How Video Games Inspired New Mexico’s Wildest Art Collective

Meow Wolf
Kate Russell

New Mexican artist Vince Kadlubek recalls the moment he first entered Hyrule Forest in “The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.” Nearly an hour into the iconic Nintendo 64 video game, players heed warning from a wise polygonal owl before taking their first step into the sprawling green textured field. Kadlubek, CEO and co-founder of Meow Wolf, said his career producing art spaces was drawn from the moment he led Link through the character’s first-ever 3D game.

“It was pretty clear to me early on [in my artistic career] that I was creating that same sense of wonder that you felt in ‘Ocarina of Time’ when you’re first in Hyrule and you have this sense that you could go anywhere and this world is yours to explore,” Kadlubek told Variety.

Meow Wolf is an arts and entertainment collective that formed in Santa Fe, New Mexico in 2008. The group’s eponymous headquarters includes a permanent art installation, “House of Eternal Return,” a performance center, a children’s learning center and a cafe. Kadlubek said the group first began as a collaborative effort to create art with friends.

“We were 20-somethings operating out of a warehouse, building these strange environments out of recycled materials that we found in dumpsters or that were donated to us,” he said. “We didn’t make any money off of our work, it was strictly a project of passion and wanting to express ourselves and really we found out that we liked to create environments that people could go inside of.”

Early projects were temporary and disparate but had a common theme: each installation told a story through an interactive space. “Habitats” housed 15 small post-apocalyptic forts in a warehouse, where guests were invited to explore the site’s remains. A crashed intergalactic two-story sail ship was the star of Meow Wolf’s 2011 project “The Due Return,” and featured more than 500 LED lights, live actors and QR codes for guests to interact with and learn more about the boat’s story and inhabitants.

“The House of Eternal Return,” Meow Wolf’s first permanent installation, debuted in March 2016. “The House…” is Meow Wolf’s largest project to date and includes a 22,000-square foot interactive space, a Victorian house, four tree houses and art from more than 135 artists. Since first opening two years ago, “The House…” has gained quite the following. According to the Albuquerque Journal, the art installation generated $6 million thanks to 400,000 visitors. Meow Wolf communications VP John Feins said the art organization blew past those numbers last year, generating about $9 million during the 2017 calendar year. In January, Meow Wolf announced plans to create new permanent installations in Colorado and Nevada, with their Las Vegas site set to open in 2019 and their Denver site in 2020.

Feins said the interactive nature of the space is key to the success of “House…,” saying the space owes more to video games than any other storytelling medium.

“Instead of looking at people’s rooms and seeing diaries and people’s things on a screen, you’re actually in a space where you’re touching the character’s stuff, you’re going through their computers, you’re looking at their books, reading their mail,” Feins said. “You’re inside their spaces.”

Explorers of “The House…” begin their journey in a lobby outside the space, where a short video warning from a man in a suit and tie plays above the site’s door entrance.

“No food, no wrestling. Please, just nothing radical,” says the straight-laced narrator, his voice distorted and his image obscured in a shadow.

Upon entering the space, guests will find themselves at night, outside of a Victorian house. Crickets and wildlife hum in the distance, vibrating against the low thrum of a synth and the pitter-patter of bells. Step inside the house and you’ll find just that — a two-story home with a living room, a dining room, a kitchen and several bedrooms. Take a closer look and you’ll find hidden secrets and passageways in nearly every room. Open the kitchen’s refrigerator and enter a portal that leads you to a teleportation room, advertised in cursive teal writing: “Your gateway to the multiverse.” Crawl through the fireplace and enter an ice cavern where the fossilized remains of a wooly mammoth can be played like a xylophone.

Lazy loaded image
Kate Russell

Kadlubek and Adam Drucker, Meow Wolf creative director and video game music composer, said “The House…” draws upon a number of video games as influences, citing “Myst,” “Bioshock” and “Proteus” as inspiration.

“All games, to get a feel and a core loop to be something that you want to play for more than five seconds has to be a designed experience,” Drucker said. “Basically, modern video games are the perfect instance of controlled lighting, layered experiences, audio, visual and written word content could all be delivered.”

An early moment wasting time in the streets of “Shenmue” inspired the art directors to include a free retro arcade in the middle of “The House…”

“So your [protagonist is] walking around the streets of this city and you can go into an arcade and play old school Sega Genesis arcade cabinets, so you’re playing a video game [while] playing a video game,” Kadlubek said. “I just remember how fun it was to stumble upon an arcade in my fictional experience and then to play games.”

The site’s arcade includes more than 12 game cabinets and features such classics as “The Simpsons Arcade,” “Mortal Kombat,” “Street Fighter II” and “Galaga.” Matt King, the arcade’s project director, said the games room invokes a sense of nostalgia and playfulness that meshes with the installation’s colorful aesthetic.

“Even though it may seem kind of weird to have a “Street Fighter” in a beautiful enchanted elf forest, it all relates,” says art director Chadney Everett. “It’s all immersive, interactive, everything about it. Gaming is very much that thing, what we make is that thing.”

Both Everett and Drucker produced Meow Wolf’s first Score Wars in March, an amateur and professional retro arcade competition. The four-day event was streamed in partnership with Twitch and featured new world records for games like “Centipede,” “Bubbles” and “Track and Field.”

The competition culminated with a “Galaga” tournament, where New Zealand challenger Andrew Barrow bested the previous-world record holder Andrew Laidlaw and recent “Galaga” record breaker Armando Gonzales to take home the trophy.

Complimenting the arcade competitions were two developer game jams (one on-site, the other online), coordinated in partnership between Meow Wolf and the Albuquerque Game Developers Guild. Shandiin Woodward, Meow Wolf web designer and AGDG chair and co-founder, said 10 games were produced and ready to be played on-site. “AttacKnight,” the game presented by members of AGDG and played by the attending tournament players, features a glitch-art aesthetic as the player controls a futuristic knight as they wage war against a horde of enemies.

Lazy loaded image
Kate Russell

“We were really trying to play towards the audience we were designing for and I think that was an important experience in really taking the players perspective and seeing what made those arcade games really fun and attractive for people,” Woodward said.

Plans between AGDG and Meow Wolf to include a live indie game cabinet in the arcade are nearly finalized, Woodward said, where new games from local and smaller development teams could be downloaded and played. Kadlubek said Meow Wolf’s efforts to reach out to game developers and professional game players goes hand-in-hand with their previous work.

“They’re artists, they’re creatives.” Kadlubek said. “These are people who are expressing themselves through an art form and that’s what we support.”