I got to be Arya Stark in 'Game of Thrones'

At South by Southwest, HBO creates an interactive installation where "Game of Thrones" fans can take portraits in the Iron Throne and play a game that lets them hone their sword-wielding skills.

Dara Kerr Former senior reporter
Dara Kerr was a senior reporter for CNET covering the on-demand economy and tech culture. She grew up in Colorado, went to school in New York City and can never remember how to pronounce gif.
Dara Kerr
3 min read

I created this self-portrait at HBO's SXSWesteros interactive installation for the South by Southwest festival. Dara Kerr/CNET

AUSTIN, Texas -- I transformed into Arya Stark for three minutes today.

For those not in the know, Arya is one of the famed characters in the HBO TV series "Game of Thrones," which takes place in the fantasy world of Westeros. Arya is a strong-willed no-nonsense girl who's known for being able to swing a sword.

My short stint as Arya took place in a small warehouse in downtown Austin, Texas, during the South by Southwest festival, which brings together the technorati, filmmakers and musicians. For SXSW, HBO transformed the warehouse into a place called SXSWesteros, which is open to the public for the first four days of the festival.

A "Game of Thrones" fan gets his photo taken in a replica of the Iron Throne. Dara Kerr/CNET

As I was guided through the dimly lit warehouse, ambient music from "Game of Thrones" was playing over loud speakers along with the sounds of wolves, crows and the wind.

Toward the back of the room was a replica of the notorious Iron Throne, which is where the various kings of Westeros sit and shout their orders. In SXSWesteros, however, any person can take a seat on the throne and get their picture taken.

But the real draw for SXSWesteros is the ability to become Arya. For this project, HBO partnered with design studio Red Paper Heart and a production team from Civic Entertainment Group to create an interactive game that's meant to be part sword training and part art creation. The idea is to let "Game of Thrones" fans interact with virtual targets to create a self-portrait that looks like a poster from the TV show.

To begin my transformation into Arya, I was led to the side of a waist-high stage with three 10-foot projection screens equipped with wooden swords. From there, a photographer took my portrait and cast it onto one of the screens. I was told to take a place on the stage in front of the screen with my picture.

A "Game of Thrones" fan hones her sword skills at HBO's SXSWesteros installation. Dara Kerr/CNET

The words "Get Ready" were cast over my face and then "Strike the Target." Giant metal spheres that looked like cannon balls started hurtling across the screen. I slashed my wooden sword through the air to break the targets into pieces. The sword was equipped with sensors so that it could wirelessly interact with the screen -- it was a bit like using Nintendo's Wii Remote.

As the target pieces scattered, various iconographic "Game of Thrones" objects filled in my portrait -- deer antlers, obsidian, wolf fur, tree branches and crow feathers. More and more spheres appeared in various configurations, so that I had to slice my sword in an upward curve or pierce the center of the targets -- this was meant to hone my skills.

When the game finished and my training ended, my portrait was fully filled with all of the "Game of Thrones" objects. I converted back to my usual self and SXSWesteros guides led me to a computer where I could email myself the final picture.

"It creates such dynamic portraits," Red Paper Heart senior producer Lisa Walters said. "Everyone has good light, everyone looks dramatic." And once you do a few rounds with the game, you get more skilled. "You get to this weird warrior point," she said. "It's a satisfying feeling when you swing the sword."

CNET's Richard Nieva (@richardjnieva) and Dara Kerr (@darakerr) will be at SXSW in Austin, Texas, for the next week covering all things tech, geek culture and maybe even barbecue.