At SXSW 2018, I was invited to take part in a four-day immersive story experience called a SimuLife. Mounted by the Austin-based creative lab Interactive Deep Dive, SimuLife is meant to blur the line between fantasy and reality by letting me interact with the story as part of daily life. It’s like David Fincher’s movie The Game, executed in the real world. Other than those broad edicts, I wasn’t given any advance information about the experience. I’m documenting my journey through the story — wherever it leads.
The tale begins with Part one: I’m a transdimensional dopplegänger.
When I come to SXSW, I usually expect to see movies, go to panels, and maybe catch a brand activation or two. What I don’t expect is to be kidnapped by a group of anti-technology extremists and roped into their plan to topple a massive tech conglomerate. In Austin, it turns out anything is possible.
I woke up on Sunday still grappling with what happened the day before. I’d discovered that a new technology called OpenMind created a transdimensional schism, causing me to switch places with a Bryan Bishop from another alternate reality: I would appear in his world, where he was the creator of OpenMind, and he would appear in mine. I ended up on a date with the other Bishop’s wife, a senator in Texas, and when I told her who I really was, I discovered that their marriage had died years ago. She didn’t even want her real husband to return, she told me, but we devised a plan anyway: she would try to steal the device that had caused the dimensional disruption and destroy it.
I was set to meet Paige, the new Verge intern, for another morning coffee meeting, and we started walking toward a spot in East Austin. Over the last 48 hours, she’d become my confidante, and when I explained what happened the night before with Bishop’s wife, she teased: “Aww, do you think she fell in love with you?”
At a certain point, Paige decided to introduce me to a trust exercise called “blind walking.” I would close my eyes, and she would guide me forward. Every now and then, she would tap the top of my head, which would be a signal for me to briefly open my eyes. It turned our stroll into a series of snapshots: a group of homeless men, a rundown home, some random Bible verses scrawled on a fence.
Then Paige upped the ante: I would walk a few feet forward without her guidance at all. Giving up that degree of control was thrilling in a way. And then I heard it: the loud, bizarre warbling that signified I’d switched timelines.
I opened my eyes, and sure enough, Paige was gone. I was alone in an alley. Then, a white SUV rounded the corner and pulled to a stop. A woman with braided hair and a baseball cap got out and approached me. Later, I would learn her name was Nikita, but right now, all she wanted to know was whether I was willing to talk about the good and the bad of the OpenMind technology she thought I had created.
I went along — in this kind of immersive story, if you don’t cooperate with the narrative, there is no narrative. The driver wasn’t giving names at the time, either, and when I got in, they instructed me to put a paper bag over my head so I couldn’t track where they were taking me. The car took off, and that’s when the needling began. They wanted to know if I believed in the OpenMind technology and if I thought it was okay that corporations were using it to read people’s thoughts. I recounted the story I’d heard the previous night — how a gentleman’s partner had been saved because of OpenMind — but they weren’t impressed. They thought I was Bishop, after all, and he’d been kicked out of his own company in December, and therefore had no control over what was being done with his creation.
There I was: blindfolded, being driven around by people I didn’t know, in a state I’d only visited a handful of times, and it suddenly seemed like I’d made a very dumb decision agreeing to get in the car — no matter what timeline I was in.
We finally stopped, and they walked me down a set of stairs and into a basement meeting room. There were five of them: Nikita, the driver, Jules, a blonde woman named Clementine, a serious-looking hoodie-wearing man named Coco, and the group’s leader, Max.
In real life, I’m pretty conflict-averse. I may get angry or frustrated, but I tend to avoid direct, face-to-face conflict when possible. But one of the gifts of immersive entertainment is that it provides a safe space where you can do and say things you wouldn’t in real life. Maybe that’s pledging allegiance to a supernatural cult, or acting like a voyeur in a show like Sleep No More. Either way, it’s an opportunity for audience members to step outside their comfort zones. But in the moment, I was so deep in the narrative that I wasn’t even thinking about that aspect. I just knew that I might phase back into my own timeline at any moment. I truly had nothing to lose. So I let myself get angry.
I laid into them for kidnapping me. Max tried to shout me down, getting right in my face; I shouted right back. He doled out his story, how his brother had been profiled with OpenMind and identified as a potential threat, and what was meant to be a check-in by the local police had turned into a shooting match that left his brother dead. It was an invasive measure that should never happen again, and Max was willing to do whatever it took to make sure it stopped. I listened to his story and threw their tactics in their face. If they wanted my help, I told them, kidnapping me in a van wasn’t a very good way to go about it. I’ll be completely honest: leaning into that anger and frustration, without any concern for the decorum that we hew to in our ordinary lives, felt absolutely exhilarating.
Max sat down, frustrated at our back-and-forth, and we got down to brass tacks. A massive conglomerate called Cooder & Cooder was interested in buying OpenMind, and apparently it wanted to bring Bishop back into the fold for reasons unknown. There was going to be a meeting on Monday — the same meeting teased by the two men I met at the start of this crazy adventure — and Max wanted me to bring one of his people along to observe.
Part of me didn’t want to. It wasn’t the kind of situation that comes up in real life — a kidnapper asking for permission to crash a meeting. But on some level I enjoyed having all the power in the dynamic; I was outnumbered, but my captors still needed something only I could provide. Eventually, Nikita brought me around. Yes, I had begun to believe that this OpenMind technology did serve a greater good, but it had also become clear that it wasn’t under the control of Bishop, or anyone else who could be considered trustworthy. Trying to wrest that control back was the only morally reasonable decision.
We made plans for Nikita to accompany me to the Monday meeting as my assistant — and then, suddenly, there was someone at the door. Max scrambled his team to avoid detection; we quickly scurried into the next room, up a secret staircase, and through a ceiling door. We spilled out into a room filled with gorgeous statues. I had no idea where Max’s group had taken me, and I had only the briefest moment to take in the room before we were outside, sprinting to different vehicles and scattering.
Jules and Clementine dropped me off at my hotel, and I went back to my room. I didn’t know what the next day’s meeting would bring, and I wasn’t sure if I entirely trusted Max or Nikita. The only thing I knew for certain was that I’d committed myself to a course of action, burying myself under yet another layer of lies in the process.
In the back of my mind, there was an insistent voice repeating the same idea: eventually, this resistance group would discover I wasn’t the Bishop they thought I was.
Join us for the next installment of The SimuLife Diaries, where I discover that our own timeline is being damaged — by none other than Bishop himself.