprinted into the town square, guns drawn. A crowd formed; the female hosts held the guests back. A situation took shape as a daft-sounding farm boy screamed that another host had slept with the love of his life. He was on the verge of tears, pistol drawn. A dozen others pointed surprisingly realistic guns at each other, daring a shootout. They traded threats and swung their weapons manically; it all felt like a Tarantino film.
Shots rang out, and one of the hosts fell to the ground dead. A moment of silence passed, before the shooters emerged. Two men in distinctly sartorial cowboy costumes high fived and congratulated each other. They didn’t speak in dialect; they weren’t hosts at all, but actors playing guests. After seven trips to the park, they’d finally completed this narrative.
The hosts then turned their pistols to these renegade guests. They fired, but their guns jammed. (In the show, the golden rule of the park’s robot population is that they can’t attempt to hurt anyone.) Someone in the distance screamed, “Stop all motor functions!” The gun-wielding hosts froze. A trio of Delos employees in Hazmat suits stepped into the scene, there to clean up the dead host and put the brakes on the storyline.
It was a surreal, meta moment that felt like one of the few fulfillments of the “anything is possible” premise that makes Westworld such a seductive idea. Over the course of the whole experience, I hadn’t committed a misdemeanor, nor did I witness any rule-breaking; the social stigma of being rude around real people was a stark difference from the show, where you could act villainously and never have to look anyone else in the eye again. (Also, the whole sex and murder thing.) Absent the possibility of a return visit, all I could think about were the missed opportunities: the conversations that could’ve gone further, the horses I could’ve jumped on, the whiskies I could’ve bought Drunk Steve. In the show, guests get a taste of a consequence-free environment, and keep coming back to test the limits. The black hat, which I kept, only reminded me there wouldn’t be a next time.
The confrontation capped the end of the night. The rest of the hosts immediately took on a robotic posture, directing guest after guest to the exit. The carefully crafted dialects disappeared; they were back in android mode, repeating the same line of dialogue on a rapid loop. “Thank you for visiting Westworld. Thank you for visiting Westworld. Thank you for visiting Westworld.”