We can’t all be as lucky as Daisy Ridley and John Boyega — self-professed fans who now get to live out their Star Wars fantasies in real life — but a new “hyper-reality” experience coming to California’s Disneyland and Florida’s Disney World aims to bring us one step closer to our favorite galaxy far, far away.
Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire shares some DNA with the beloved Star Tours ride at Disney’s theme parks — which allows us tantalizing glimpses of the many planets introduced in the franchise — but instead of being spectators, safely buckled into a StarSpeeder while chaos erupts around us, Secrets plunks guests in the middle of a mission for the Rebel Alliance, challenging visitors to disguise themselves as Stormtroopers (ideally in groups of three or four) and infiltrate an Imperial base on the hunt for vital intel.
The story takes place between the events of Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, and Episode IV: A New Hope, and features Rogue One characters Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and droll droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk), as they plot to sneak into a facility located on Mustafar — the molten planet where Anakin Skywalker was transformed into Darth Vader.
Secrets of the Empire is a collaboration between ILMxLAB — Lucasfilm’s “Immersive Entertainment division,” as the company describes it — and The VOID, a company which brings stories to life through “whole-body, fully immersive VR.”
Unlike most virtual reality experiences, The VOID is seemingly just as interested in creating a tactile environment — one you can smell and touch, in addition to what you’re seeing and hearing. This makes sense when you learn that the company’s co-founder and CCO, Curtis Hickman, is a former magician who utilizes the idea of illusion to convince our brains that we’re experiencing something impossible.
“You’ll read a book where it talks about how a character feels something going through their hair, but you play a game or you watch a movie, you’re not feeling it,” Ian Bowie, the lead experience designer for ILMxLAB, tells Mashable. “But now [you’ll] know what it’s like to ride a skiff across the surface of Mustafar. That’s a sensory memory on top of a story memory on top of an experiential memory. There’s lots of things at play there that hopefully make this feel all the more real.”
The immersive encounter begins from the moment you step through the door of one of The VOID’s Experience Centers, with a video message from Cassian explaining why you need to take his place on a high-stakes mission.
“Every step that takes you from the real world into the virtual world is all part of that storytelling process,” says Cliff Plumer, CEO of The VOID. “When you’re sitting and Cassian’s telling you you’re going on his mission, you’re taking his place with his crew, and you’re putting on this gear for a purpose — you’re not going on a ride. You’re going to be in the Star Wars world on a mission. So we view that whole process as part of the storytelling experience that we want our guest to have.”
Guests are guided to strap into a backpack-like harness that may seem weighty at first, but becomes virtually unnoticeable as you embark on your mission, along with a helmet and VR goggles that will allow you to hear yourself and your cohorts as if over a commlink. While you’re waiting for your team to get ready, you’re encouraged to take a look down at yourself and wave your arm around in your Stormtrooper armor, as well as making sure that you and your posse can all see each other in your nifty disguises, before K-2 swings by to pick you up and brief you on your job.
Walking into this virtual world is briefly disorienting, but anyone who has experienced immersive VR won’t be surprised by how quickly you acclimate — and you’ll be far too busy on your mission to worry about the occasional disembodied arm or gun if there’s a lag between the visuals and the sensors on your pack, which only happened to me twice.
What Secrets does best — and what sets it apart from other VR experiences — is how believably it builds this world; you’ll feel the ship moving beneath you as it docks; the heat of Mustafar’s lava beating relentlessly against your face; even the unique smell of the magma (which kind of makes you hungry for barbecue — deep-fried Skywalker, anyone?).
You can reach out and touch everything — even K-2SO — and at several points, you’ll be asked to interact with your environment in ways that force you to trust everything you’re seeing; completing puzzles and fighting off hostile Stormtroopers with guns you discover along the way.
Bowie notes that part of the magic of Secrets is “the ability to touch an impossible character” like K-2, revealing that many guests instinctively give the droid personal space like he’s a real person. “People actually adhere to social norms of ‘let’s keep away from him, give him his room.’ It’s kind of crazy. But then when someone goes and tries to challenge that and touch him, that’s where we hopefully get them. We bring them into the world even further.”
“That’s the great distinction between a VR experience and the hyper-reality that The VOID provides, because it’s visceral. It’s all of your senses working together while you’re walking through and working through the story, and understanding the stakes. So it’s heart, it’s mind, it’s eyes, everything put together,” adds Diana Williams, ILMxLAB’s Story Group Executive and Content Strategist.
Teamwork is the name of the game in Secrets of the Empire — while you could feasibly complete the experience solo (although not without taking some serious hits from real Stormtroopers, who have much better aim here than they do in the movies), it’s way more fun to have some fellow rebels at your side to help tackle the many obstacles you’ll encounter over the 30-minute experience. There’s one particular moment where I even attempted to use my comrades as a human shield — maybe I’m a little more Dark Side than I thought?
While Secrets does include some gaming staples like a first-person blaster fight, ILMxLAB and The VOID seem more interested in the experiential aspects of the storytelling. (Your heart will be racing by the end of the mission, guaranteed.)
“We started with a guiding principle of, ‘what does it mean to step into a Star Wars story?’ That guiding principle affected everything that we did, every movement we made, how people would feel,” Williams explains. “We tried to think about the different type of guest that would come through. What if someone’s a big shooter? What if someone is concerned about heights? What if somebody lags behind? What if someone doesn’t pick up the gun?”
And Secrets of the Empire is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of ILMxLAB’s plans for the immersive entertainment medium — the company previously announced a Vader VR story which is being written by David Goyer.
“We truly are treating it as its own platform. Games has its own platform, books their own platform, films, television, everything, and this is the next wave of what we’re going to be trying to do to expand out the Star Wars universe,” Williams says. “With xLAB, we are focused on figuring out and really pushing out what people’s ideas are of story and how you experience story on this platform, because it’s just as different as every other platform.”
Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire opens December 16 at Disney Springs at Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida, and in the UK at the Westfield Shopping Center in Shepherd’s Bush, London. On January 5, another location will open at Downtown Disney at Disneyland Resort in Anaheim, Calif. The experience costs $29.95 at the Disney-adjacent properties, and you don’t need to have a theme park ticket to participate. Tickets are available now at The VOID’s website.