A StoryCode Review by Glenn McClanan.
Immersive storytelling often suffers from a balance problem, of being disproportionately focused on "immersiveness" rather than actual storytelling. Time and again, immersive experiences create vivid worlds that are fun and intriguing for a time, but ultimately fall short as effective, coherent narratives.
House of Eternal Return — an interactive story installation in Santa Fe created by art collective Meow Wolf — is an exception. It delivers an experience that excels at being both a deeply immersive joyride and a rich, layered narrative.
Prior to this project, Santa Fe-based Meow Wolf leased various commercial spaces to hold gallery shows and underground music events, gradually experimenting with more interactive projects. In January 2015, author George R. R. Martin pledged $2.7 million for the group to renovate and lease a vacant bowling alley in Santa Fe, creating a permanent facility for the group’s work. The space opened the following year with the group's first permanent installation, House of Eternal Return.
Upon entering, the visitor finds a seemingly idyllic Victorian house, that we learn was once occupied by the Selig family, who disappeared abruptly under mysterious circumstances. With this backstory, the visitor can freely explore the space, with an emphasis on “freely.” You are encouraged to touch, enter, read, and interact with virtually everything in the 20,000-square-foot space.
The house itself has a realistic, lived-in, almost idyllic feel, but a little exploration reveals that it in fact contains multiple pathways into a very colorful Multiverse. So opening a door may reveal just a closet, or open into a tunnel to another dimension. Kneeling down and crawling through the fireplace can take you to an exotic ice cave with a glowing mastodon skeleton (whose ribs you can play like a xylophone… of course). It is as wonderfully off-putting as it sounds. In some ways, you can think of this Multiverse like a psychedelic version of Stranger Thing's Upside Down.
To say that I found House of Eternal Return effective is an understatement. It is literally the most effective immersive work I have ever experienced.
But what exactly do I mean by “effective” here? Immersive storytelling needs to not only have a story world that draws the audience in, but the immersion itself must have a specific goal, e.g. a compelling emotional narrative that keeps the audience engaged for an extended period.
Here are some of the ways that this project succeeds:
As you probably can guess from the previous section, there is not much that I found lacking in House of Eternal Return, but to play devil's advocate, there are a few elements that some visitors may be put off by:
Is it worth a visit? If you are someone interested in immersive storytelling, either as a creator or an audience member, consider this project a must.
Story: (Was there a satisfying arc to the narrative?) 9
Interactivity: (Are audiences allowed to meaningfully interact with the story and characters?) 10
UX/Comfort: (Where controls intuitive?) 9
Wow Factor: (Was it innovative? Surprising?) 10
Production Quality: (Were the audio/visual elements stunning?) 10
House of Eternal Return is located in Santa Fe, New Mexico, which is an hour outside of Albuquerque. And Meow Wolf recently announced future plans for new immersive spaces in Denver and Las Vegas.
For more info:
Glenn McClanan is a volunteer co-organizer with StoryCode, an expanding movement to explore new storytelling techniques in the digital age. Every month, in chapters around the world, StoryCode sessions feature compelling authors, producers, and developers of new media stories.
He is the founder of Rio Create LLC and has developed several original cross-media projects, collaborating with award-winning designers, filmmakers, and graphic artists to build immersive storyworlds.
StoryCode Reviews is an attempt to contribute to a larger critical discussion of Immersive Media projects of note. This work (including interactive fiction/non-fiction, VR/AR, and other forms of experimental storytelling) is evolving every day. As the work matures, we think it's valuable to begin a critical conversation about it.