Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire raises the bar for what a true VR experience can be

It’s not every day you can say you’ve snuck into a top-secret Empire facility on the bubbling lava planet of Mustafar, taken down swathes of Stormtroopers and then made a swift escape back to safety all within about 20 minutes. But that was my Thursday morning, and it all happened in the atrium space at Westfield London in Shepherd’s Bush.

This isn’t any old regular Thursday in Westfield though, today I was immersing myself in Lucasfilm and The Void’s latest project, “Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire”. Pitched as a “hyper-reality” experience, Secrets of the Empire is a fully immersive VR experience that sees you donning a backpack PC and a VR headset as you head into a virtual world that no words can do justice to.

The only way I can explain it without melting your ears off with incoherent babble is to say that this is extrasensory on a whole new level. As The Void’s CEO Cliff Plumer put it to me after experiencing Secrets of the Empire, “we like to think of this as ‘real VR’”, and it’s hard to argue with him. This is the VR experience you’ve been sold by countless sci-fi movies and novels. This is the VR that you can really interact with, a VR world that almost seems to exist.

Now, you’re probably wondering how I’ve got three paragraphs in and haven’t touched upon what Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire is actually all about. That’d deliberate, I don’t want you to know. As with the best surprises in life, you have to experience it for yourself. What I will say is, it’s literally like being part of your own Star Wars story.

The gist of the story sees you infiltrating an Empire base on Mustafar – the lava planet first seen in Episode III – sandwiching this tale between the events of Revenge of the Sith and Episode IV: A New Hope. At this point in time, the Rebel Alliance doesn’t really exist as much more than a small uprising and so you, and three others, suit up as Stormtroopers and make your way inside in pursuit of intel given to you by a mysterious source.

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Aren’t you a little tall for a Stormtrooper?

Thankfully, I didn’t actually have to dress up as a Stormtrooper. The VR wizardry of The Void meant that when I donned the VR headset and looked down, I saw myself decked out in their white armour and my buddies were similarly kitted out too. What’s more, thanks to The Void’s use of Optitrack and Leap Motion for body and hand tracking, it genuinely felt like I was there, in that space as a Stormtrooper as I explored the warren of rooms set up as the map for Secrets of the Empire.

Also, as anyone who knows me will attest, I’m probably a little bit too tall to be a Stormtrooper, so it’s a good job virtual Stormtrooper armour is rather flexible.

star_wars_secrets_of_the_empire_-_the_void_experience_-_suit_up_areaThe suit-up area at The Void where you don VR headsets and wearable computer backpacks.

“Traditional 2D film-like experiences just don’t work well in VR”

“[Lucasfilm] got into VR and immersive storytelling back in 2015,” Lucasfilm’s Diana Williams explains. “We’ve been working on storytelling and how to make it work, as traditional 2D film-like experiences just don’t work well in VR.”

“With [Secrets of the Empire] we’re really looking to storytelling to make you feel like you’re part of it. We’re still trying to figure out what’s the best way make up the difference between a location-based VR experience and a home-based one, as these are two different types of stories you’re trying to tell.”

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It’s clear a lot of thought has gone into the project too. Despite having only really been in production for, what seems like, a relatively swift seven months, Secrets of the Empire is wonderfully immersive. Passing from one room to another is bizarre enough when you can physically feel a door edge where the virtual representation of your hands are. It’s even weirder still when you pass from inside a room or ship into the blazing heat of Mustafar. Here, in The Void, it doesn’t just appear below you in VR, you can feel the heat radiating from below, you can even smell sulphur in the air.

In other moments you can feel the heat emanating off of lava beasts that approach from below and every time you’re shot by a Stormtrooper’s laser beam you feel it fizzle across your body. It’s genuinely incredible to experience and is really something you have to experience to believe.

star_wars_secrets_of_the_empire_-_the_void_-_lave_transport

“ILMxLAB is interested in immersive entertainment, which is why working with The Void on [Secrets of the Empire] has been a really good opportunity,” ILMxLAB’s Ben Snow says to me as we chat following my experience. “You can’t have the tactile stimulation that you get here at home. What we do when we approach any of these experiences is think ‘what’s going to make this story unique to this medium’ or ‘what aspects are specific to hyper-reality over virtual-reality’?”

An extrasensory Star Wars story

One brilliant touch the Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire team at Lucasfilm, ILMxLAB and The Void have thought about is just how players interact with the world. While there’s a whole array of haptic prompts in the environment that just beg to be reached out and touched, there are heaps of clever Star Wars ways of playing through the experience.

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“There are people who are interested in blasters, and others interested in just hanging out with K2SO,” Snow explains.

“This is the type of story that’s not suited to home entertainment,” adds Williams. “People at home wouldn’t have the heat from Mustafar, they wouldn’t have the smells or even the idea that they could step into a Star Wars story.”

star_wars_secrets_of_the_empire_-_stormtooper_shootout_-_the_void

“Once you start getting into the story, even though you know you’re safe because it’s Star Wars, your survival instincts kick in,” she continues. “People are shooting at you and you’ve got a mission to do. All that added together means you end up creating your own story around the narrative we give you.”

What Williams says is true, after the initial wave of awe of being dropped into the seemingly real world created inside The Void passes, it all becomes somewhat normal. Well, as normal as shooting at Stormtroopers across pits of bubbling lava can be. The weirdness of being a Stormtrooper melts away and instead, I’m ducking behind cover, popping out of doorways and firing from the hip while shouting my war cry.

Unfortunately, The Void experience in Westfield London isn’t a permanent installation. Eager Star Wars fans can get tickets to experience Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire from Today, 16 December until 10 March 2018. If you miss out on the opportunity, The Void is opening up two permanent locations in the US at Disney Springs in Orlando, Florida and Downtown Disney District in Anaheim, California.

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