HBO brought the world of Westeros to life at SXSW to tout the final season of ‘Game of Thrones.’ Take an exclusive look inside

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HBO

  • HBO has created a set bringing “Game of Thrones” to life at SXSW, where fans can experience what it’s like to be a part of the world of Westeros.
  • Actors playing residents from Westeros live out elaborate storylines at the event, inspired by iconic characters from the hit series.
  • Visitors interact with the actors as though they are too being initiated into the army of the living in the battle against the dead.

AUSTIN, TEXAS – “The Great War” has come to Austin.

HBO has created a set bringing “Game of Thrones” to life at SXSW, where fans can experience what it’s like to be a part of the world of Westeros.

Actors playing various residents from Westeros – from the Dothraki to the Free Folk – live out elaborate storylines inspired by iconic characters from the hit series, while visitors interact with them as though they are being initiated into the army of the living in the battle against the dead.

“‘Game of Thrones’ is about sacrifice and devotion, and that’s what’s happening here,” Trevor Guthrie, cofounder at agency Giant Spoon, which created the experience, told Business Insider. “Just as all the groups are uniting together on the show for the cause, guests can join them by bending the knee and helping out for a cause.”

That cause is blood donation. HBO is also running a global blood donation campaign supporting The American Red Cross by harnessing the power of “Game of Thrones” fans by asking them, “Will you bleed for the throne?”

The experience takes guests on a journey inside Westeros’ medieval fantasy world, and is an audiovisual extravaganza. It is one of the most elaborate stunts that HBO has ever attempted – even though it didn’t involve setting up a whole town in the American Frontier as its “SXSWestworld” experience from 2018 did.

This is not the first time that HBO has taken over SXSW with a “Game of Thrones”-themed activation. It set up a full-size iron throne in 2014, and gave fans a chance to test their sword-fighting skills through VR back in 2015.

I had a chance to visit the “Game of Thrones” experience for Business Insider this year. As a fan of the the show, the experience blew my mind.

The final season of “Game of Thrones” premieres on April 14.


The experience has been set up in a warehouse space in East Austin, not far from downtown Austin. Fans who have managed to snag one of the super-exclusive spots can line up outside the warehouse before they are taken inside in groups.

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Tanya Dua/Business Insider

As they wait in line, fans can be sure to interact with a couple of sword-wielding characters all getting ready for the Great War. This guy claimed he was the Starks’ bannerman.

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Tanya Dua/Business Insider

Once inside, guests prepare for the first leg of the journey, which is an audiovisual interactive experience that takes them through the stories of four major characters that have bled for the throne.

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Tanya Dua/Business Insider

Guests relive the four characters’ sacrifices as part of the experience, thanks to a handy audio guide that narrates their ordeals as they walk through the setup.

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Tanya Dua/Business Insider

Fans literally walk in the shoes of those who have bled in seasons past across four different rooms — from Arya Stark’s stint at Braavos and Cersei Lannister’s walk of atonement to Jon Snow’s murder and Tyrion Lannister at the Battle of Blackwater.

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Each character’s story begins with a portrait of theirs in a room, which coincides with the icon on your screen. When you tap on the icon, such as this one commemorating Arya Stark training how to become an assassin in the city of Braavos, the character’s sacrifice is detailed.

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Tanya Dua/Business Insider

The technological elements that went into making this experience as real as possible are fascinating. The experience kicks off with guests floundering their way through a dark room, like Arya had to when she lost her vision.

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Tanya Dua/Business Insider

HBO pulled out all the stops to make the experience as real and elaborate as possible. Perhaps the most hair-raising is the recreation of Cersei Lannister’s “Walk of Atonement” from Season 5. Guests literally walk through a string curtain superimposed with Septa Unella’s face on it, as she chants “Shame!”

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Watching Jon Snow being assassinated at Castle Black all over again is also an interesting experience. Guests literally step into a spotlight as if they were him, which kickstarts a surreal visual retelling of his murder from Season 5. As he is stabbed by the Night’s Watch men, a sea of red takes over the screen in front.

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The last room teases the combat battle between Prince Oberyn Martell and The Mountain, the outcome of which Tyrion’s fate hinged on in Season 4. If it feels all too real, that’s because it is. The activation includes original costumes from the show, including The Mountain’s armor, in addition to authentic props and weapons.

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In the next leg of the experience, fans make their way toward a cathedral-like setting before the Iron Throne, where a choir sings as they participate in a ceremony to honor their sacrifices led by Melissandre, or the “Red Priestess.”

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The choir forms the centerpiece of the experience, performing an original, 27-minute composition inspired by Game of Thrones throughout the donation and pinning ceremony. The music elevates the experience like no other.

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Guests are called by Melissandre by name, asked to kneel and then given a “Hand of the King” pin as a symbol of their loyalty.

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The cathedral is adorned by the flags of the various houses — the Starks, the Lannisters, the Targaryens and the Baratheons.

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And all throughout, the mighty Iron Throne looks over the crowd.

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Tanya Dua/Business Insider

Armed guards watch the cathedral, prohibiting anyone from accidentally venturing into the ceremony.

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Tanya Dua/Business Insider

Next, fans are directed to the War Camp in an open area outside, where the army of the living prepares for the impending war with the Whitewalkers.

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HBO

Here, guests can see and interact with all the different groups spanning Westeros — from the ‘Dothraki’ to the ‘Free Folk.’

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HBO

HBO has even enlisted two local horses, making the experience even more real. Daenerys Targaryen’s dragons, however, are conspicuously absent.

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There are little Easter Eggs sprinkled throughout the experience. In a tent in the War Camp, for example, there is a map of Westeros.

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When viewed on the Snapchat camera, guests can unlock an AR experience in which fire and ice engulf the map of Westeros, in what appears to be a homage to the popular book series “A Song of Ice and Fire” by George R.R. Martin on which Game of Thrones is based.

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Tanya Dua/Business Insider

Guests can interact with unnamed characters from the show who are all preparing for war. They can share war stories, prep weapons with a blacksmith, and see soldiers spar in preparation for the Great War to come.

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Tanya Dua/Business Insider

HBO reveals no major spoilers on what to expect in the final season. But in their conversations, guests will find that despite their differences, all the disparate groups are uniting under Jon Snow and regard him as their true leader.

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Tanya Dua/Business Insider

The most magical part of the experience was how committed the actors were to embracing their characters. HBO developed more than 100 pages of script and character backstories, and roped in more than 80 actors and musicians.

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HBO

While no major characters make an appearance, guests do interact with secondary characters like Melissandre. And this guy wouldn’t confirm, but I thought he looked an awful lot like fan favorite Tormund Giantsbane.

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Tanya Dua/Business Insider

Ultimately, it is all for a good cause. The campaign was on track to collect more than 15,000 pints of lifesaving blood donations on the first day of nationwide drives, according to HBO. It also attracted several first-time donors. The American Red Cross saw a 40% increase in new donor appointments online since the launch of the campaign.

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HBO