Come to the dark side

Technology | Todd Martens 12 Jun 2019

This summer, visitors to Disneyland in Anaheim, California, and Florida's Walt Disney World enter the universe of Star Wars with the opening of Galaxy's Edge, a 5.6-hectare land with ambitions to offer unprecedented levels of play.

Fly the Millennium Falcon, build a droid, construct a lightsaber or engage in a battle for control of the land itself.

But there are limits. You won't be able to take the land's fancy new lightsabers into immediate duels.

And since Galaxy's Edge is set in the timeline of the current trilogy, don't expect to play alongside Darth Vader - at least until Disney concocts a special event to make that happen.

For now, re-creating certain aspects of the world of Star Wars will be left in the digital space. And not just the usual console and mobile video games.

On May 21, Lucasfilm's relatively secretive ILMxLab released Vader Immortal: A Star Wars VR Series - Episode I for the new Oculus Quest headset, the Facebook-owned company's latest bid to prove that virtual reality can be a medium for the masses.

ILMxLAB has become something of a corporate outlier after Lucasfilm parent Disney largely shifted to a licensing model for interactive experiences outside the theme parks.

The division experiments with interactivity in storytelling and has developed Star Wars and Wreck-It Ralph experiences for the Void, a technology firm whose location-based VR can be found in malls and Anaheim's Downtown Disney. Due later this year is one related to the Marvel franchise.

While VR has been seemingly hyped as the next big thing for what feels like multiple decades now, what draws Lucasfilm to the medium, said Mohen Leo, a visual effects veteran who serves as ILMxLab's director of experience development, is that, when done right, it can be transformative.

Much of what happens in the space is experimental, making it a playground for early adopters but largely a curiosity to the public at large.

The hope is that the relative smoothness, and story-focused, nearly hour-long length, of Vader Immortal, could start to change that.

"A unique thing about VR is that it can give you personal memories of fictional things," Leo said. "You actually remember being in a place in Star Wars. And I don't think any other medium can do that, that you actually remember something that didn't happen. We get to design memories."

Though the very nature of the VR medium means the audience for Vader Immortal is significantly more limited than a Star Wars film or theme park attraction, the Oculus Quest could be a major step in making high-end VR more accessible.

Priced at US$399 (HK$3,112) for a 64 GB edition (a larger 128 GB edition sells for US$499), the Quest is cord and computer free, eliminating a major stumbling block - the need for a top-priced PC - in making VR appealing to the average user.

"In 2015 and 2016 there was a year's worth of tech magazines covers talking: 'Get ready for the world to change!' And then, when this wave of commercial headsets launched and the world didn't completely change, people started to see it as a disappointment," said Oculus executive Colum Slevin.

The Vader Immortal experience - don't call it a game, all of its principal creatives insist - will last 45 or so minutes, depending on your skills with a saber.

It's pegged to be the first of three episodes written by veteran film, television, comic and game writer David Goyer (Dark City, the Dark Knight trilogy).

Set between the events of Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope, this can be thought of as a short film with some game-like elements. Players adopt the role of a smuggler, one who gets intercepted by the evil Imperial Empire and taken to Vader's home planet, the hellish volcanic world of Mustafar, a spot seen in the narratively connected project for the Void, Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire.

Players will slowly discover their own Force powers and will be joined on the quest by a mostly trusty droid sidekick, the Maya Rudolph-voiced ZO-E3, a legless floater with wires exposed who seems to realize it has escaped death probably a few more times than most. If needed, ZO-E3 will provide some instructional help, but much of the interactivity in Vader Immortal - wielding a lightsaber, climbing some stairs - is relatively intuitive.

Left unknown, however, is the true nature of adventure. Vader Immortal intends to show a slightly more personal side of the beloved villain. We initially meet him in a prison cell, where we're briefly intimidated by a spherical torture droid.

Ultimately, we learn the player's character has a deep connection to Mustafar, which we also discover wasn't always shrouded in lava.

"Part of the promise" of Vader Immortal, said Goyer, is to discover what's going on inside Vader's mind. "Most people don't spend their entire waking lives thinking about dominating the galaxy for an abstract reason."

"We expected people would be frightened or intimidated by Vader," he added. "And they were - I was, the first time we did the tests. But we also thought it would be interesting to see if you would connect with him emotionally and remember that there was a human being behind the mask."

Vader Immortal is designed with the knowledge that it will likely be someone's first VR experience. In that sense, said Ben Snow, the director of the project, expect future episodes to experiment with using the Force and other interactive elements.

And with storytelling in VR still a relatively undeveloped area, Snow, who worked on visual effects for the Star Wars prequel Attack of the Clones, said now that the company can create digital worlds, it's time to look at how to live inside them.

Whether VR ever fulfills its promise as the future of gaming is perhaps irrelevant. With play starting to enter all forms of mass entertainment, from theme parks at Galaxy's Edge to interactive Netflix specials, projects like Vader Immortal provide opportunities to tweak traditional storytelling.

"I started out in film and TV. It's a mature art form, relatively speaking, and on the one hand, that's cool. But on another hand, certainly on the studio sides, people have gotten a little bit lazy," said Goyer.

"There's not as much innovation going in the form of storytelling itself. We've settled into a lot of rhythms that it's hard, even with the best of intentions, to break ourselves out of.

"In VR, none of those rules have been set in stone yet. They haven't even been written in sand."

Los Angeles Times (TNS)

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