Appropriately, the first person who told me about Meow Wolf was wearing a mask.
Last October, I was chatting with George R.R. Martin at a Halloween party hosted by our mutual friends, Patricia Rogers and Scot Denning. Behind the dark leather Venetian half-mask, George’s eyes shone with excitement as he talked about how he’d purchased an abandoned bowling alley in Santa Fe, and how the Meow Wolf art consortium was in the process of transforming it into a permanent art installation to be called “The House of Eternal Return.”
When George started describing the project, I wasn’t quite sure how this art installation would be more than an artsy variation on the old carnival fun house. Mind you, even that sounded like fun. But what hooked me was when George mentioned that the House of Eternal Return wasn’t just a vast three-dimensional work of art, it was a story.
When the House of Eternal Return opened to great reviews about six weeks ago, I asked Jim if he’d like me to take him as part of his birthday present. When he expressed enthusiasm, I went on to suggest that we invite some of our friends to go with us, specifically, our current gaming group. From what George had said, I had the impression that the story told by the House of Eternal Return was distinctly non-linear, to be understood more by interpreting clues than by following an orderly script.
Also, most of this group is very artistic. Those of you who are familiar with the book covers for my Wanderings on Writing and Curiosities are already familiar with Tori and Rowan’s work. One of Cale ‘s drawings was the direct inspiration for the cover of Artemis Awakening. Dominique is the shyest about sharing her art (although I’m hoping to get her to show some at this year’s Bubonicon). Melissa restricts herself to stick figures but, though she poo-poos them, they’re actually remarkably expressive.
So I figured that this was the perfect team to take to explore the House of Eternal Return.
When we arrived mid-day last Saturday, the place was already packed. Despite ample parking, we had go well down the block to find street parking. We bought our tickets and got in line. Even there, we could see that we were in for an interesting time. Instead of the usual bland announcement about no eating or drinking while inside, a monitor showed a man in a lab coat who spoke in a halting, staccato, warning us that Charter Agents would be watching: “No eating. No drinking. No thinking.” He then went on to say some other very odd things (I was too busy enjoying to take notes) before the image dissolved into static.
When a Charter Agent in a white lab coat admitted our group into the exhibit, we found ourselves on a twilight lit street across from a Victorian house. We crossed over and entered by the front door. To our right was a living room – and a laughing woman was popping out through the back of the fireplace. Ahead of us was a staircase going up to a second floor. Possibly because the first floor was so crowded, Tori dove for the staircase and the rest of us followed, so we began our tour on the second floor.
This was fine. The House of Eternal Return really does succeed in providing a non-linear story experience. If we’d started on the first floor, we definitely would have had some information sooner. However, I’m not sure it would have meant anything to us at that point.
I’m not going to risk ruining the experience for anyone else by going into our explorations in detail. I will say that Jim and I picked the absolutely right people to go with. In addition to being delighted by all the wonderful areas to explore, our group scavenged for clues. We’d separate and meet again, share thoughts. Was there just the father or were there two men who looked a lot alike? How did the grandmother fit in? What exactly was the Charter?
Wait… I’ve got to stop or I will give too much away. So much of the fun is figuring out what is significant and how each element fits into the others. The art is not just there to have fun with (although it’s lots of fun to play music on lasers or by beating on glowing fungi or on a deliberately atonal electric piano). Much of it provides hints as to the larger story. The same is true of the fragmented bits of narrative on various video monitors and audio clips that can be accessed from headsets tied to assorted consoles.
If I have one gripe, it was that these were very hard to hear. In one room, while we were trying to listen to a crucial narrative, a boy who had obviously been through before kept saying over and over, very loudly, “This is one of the boring ones! This is one of the boring ones!” Maybe, if you’re eight and all you want to do is run around, but not if you’re into the story. I hope that Meow Wolf is eventually able to have adult-only times, for those who want to appreciate the details.
After we’d completed an appreciative wander through and up and down and in and out, and said “Look at this! Did you see that!”, we started pooling what we’d learned or guessed or suspected about various elements of the story. I knew my gamers were getting serious when we finally made it back to the kitchen on the first floor and found Rowan seated at the kitchen table, immersed in the newspapers that were spread about, as if members of the family had just finished their morning coffee. Later, we gathered around… No. I won’t tell.
I’m very proud to announce that we succeeded in working out the story in most major details and lots of minor. Mind you, I still have some questions, but when we emerged from the House, the first Charter Agent we spoke with was very impressed by how much we’d worked out. Indeed, she cheered when we told her we’d found… Nope! Not going to tell you what…
Later, Dominique spoke with a member of the narrative team who confirmed many of our guesses.
So Meow Wolf not only lived up to its press, for me and my group, it exceeded expectations. As a storyteller, I was particularly impressed by the complexity of the tale the House of Eternal Return told – and that they managed to tell it without relying on overt sex or violence or even grotesquery. And yet, to quote Tori, “It was still amazingly creepy.”
We’ll definitely go back, on a quiet day, and this time we’ll listen to all the audio stations, have a chance to hear (as well as see) the video clips. Maybe then we’ll have the answers to a few lingering questions. Even if we don’t, I know we’ll have a lot of fun!