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'Westworld' comes to gritty, fantastical life at SXSW

HBO re-creates part of "Westworld" at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas. Here's what it's like to hang out in the western town of Sweetwater.

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In "Westworld," guns are always drawn.

HBO

"Do me a favor and get into some shit tonight, OK?" a young man in western attire tells me. How hard can it be? I've already seen multiple brawls and a guy get shot.

It's not even 8:30 p.m. on the Thursday before the South by Southwest music, movie and tech festival begins, yet I'm standing in the town of Sweetwater, one of the central locations from the HBO series "Westworld." HBO's decided to promote the show by bringing the town to life for a few days in Austin, Texas.

HBO's "Westworld" is set in a theme park where filthy rich people dress up like cowboys and interact with androids in an expansive space that includes Sweetwater and miles of open land. Each of the startlingly life-like androids (or "hosts," as they're called) is a character with a storyline it follows on a loop. Visitors can hang out in town or set off to hunt outlaws.

They can also kill their hosts -- or have sex with them -- whenever they feel like it.

In the show, the hosts start remembering the heinous things they've experienced at the hands of humans ("newcomers") who want to let loose in a place where they can "live without limits."

"Westworld," which is actually a riff on the 1973 movie of the same name starring Yul Brynner, premiered in 2016. It's been the kind of show that gets people frantically theorizing on the internet about the fate of the characters and potential big reveals. Season 2 kicks off April 22.

Sitting on the shuttle en route to Sweetwater, I'm pretty sure there will be limits at this event. At least, I'd prefer to not call my editor for bail money because I tried to stab someone.

"Please don't touch anyone," a host in a white dress tells our shuttle, which at this point is packed with folks in black cowboy hats, the classic visual shorthand for a villain.  

So, no stabbing tonight.

This isn't the first time HBO has brought a piece of "Westworld" into the real world. At Comic-Con 2017, visitors could walk through the offices of Delos, the fictional company behind Westworld, and even check out the Mariposa Saloon and Hotel from the show.

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Sweetwater's sheriff keeps an eye out for commotion. 

Erin Carson/CNET

In Austin, though, HBO got its mitts on two acres of land just outside the city. After our bus nearly gets stuck in a ditch, we arrive and walk through a dimly lit, wallpapered train car that's just a small taste of what's to come.

The sun is setting and the dark shadows fill in the spaces between wood buildings around the town -- familiar places like the Mariposa and the Coronado Hotel, as well as a jail, post office, bank, barber shop and more.

Everywhere, hosts are carrying on, even when no one is really watching. Peer into any building or doorway and there's something going on. While I scarf down a piece of brisket and beans from a tin at the Coronado, two men get into a serious discussion about a woman and some type of deception involving gold. Someone yells from outside, and I can't decide whether to stay with my brisket or go investigate.

Hosts chatter and laugh while they mingle with the newcomers. And they fight -- man, do they fight.

Small scuffles break out on the steps of various buildings. Revenge is promised. People run down the dirt street. Someone named Jimmy is really ticking folks off tonight. Finally, things get tense and the guns come out, right there in front of us.

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I can't figure out exactly what's happening in the sparsely lit street. But there's a crowd, a pop and some screams. A panicked host tells me a man's been shot.

"So what happened?" I ask her.

"I don't know, he got shot!" she says incredulously as if any other detail were unimportant.

But the details are important. The shootout culminates with a twist -- the gunman isn't a host but a visitor who's been trying to complete a narrative involving shooting that host for some time. He poses over the body like it's a trophy kill.

Behind-the-scenes folks from Delos show up in their hazmat suits when something goes awry. Hosts glitch. They spout lines from the show. One host walks up to me when I'm recording video and asks me who I'm talking to. When I tell her to say hello to the camera, she says, "it doesn't look like anything to me."

Someone tells me you can even go to the post office and pick up a letter addressed to you. Mine is from the sheriff telling me that although my reputation precedes me, I'd better not try anything smart.

And you best believe for just a few minutes, there's a host who has clearly escaped from ShogunWorld roaming around in full armor. I stop to snap a picture, and when he starts hulking toward me, I skulk away because he's actually somewhat intimidating.

When I've walked everywhere at least three times and figure it's time to go, I don't really want to. After all, the player piano at the Mariposa is still going and there's a dejected-looking girl at the post office who probably has a story to tell. And what about Jimmy? Surely, he's got trouble left in him tonight.

Alas, there's a bus to catch. So, I tip my black hat to the nice androids on the way out and return to civilization.

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