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.
A lot of my SimuLife story experience thus far has bordered on the fantastic: dimension-hopping, massive tech conglomerates, and scrappy resistance groups. It’s thrilling to be involved in these kinds of scenarios in an immersive show because they’re so far from what any of us experience in our ordinary lives. And that makes suspension of disbelief a touch easier. When you’ve never been in a situation before, you have nothing real to compare it to.
For that same reason, familiar scenarios are arguably more challenging. But when expertly executed, they can be even more impressive than the outlandish ones. Mundane experiences can let a participant forget they’re part of a show at all, making it possible to slip into a fictional scenario without any sense of apprehension.
Even when it’s something as simple as a quiet family dinner.
On Sunday, I received a call from Marilyn, a woman I met earlier during the festival. Her brother Ruben had recently gotten into an altercation with an Austin-based tech executive named Kai Goodwin, and she thought Ruben might be interested in sharing his story with a journalist. They had a family dinner planned for Monday night, and she invited me over, figuring that would be a good time for us to connect.
I showed up at her address at 8PM. It was a quiet, inviting house in Austin’s Travis Heights neighborhood. I knocked on the front door, and a brusque man in his 60s answered. I told him I was there for the dinner party. “Dinner party? There’s no dinner party.”
I’ll admit it: I completely froze up. You take part in enough immersive and site-specific theater shows, and eventually, you’re going to be asked to show up at an unfamiliar address or knock on a mysterious door with no markings. That’s part of the visceral thrill — you’re facing the unknown! — but there is always the concern that you wrote down the wrong address or accidentally shown up at the wrong location. I haven’t had that misfortune yet, but it will probably happen sometime, and I feared this was it: that I’d just interrupted some family’s sleepy Monday evening because I was taking part in an immersive story.
I threw my one Hail Mary pass, saying I was there for Marilyn, and that did the trick. The gentleman — Marilyn’s father Jerry, it turned out — shouted his daughter’s name and opened the door wide.
Marilyn came and brought me in to join what I can only describe as an absolutely ordinary dinner with a wonderful, lovely family. Along with the mischievous Jerry, there was Marilyn’s mom, her grandmother Mimi (hilarious and no-nonsense), and a younger family friend in her early 20s. Ruben himself would be stopping by later. Jerry put my name down in the Mad Libs he was working through, Marilyn’s mom insisted I sit down to have some salad and casserole… and then we just talked.
There was something truly magical about just how ordinary it all was. They asked why I was in town and what I did for a living, and at one moment, I very clearly felt any self-awareness about being within a fictional show slip away. I was just meeting this family, telling them about the things I cover, when I’d started with The Verge, and how my wife Miranda is a shoe designer. We discussed theme parks and Star Wars, and at one point, I said the Empire clearly had superior aesthetic sensibilities. “So did the Nazis,” Jerry growled. It was all utterly charming.
Ruben arrived, receiving hugs and kisses from his family and taking a seat at the head of the table. When he saw me there, he turned angry in a flash, asking me if I was there to kill him. I had been at the OpenMind announcement where he’d attacked Kai Goodwin, he told them.
The funny thing was that after my time eating and chatting with Ruben’s family, they seemed to trust me, and they sided with me over him, explaining that I was just a journalist visiting Austin to cover SXSW. I talked him down without acknowledging that I knew anything about Bishop, and eventually, he became calmer. We had some pie and looked at some old pictures Mimi had of the house when it was first built, some 80 or 90 years ago.
Eventually, it was time for me to talk with Ruben, so Marilyn grabbed some beers and the three of us went out on the front porch. Then, knowing they wanted me in my journalist role, I took out the voice recorder I use for interviews, confirmed that Ruben was fine going on the record, and asked him about his story. He explained that he worked at MyVox, a startup that had recently been purchased by Kai Goodwin’s company, and a week ago, he’d been given some new code to integrate into the systems. It arrived fully formed, ready to be implemented, as if it had been developed elsewhere and just needed to be integrated.
That code, it turns out, was for OpenMind. Ruben explained that he’d been suspicious, so he took it upon himself to hack into the company’s Exchange servers, and he discovered many of the plans and research that Kai had shared with me the day before: NicerNet, OpenMind’s ability to access people’s thoughts, all of it. He had seen Kai’s plans first-hand and understood how dangerous they could be. That’s why he assaulted him.
There was no clear and obvious path for tackling the problems at hand, but it did seem like Ruben’s interests aligned with mine. So I decided to take a risk and tell him the truth.
I asked Marilyn if I could talk to him privately, off the record. When she stepped away, I turned off the recorder and told Ruben everything, from Dr. Everett’s theories to the dimension-swapping to the way Bishop came to our timeline after being kicked out of his own company.
When the guy who everybody thinks is an unstable conspiracy theorist says you sound crazy, you know you’re onto something. While Ruben admitted that I didn’t seem nuts, he had a hard time believing anything I told him was possible. I invoked an old Arthur C. Clarke quote I’d brought up with his dad earlier in the evening: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Things like mind-reading or dimension-hopping may sound insane now, but when somebody invents a gizmo that actually does those things, they just become commonplace.
He asked for my plan of attack, but I didn’t have much to offer. I shared the plan I’d hatched with Faith, but that wasn’t going to do much for our timeline. I also knew I would be meeting with Kai the following day. (He’d texted me in the afternoon with a time and place.) But short of kidnapping Kai, I didn’t know that I could do anything other than head into the meeting, looking for an angle to play.
But maybe there was one thing. I asked Ruben if he could get into the MyVox and Goodwin systems and erase the OpenMind code. It wouldn’t be a permanent fix, not with Bishop running around, but it might buy us some time. He thought he could throw some wrenches into the works.
Around that time, Marilyn poked her head out and told me she’d called me a Lyft. Her grandmother Mimi — who had been relaxing in a hammock in the front yard while we chatted — asked for my help up, then walked with me to the sidewalk so we could look at the house. The house had been built near a massive tree that branched in three different directions, with the section on our left twisting in an unmistakable corkscrew shape.
This land was near Native American soil, she explained, and one of the ways they would mark the landscape was by shaping trees, tying them into certain shapes to direct the way they would grow. The corkscrew shape of this tree indicated that water was nearby, she said — and even though the sapling had been directed many decades ago, the sign still persevered, through the building of the house and the constant march of time. It was a reassuring observation, a constant at a time where even the fabric of reality seemed to be in flux.
When the Lyft arrived, I grabbed my jacket and headed for the car. That night had been so quiet and calm that it made me restless, wondering if I would suddenly swap timelines, or if my Lyft driver was a plant who would take me to some unexpected location. Instead, I just ended up back at my hotel.
It was probably for the best. I knew Ruben wasn’t crazy, and tomorrow was going to be a big day. I would have to find a way to stop both Kai Goodwin and Cooter & Cooter — one way or another.
Join us for the next installment of The SimuLife Diaries, where I publicly sabotage a press conference and visit a rave.