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 story starts with Part 1: I’m a transdimensional dopplegänger.
My four-day story adventure ended with a rave on Tuesday morning, after I blew up Cooter & Cooter’s acquisition of OpenMind in a protestor-filled press conference. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that the story wasn’t entirely finished. After all the meetings, scheming, and dimension-hopping, Bishop was still on the loose, able to wreak havoc whenever and wherever he wanted.
Back at my hotel, I discussed my questions about the show’s final moments with The Verge’s Film & TV Editor, Tasha Robinson. Alternate-reality games and other immersive shows have left me with a healthy dose of paranoia, and I told her I still expected a twist ending. The Deep Dive immersive group that had planned this experience had a firm grasp of story, and I couldn’t believe they’d leave unsatisfying loose ends. Maybe the strange noise I’d heard after I ripped up the C&C contract at the press conference had been the dimension-swapping sound, I told her, and I’d simply warped right into the middle of that dance party as the culmination of the narrative. But I had one meeting left, supposedly a post-story debrief with the Meow Wolf producer I’d missed on the show’s first day. I suspected it was a setup, and there was more to come.
But I was also aware this was wishful thinking. I just wasn’t ready for the story to be over.
At 5:45PM, I headed over to a saloon in Austin for my meeting. I was still holding out some last-minute hopes for a surprise character visit, but eventually, the producer showed up. I shot Tasha a disappointed text: “Okay, this appears to legitimately just be a debrief with a Meow Wolf producer.”
And at first, it was a normal meeting. We talked about the festival, and the scavenger hunt that Meow Wolf was running during the festival, the one “sponsored” by OpenMind. Then she excused herself to go to the restroom. And once she was gone, I heard the familiar, warbling sound of a dimension-hop. My heart leapt. The story hadn’t ended after all. Game on.
I turned around and saw Jules, the driver from the resistance. She held a small metal box covered in dials and buttons: the gizmo that made all this inter-dimensional travel possible.
She told me we had to go, fast. Bishop had come back to his timeline and had pushed the acquisition deal through in spite of my display at the press conference. Cooter & Cooter now owned OpenMind, and Faith and the resistance were holed up trying to figure out their next steps.
We headed for the door. I had an open tab at the bar, and for a brief moment, I thought I should close out before we left. Then I realized that didn’t matter. I was in the OpenMind timeline. The bar tab was Bishop’s problem, now.
We piled into Jules’ SUV and headed out. We had to pick up a member of the resistance — they called themselves the PFR, or Poker-Faced Resistance, I finally learned — and then we’d meet everyone at the rendezvous. I was beating myself up for thinking everything was over; I’d wasted a day I could have spent trying to contact Kai, or hunting down intel about Bishop’s movements. That option was gone now, but at least we had the gizmo. Jules had grabbed it out of Bishop’s hand as he started to rift, and with the device in our possession, he was stuck in my world until we let him come back.
We picked up the PFR member, Noah, a tall man in a baseball cap, and headed for our final destination. Noah asked for the download about the current state of affairs, and I ran down the last few days. But we still needed a plan, some way to solve the Bishop issue while still protecting both of our worlds. I considered the conversation I’d had with Marilyn’s grandmother the night before, and how shaping the growth of a tree had created a physical symbol that persevered through generations. I wondered if there were echoes between the two dimensions that did the same thing. If we took bold steps in this world, would it have an impact on the next?
Jules wondered whether we knew anybody who could answer that question, and I realized I had someone: Bishop’s collegiate mentor, Dr. Everett. The man who came up with the wild multiverse theory in the first place.
I had been turned upside down so many times at this point that I initially thought I would have to swap dimensions to get hold of Everett. “Nobody’s rifting in my car!” Jules said. Also, she reminded me that I was already in the OpenMind timeline. What can I say? At that point, my life had become pretty confusing.
Dr. Everett picked up after the first few rings. I didn’t tell him what was going on, or why I wanted to know, but I posed a simple question: If something happens in this timeline, can it impact the other? He said yes, but that it was tied to the person who was swapping between worlds. It was similar to something we’d discussed in our first meeting. I have a scar on my shoulder due to a surgery, for example; Bishop has that same scar, but for a different reason. What physically happens to one Bryan Bishop also happens to the other.
The simple logic of it led to an inevitable question. I was terrified to ask because of the possible conclusions. But I had to know: Does that mean if one of us dies, so does the other?
Everett hesitated. The SUV bumped along the road as I waited in silence. He finally said he didn’t know whether he felt comfortable giving an answer to that question. I told him he just had.
Dr. Everett said Bishop had been a good man. I told him I knew, but that the device had changed him. It had made him erratic and dangerous. I didn’t know that the core element of Bishop’s personality in those early days — that he’d wanted to help people with OpenMind — was even there anymore.
Jules pulled into the driveway of a beautiful home overlooking the Colorado River, and she and Noah got out. It was just me, Everett, and the dreadful sense of inevitability burrowing into my chest.
“You’re a good man,” he told me. My vision started to swim. I thanked him and asked that if he could think of any other possible way to deal with these problems, to please let me know. There was a long pause. “I’m just a theorist,” he said, and the line went dead.
We walked into the house. Faith was in a sitting room, coming apart in the wake of everything that had happened. When I mentioned that Jules had the dimension-hopping device, she was elated — it meant I could simply stay in her world. But I explained that there were two problems we had to solve. We had to undo the C&C deal so they couldn’t use OpenMind, but we also had to find a way to deal with Bishop, because he was in my timeline now, and free to do whatever he wanted.
I shared what I’d learned from Everett — not as a course of action, but as information to be aware of. Faith wouldn’t stand for it, and brought me into the living room so we could all discuss our options. By that point, Max, the leader of the resistance, had arrived and when Faith tried to lead the conversation, he bristled, as hotheaded as ever.
Tensions were high. I shouted. Faith revealed what she told me the day before — that she had been the secret source funneling intel to the resistance, in an effort to stop Bishop. That quieted things down, but Faith’s assistant showed up with a bottle of her anti-anxiety pills, just in case.
Max turned the focus to me: Was I willing to stay in this world to undo the C&C deal, and make sure Bishop could never come back? It wasn’t that easy, I said, because Bishop was running loose in my world. Max didn’t care much about that, but I guess given all that had happened, I couldn’t really blame him.
I confessed there was another option: if Bishop were to die, I would die — and vice versa. Nikita stared me down cooly: “So are you willing to do that?”
I wasn’t even close to that point, I told them. I had my wife, family, and friends in my world. Hell, even Paige. At that point, Jules came in to warn us that something was up with the dimension-swapping device. A red light was flashing, and it appeared to be running out of charge. I was short on time and options.
Faith took me upstairs to her aunt’s bedroom so we could talk things through. The room opened out onto the roof, and we walked outside to take in the spectacular view north over the river. I tried to think through the impossible situation, searching for some avenue or way to solve things, but continually came up empty.
The idea of staying was enticing. Faith and I had connected from that first night, and more than once, she’d expressed hope that maybe I would stay with her when all of this was over. But I had a wife of my own that I love, and parents and friends and people I care about. Leaving them in a world doomed to some horrifying tech dystopia at Bishop’s hands simply wasn’t an option — and yet me leaving everyone seemed like the only way I could stop him.
I stared off into the horizon. “Everybody has to go, right?” I said. “Maybe saving two worlds at the same time isn’t such a bad way to do it.”
Faith and I walked inside and got her pills and Bishop’s device. She ran downstairs to get a glass of water, and I sat down at a table and looked at the strange metal box. So much disruption, so much turmoil and loss, all because of this one tiny gadget.
Faith returned with the water. We hugged fiercely as I tried to psych myself up for what came next. I told her that she couldn’t let this moment happen in vain. She had to use it to say I did it because I was distraught about OpenMind falling into C&C’s hands and being used to control people. She needed to use her platform and her gifts to change people’s hearts and minds, like I’d always said she could.
And then I took the pills. Three, four, five at a time, until the bottle was completely empty.
I’d like to say that in the moment, I was aware that this was just a story, and that I was making a calculated decision to reach some anticipated dramatic outcome. That I didn’t really take the pills I was offered, or that I thought through the trust I was placing in Deep Dive, or the pros and cons of doing such a thing. But none of that is true. I was in the moment. I was just experiencing the feeling of being in an impossible situation and doing the unthinkable because it was the only way to protect the people I cared about.
The scenario itself was fiction, but the moment — and the emotions — were real.
Now there was nothing left to do but wait for the pills to do their work. I walked over to the bed, intending to lie down and fall asleep. Faith said she wanted to show me something first.
She took my arm and guided me back out onto the roof. We stood there together, breathless. The trees, the river below, the sky that seemed to stretch forever; I tried to take it all in. To make the moment last forever.
I never wanted it to end.
As I stood at the edge of the roof, the slow build of clapping pulled me out of my reverie. On the balcony below, the cast and crew of my SimuLife revealed themselves. The curtain call had come at last.
In the conversations that followed, I learned I hadn’t been the sole participant at all. The woman I’d known as Nikita had been one as well. Her real name is Imani Dabney, and she had experienced her own unique narrative with its own incredible twists and turns. Even after the final scene, the show still had surprises.
Bishop, however, is presumed dead.
In the final installment of The SimuLife Diairies, I’ll be talking to Deep Dive Austin director Jeff Wirth for a behind-the-scenes look at my experience, and exploring his thoughts on the power, purpose, and long-term potential of SimuLife, and immersive and interactive entertainment in general.