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SYFY WIRE Interviews

Return to the Void: The Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire VR experience has come to NYC

By Brian Silliman

Though Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge's fully immersive Star Wars experience is doubtless wondrous and full of the Force, it's not the only thing that can whisk fans off to the galaxy far, far away. VR giant The Void is still running the brilliant Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire experience, which it created in concert with ILMxLAB, and the good news is that the adventure has come to New York City.

Visitors to downtown Manhattan can now go on a secret mission for Captain Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) while making a trip to the Oculus, a recent addition to Lower Manhattan that could be mistaken for a trippy addition to Star Wars lore in and of itself.

Though SYFY WIRE embarked on this particular adventure about a year and a half ago at The Void's location in Disney Springs (and proved rather successful; you're welcome, galaxy), we returned to adventure once more in the brand-new NYC location. Has the experience changed? Have we changed? As Han Solo once asked, "How we doing?"

Our answer to that question would be the same as Luke Skywalker's was: "Same as always." The difference is that we don't mean that in a negative, "That bad, huh?" kind of way — in this instance, "same as always" means that Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire is just as great as it was the first time.

The main story of the Rogue One-based attraction, complete with all of its details and easter eggs (as well as appearances from Luna and Alan Tudyk voicing K-2SO), has not been changed. Just like before, we were strapped into a rig and headset, but the weight of those things is still appropriate, because the story has you pretending to be armored stormtroopers. If anything, the vests slipped on a little easier this time (with some of us not requiring buckle extenders anymore), and glasses are still allowed to be worn under the headsets should you need them. (We did.)

Our second journey was not the same as the first one, however, as no two trips through this simulation are identical. We were going through with just one other person this time (a nice Void employee named Toni), and maybe we were a little overconfident because we'd done it already.

To make what was once a long story short, we're still lousy shots ... but we accomplished the mission that Cassian gave us despite that. When the moment came to take up blasters, there were four on the rack, but only two of us playing. Toni went right ahead and grabbed two blasters for some double-armed action, so naturally we did the same. We proceeded to blast anything and everything, laughing all the way like a delusional laser brain.

It wasn't the best move, because holding two blasters at once took our already poor marksmanship way down. It didn't matter. Spraying a room full of stormtroopers with two blasters at a time is just plain fun, and you can't "die" in the experience. If that were possible, we'd have been dead right quick. The Force (and the game) were with us, so our twin-gunning antics were worth it.

**WARNING: There's about to be a big story spoiler for Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire. If you want to go into the experience spoiler-free, then turn away now.**

Though we knew what the end of the mission entailed this time, we still weren't prepared when the lights dimmed, the room got cold, and a very familiar breath sounded in the darkness.

It was Darth Vader, of course, and once again, we were completely predictable in how we reacted. Just like Han Solo in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, we opened fire on him. Did the extra blaster make a difference? Of course not. Vader effortlessly batted each and every bolt away from him with his red-bladed lightsaber, and he advanced on us in his iconic, menacing way. We kept shooting.

We knew it wouldn't work, but we had to try. The VR simulation is so real in every aspect that you truly do feel like Vader is about to murder you, and if it weren't for a last-minute save from K-2SO, then everyone going through the experience would be dead.

Though we immediately shot at Vader, some guests do more than that. Some have been known to physically leap at him, which is something that Curtis Hickman, co-founder and chief creative officer of The Void, assured us is something that guests are specifically encouraged not to do.

SYFY WIRE caught up with Hickman after going through the simulation, and he talked about bringing the adventure to NYC, as well as what fans of The Void can expect next.

"New York is this amazing opportunity. There's so much that's going on here and so many influential people, and frankly a lot of fans here," Hickman says. "We originally had our first public experience here in Times Square, we've wanted to come back ever since."

In terms of changes and advancements to the experience, Hickman says, "There have been a few updates that we've done since our first initial release. For the most part, it's the same experience. Our technology has improved as we've eliminated bugs as we've gone along."

Storywise, however, everything seemed right in line with what we'd gone through the first time. Little bonuses like the holographic Fulcrum symbol appearing when Cassian speaks to you mid-mission, for instance, are still present and still very much welcome. Because the story of the experience is canon (for lack of a better way to say it), any changes that The Void would want to make would have to go through proper channels. Though the story is complete as is, there's always potential to tie it into the upcoming Cassian Andor Disney+ series.

As Hickman says, "Any major story changes would have to go through the Lucasfilm Story Group. It is an official Star Wars story, it's not something we threw on a yogurt or something and is just branded that way; it really is an official, authentic Star Wars story. If anything did change, it would have to go through them."

Because we had to ask (and won't apologize for doing so), Hickman himself is a big fan of the original Star Wars trilogy, and is also a huge fan of Han Solo. He told us that he wished he had a more obscure character to mention, but the legend of the Kessel Run had his heart. We're not gonna blame him.

With Secrets of the Empire now firmly ensconced in NYC (and other locations spreading fast), what is next for The Void? It's still developing a Marvel project, one that is based on an MCU movie from this year. Other than that? Hickman couldn't really say, but he made it clear that big things are in the works. With the technology and passion these artists are working with, whatever comes next is bound to blow everyone's minds.

We cannot possibly stress this enough: Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire is the most immersive and dynamic Star Wars experience that one can have outside of an actual Disney theme park. It is also fairly inexpensive. The rebellion has come to NYC, so whether you are a resident or just visiting, make a point to visit the Oculus and partake in Cassian Andor's mission. Get your head out of your cockpit and go. The Force will be with you … always.

Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire is open at The Void's new location at The Oculus in lower Manhattan right now.