'Tales From the Galaxy's Edge': An inside look at the new Star Wars VR game
By their own accounts, it was a long, long time ago — not in a galaxy far, far away, but one called Disneyland park in California — that the team behind Vader Immortal, ILMxLAB’s hit Star Wars virtual-reality game, touched down at Black Spire Outpost, the setting for a new coming attraction at the time called Galaxy’s Edge. For years, they tossed around ideas about centering some kind of new project around a staple of Star Wars, the cantina. But, as senior producer Alyssa Finley remembers, a question remained: “How can we tell different stories in a single project and open up [the world]?” The answer came once Disney Imagineering began realizing a planet called Batuu for the next expansion of Disney Parks.
Jose Perez III, who supervised the creation of Vader Immortal's lightsaber dojo, remembers feeling “fully immersed” in the Galaxy’s Edge experience upon immediate entry. “When you step in and you look around, I am here,” he says. "I'm not seeing a bunch of Disneyland stuff. I'm in a world in Star Wars” — an experience that naturally lends itself to the medium of VR. It was as if each small detail of the park attraction came with its own tale to tell. “What's up with the droid that's crashed in this bush over here? Who owns this Droid Depot? There’s all these crazy stories.”
That's when the creation tale behind Tales From the Galaxy’s Edge, now directed by Perez, truly took off. ILMxLAB’s next VR game for the Oculus Quest takes the concept of the park experience and crafts fresh stories set in the canon of Star Wars. In EW's exclusive first-look concept art, some of those stories are starting to be told.
Welcome to the world of Batuu
The main narrative arc for the game, set after the events of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, "starts out in absolutely classic Star Wars style," says Finley, returning as a senior producer on Tales From the Galaxy's Edge. As a droid repair technician aboard a cargo ship, you, the player, crash land on the planet Batuu. "You got some stuff to do that leads to a conflict, and now the Guavian Death Gang is after you. Sorry about that," she explains.
That name should ring bells. The Guavian Death Gang previously appeared on screen in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Those were the guys decked out in red mech armor, led by Bala-Tik (Brian Vernel), who accosted Han Solo, Chewbacca, Rey, Finn, and BB8 aboard a freighter carrying the Millennium Falcon. In Tales, actress Debra Wilson delivers an animated performance as Tara Rashin, leader of one of the gang's cells.
Wilson is already a member of the Star Wars family, having portrayed Cere Junda in the video game Jedi: Fallen Order. Now, as Tara, she embodies a power-hungry space pirate. "She is, at the core, just very tormented and has a lot of these really dark issues," Perez says.
The director describes the character's dialogue as "sinister, goosebump-y, freaky" which could come across as "jokey" in another actor's hands. Wilson "was so pumped up" for the role, he recalls. "It was just like, 'I've got to be a thousand percent, we've got to take this further.'"
Speaking to their collaboration with the writers in forming this story, Finley offers a glimpse into how some of these recognizable names and figures found their way into Tales: "You need an antagonist to run into who would be cool. 'Oh, the Guavian Death Gang would be cool!' And then we bounce it around. We have weekly meetings, if not more often, sometimes with the story group. How can these stories collide? What could bring Tara to Batuu? What could she want? Why would she go to a place like Batuu to get it? And then you work through that."
With the dark also comes the light. It's about balance, as is everything in the world of Star Wars. Enter Seezelslak, voiced by Saturday Night Live's Bobby Moynihan — who, too, already has roots in Star Wars. He voiced Orka in the animated TV series Star Wars Resistance, and now plays the six-eyed bartender (well, he lost one eye, so technically five) of Black Spire Outpost's signature cantina. (Another fun connection to the larger universe, Seezelslak is an azumel, the same alien species seen around Lando Calrissian's gambling table in Solo: A Star Wars Story.) He's always willing to share stories with his patrons, each "tale" taking players to a different part of the Star Wars timeline where they'll see more familiar faces from canon.
"We were at Star Wars Celebration doing a Vader Immortal thing," Perez says. "We had a bunch of booths there and Bobby came through. He's like, 'Just let me know how I can play with you guys. Just let me in somehow.' When we started talking about Seezelslak, we wanted somebody who could be really funny, but also could have a heart. It's not just all jokes. There's a fully realized character there, and Bobby just had all the right things."
Moynihan also came equipped with bartending experience. While reading through the Tales script with the team at Skywalker Ranch, he made it known that he worked in a bar before making it on NBC's famed late-night sketch comedy series. "He immediately was talking about little bartender tricks. He may have this coaster thing. I can't even do it," Perez says. "It was some weird flip. Just knowing that he actually lived a life like that as Bobby Moynihan, he was able to bring a lot of ideas and fun, little anecdotes."
Venturing beyond Black Spire Outpost
Tales holds a lot of potential for Disney Parks. For those financially unable to travel to Disneyland in person, this game can offer a taste of that experience at home. Now, as the COVID-19 pandemic remains an overwhelming stresser, it can also offer something similar for veteran park-goers who may not feel comfortable making that in-person trip. At the same time, Perez doesn't see their project as Galaxy's Edge, the game adaptation. "We want to tell all the stories that you don't get in Galaxy's Edge," he says. "If you really want those exact stories, if you want to build your lightsaber at Savi's Workshop, you should go to the physical [park]. We don't want to just replicate something that you can get in real life. We want to build on it and make something that's new and unique."
What they made is a planet riddled with pirates, which at times makes the wilds of Batuu a treacherous terrain. As Finley notes, you can now actually die in the game and there are multiple difficulty levels.
With help from Disney Imagineering and Lucasfilm, ILMxLAB digitally scanned the entire environment at Galaxy's Edge, using specific details to then expand into a fully-realized planet. Perez points, specifically, to Droid Depot, an attraction at Galaxy's Edge that they turned into "a really amazing" virtual space for the game. "Obviously, we're saying [the protagonist] plays a droid repair technician. So, many great ideas spun out of that space alone. I think it's going to be really cool to see how it plays in [Tales]."
"We get to work with the same concept artists that they use for all of ILM and for Lucasfilm," Finley notes. "We have these incredible artists who are drawing out the scenic vistas, imagining what the spires look like... You throw out two words: 'What if there were tree roots?' And then, all of a sudden, you get a space that is intertwined with the ancient tree roots and the story of the entire space starts to be realized."
Because of their connection to Industrial Light & Magic, the VFX division of Lucasfilm, Perez also says they could "literally take those assets" from the movies and park attractions, like the Falcon-inspired Smuggler's Run at Disneyland, and transpose them into their game. "You can't get more authentic."
Making a game in quarantine
The team, clearly, had many ideas to throw at the wall, like their virtual game of Space Darts. Executing those ideas, however, presented new challenges none of them were anticipating.
When the global coronavirus pandemic began to spread rapidly throughout the U.S. in mid-March, ILMxLAB, like most other companies with work-from-home capabilities, moved the team out of their studio space to operate remotely. Completing a game that required motion-capture and facial-capture under these conditions initially felt crippling.
"When we intellectually considered it, it always seemed like that’d be way too hard. 'No, no, that would never work because we need to look at each other all the time, because we need to play together,'" Finley explains. "I think what happened is the necessity of doing it got past the intellectual objections. It's like going into the pool in the deep end. You find ways. It's not the way you’re used to and it’s not the way that you think is gonna be perfect, but it’s the way that actually works."
The situation proved to be a creative problem-solving exercise. Moynihan needs to record a facial performance as Seezelslak? Great. They got him a personal at-home camera setup, tricked out with the circular ring light typically seen in YouTube beauty tutorials, while Perez directed the actor over Zoom. The team needs to log a full-body motion-capture performance? "We've got one person who’s running the whole stage and doing the whole thing for this particular project," Perez says. What about the animation process? "The Quest is a huge advantage," Finley remarks of their Oculus gaming system. "You can carry it with you wherever you go."
"It was one of those things where we were just going to have to make it work. And it did," Perez adds. "We were definitely a little worried about it. There were talks about, maybe we’re going to have to animate this, but let’s capture it anyway. [Since] we started working with the technology, it’s working pretty well."
Now, with the game scheduled to be released sometime later this year — a date has not been announced — Finley mentions they are at "the best and the worst stage of development." That would be the point of fine-tuning. "We've got the experience built out," she says. "So, the time we have now is to play it, to feel it, to go, 'This could be better. That's broken. This isn't working. This is amazing. More of that.'" Until that happens, we'll have to put a bookmark in this Star Wars tale.