A warning: Show up late for your appointment to visit “Westworld,” and you might have to spend 20 minutes making small talk with a Host.
That was IndieWire’s experience, when dropping by the marketing activation created by HBO at this weekend’s Comic-Con to promote the cerebral Emmy-nominated sci-fi drama. In the show, mega-conglomerate Delos Destinations has built realistic, artificially intelligent robots to populate a vast theme park that emulates the experience of visiting the Old West. In real-life San Diego, while waiting in a faux Delos Destinations lobby for the next available “trip,” we filled the time by chatting with “John.”
John asked what kind of experience we were looking for during our stay in Westworld, as well as which of the weapons laid out in the display case in front of us were the most intriguing. Meanwhile, we asked if he could identify the song tinkling out from the player piano just on the other side of a curtain (Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun,” as originally featured in the show), if Delos planned to offer any other destinations beyond Westworld (“new destinations may be opening soon”), and how long he’d been working for Delos (“as long as I can remember”).
Small talk is hard enough when you’re dealing with real people, but engaging with someone playing a robotic character, essentially performing improv, made the moment surreal…which was exactly the point.
The “Westworld” experience was just one of several “activations” created at Comic-Con to go beyond basic marketing, and instead fully immerse fans in experiences custom-designed to transport them to the small town of “Midnight, TX,” or “Mr. Robot’s” Bank of E.
And the live performance aspect is crucial to making these experiences possible. According to Behnam Karbassi, founder and CEO of No Mimes Media, “nothing beats human interaction. Though tech is often used to augment an experience or collect data, actors bring it to life.”
Karbassi has been working on activations at Comic-Con for over 10 years, for clients including Fox, Cisco, and Google. “The number, size and source of immersive experiences has varied — starting with films and studios, then moving to advertisers and sponsors. The trend now is leaning towards TV and networks,” he said.
The scale of this year’s events varied wildly, from just a few performers to, in some cases, as many as 20 to 30 live actors working in shifts, performing various roles. (“Westworld,” according to an HBO representative, featured a cast of 15 actors in total, including extras.) This goes beyond street teams, like the bands of roving Outlanders partying their way through the Gaslamp district (this year, the Outlanders were shirtless). Actors were hired to play tarot card readers, robots, psychiatrists, sheriffs, futuristic hookers, bank employees, and more, interacting directly with the audience on a new level.
The most important thing Karbassi looks for when casting actors is the ability to think on their feet. “To me, improv is the most important trait for experience talent, since regardless of how much you plan, you never know what people will ask or do,” he said. “The audition process is like normal casting, but the talent pool may also include hosts and live event staff.”
The cast, once selected, gets a script, but according to Karbassi, “since there is so much unpredictability with live events, outlines are always provided.”
Using live actors to create a new degree of engagement is hardly something being invented here — it essentially translates as a form of live theater, one without a proscenium but its own rules of stagecraft.
Theater has always had some potential for interactivity (consider how crowd and performers would engage with each other during Shakespearan times), but it’s been a trend which has become more and more popular lately, as seen with phenomena like New York’s “Sleep No More” and London’s “Secret Cinema” — productions that one Alcon Entertainment executive directly referenced as inspiration, during the opening night party for “Blade Runner 2049.”
The “Blade Runner” activation, as previously described, not only brought in actors to play “real” Angelenos living in 2049, but initially engaged participants into the world with a virtual reality experience. More than once at Comic-Con, in fact, we saw innovative uses of technology to augment the storytelling, such as “Legion’s” use of both actors and a heads-up display to draw visitors into the mind of David Heller.
Fans of the FX drama know that David Heller’s head is a very complicated place, and the “Legion” experience nimbly captured that world. While beautifully designed, it wasn’t the environment or wasn’t the headset worn during the event, but the commitment of the actors we engaged with along the way that sold the trip.
It all, conveniently enough, directly echoes some of the themes within “Westworld,” the series — specifically the surface motivation for the park’s genesis, the desire of Dr. Ford (Anthony Hopkins) to create an experience that felt authentic beyond previous limits.
We’re still not totally sure what year the show “Westworld” takes place in, but it’s definitely decades away, if only because today’s technology still can’t replicate the human experience. “Immersion begins with a connection to the IP, and people help to do that,” Karbassi said. “Until we have true AI, a system will not be able to interact like a person can. People make mistakes, get tired, can cost a lot. But for us, the positives far outweigh these drawbacks.”
Consider: The fatal flaw of the Westworld park, as we saw in the first season, is the use of artificial intelligence instead of people. Perhaps humanity will always be the required element.