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'Game of Thrones' world at SXSW: It's a 'bloody' good time

Eric Webb

When you play the game of thrones, you win or die. In the “Game of Thrones” Bleed for the Throne activation, you definitely live, but you might also get to eat a burger next to a wildling.

The time for elaborate South by Southwest-adjacent pop-up experiences is here. Much like last year’s immersive “Westworld” activation, this year’s “Game of Thrones” exhibition plunges visitors into a world not our own. Fair Market on East Fifth Street has been decked out in full Targaryen drag for the installation, which runs through March 9. (Registration is closed; hope you snagged a spot, though the website does mention a stand-by line.)

The event ties into the “Game of Thrones” blood drive initiative of the same name, in partnership with the American Red Cross. You don’t have to donate blood to walk the Westerosi walk, but it might set the mood.

We checked things out Thursday night and lived to tell the tale. If you go to Bleed for the Throne, here’s what to expect.

White walkers? More like line walkers

The most SXSW-y part of this experience, truly, was being asked by more than one bearded man if we were ready to fight. Like any good live experience, you don’t have to wait until you get in the doors to get a taste of the action. While we queued up outside Fair Market, the various classes of Westeros came to banter with the folks in line. Lords of Winterfell tried to gauge our combat readiness. There was a sword fight. A small Dothraki horde came a callin’. My colleague was asked, "Would you call yourself the mother of dragons?" The crowd work turned out to be a great taste of what was to come. Hope you like interactive theater and eye contact from strangers at perilously close distance!

Beyond the wall (er, door)

Yeah, that’s right, Bleed for the Throne. You put that Iron Throne in immediate view as soon as the doors open. First lesson of immersive experiences: Give the goods right up front.

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Fair Market, which you have to admit has an airplane-hangar vibe in its natural state, was transformed into a sumptuous faux-medieval world of scarlet, gold and silver, of wood, stone and tapestry. Incense floated in the air. Armored knights posted up at key points. A robed chamber choir chanted so ominously, you’d think the High Sparrow was right behind you. Candelabras? Have, like, 10. Even the technology had an authentic vibe: The scanners for guests' wristbands were covered in handsome leather pouches.

We're all the Three-Eyed Raven

Since you’ve gotta make sure this thing isn’t just a glorified Renaissance fair, Bleed for the Throne immediately thrust us into a guided, interactive tour through the stories of four main characters from the series. We put on headphones and grabbed a handheld device (both provided) and followed a winding hallway that told of how Arya Stark, Cersei Lannister, Jon Snow and Tyrion Lannister all bled for the throne. (If you’d given blood by this point, you might have felt a certain kinship with Ned Stark’s dagger-magnet boy. Or perhaps you were just consumed with a maniacal lust for power, wine and stylish blonde pixie cuts.)

The storyline portion was a little thin, but that’s beside the point. There was a holographic nun yelling “shame!” at us, and we got to see the Mountain’s armor. This. Was. Why .We. Came.

Prepare for war and improv

After a little role-playing, we visited the war camp outside. That’s where actors milled around in their finest pelts and leathers, staying in character like it was Disneyland and they finally scored a human role after toiling under a Donald Duck head for a year. The Unsullied “welcomed” us, shields and all! The Dothraki chilled with a horse! A swaggering lady from the Iron Islands asked one of us to join her smuggling crew! A rogue from the Vale raised his eyebrow and made somewhat uncomfortable passes at other characters!

One thing is for sure if you go: The actors are going to engage you in conversation, and they’re going to allude to the fact that there’s a war coming. Let’s not forget that, in addition to being a blood drive, Bleed for the Throne is an incredibly large advertisement for the final season of “Game of Thrones,” which will pit the living folk of Westeros against the Night King and his undead armies. Winter done come.

But when that war comes, there will be a tent serving Shake Shack, according to the SXSW version of events.

Bend the knee

Our trip through the Seven Kingdoms — or the One Winding Hallway and Outdoor LARP Session — ended with a “throne ceremony.” That creepy choir got down to chanting, and a red priestess started talking about life and death and the Lord of Light, as red priestesses like to do. Our priestess wandered around the pews in which we sat and stared mischievously at folks, stopping every now and then whisper in someone’s ear.

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When the faux-Melisandre leaned down to impart prophecy to me, she said I was about to enter a dark passage for a long time. Which was not what I wanted to hear! But also, it was the day before SXSW started, so maybe she actually was a prophet? Made me think. She also said there would be a light at the end of the passage, which I assume is the massage I’ve booked for when the fest is over.

The red priestess eventually called out the names of people who had “sacrificed” (fits in with the blood drive) and told them to stand. I won’t spoil what happened next. Let’s just say that at SXSW, an immersive experience always pays its debts.

Listen to the I Love You So Much: The Austin360 Podcast dispatch from Bleed for the Throne: