Lessons from SXSWestworld - Part Two

During SXSW 2018, the HBO series "Westworld" came to life in a three-day immersive activation. I visited Sweetwater to see how this level of immersion could translate into themed entertainment. Read the first post, which contains my first four Lessons from SXSWestworld here.

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5) ARE YOU BUILDING AN OPEN-ENDED OR CLOSED QUEST?

As a show, “Westworld” is more than happy to give you plot twists, double takes and supply you with answers that only lead to more questions. One of the key plot features of the first season featured a character, the Man in Black, searching for something called “The Maze.” There was no doubt that the SXSW Westworld activation would send guests searching for clues about the show’s new season. 

I approached my visit to Sweetwater as if the town was one big scavenger hunt. I’d seen guests posting clues and tips from previous days. I went on Sunday, the final day, so there was plenty of information on social media that pointed out what to see and do.  The one thing I hadn’t seen is a post on anyone “solving” the mystery. Was there a mystery to be uncovered in Sweetwater? 

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On my visit, I found secret locations, participated in a chase for coins and assisted my pal Colin’s quest to make sense of the painting he’d dug up. We left Sweetwater without a definitive conclusion as to what the mystery of the town was. Did we miss something? The answer could be this =  there was no conclusion to be found. 

Human nature drives us to tie things together. To find patterns that lead to a resolution. Why would we spend time searching for things that lead nowhere? I have no idea if there was a conclusion to the Westworld activation. It’s possible that the reward of the experience was the chase. The wands in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter allow you cast different spells. What happens when you complete them all? Nothing. You have the satisfaction of knowing that you did it. 

For themed entertainment spaces, it makes sense to choose one or the other — open-ended activities with no resolutions OR closed quests that can begin and wrap up in a day. For theme parks, it may make sense to be explicit with the quest — find a pilot, rescue a rebel — since the theme park visitor will have other diversions — rides, other lands, dining and such. 

Closed quests bring closure and a euphoric high. This could help parents who may have to deal with a compete meltdown if their daughter has to leave without rescuing a rebel or solving the big puzzle. 

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Open-ended quests can still provide value and allow the theater of the mind to play a role in wondering what the assembled clues or artifacts mean. In IP-based locations, clues from upcoming movies can be placed inside the land. Guests will need to see the movie in order to understand the full meaning of what they found. 

Regardless of the quest, designers of immersive themed entertainment lands should include an element that can help gameplay. That element is....


6) ESTABLISH A RESOURCE CHARACTER

He would never admit it, but Colin was getting sick of showing his horse painting to people. 

Roped into excavating the gravesite of Dolores Abernathy, Colin dug up a rolled up painting. Curious to know if it would reveal a clue, he started showing it to people around town. None of the hosts he showed it to recognized it. It wasn’t until he showed it to the town sheriff did he learn that the painting belonged to Dolores. The sheriff quickly accused Colin of murdering Delores! Dun dun duuuun! Colin was able to talk his way out of that encounter. While we knew WHO painted the picture, we didn’t understand WHY it was significant to the SXSWestworld experience. 

With the townsfolk of Sweetwater leading him nowhere, Colin turned to one of the Delos Incorporated employees that wander around the park. To Colin’s surprise — or relief — she told him that there was nothing special behind the painting. Another group showed her a drawing of a person that they found in their post office envelope. The same response — nothing special about it. 

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There was a strange sense of relief knowing that someone was revealing this information. While the Delos employee stayed true to her character, she was very helpful and honest in that we were not going to dig any deeper. 

The Delos actor's commitment to the role never wavered. When presented with one of the mysterious table name cards some guests found in the hats, she said the meaning of those would be revealed on April 22nd. April 22nd is the date the new season of "Westworld" begins. She never said words such as “show” “premiere” or “episode”. She was still “in character” and let us know that we didn’t need to go nuts looking for answers. 

We don’t know if the Delos person was lying to us or was breaking character. It’s possible that she was a kind of Dungeon Master or Game Keeper — someone who knows the rules, can provide cues and be a rescue of sorts. Whatever she was, her actions helped us reset our expectations and enjoy our day. 

If you’re designing an immersive experience for a theme park, consider designating one of your players as a Resource Character. This is a character that delivers information that is stripped away of clues, riddles and mystery. When one of your guests reaches a frustration point, they are directed to the Resource Character for some straight talk.   

The Resource Character is AWAYS in-world. They act as a temporary mentor and guide. Their role is to give the guest a clear path towards the next point in the adventure. They would be a last resort — someone to assist a parent with a child on meltdown alert. Think of the Resource Character as a cheat code. They help you clear one hurdle, but may not help with the next one. 

7) CREATE A COSPLAY-FRIENDLY ENVIRONMENT

Cosplay. Dapper Day. Disney Bound. Today’s theme park guests are decked out in clever outfits that are tributes to their favorite characters, films and attractions. While dressing in costumes is still restricted to children, teens and adults don’t think twice about themed threads. Bounding is the way to go. 

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With the Westworld activation taking place in Texas during the annual SXSW conference, there was already a large number of folks in Austin wearing cowboy boots and pearl snaps. It’s hard to know how many people dressed up in Western garb just for their visit to  Westworld. While the majority of people were in conference clothing, you could tell that some people went out of their way to dress up for their visit to Sweetwater. I put on a pearl snap shirt, grabbed a bandana and put on my less-dressy jeans for the occasion. Colin brought his hat, red western shirt and bolo tie. We looked nothing like the actors, but we enjoyed playing along with the activation. 

The Westworld activation shows that cosplay is not limited to theme parks or comic conventions. No matter what your IP is, fans will find a way to dress in a way that fits into the world. Embrace how your fans are dressing up to play along. Can you find a way to recognize and reward those that dress up? Will young children in Jedi robes be called to play a role in a secret mission? Will that adult in a Han Solo-ish outfit be questioned for smuggling? Consider what your guests will be wearing and tailor interactions around those outfits. 


8) AUTHENTIC EMOTION IN A FICTIONAL SPACE 

Anger. Joy. Surprise. Love. Lust. These emotions were on full display by the visitors to Sweetwater. Actions by hosts — passing on knowledge or innuendo-loaded conversations with a prostitute — stirred up genuine emotions, thoughts and feelings. 

Themed entertainment experiences, such as theme parks, are shunned as fake, false and devoid of authenticity. The irony is that these spaces are places where genuine emotions are often stirred up. Children smile with joy in meeting a character and adults shed tears when they see Hogwarts for the first time. These actions are as genuine as those we experience in the “real world”. 

For me, the success of the Westworld activation at SXSW was not that it presented a fully realized world based on an HBO show. Every guest going in knew that these were actors and not robotic hosts (bummer). The success was that the experience and narrative evoked emotional responses from many of the guests, myself included. When emotions are activated, we become invested in the experience. We do things that we may not do back in the real world — walk up to a rifle-bearing woman and ask about their life story or team up with strangers to complete a quest. By stirring up authentic emotions in a fictional space, the Westworld activation drew guests into the experience in a way that many of them probably were not expecting. Activate emotions, and you have created an unforgettable experience. 

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For theme parks, the same kind of emotional activations already exist. The challenge lies in having meaningful encounters with characters that we don't know. We recognize Mickey, Shrek and SpongeBob. None of the key Westworld characters were represented at the activation. New land-specific characters — Hogwarts Wizard, Rebel Spy — need to create quick connections without the benefit of recognition. The characters that interact with guests must stir those same emotions and reactions. Otherwise, the experience will feel like a facade. 

Check back on Monday, March 26 for part three, where I’ll talk about some things that SXSWestworld was missing. Were you able to experience at SXSW? How was your visit to Sweetwater? Did you uncover any secrets? Let me know in the comments below!