Walkabout Mini Golf, one of the best multiplayer apps for VR headsets, is adding a course made by art collective Meow Wolf and based on the group's real-world experiences. It's Meow Wolf's first big dip into virtual reality, and it's scheduled to arrive later this year.
It's not as strange a move as you might think for Meow Wolf, the group behind the cult hit House of Eternal Return, in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and a growing bunch of other in-person destinations (Omega Mart in Las Vegas, Convergence Station in Denver).
Or maybe it is.
But in a VR/AR landscape that still doesn't really know what a metaverse is supposed to be, this collaboration could point toward creative teams actually trying to figure this out ahead of a wave of new headsets coming later this year.
Let me back up a bit. I find well-built, custom-crafted VR experiences wonderful. I also love immersive physical spaces and theater experiences that take similar care with how groups of people explore strange new worlds together.
VR and AR's metaverse push of the last couple of years, however, has tried to just create big open social tools with no real guidance or superstructure. These places — VRChat, the soon-to-be-closed AltSpace VR, Meta's flailing Horizon Worlds, Rec Room — seem to either be spots where fun stuff emerges, or confusing and poorly run experiments that feel empty or alienating unless you know who you're meeting with and where you're going.
Sometimes, I find that it's the in-person experiences that can craft what the virtual ones can't yet. Meow Wolf's in-person, multilayered, maximally dense art collective spaces struck me as the sort of way to guide more-elaborate social virtual worlds of the future. The Meow Wolf–Walkabout collaboration sounds like a bizarre and whimsical mirror-world experience that's also a foot in the door for Meow Wolf's future explorations in VR and AR.
"We've been dreaming about making mini-golf forever," Caity Kennedy, one of Meow Wolf's co-founders and the group's senior creative director, said to me during a Zoom chat. "Since a lot of our exhibits are a big thing compartmentalized with a bunch of little things, mini-golf is like a pretty hilarious and very accessible version of that."
Another Meow Wolf co-founder, Vince Kadlubek, had been playing in VR games and experiences for years, which led to the collaboration with the team at Walkabout Mini Golf. Meow Wolf had made its own AR companion app for the House of Eternal Return installation years ago, but translating some of those designs into a VR mini-golf course is a different type of crossover experience.
Kennedy already uses some VR art tools, including Gravity Sketch, to work on designs for Meow Wolf's physical installations. Gravity Sketch was also used as a collaborative place to dream up the VR course. "We have VR artists, we have VR developers that are working on things," Kennedy hinted, suggesting that Walkabout's relatively contained structure might be a good starting point.
If you haven't been paying attention, Walkabout Mini Golf has already become one of the best social VR destinations if you have a small group of friends. This game, and Demeo, are where I tend to join a few old friends for a casual game that lasts about an hour, allows us to chat and explore, and then stop. It feels like going for a walk, or getting coffee, or going to a museum. Or playing mini-golf. Unlike more-intense VR games, or way too open social worlds with no real focus, it gives us something to do while we're talking. It works.
"It aligned a lot with our sense of humor," Kennedy said of the collaboration. "You can be good at golf, you can be bad at golf, you can just not play golf and go explore."
Golf as a strange doorway
Walkabout's golf courses have already been getting a lot more immersive over time, becoming more like walk-through theme parks or stories than just a bunch of golf holes. A course based on the classic Jim Henson film Labyrinth is like a tour of the film's plot, and even has a side labyrinth to wander around in. There are Jules Verne courses. There's a Myst course.
The Meow Wolf course, based on the living other-dimensional jungle world of Numina that's part of Meow Wolf's in-person Convergence Station experience in Denver, is meant to be a sort of parallel virtual visit, or maybe a golf course that ends up being visited by and mutated by Numina.
Kennedy hints that the way Meow Wolf's course will work is a lot stranger and more whimsical than even previous Walkabout courses, which of course excites me. Also, the presence of Numina as a character will loom large over the experience, a "living universe that is curious about us simple animals that are wandering around, falling down stairs and things."
"It's not just a duplicate," Kennedy said of the VR version of Numina versus the physical creation in Denver. "There will be a familiar experience that is twisted and freed by the mechanics of virtual reality. People who've been to Numina in real life [at Meow Wolf] will see a lot of things that they got to see in real life, but a lot of people who have only seen pictures will get to wander around something akin to the pictures they've seen.
"But, lots of differences: I mean, gravity doesn't exist in VR. We can make things slip. We don't have to have electrical wires, or speakers or a lot of the things that limit what we're able to do. And we're able to have animation that we can't do. There's so much fluidity that is really only possible at the moment in VR."
Virtual and real winking at each other
Disney has explored crossovers of the virtual and real. It's created a Star Wars Tales From the Galaxy's Edge VR game that's set in the outer realms of the same planet Batuu as the real-life Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge parks. In theory, visiting the virtual game could inspire you to go to the actual park, or the game could be a living souvenir.
Future planned metaverse-ish explorations could have a similar vibe. Meow Wolf's own physical spaces communicate with each other via telephones, and a ton of merchandise already extends the stories into some take-home souvenir directions. You can buy Omega Mart merchandise from the alternate-universe store's gift shop, for example, or get books and artifacts, much like you can at Disney's stores in Galaxy's Edge. In some ways, Meow Wolf's virtual spaces may aim to do the same.
"Mini-golf is not a collective world, so there can't be live feeds into anything, but having connections between the two, where people can at least see one from the other, or use something they found in one to affect the other... this is going to be kind of our test case," Kennedy said. "This is our first foray into connecting a real world exhibit with virtual reality."
Lucas Martell, the director of Walkabout Mini Golf, said the Meow Wolf course "is going to be much more of an experience," admitting that the company is starting to flex out with more experimental designs that start becoming more like one-hour excursions for groups, as opposed to just a casual sport.
Even though Walkabout is a VR game, the company has also released a phone-based version that'll use augmented reality, sort of: Courses can be seen through the phone screen, and swings happen by moving your phone like a real putter. The phone version is arriving ahead of Meow Wolf's course, meaning more people could try it out.
"The irony is that a lot of people playing probably haven't even been to an actual Meow Wolf," Martell said. Considering Meow Wolf is still an organization some people haven't heard of, much less seen, a little mini golf game like Walkabout could be a chance to open up awareness to a whole bunch more people. As someone who's been lucky enough to check out the real-world Meow Wolf spaces, I'm looking forward to visiting a small virtual shard of it in my home.
Meow Wolf's course isn't available until later this year, but I can't wait to play it with a few friends. We could explore those strange spaces together in VR as we talk, just like we'd do in the real world, too.
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