Walkabout Mini Golf, one of the best multiplayer apps for VR headsets, adds a course created by art collective Meow Wolf and based on real world experiences. It’s Meow Wolf’s first big foray into virtual reality, and it’s slated to arrive later this year.
It’s not as strange a move as you might think for Meow Wolf, the band behind the cult hit House of Eternal Return, in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and a growing number 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 interconnection supposed to be, this collaboration could point to creative teams really trying to figure it out before a wave new headphones coming later this year.
Let me back up a bit. I find well-crafted, customized VR experiences wonderful. I also like immersive natural spaces and theatrical experiences that pay similar attention to how groups of people explore strange new worlds together.
However, the VR and AR push over the past couple of years has attempted to create large open social tools without real guidance or superstructure. These places — VRCchat, the it will close soon AltSpace VR, Meta’s inflammations Horizon WorldsRec Room — seem to be either places where fun stuff pops up or confusing and poorly executed experiments that feel empty or alienating unless you know who you’re meeting and where you’re going.
Sometimes, I find that it’s personal experiences that can create what virtual ones still can’t. Meow Wolf in person, layered, super dense collective art spaces It seemed to me the way to guide more elaborate social virtual worlds of the future. The Meow Wolf–Walkabout collaboration sounds like a strange and whimsical mirror experience that’s also a foot in the door for Meow Wolf’s future explorations into VR and AR.
“We’ve dreamed of doing miniature golf forever,” Caity Kennedy, one of Meow Wolf’s co-founders and senior creative director of the group, told me during a Zoom chat. “Since a lot of our exhibits are one big thing that’s broken up into 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, has been playing VR games and experiences for years, which led to working with the team on Walkabout Mini Golf. Meow Wolf had made its own AR companion app for the House of Eternal Return facility years ago, but translating some of those designs to a VR mini golf course is a different type of crossover experience.
Kennedy is already using 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 working on things,” Kennedy hinted, suggesting that Walkabout’s relatively limited structure might be a good place to start.
If you haven’t noticed, 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, is where I tend to go with some old friends for a simple game that lasts about an hour, lets us chat and explore, and then stops. It’s like going for a walk, getting coffee or going to a museum. Or playing mini golf. Unlike more intense VR games or very open social worlds with no real focus, it gives us something to do while we talk. It works.
“It really aligned 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 door
Walkabout’s golf courses have already become much more immersive over time, looking more like theme parks or walking stories than a bunch of golf holes. A course based on the classic Jim Henson film Labyrinth looks like a walk through the plot of the film and even has a side maze to wander through. There are Jules Verne lessons. There is a Myst course.
The Meow Wolf course, based on Numina’s living, other-dimensional jungle world that is part of the Meow Wolf in-person experience at the Convergence Station in Denver, is meant to be a sort of parallel virtual visit, or perhaps a golf course that ends up being visited and mutated by Numina.
Kennedy hints that the way Meow Wolf’s course will work is a lot weirder and more whimsical than even previous Walkabout courses, which naturally excites me. Also, Numina’s presence as a character will loom large over the experience, a “living universe that’s strange to us mere animals wandering around and falling down stairs and things.”
“It’s not just a replica,” Kennedy said of the VR version of Numina versus the physical creation in Denver. “There will be an intimate experience that will be distorted and freed from the mechanisms of virtual reality. People who have been to Numina in real life [at Meow Wolf] they will see a lot of things that they used to see in real life, but many people who have only seen pictures will wander into something similar to the pictures they have seen.
“But, a lot of differences: I mean, gravity doesn’t exist in VR. We can make things slide. We don’t have to have electrical wires or speakers or a lot of things that limit what we can do. And we can have animations that we can’t we do. There’s so much fluidity that’s really only possible right now in VR.”
Virtual and real winking at each other
Disney has explored intersections of the virtual and the real. He created a Star Wars Tales From the Galaxy’s Edge VR game that takes place in the outer spheres of the same planet Batuu as the real Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge parks. In theory, visiting the virtual game could inspire you to go to the real park, or the game could be a living souvenir.
Future planned explorations of the metaverse could have a similar atmosphere. Meow Wolf’s physical spaces communicate with each other via phones, and a ton of merchandise already expands the stories in some souvenir directions to take home. You can buy Omega Mart merchandise from the alternate store’s gift shop, for example, or stock up on books and items like you can at the Disney stores in Galaxy’s Edge. In a way, Meow Wolf’s virtual spaces may aim to do the same.
“Mini golf is not a collegiate world, so there can’t be live streams on anything, but there can be 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 … that’s going to be kind of our test,” Kennedy said. “This is our first attempt to connect a real-world exhibition with virtual reality.”
Lucas Martell, director of Walkabout Mini Golf, said the Meow Wolf course “will be much more of an experience,” admitting the company is starting to grow with more experimental designs that are starting to become more like hour-long group outings, as opposed to a simple sport.
Although Walkabout is a virtual reality game, the company has also released a phone-based version that will use augmented reality, like this: Courses can be seen from the phone’s screen, and swings happen by moving your phone like a real player . The phone version comes before Meow Wolf’s run, meaning more people could try it out.
“The irony is that a lot of people who play probably haven’t even been to a real Meow Wolf,” Martell said. Considering that Meow Wolf is still an organization that some people haven’t heard of, let alone seen, a little mini golf game like Walkabout could be an opportunity to open awareness to a bunch more people. As someone who’s been lucky enough to see the real Meow Wolf grounds, I’m looking forward to visiting a little virtual piece of it in my own home.
Meow Wolf’s course isn’t available until later this year, but I’m looking forward to playing it with some friends. We could explore these strange spaces together in VR as we talk, just as we would in the real world.