The odds aren’t good. I’m a rebel, so already the cards are stacked against me. My squad and I have to infiltrate an Imperial base. There are four of us against what I’m sure will be many, many more than that. Our mission, assigned by Captain Cassian Andor himself, is to recover a crate that’s housing some kind of secret data. We’re getting some help from this droid; he’s a little sarcastic for my tastes, but he gets the job done, so I can’t complain too much. What’s worse about this whole thing is that the base is on Mustafar, a lava planet. Will make you wish you were on Hoth, from what I hear. If you ask me, it sounds like a wild bantha chase. Hopefully it’s not.
We go in unarmed and undercover as stormtroopers, suiting up in the pristine armor that’s become a symbol of tyranny across the galaxy. It feels a little weird to even pretend to be the bad guys, but we look the part. Things go okay at first. We make it planet-side, ride a skiff up and go unnoticed. But I feel the blistering heat from the lava. The smell of burning atmosphere hangs in the air. We’re really here.
We make it to the armory and grab some blaster rifles off the wall. I’m kind of hoping we won’t need ‘em, but when something can go wrong, it will go wrong. And it does. One of the blasters goes off and just like that, the Empire knows we’re here. Troopers open fire, and even though we’re a little green as a unit, we instinctively form a strategy. “Up top, up top!” I shout, as bucket heads storm the bridge above. We engage and we’re holding them off, when I suddenly spot a security scanner on the wall near us. I blast it, not sure if that’ll have any effect, and take a moment to savor it when it explodes. But that was a mistake. I get clipped in the side and jump back from the shock. It’s not bad but I need to focus more, or at least be quicker. Finally, we take out the last of ‘em. We survived the first battle. But we’re just getting started.
This is a real Star Wars story. And it happened to me.
For so long, Star Wars storytelling has been primarily driven through film, TV, books, comics, and games. But there’s a new form that’s been added to the mix, and it is revolutionary: hyper-reality, or virtual-reality-driven experiences that incorporate touch, smell, temperature, and social play. Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire, by ILMxLAB and The VOID, now open in Downtown Disney at Disneyland Resort in California (where I tried it on its January 5 opening) and Disney Springs in Florida, as well as London, is the first such Star Wars hyper-reality experience. You wear a VR helmet equipped with headphones, strap on a force-feedback vest, and you’re immersed. You see only your Star Wars surroundings: fully-realized environments and lifelike characters. You can even reach out and really touch some of them. The experience breaks down a wall that previously existed, blurring the lines between movie and game and toy to create something new. Mostly, it’s just very special for anyone who ever ran out into the backyard and pretended they were a rebel hero in a galaxy far, far away.
“This is something people have dreamed about for a long time,” says Ian Bowie, lead designer of Secrets of the Empire at Lucasfilm’s ILMxLAB. “Stepping into the Star Wars universe. This fandom, especially, likes to not just watch it but be a part of it. To try to live it. You have fan films, you have fan fiction, you have people dressing in costumes. So being able to lean into that fantasy of what people have, what a Star Wars mission like this could be, what they would do… Going into that and figuring out ways that we could remain authentic was tantamount to each beat of it.”
The marriage of The VOID’s tech with Star Wars is both a no-brainer and a minor miracle of timing. Lucasfilm’s ILMxLAB division was founded in June 2015 with an eye toward emerging immersive technologies: virtual reality, augmented reality, real-time rendering, you name it. Early experiments led to experiences like Trials on Tatooine, a VR release that put fans into the role of a Jedi Padawan and had them wield a lightsaber, and Rogue One: Recon, a 360-degree video allowing the viewer to control an X-wing pilot’s POV. Secrets of the Empire is the most ambitious project for ILMxLAB yet, and The VOID – with its gear, centers, and own multi-sensory VR expertise — turned out to be the perfect partner.
“The VOID’s been working on the technology of this for a number of years,” says Cliff Plumer, CEO of The VOID. “But really, it was then finding partners to help drive the creative that would then advance what we could do.”
“With the Lucasfilm Story Group, we’re always looking for the right story for the right platform,” says Lucasfilm’s Diana Williams. “And with this being a new way of telling a Star Wars story, I felt that with what The VOID does well, [we would be] pushing Star Wars to be something new and something different and something exciting.”
As this is new territory for Star Wars, there would be some learning. “At this point in time, close-up, full-on faces are difficult to do. Uncanny valley and all that,” Williams says with a laugh. “That was always a big one. I had to always remind myself about it.” This being Star Wars, however, that wasn’t too big a hurdle, and it led to the undeniably cool idea of rebels-disguised-as-stormtroopers as a basic premise. Set prior to Rogue One, the script was ultimately written by acclaimed screenwriter David Goyer (The Dark Knight), and the final experience features both Diego Luna and Alan Tudyk reprising their roles as Cassian Andor (in a pre-mission video) and K-2SO, respectively.
Much of the actual experience was formed, however, right in Williams’ office. She, The VOID’s Curtis Hickman, Bowie, and others cleared out her workspace and taped the floor into sections, mirroring, more or less, the layout of The VOID’s Experience Centers. They walked through each beat, figuring out scenarios and other details. “We talked about the stakes and the emotion,” Williams says, “but also what am I doing, why am I doing it, and is this Star Wars?” In other words, everything had to make sense — cool-factor alone wouldn’t cut it. But this period of discovery also inspired some of Secrets of the Empire’s most memorable moments, when the benefits of hyper-reality could amplify traditional storytelling.
“One of the bigger challenges, shall we say, that went on for about 24 hours, was figuring out the blasters,” Williams says. “It was a great creative conflict between all three of us. Between me from story, Ian from design, and Curtis from The VOID. When we all decided that, yes, we’re going to be rebels going in disguised as stormtroopers, I’m like, ‘We’re gonna have blasters. I’m not gonna take the outfit and not take the blaster. You want to take the whole thing.’ But from Curtis’ point of view, if you have a blaster at the beginning, you’re not touching things. Your hands are tied, so you can’t do anything else. And then from a design point of view, it’s like, this is the stuff we have to do. So we had to really figure out a story beat to make it make sense why we don’t have blasters at the beginning.”
The result is a real “wow” moment. You see blasters lined up on the wall, and you have to reach out and take one. And then you’re really holding it, in real life. When you pull the trigger, your first-person avatar does, too.
“That’s kind of it coming together,” Bowie says. “I think that moment, that sense of discovery… This is your Star Wars adventure. If we just gave you a blaster at the beginning, that’s not a moment you’re going to remember. That’s not a moment that’s going to make you feel like resourceful rebel going into this base. The fact that you discover them yourselves, you set off the alarm, you cause your story to change inside of that. The whole blaster scenario basically set up our mindset of how we move into a story like this.”
And the general idea, or motivating factor for Secrets of the Empire’s creators, is that you are a character. The blaster segment is emblematic of that, as it forces you to do something and ultimately think about what kind of character you will be. Will you reach out to touch other things you see? Will you take chances? Will you be silent or talk to your squadmates? (Mine were complete strangers, but we did quickly fall into our roles. When one teammate tried to crack the security code for a door, I crouched in front of him to provide cover. And we would all shout commands in our best pseudo-Star Wars military speak.) Secrets of the Empire does reward creativity — especially Star Wars-style creativity. My team struggled, for instance, in cracking that aforementioned security code. (Look, you try memorizing a button pattern with stormtroopers blasting at you.) What I learned later was — well, I won’t say too much here, but my advice is to remember you’re in the Star Wars universe, and Star Wars tricks apply.
Spoiler alert: There are some major surprises, Star Wars-wise, in Secrets of the Empire. A potentially major piece of Star Wars lore is revealed — an ancient lightsaber that looks like none we’ve seen before. All Williams will say regarding the artifact: “Stay tuned.” And a legendary character makes an appearance, getting up close and personal. It’s a moment that will thrill anyone who has ever loved Star Wars. “There are so many layers in that moment,” Williams says, “that I think everything just came together so beautifully.”
Secrets of the Empire was completed, surprisingly, in roughly “10, 11 months,” according to Plumer. “We just kept learning and iterating, and there’s still things we’re constantly tweaking,” he says. Indeed, the experience is designed so that Secrets of the Empire can be tweaked and added to going forward, and ideas that couldn’t be included are goals for what may come next.
“There was an excitement with it being a new platform,” Williams says. “There was a lot of me running around and saying, ‘What about this?’, and they’re like, ‘Well, we can’t do this because of this tech reason or this or that, but let’s table it for now because that’s something we can work towards.”
“This is just the beginning,” Plumer adds.
The release of Secrets of the Empire stands as something of a landmark moment for both Star Wars and The VOID. One of the world’s most beloved franchises, now 40 years old, has taken its first steps into a larger world.
“To see the first time people go through and come out, that’s the most rewarding,” Plumer says.
“The most rewarding experience that I’ve had, the one that keeps coming to mind, was watching some people go through, and then when they came out I asked them, ‘How was it?’” Bowie says. “They said, ‘I was in Star Wars.’ I was like, ‘That’s great.’ They said, ‘No. I was in Star Wars.’”
“It’s really moving Star Wars forward,” Williams says. “Like, what are the other stories we will tell in this new medium that we can’t tell anywhere else?”
Tickets for Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire are on sale now at TheVOID.com.
Dan Brooks is Lucasfilm’s senior content strategist of online, the editor of StarWars.com, and a writer. He loves Star Wars, ELO, and the New York Rangers, Jets, and Yankees. Follow him on Twitter @dan_brooks where he rants about all these things.