I wasn’t expecting to be choking back tears during my visit to HBO’s Westworld: The Experience at New York Comic Con, but sitting in a room with an actor playing a welcoming member of the park’s guest services, that’s what happened.
Westworld: The Experience is a new kind of immersive event installation. Actors are hired to be employee hosts of Delos, played so remarkably well that it’s only when they intentionally glitch you become aware they’re playing artificial intelligence, not humans. Upon walking into Delos’ main lobby, you’re treated to various weapons kept under glass. One of the actors saunters up next to you and whispers questions in your ear: “Which gun would you choose?” “What do you want to do in Westworld?” “Are you good or bad?”
It’s easy to smile awkwardly and laugh through the questions in a room full of people waiting to start the experience. With other people standing around in the room, the main thought is a reminder that you’re at the event to perform a job. It still feels like any run-of-the-mill experience. Replace zombies from The Walking Dead with attractive hosts on Westworld and the event space is similar.
It’s not until you’re separated from the group, taken into a room where a member of guest services is there to greet you that the experience really begins. After being instructed by an older woman with a soothing voice to get comfortable in the hard chair, and offering to hang my jacket up for me, a second round of questioning begins.
This one is more intense. The lights are dimmed and there’s no one around to exchange nervous glances with. On the wall hangs two hats — one white, one black — that will forever define you as the type of person you will be in the park. The guest services representative sports an eerie smile the entire time. It’s a combination of friendly and unappealing, like a host pretending to smile the way they think humans actually smile.
The questions start pretty easy at first — like a Buzzfeed quiz. “If you had to cut off a finger, which would it be?” “If you were in a saloon and two men appeared with guns, what would your reaction be? Choose from A, B or C.” Each question is designed to test your moral compass. Are you a black hat or a white hat? Are you someone who operates within the boundaries of the law or do you rebel, delighting in the vile acts that you can’t do outside of the park?
It’s one of the experience’s most important conversations because it gets to the heart of Westworld. When the rules of society are stripped away and you’re left naked, baring nothing but your actual self, who are you? We’re defined by the choices we make and, as I was sitting in this room, staring at a stranger who was going to know me more intimately than most people, I began to think about Jimmy, the Man in Black and other guests who came to the park to figure this out for themselves.
Are we the people we force ourselves to be, governing ourselves within the confines of societal norms, or are we the people in the park, running amok without concern of retribution?
After I finished answering her questions, the host began to discuss my character. Even though I knew that this was a simulation, much like Westworld itself, I couldn’t help but take in what she was saying to me. Everything fit; it fit my character, the traits by which I identified myself, the fears that weighed on my mind. I knew this was an algorithm; I answered questions on a test a certain way and these were the results that I was being fed.
I don’t know why this became an emotional epiphany for me, only that it did. I started to choke up at the idea that everything about my persona could be quantified by an algorithm. Like the hosts in Westworld, I was programmed to be a certain way. For the first time since watching the show, I could understand what the hosts were going through and I could empathize with them; something I wasn’t capable of before.
As I sat in that chair, which was growing more uncomfortable with every squirm, I felt trapped within the world of Westworld that had been recreated for me. I wasn’t being told anything negative about myself, but it felt like we were both staring into a crystal ball, examining what my future had in store. It became harder to breathe, I started to sweat and for the first time that night, I didn’t want to be there. It wasn’t that the exhibit was bad — quite the opposite.
Westworld: The Experience redefines what a live activation at an event like New York Comic Con can be. Beneath my irrational reaction, I understood why people waited eight hours in line at San Diego Comic-Con this summer to get in and experience it for themselves. The future of conventions was this; this cerebral experience that transports you to a world based on your favorite TV show or movie. It wasn’t the five-minute VR experiences that studios were hoping would change the way their film or show got attention at big conventions.
At some point, the guest services representative put down her tablet and crossed her hands on her lap, giving me another off smile. She declared me a black hat and, it wasn’t until I was enjoying cocktails with another actor, this one playing an escort, that I learned black hat didn’t mean evil.
“A black hat signifies not accepting what is given to us,” she said, dressed up in a costume similar to that of Thandie Newton’s on the show. “It just means you want to decide for yourself what you’re allowed to do.”
I sat on that, sipping a Sherry Punch and watching the self-playing piano at the back of the room play Radiohead’s “Exit Music.” I felt like I belonged to this world, this version of Westworld, created by Delos for us to escape to. I didn’t feel the urge to check my phone or keep an eye on Twitter. I was immersed in this strange, therapeutic, enlightening experience.
It wasn’t until two Delos security guards came bumbling into the room, ordering us out because of a “malfunction” that I snapped out of it. I left the space, still wearing my black hat. It wasn’t until I got a little further away from the exhibit that I realized New Yorkers were fixating on my hat with questionable stares. For the fashion-forward, bustling city, seeing someone in a black hat trotting down the street is a little strange — even by our standards.
I took the hat off, clinging to it all the way home, thinking about being back in Westworld, where the hosts seemed to understand me better than I did. I wanted to go back; despite the small panic attack and emotional exhaustion that washed over me, I wanted to do it all again. That’s more than I can say for any VR experience I ever had at a comic convention.
Westworld: The Experience will be running at New York Comic Con all weekend. Where it takes place, however, must remain a mystery. Sign up booths will appear around the convention center, however, allowing people to secure a time slot.