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Until this week, I didn't know that having a conversation with Darth Vader was on my bucket list as a Star Wars fan. But ILMxLAB's new Vader Immortal: A Star Wars VR Series gives you that seemingly impossible opportunity — and best of all, it puts you on his good side, so the experience manages to be immersive and thrilling without also feeling life-threatening.
SYFY WIRE visited Oculus headquarters in Los Angeles earlier this week to experience the virtual reality adventure first hand using the company's forthcoming Oculus Quest headset. While there, we spoke with several members of the creative team who have brought users face-to-face with the Dark Lord of the Sith for the very first time.
Set some time after the events of Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith, Vader Immortal allows the user to play a smuggler who's recruited by the Empire to recover a rare artifact that Vader believes will give him eternal life. As the smuggler navigates the treacherous corridors of a Star Destroyer, and later, the shadowy hallways of Vader's castle on gloomy Mustafar, he or she acquires a lightsaber, learns how to use it, and gets to cut through steel and fend off robots en route to a climactic destination.
"We started by talking with [screenwriter] David S. Goyer about telling a story within the Star Wars universe," Executive Producer Mark Miller told SYFY WIRE. "We pretty quickly [realized] that if we wanted to interact and see behind the mask, so to speak, of one of our big characters, that Darth Vader is the one that we all kind of wanted to explore. And this kind of fertile period between Episode III and Rogue One where you don't really know that much about what's going on with him seemed like a great place to set the story."
Vader Immortal follows in the footsteps of dozens of Star Wars-inspired video games, including the 2017 Void experience Secrets of the Empire. Colum Slevin, Head of Media, AR/VR Experiences Group at Oculus, indicated that the goal with Vader Immortal was to create a story that VR users could live inside and invest themselves in emotionally. "Our team is charged with tackling the nascent emergence of narrative in VR," Slevin says. "Games are an arguably solved problem and it's a relatively mature medium in VR, but storytelling is a totally new frontier and this team is doing more than anyone I think to attack that problem head-on with really concentrated thought and creativity."
Director Ben Snow, a longtime visual effects supervisor for Industrial Light and Magic, says the process of creating the experience involved experimenting with the amount of user interactivity — not just giving them something to do, but to make them feel like they're really part of what's happening.
"This project started as a prototype where we were exploring different ways of storytelling," Snow says. "So we did some experiments which were much more passive and you were a fly on the wall, and we just felt like that wasn't working as well. But we did a test where we had Vader, instead of talking to someone else, came up and started addressing you. And everyone really had a good reaction to that."
According to Snow, "directing" is a slightly different discipline in virtual reality, since the user is enveloped inside the world they're exploring, and at every moment they can control what they're looking at. "Mise-en-scene is really the biggest factor here," he said. "The lighting, the look of the sets, so that if I want the person to look where I want them to look, I'm going to light that appropriately and draw their attention to it. Skywalker Sound did a lot of great stuff to draw your attention with the audio."
While there are many opportunities to explore the space and even objects within a given environment — like, for instance, the cargo hold of your smuggler's vessel, Snow also said that the designers embed directional triggers to prompt interactivity with digital characters, delivering information and pushing that story forward.
"We give you a moment to look around the ship and explore so you can have that joy of discovery and get used to the idea of being in VR," he said. "But then, for example, in the cell, when you appear there, there's a droid floating in front of you and you can look at, but if you happen to look over and notice the guy in the corner, then he'll start talking to you. So it was trying to have you understand we have a little indicator on the floor, so you get the idea that if you go over there, a story beat starts. It's like you're seeking the story — that's what we want you to feel."
Although Goyer is credited as the writer of Vader Immortal, Miller said that team of people worked together brainstorming ideas for the quintessential if perhaps not ultimate immersive Star Wars experience. "We literally had whiteboards of lists of 'what's your Star Wars fantasy?' And a lightsaber was at the top," Miller said. "But also, having a droid companion who hangs out with you. Being on the bridge of your own ship. Making the jump to hyperspace." Close collaborations with Lucasfilm's own story teams resulted in including identifiable locales, characters and even mythology that appeared in previous Star Wars adventures that would tether users to the universe they've spent decades memorizing up on the screen.
"It was important to us that it was your character's story, so it couldn't really be part of another narrative," Snow said. "It was your story, and as we develop over the three episodes, you start to understand more about why you're key to this. But the Mustafarians, we'd seen glimpses of in Episode III. And we'd established Vader's castle in Rogue One, and we explored a little bit of Mustafar in Secrets of the Empire at The Void."
Despite their efforts to avoid too much direct overlap, the Vader Immortal creators admitted that it would be fun to create an experience like this one that allowed users to witness the action in the existing films from a different perspective. "Part of the experiment that led to this was actually looking at it almost as Rashomon, or the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern approach," Snow said. Slevin added, "I guess if it mattered for the story, it would make sense. But that's one of the reasons the Star Wars universe is so conducive to this medium — is that since 1977, it's felt very tactile and lived in.
"That's what I think is exciting for people," Slevin continued. "It's this sort of promise to your childhood self that you can go back to this place that you've only seen in the movies and go, oh, I'm standing in an Imperial hallway — and this is what it feels like!"
As its title suggests, Vader Immortal: A Star Wars VR Series - Episode I is part of a larger narrative that, as you might expect from this franchise, will be a trilogy. Snow said they've learned much during the making of this first installment that they are applying to the next two chapters, both in terms of technically enhancing the user experience and incorporating wish-list story ideas fans will be thrilled to try out.
"In Episode I, you're using lightsabers, and in Episode II, you'll get to use the Force," Snow revealed. "Our story from the start was conceived as being across three episodes, so we sort of laid out the big picture in Episode I and then we get to sort of learn a lot more about the details in II and III."
Vader Immortal launches on May 21 exclusively via Oculus' new Quest headset, to be followed sometime later on Oculus Rift. Slevin said that this experience was a perfect playground to utilize the Quest headset, combining the familiarity of the Star Wars universe with groundbreaking technology that, unlike previous VR equipment, you can take anywhere.