The best thing at San Diego Comic-Con 2017 this year was something that most attendees didn’t get to experience.
For the lucky few who were willing to wait for hours in the Hilton Bayfront lobby to secure a reservation to visit the HBO and Campfire created world of Westworld (the hands-down, single best experience I’ve ever enjoyed at Comic-Con) awaited them.
After you made your reservation in person (and the line was capped long before the sun rose), you were then given the name of the secret meet-up location, where Delos Corporation employees waited to greet you. From the moment you were escorted onto an elevator, you were transported – every detail throughout the offsite was designed to draw you further into the world, so that you truly felt like you were visiting Westworld.
The journey began in the lobby of Delos, which was set up just like the one from the series, complete with a friendly if slightly unsettling host or two. Every actor throughout the experience was fully in character, which added extra layers of realism. Being able to ask an employee standing beside a table of weapons which one he recommended and having him respond, “This is Westworld. There are no limits. Choose the weapon that suits you,” is the kind of thing that will stay with you for years. After a few minutes in the lobby, you were called for your reservation, at which point your already small group of six was splintered off into two groups of three. I was part of the first group, and we were taken through a door and down a hall, where there were three individual rooms. You were escorted into one, where you met face-to-face for an “interview” with a Delos corporation employee, whose job is to try to get to know the real you.
This room is where the real magic happens. The experience, in the end, was more immersive theatre than anything else — and this interaction is a large part of why. You sit in a mostly darkened room across from the employee, who says things like, “Look at your hand. If you had to choose to lose one finger, which would it be? Good. Now, I want you to mark a large, visible X on that finger with this pen.” If you’ve ever wanted to feel both slightly unnerved but also completely drawn in to a fictional world, this is the experience for you.
After a series of seemingly random but revealing and unsettling questions, the employee gives you a read on your personality. For myself and everyone else I spoke to, these analyses were completely spot-on, to the point of walking out feeling like I’d just gone to therapy. This personality read also serves another purpose — it indicates to the employee whether or not you’re a “white hat” or a “black hat”, and you’re then given the corresponding hat (for what remains to be the coolest swag of the entire week, even if my host did decide I was a good person, boo!).
At this point, you’re led by a host down a hallway, where a series of clips play which might offer some clues into the series. I was honestly more mesmerized by watching the host “glitch” on us — she twitched throughout the clip, which was an amazing detail to include.
As if all of that weren’t enough, after this, you’re finally led into the Mariposa Saloon. Here, there was a girl dressed similar to Maeve, who spent the night flirting with her “customers” and making witty, in-character banter, which included making sure we all saw the player piano tucked away in the corner playing itself. The bartenders were also in character, and served up Westworld signature cocktails. These weren’t cheap drinks, either. Our bartender chipped a block of ice in front of us before offering some healthy pours, and continued to ask if we wanted more shots for the remainder of the evening.
If there’s any single complaint about the experience, it’s only that the capacity was so small. Only six people went through every half hour due to the experience being so intimate, which means a capacity of 12 people per hour, and realistically, 100 or less per day. That means that, tops, only about 400 out of 135,000 San Diego Comic-Con attendees got to attend Westworld: The Experience. I’m probably biased because I got to be one of those 400 — but at the same time, I feel like if any series has the right to offer this kind of elusive, exclusive experience, it’s surely Westworld. That’s essentially the premise of the show: That only the elite get to come and play in the world of hosts.
For those of us who were lucky enough to make it through, though, the Experience was completely immersive. Best of all? It did it all with no VR, which is something that many companies seem to have forgotten how to do in this day and age (and it’s worth noting that the two most immersive offsites of the year were probably Westworld and Mr. Robot, two series ostensibly about technology and yet which didn’t use it to draw you in). You don’t need all the technological bells and whistles to create an amazing experience.
There are signs that the Experience may be hitting the road soon, similar to how Game of Thrones‘ offsites have gone on tour in the past (after the Westworld experience, an e-mail went out stating “The Roadshow Experience was a huge success. I have a feeling it won’t be the last”, so, there’s that). Even if you weren’t one of the select few who got to experience it at Comic-Con, it sounds like you might get to in the future.
Do it. You won’t regret it.