What if you could live a life without limitations? That's the main question posed not just by HBO's Westworld, but also by Westworld: The Experience, currently running at San Diego Comic-Con. The former is a TV show you can watch from a removed distance, posing questions of morality while letting you safely say you would choose better back in your own living room. The latter is possibly the most stressful thing I've ever experienced.
The adventure starts in the lobby of the Hilton San Diego Bayfront, where an extremely limited number of San Diego Comic-Con goers can watch a player piano slathered in blood, straight from the show, then sign up for the off-site Experience starting at 9:30am (both Saturday and Sunday sign-ups will happen Saturday morning). Each day, these lucky fans (I say lucky, but luck goes both ways) travel to a remote location and enter Westworld.
And when I say "enter Westworld," get ready to be totally freaked the f--- out, because HBO went all out on this Experience.
A quick catch-up for those who haven't watched the show. Sometime in the future, an elaborate Western theme park full of incredibly lifelike robots draws visitors who want to test their moral limits. Some go full white hat, and just soak in the sites. Others go black hat, and murder and have sex with whoever they please. Guests can't be hurt, while the robots — called hosts — die in spectacularly bloody ways. The show is all about morality, and what we become when there are no limits on what we can do. So already upon making the decision to embrace that ethos, even knowing that you're not really heading to Westworld... Basically, it's not going to help your anxiety, if that's an issue for you.
Anyway, you head to the secret location, and are greeted by a mostly emotionless "host" all dressed in white. Already, there's something off about the setup. There's nothing strange about being greeted by someone at a hotel; but the stiffness of the actors, their rigidity in answering your questions feels... Wrong.
When it's time for your appointment, you head up a staircase, and into the best approximation of the entrance to Westworld you could imagine in a real world hotel. Decked out with screens trumpeting your visit (but really showing scenes from the show), two hosts greet you and welcome you to Westworld. They also show off costumes from the show, which in this scenario are "from characters you might recognize from the park," and weapons you'd choose.
And here is where my troubles began.
The hosts are creepy enough, with the occasional wall they (purposely) reach in answering your questions, and the stiffness of their facial expressions. But adding in weapons, and asking you why you would choose the one you'd choose? It's alarming... And for me, I ended up traveling with two strangers, both of whom were laughing, making fun of the hosts, and talking about how neat it would be to use a knife and a gun at the same time.
That's the crux of it, right? That Westworld is supposed to reveal your true self? And how it does that is in the guise of a game. Even here, in miniature, two of the guests had no problem teasing the hosts to their faces, or joking about killing people because it's "all part of the game." If they acted this way in real life, I wondered, is it really such a stretch to think if Westworld was real, and we were there, that they could start blasting hosts with their weapons the second we arrived?
And furthermore, if they did it... What about me? Would I be sucked into the depths of depravity by this San Diego Comic-Con Experience? Was I a *gasp* black hat?
Before I could find out, we were whisked away down a hallway before a door marked "SW." Fans of the show know that another theme park owned by the sinister Delos Corporation, most likely called "Samurai World" was teased in the Season 1 finale. The glimpse of the door to SW, and the sound of sword fighting behind it certainly seems to confirm that suspicion. Sadly, according to the host, it wasn't time to look behind that door quite yet.
From there, it was off to private, individual, incredibly intimate rooms where a counselor waited to ask several probing questions. They ranged from the benign ("have you ever visited a theme park before?") to the terrifying ("which finger would you cut off, if you had to cut off one?"), and each one tested you morally. My mind started to run on two tracks: on one, I wondered if I answered "incorrectly" if I'd be doomed to an evil black hat; on the other, I started to think that perhaps it would be safer, in the "real" Westworld, to go bad. Going good gets you nowhere.
And then the counselor laid out my entire life before me. Based on the litany of questions, she proceeded to describe every scary, true thought about myself I've ever had — the good, the bad and the ugly — before going to a wall with the two hats. For me, she chose a white hat, and a sense of relief washed over me. A bit of disappointment, too. I wanted to think that thread of evil flowed through me. But at least according to this corporate activation for a television show, I'm good!
I exited the room, and my two traveling companions emerged, both wearing black hats, no surprise... And I realized, the hat was already starting to change me. If I was a white hat — good — and they were black hats — evil — that meant I needed to be upstanding and polite in my encounters, particularly in contrast to my new friends. No different than usual, hopefully, but over the course of the Experience I definitely felt myself leaning into the character, often without meaning to.
There was one more Season 2 tease/surprise before we moved on, though, a video introducing us to Westworld that quickly glitched out, showing scenes of violence from Season 1, over a poem read by Evan Rachel Wood's Dolores; before revealing a scene that seems to suggest Ed Harris' conflicted Man in Black (a.k.a. William) may have survived the bloody finale.
Then it was over to a bar modeled after the show's Sweetwater's Mariposa Saloon, where we sampled three delicious cocktails. While there, the bartenders often repeated their movements on a loop while still crafting complex, sometimes firey concoctions. And a host clearly modeled after Maeve (Thandie Newton) entered to engage in conversation. Again, this is where the stress of the reality/unreality came to play. Here was a real person, playing a robot meant to please guests. And I was a real person, not a guest of Westworld, but one trying to play into the white hat lifestyle.
How are you supposed to have a conversation like that? Let alone three cocktails deep, trying to be upstanding and good while a host is flirting with you, unsure of what to say ("what do you do for a job?") because you don't want to break the fragile reality of the situation?
Soon enough though, the Faux-Maeve host brought us over to a player piano, which played a cheeky version of the Game of Thrones theme (HBO produces both shows, and Ramin Djawadi does the music for both, as well). And that was it! We kept the hats, left, and I breathed a sigh of relief.
Oh, one more thing that confused the reality of the situation: on the way in, we bumped into cast member James Marsden; on the way out, rode the elevator down with another cast-member, Rodrigo Santoro. So really, at a place like Comic-Con, does the Experience end when you leave the doors? Or is it still going on? Right now?
And that's what makes the whole thing so cool: just like William the first time he visits Westworld, you don't know what to think of what's happening. It messes with your head. And ultimately, if you can break through the walls keeping you in the outside world, you'll discover your true identity. I can't say I quite got there (though the three drinks helped), but it definitely made me think more about who I am, and who I want to be. That's a little more than your run of the mill "hashtag your Instagram!" style Comic-Con activation.
Ultimately though, whether you choose the path of the good, or evil? These violent delights lead to a free hat.
Westworld returns in 2018.