"Please don't shoot! Please don't shoot! Please don't shoot! Please don't shoot!"
The man's cries for mercy repeated over and over and over as we all watched him drop to his knees, hands clutched, staring at some unseen threat holding a gun. And then, as quickly as it had started, it was over: The Stetson-toting cowboy jerked shakily to his feet, steadied himself and sauntered off, tipping his hat to a passerby as if nothing had happened.
At last night's preview of HBO's Westworld activation (Season 2 debuts on April 22) unsettling scenes like the one above took place throughout the two-acre theme park, which production crews have steadily constructed over five weeks at an off-site location (shhh, we can't tell you where it is—but it'll take roughly 30 minutes on the Westworld Delos shuttle to get there from EastSide Tavern). We walked through the makeshift town of Sweetwater, where actors—very good ones—gave us the town gossip, offered a shave at the barbershop, convinced us to join their suffragette meeting and played Blackjack at the local Mariposa saloon. Live music transitioned from melancholy country to an ethereal set from local synth band Dallas Acid, and horses wandered around dusty streets. The smell of brisket and beans wafted through the air—both of which you could try at the local canteen.
And then, of course, there was the weird shit. A rickety old shack at the edge of town revealed a secret viewing chamber where scientists poked and prodded their robotic creations. Wandering around, you could run into a samurai mysteriously transported to the Wild West. Try to mail a letter at the post office, and there was actually a letter waiting for you. Not to mention the gunshots, the fights and the entrance itself—a sterile white hallway that welcomed visitors with a cache of weapons.
The Westworld pop-up has been one of SXSW's most anticipated activations, though it lasts for only three days (March 9 to 11) and RSVPs have already filled up. If you're one of the lucky few who was able to score a seat on the bus to the park, you'll first be given a black or white hat after a "personality assessment" (Mine included being asked my name, after which the attendant gave me a quick once-over and said "Black"). The entire experience lasts roughly two hours, door to door, but there are so many hidden messages waiting to be found that two hours seemed like no time at all.
So here's the thing: New appointments will be released sporadically (follow @WestworldHBO on Twitter for up-to-date ticket releases), and there will be a stand-by line that opens each day at EastSide Tavern at 1:30pm. You can also follow @Lyft for special codes that will unlock a free ride to the activation. That's the magic of SXSW—sometimes, when you think all is lost, you find yourself in a Westworld theme park on the edge of town, watching an actor play a robot play a cowboy who's about to lose his life.