Meow Wolf: House of Eternal Return

StoryCode Reviews

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:

  • Story-Centric – First and foremost, there is a rich, layered and emotional story about a family that underlies the whole project, and ties the experience together. The story is intriguing enough that it could have worked as a feature film, yet dispersing this narrative across various interwoven media is even more powerful, given its multi-dimensional nature. The artists at Meow Wolf understand that an immersive world can become glorified decoration without an strong emotional anchor.
  • InteractiveIn House of Eternal Return, visitors can touch almost anything. You are encouraged to read through papers on the desks in the house, or rub a sound-generating stalagmite in a strange ice cave. This deep interactivity draws you in and makes the experience feel personal.
  • Agency – The space is, literally, an elaborate maze of hidden pathways and tunnels, yet you almost never feel lost. In part, because the initial set up at the house gives you enough information that you get a sense of what you are in for, but more importantly, wandering around is actually the whole point. The project is inherently a non-linear experience that can be digested in several different ways. There are guides standing around in lab coats, but after four hours, I never once saw any visitor ask for assistance. While many immersive experiences aim to have the user "get lost" in the story world with a non-linear, self-guided user experience, few projects truly succeed. Instead, this approach usually confuses and frustrates the user. However, this project is an excellent model for how to give participants agency in a truly meaningful way.
  • Aesthetics – Meow Wolf is a collective of many artists, and the aesthetics within House of Eternal Return vary dramatically, from the bucolic realism of the house to clean futurism of the inter-dimensional travel portal (yes, they have that too), to glowing primordial spaces. Yet it all feels like a coherent, holistic experience.
  • Inclusive – Most immersive experiences are prohibitively expensive, or presented through art or educational institutions to which many audiences will likely never go to. But the Meow Wolf experience is notably non-elitist. The tickets are $20. While climbing in an out of some of the tighter spaces may prove challenging for some visitors, people of all ages can enjoy the experience. (In my time there, I saw 2-year-olds and eighty-year-olds, and everyone in between, and they were all enjoying it.) Also, in terms of tone, the project simply never takes itself too seriously, which is often the case with more art-focused projects.
  • Audio Design – Practically speaking, it is difficult to create a rich, nuanced audio experience in a large public installation such as this. The sounds get drowned out either by visitors or by other sounds. Using an elaborate combination of soundscapes, music, and voice over, House of Eternal Return manages to pull it off, establishing an alternative auditory world that is just as lush as its visual one. No small feat.


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:

  • No Leaning Back – The space requires that you engage with it to get the most out of it. You simply cannot be a passive visitor. So if you tend to prefer to lean back instead of lean in, you may want to take this off of your to-do list in Santa Fe.
  • Crowds – With popularity and inclusivity inevitably comes crowds. Some elements, especially the sound design, could be diminished if you go when there are many people inside the space. (I started my visit on Monday morning and had no problem.)
  • Video Locations - Another small gripe is that, like everything there, the video screens that convey substantial story info are fairly hidden, so some may miss them. This does not ruin the experience, but if you are focused on the narrative, be prepared to really look for all of the screens that reveal it.


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.

Meow Wolf: House of Eternal Return
Meow Wolf: House of Eternal Return
Meow Wolf: House of Eternal Return
Meow Wolf: House of Eternal Return
Meow Wolf: House of Eternal Return
Meow Wolf: House of Eternal Return

The StoryCode Take

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
Overall: 9.6/10


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:

Official Site
Meow Wolf Experience - Trailer
Meow Wolf Facebook Page

About The Author

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.

About StoryCode Reviews

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.