Secrets of the Empire is a hyper-reality experience from ILMxLAB and The Void which fully immerses you into the world of Star Wars like never before. One of the three locations for Secrets of the Empire was in London, so when I made a trip there to see a concert and spend time with my friends Elliot (who writes for the site!) and Felicia who live there, we had to check it out. I’m damn happy we did because it was one of the most memorable Star Wars experiences in my life, as the immersive nature of SotE places you into the GFFA in ways which stick with you long after its 15-20 minutes is over and I really, really want to go back in.
First, let’s start with what exactly is a hyper-reality experience. Most Virtual Reality (VR) games and hardware consist of both a headset to project the VR world and controllers to let you interact with the environment in the VR world. These headsets need to be hooked up to a rather powerful computer or gaming system, limiting your mobility and the type of VR experience that can be made for it, resulting in most games having your movement in the VR space dictated by a controller and not your body. With The Void, it’s full-body VR, as the headset is tethered to a vest (which wasn’t heavy at all) that you wear, allowing you to have unlimited mobility around the stage The Void has built for the experience. But it’s not just the vest and mobility that change things up, you’ll actually feel the sting of blaster shots when you’re hit and even the heat (or cold) of an environment, and you can interact with the VR world directly with your hands (even if the nobs or levers aren’t really there, you reach out with your hand and grab hold in the VR world). This is hyper-reality in a nutshell, full-body VR, and it’s basically the only way I want to experience Star Wars from this point on.
And now, the set up: Once you’re done waiting in line for your timeslot, you’ll be ushered into a room where, like most amusement rides, a video explains your purpose and mission in Secrets of the Empire. In the transmission, Cassian Andor (Diego Luna!) sends you and your friends (up to four total) to track down a mysterious case the Empire has obtained which might contain a deadly weapon the Rebellion can’t allow them to keep their hands on. The case is in a secret installation on Mustafar and you’ll be sneaking in as stormtroopers, given specific color pauldrons to help players tell their friends apart. Once the video is over, you’re strapped into the vest and headset, its built-in headphones pipe both the in-game audio and your friend’s hoots and hollers into your ears, and shortly afterwards the experience begins. It was roughly 15-20 minutes, which my friends and I might have made longer due to our performance with the experience’s one puzzle, though it felt longer (I’d love for it to be longer, of course), but you’ll get a real bang for your buck regardless because you’ll actually be in Star Wars. Like, literally, and it was very hard to leave, as all my childhood imagination of running around with action figures/lightsabers/blasters and dreaming of being in the GFFA came to life for a bright moment and winked back out of existence. And now I need more.
I’m not going to go into full detail on what you all get to see and do, as I want to save some of that for if/when you manage to check out Secrets of the Empire, but I’ll cover enough, and include some spoilers in a specially marked section below, to help you understand why you should rush out to dive into this if you can (here’s hoping it’ll move to new cities after the current set-ups end).
We are first greeted by K-2SO (Alan Tudyk), who ushers us into the main hold of the stolen Imperial shuttle where he and the leader (Sam Witwer) of the mission give us the briefing again. This also allows us to see the approach to Mustafar’s surface from high-up in its atmosphere, which is even more stunning of a visual than seeing it one of the films. Kaytoo is funny and sardonic as you’d expect, but if you felt like his design is a little creepy and intimidating, it gets even more so “in-person,” which was an unexpected, but cool effect. He accompanies us into the installation, though he carries out his own part of the mission but we got a chance (or two) to see him from time to time, much like the team leader. Since we began without blasters (there’s an in-universe reason for that, of course), the beginning moments really hit you hard to immerse you as quickly as possible. The moment the shuttle lands, we were assaulted by Mustafar’s heat and forced to stand on a small little platform, without railings, to get into the installation. I’m not really afraid of heights, and somewhere in the back of my mind I knew I was really standing in a big room and not on a little platform, but the graphic fidelity and immersive nature of the total 360° view ended up freaking me and my friends the hell out. I was frozen in place, barely willing to look up, down, or around me in case I fell off to my death, and none of us really moved as the platform ascended to the entrance. It’s a cruel and extremely effective trick and I love that we all fell for it so quickly. In fact, I was so affected by it I wanted to call up my local galactic Senator and demand to know why no one ever builds any damn railings in the galaxy. We might joke about it as viewers of the films, but once you actually experience how terrifying the lack of railings is in-universe, it’s not a laughing matter anymore.
It doesn’t take us long to stumble into an armory where blasters were awaiting, which are physical guns you get to carry around, and try to guess the first thing that happened? Elliot, who had been teasing me all day he was going to shoot me every opportunity he could, immediately opens fire on me and suddenly all three of us are blasting one another, and the walls, with reckless abandon. With the heft of the physical blaster in your hand, the way it rumbles a little when you shoot, and how the vest shocks you/rumbles (very minor, but still not a pleasant feeling) on both the back and front when you’re hit, it really adds another impressive layer to the experience. Of course the moment we started blasting, the alarm sirens blared and we were in the thick of a shootout, escaping the room and heading out onto an outdoor walkway overlooking the lava fields of Mustafar (where there were railings this time!), where we were being attacked from various platforms by waves of stormtroopers and even some local monsters before Kaytoo gets us an exit. While most enemy encounters feel like something from an arcade video game, the gunplay is responsive and intuitive so it’s a blast to get into shootouts, besides maybe the final one (but more on that in a bit!).
There’s a door puzzle to solve, which Felicia tried valiantly to conquer, but Elliot and I were too busy shooting her and the incoming stormtroopers that she never managed to beat it. However, she did say she knew at some point, regardless if she passed the puzzle or not, the game would let us through, which Kaytoo eventually did, so she wasn’t entirely angry at us for messing her up. Once through, we uncovered the contents of the case Cassian sent us after, which I’ll talk more about in the spoiler section (it’s a nice surprise), and barely escaped with our lives once a ice-chilling presence interrupted our mission. While the Empire still has the secret weapon, Kaytoo found an C2 unit with the schematics, so the the mission wasn’t a complete failure. And with that, Secrets of the Empire was over, though its immersive nature stuck with us long after it was over, as it’s quite a lot to process considering, for me at least, it took a lot to get over the fact I was just in Star Wars for the first time! That you can share such a moment with friends is amazing, and one of the greatest aspects of the experience: Star Wars is always better with friends, and being in Star Wars is even better!
I would’ve loved a chance to check out the size and set up of The Void’s stage while not in VR, as it’s not terribly large but it felt like we really were traversing a giant installation, while some of the walls and places to take cover were physical objects placed around the stage which you could lean on and hide behind as the blasters flew overhead. The sense of immersion from the experience was spectacular, and I keep thinking back to the scary opening, which was an effective way to shock you into the world, as it were, and it became very easy to accept the rest of SotE afterwards. In fact, the only things that really end up breaking the immersion are going to be the fault of the players. The comm chatter you’ll share with your friends, unless you agree to sound as in-universe as possible, will be at odds with the Star Wars universe around you; we were screaming and shouting at one another and the things happening around us, though we all agreed it was hard to hear one another over the in-game audio. The game doesn’t make you shoot each other like idiots, but it certainly didn’t stop us and it’s really hard to resist (unless again, you’ve agreed beforehand to be “professional”). Sometimes it is the experience’s fault: While the video game-like feeling to enemy encounters was obvious, as the AI takes up firing positions like a well-oiled machine but without much variety and the stormtroopers don’t really move once they find their spot; And since there are no sensors on your legs, if you watch your teammates walk (which you won’t spend much time doing), they float a little and have jerky movements. But these two things are so insignificant, and the rest of the tech is solid, though the visual fidelity could always be better, your immersion won’t break due to any of ILMxLAB or The Void’s fault.
It’s a fun, exhilarating time and considering I was convinced I could fall off a platform and nearly lost my bladder at the end, hyper-reality is effective at putting you in the GFFA like no other experience or game has ever been able to before. It was almost two years ago I first played ILMxLAB’s first VR experience, Trails on Tatooine, which teased the potential of VR and Star Wars by just scratching the surface, so it’s crazy to think we’re already at the Secrets of the Empire‘s level. The possibilities for the tech, even within the next couple years or so, is mind-boggling to consider if this is where we are right now and the leaps have already gotten bigger. As excited as I am about SotE, I am even more so to see what comes next, as the future is about as bright as the sun the Starkiller Base became at the end of The Force Awakens.
PROCEED AHEAD WITH CAUTION
SCROLL AS FAST AS A PODRACER IF YOU DON’T WANT TO BE SPOILED
The object in the case Cassian sent your team after: an ancient lightsaber! It looked a lot like a broadsword, but instead of one metal blade, it had two fork-like prongs sticking out of its base. It still lit up like current lightsabers do, but its design seems to suggest these prongs were maybe a way to focus the plasma blade’s energy in the early days of its construction by early Jedi. In the official site’s expansive interview with various creatives behind the experience, it is Lucasfilm’s own Diana Williams who teases fans to “Stay tuned” regarding the ancient lightsaber, meaning we’ll likely see it pop up elsewhere in canon at some point. That’s quite the tease, if you ask me, as seeing an ancient lightsaber again implies plenty of exciting things are still in the works that we don’t know about.
None of us managed to put it together that despite being on Mustafar, and at a secret Imperial installation there, we might end up seeing Darth Vader himself. But when he appeared, we all pretty much lost it. He steals back the ancient lightsaber and slays the team leader, then taunted us from afar by effortlessly swatting back our blaster fire. I was hiding around the corner, taking shots at the stormtroopers flanking him and attempting a few shots in his direction, but it was futile. We were all freaking out the moment his breathing was heard, but seeing him approaching, looking every bit the intimating giant that you see in the films, is frightening beyond belief. If you wondered what it felt like to be one of the rebels in the hallway with Vader at the end of Rogue One, let me tell you, it’s not a pleasant feeling in the slightest. I about lost control of my bladder, it was so scary, and after he crunched our blasters, we were utterly helpless as he moved in for the kill. Luckily Kaytoo saves the day, but I’ve never been more afraid in my life, more so than any haunted house I’ve suffered through. What made the whole moment effective, as Elliot later pointed out to Felicia and I, was how obvious they made it that we were powerless against Vader. Heck, I even had a nightmare about Vader afterwards, despite me thinking I’d gotten over it; I wish I was kidding.
THE SPOILERS ARE OVER
Here are a few other things:
- UPDATE 1/31/18: The Star Wars Show had a whole segment on Secrets of the Empire, where you can see some footage of them running around the stage which helps sell the virtual world. On top of that, they mention there will be MORE LOCATIONS opening so there’ll be more opportunities for people to check this out, and an interview with writer David S. Goyer (who is teased to be working on another project yet to be announced!!!)!
- Check out this rather expansive interview with various creatives behind Secrets of the Empire over at the official site, but beware, it covers spoilers as well.
- It was announced back in July of 2016 at Star Wars Celebration Europe that screenwriter David S. Goyer (Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Constantine (TV Show), Blade II) was working on a VR project with Vader and this is what that eventually became.
- Currently in Florida, California, and London, here’s hoping SotE finds its way to other cities once these places are taken down in early March.
- Given the size of the set-up in London, it looked like only two teams could be running Secrets of the Empire at the same time, though it might have been four at a time. Regardless, while I’ll always want a longer game, its 15-20 minute length helps keep the lines manageable for everyone to get a chance to play.
- Galaxy’s Edge, the upcoming Star Wars Lands at Disney parks, will be everyone’s next best chance at getting to be in Star Wars, but the immersion in that can only go so far while SotE‘s tech is limitless.
- I would pay money to see footage of us running around the stage as viewed from outside the VR world, while being able to switch between what we see and what we’re doing in real world would be the icing on that cake. I know the footage would probably be embarrassing, but I’m ready for a good laugh. Speaking of which…our SotE photoshoot is below!
Hyper-reality is the future of interactive experiences and Secrets of the Empire from ILMxLAB and The Void is a bright shining example of its potential. Do not miss out on this if you can, as there’s nothing quite like being able to say, along with some of your friends, that you were actually in Star Wars!
+ Wholly immersive
+ Intuitive interactions with the VR world
+ The “secret” weapon’s potential to be seen elsewhere in canon
+ Fun to play with friends
+ YOU ARE IN STAR WARS, WHAT MORE DO YOU NEED TO KNOW?
– AI was simplistic