Meow Wolf’s House of Eternal Return is an intoxicating and at times overwhelming piece of environmental storytelling. Built into a defunct bowling alley in Santa Fe and first opened in 2016, the combination playground and art installation invites visitors first into a house and then into another world. Throughout, there are hundreds if not thousands of fabricated artifacts and documents: newspapers and brochures, videos and letters, the detritus of a strange and strangely absent family. While House of Eternal Return is not billed as a game, those of us in the business of making and understanding games should pay attention to its diffuse, playful use of narrative.
People entering the installation walk through a doorway and into the front yard of a Victorian house. Letters found in the mailbox provide the first tantalizing bits of narrative. From here, visitors can explore the exterior or walk up the porch and through the front door. There is no clear, “correct” path through the house. Inside, like any house, it offers options: check the sitting room or the living room. Touch things or don’t touch things. Read things or don’t read things. Head upstairs or crawl through the fireplace directly into another world. The other world is filled with rooms, treehouses, a cave and an arcade. One room has the cozy warmth of a den and is lined with giant eyeballs. In the cave, a mastodon skeleton is an oversized musical instrument. Clues and information are scattered throughout the house and the labyrinthine world it bleeds into. While the occasional actor-guide is available to answer questions, they’re few and far between. The work of seeking out the artifacts that reveal the installation’s complex lore is entirely optional. Evidence and information are fragmented across rooms and worlds. In total, the flavor text scattered throughout the house probably comes to hundreds of pages, and yet, it is only a small portion of the story, which is also told through family photographs and warped home décor, through audio recordings and even a zoetrope.
This experiential, multi-sensory approach to storytelling has precedent not just in experimental theater and installation art, but also in the design of theme park rides. Disney, in particular, has mastered it; the new trackless rides rolling out at their parks around the world demonstrate an ongoing commitment to innovation. While classics like “It’s a Small World,” “Peter Pan’s Flight” or “The Haunted Mansion” proceed on literal rails, trackless rides, like “Pooh’s Hunny Hunt” (opened in Tokyo Disneyland in 2000) use electronic sensors embedded in the floor to guide vehicles—here, thematically appropriate honey pots—through a route that looks and feels random. The ride’s whirling pots fuel the guests’ disorientation as they are whisked between iconic scenes from Disney’s Winnie-The-Pooh.
But the experience of the ride begins long before anyone enters a vehicle. As visitors approach Pooh’s Hunny Hunt they are welcomed by a giant storybook, a customized audio experience and even the piped-in smell of honey. These touches do more than heighten the experience of the ride—they serve as sensory cues that you are exiting the ordinary world. The goal of providing optimized and individualized adventures is often elusive, but tantalizing.
Theme park rides necessarily rely on a “look-but-don’t touch” approach (riders are forbidden from touching the exhibits), but environmental storytelling experiences like House of Eternal Return, or even those offered in videogames, actually encourage touching. There is an intimacy to flipping through, for example, a binder full of correspondence in House of Eternal Return or to opening and reading the note passed between Samantha and classmate Tommy in Gone Home. While Gone Home requires the player to find certain items to unlock information and proceed through the game, House of Eternal Return has no such requirements. There are no rails, there are not even sensors. Visitors exploring the house can and do customize their own experience by simply choosing where to pay attention and how. They can rest or wander, read or not read. This means that, for most, the story may never quite coalesce, a reality that invites consideration and reconsideration—what in games we might call “replayability,” but what in many other forms of narrative media, critics often find lacking.
When the finale of the first season of The Killing concluded, for example, many bristled at the lack of resolution. However, as Kristen Warner and Lisa Schmidt pointed out, the series wasn’t trying to present that kind of narrative at all. It instead borrowed from the storytelling conventions of the soap opera, presenting a story less about resolution and more about exploration and waiting. In this feminized mode of storytelling, questions answered often serve only to raise more questions. If this does not appeal to all viewers, perhaps that means only it isn’t for all viewers. This is no Freytag’s triangle with the action neatly rising and falling to a dramatic climax. Rather, these stories are complex, messy, and even sometimes, irritating. The question of whether games should tell stories is largely moot: they can, and they do. And, as Jonathan Gottschall argued in The Storytelling Animal and as Joan Didion so eloquently said, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” If games have fallen short in their potential to tell stories, perhaps developers have cleaved too closely to a climax-driven, linear understanding of narrative. Games too often focus on completion, but what if instead of a completable, readily intelligible plot, there is simply too much narrative to fully piece together, a story or network of stories dispersed through a rich environment—a whole house, or even a whole world—filled with the detritus of the people who have lived there? What if, after all, the answers just raise more questions? This is what House of Eternal Return presents to such tremendous effect. This is what games could potentially offer at a scope and scale that would be nearly impossible in a physical installation.
Storytelling experiences like the one at the heart of the House of Eternal Return provide something complicated and messy. They defy the reductive, algorithmic interpretation of action and interaction invoked in too many games. Instead, they lean into the inherent messiness both in building a game around an unpredictable protagonist, and trying to make sense of human lives. Much of environmental storytelling—in games, in theater, and in experimental art—is not goal oriented, and this rejects much of the logic of contemporary games, distancing it from what can be accomplished in a conventional novel or film. Attacks on environmental storytelling and dismissals of the storytelling potential of games echo older dismissals of feminized storytelling practices, and are easy to read as containment strategies. However, these kinds of approaches are culturally and artistically relevant and even, deliciously, dangerous. All environments tell stories, but in the ones that we build, we can provide curated experiences and stories that center the player and even at times, open the door to another world.
Carly Kocurek is the author of Brenda Laurel: Pioneering Games for Girls and Coin-Operated Americans: Rebooting Boyhood at the Video Game Arcade. She is on Twitter @sparklebliss.