I look into the chirping, beeping, glowing mouth of a deep cave. A jungle world. Something flies overhead, wings flutter. A long-legged beast walks carefully across a giant pond… and I see the reflection below. But I can also, I think, move through the reflection. I fall through. I’m in another world. Wait, where’s my golf ball?
An art collective called Meow Wolf makes psychedelic art installations that are immersive and interactive. I’ve checked them out before, but this time I did it in my home office., in a VR headset, visiting an impossibly alien miniature golf course. You can also visit it if you have a VR headset nearby.
Meow Wolf’s first VR venture has come as an add-on course to the popular Walkabout Mini-Golf game, and this world, while gorgeous, is only big enough to accommodate the 18 holes. I’ve golfed in it, hiked through it, floated around it. It sounds like Meow Wolf. It looks like Meow Wolf. And when I’m in there, I’m carried back by flashbacks to my trip to the collective’s Convergence Station in Denver, because the entire VR world here is inspired by a living alien forest experience inside the physical space, a place called Numina.
A virtual world made of a physical one
Walkabout Mini-Golf’s founders come from Disney Imagineering and immersive entertainment backgrounds, and the app’s add-on courses have become increasingly story-driven and expansive over the past year or so. There are courses based on Jim Henson’s Labyrinth, Jules Verne’s novels and the Myst video game. Some current tracks are already playing with reverse gravity or playing with reality. Meow Wolf’s course goes above and beyond for a magical, immersive experience. It’s the Santa Fe, New Mexico-based company’s first stepping stone on the road to finding ways its artist-collective process can be applied to virtual experiences as well.
I’m not going to say too much about it, because like immersive theater or Meow Wolf’s own experiences, it’s best enjoyed on your own terms. But I was blown away by the feel of the lighting, the scale of the space, and the calmly undulating living creatures lurking around, reminding me of the sculptures I saw in person at Convergence Station. The Walkabout game’s aesthetic has a lot of simple polygonal shapes, instead of aiming for realism, but to me the effect works like magical origami. Numina, in a headset, has the visual and sonic essences in every corner that I loved in the real world of Meow Wolf: it is maximal, intertwined, whimsical and unresolved.
The course also reminds me of my love for weird games. It’s hard to get weirder than What the Golf, and sometimes Meow Wolf’s course has bits of that feel. However, this is less game, more art. Sure, I aimed to finish the course and get a good grade, but the experience is more about the journey. I want to float around and just enjoy it again. It feels like an artifact, a VR souvenir of the Meow Wolf multiverse. At Meow Wolf’s physical installations, I bought strange fortune-telling cards and guidebooks and mismatched socks from the gift shops, and brought home those found fragments of another world. This game also lives in my VR headset.
For Meow Wolf, it is also clearly a calling card and an invitation to come and visit the IRL facilities. Much like the VR app Star Wars: Tales From the Galaxy’s Edge is to Disney’s theme parks, Meow Wolf’s golf course is a way for people to get a taste of the real worlds for far less than the cost of a field trip and admission ticket (assuming you already have a VR headset).
While experiencing the course design, I spoke with Caity Kennedy, Lucas Martell, and Don Carson about the VR collaboration. Kennedy is Meow Wolf’s co-founder and creative director. Martell is the director and executive producer of Mighty Coconut, the creators of Walkabout Mini Golf. And Carson is Walkabout’s senior art director. We spoke earlier this year about the collaboration when it was announced, but now I was also curious about how the piece was created, and what it means for the future of immersive entertainment.
Create virtual art from within
The Meow Wolf Walkabout mini golf course is not a completely new world. Instead, as mentioned, it’s adapted from the very real physical space called Numina, created by a community of artists in Meow Wolf’s Denver installation, Convergence Station.
Numina is a living world, a kind of self-aware entity that materializes interdimensionally in the Convergence Station, where visitors explore it and get lost in the process of wandering to other parts of the experience. It’s a centerpiece, a multi-story rainforest-like dream world full of hidden rooms and beautiful walkways.
The Walkabout game expansion features the Meow Wolf golf holes in a virtual Numina, which includes some familiar textures and audio-visual details but is also an experience of its own. It is designed. According to Kennedy, Numina is a multidimensional intelligence that can interact in different locations.
“Most of the creatures in Numina miniature golf are animated versions of features sculpted in Denver Numina,” Kennedy said. “We weren’t trying to create something completely new, because we just didn’t have the resources to have a bunch of people working together with the Walkabout people to come up with all the new ideas.”
However, there are animated creatures in the game, something Meow Wolf doesn’t often do in its physical spaces, as they would require complex animatronics or projections.
“We had all these limitations in our art that would be so fun to break. Like having to host hundreds of guests—you kind of need a floor, you have to have railings. Down … has to be down.” Kennedy said. “Breaking those rules outright was the obvious first step. And then the second was movement.”
The audio is mostly the same though, and this is part of why the VR experience feels so much like an extension of Meow Wolf’s worlds. The collective’s installations have complex soundscapes that fill the spaces with depth and spatial effects. Walkabout adapted these soundscapes for VR.
Because Meow Wolf pretty much has “the full installation audio from the show itself, we were able to essentially take the real audio and remix it and place things in a way that made the most sense for our game,” Martell said. “As soon as the audio came in, it was like, Oh, and now this feels real in a way that we haven’t gotten to experience with a couple of the other courses.”
Prior to the collaboration, there were many parallels between the way the two teams worked. For example, the Meow Wolf course was designed using Gravity Sketch, an app that both Walkabout’s team and Meow Wolf’s Kennedy were already using.
“We leveraged Gravity Sketch a lot as our initial rough, as well as what we call ‘set-decking,’ which is kind of dollhouse furniture that we do there,” Carson, a former Disney Imagineer, said of the collaborative process. “Fortunately, Caity was quite familiar with Gravity Sketch, so we were actually able to meet inside the track as it grew.”
This virtual collaboration process is what interests me the most because it feels like a precursor to where we will all one day go with mixed reality collaboration tools. Even though the two teams were in different locations, they were able to work together in a VR room on the same level, at the same time.
A sign of the process for future experiences?
Of course, I’m already wondering what Mighty Coconut’s work with Meow Wolf says about the future of what we’ll see in both VR and AR headsets, and also the design process for everyday physical experiences. Kennedy thinks about these things too.
“Site-specific installation is where Meow Wolf started,” Kennedy said. “And we’re limited now because we don’t live in the cities where we’re going to build. In the headset, it kind of broke down that barrier of not being able to walk, because it’s in your pocket. The installation is something you can take with you, even when is being built.”
Kennedy also sees this as an open door to push Meow Wolf’s installations beyond the physical. While the company has been using VR as a design tool for some time, Meow Wolf is getting more of its people trained in it to be used as a design tool, but also as a medium. This could allow Meow Wolf to build exhibits in VR, in the real world, or both, meaning more people can experience its exhibits without traveling to them.
For myself, when I want to escape to magical worlds, I have several options. I can travel to an immersive destination in the real world, like a Meow Wolf installation or a Disney theme park. I can see a show in New York. I can read a book or play a video game. Or I can put on a VR headset. These experiences can be small and personal, or large scale. I love the massive immersion of a physical Meow Wolf world. But can it work in VR too?
“Our brains don’t register physical encounters and virtual encounters in a different location,” Carson said. “And I think it kind of hints at the potential of being able to blur those lines. If you have something as special as Numina, in Denver, and then have Numina here, one can experience both of those things, and those two experiences could live together, in your imagination, in your mind.”
Carson sees it as the future. Although his colleagues in the theme park world believe that VR could one day make physical theme parks obsolete, he disagrees. Instead, he sees it as a complement to the physical experience – that you can have a virtual version of your visit to the theme park, to relive the real experience from home.
It’s a future I’ve already seen happen: on this Meow Wolf miniature golf course, in ILMxLabs Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge VR games and in min virtual experiences connected to Burning Man.
While hardware like Apple is imminent Vision Pro headsets and Meta’s Quest 3 accelerate the possibilities of immersion, they do not fully solve the creative collaboration issue for immersive futures. I’m amazed that on Meow Wolf, individual artists can find a voice in the swirling chaos, while collaborative teams can also weave ideas on top of it. In some ways, we see elements of that shape with Walkabout’s kaleidoscope of miniature golf worlds. And if Meow Wolf finds a starting point for building future collaborative spaces for artists in virtual worlds, then the rest of us likely will too.
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