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First look inside the Star Wars virtual reality experience Vader Immortal

Take ILMxLAB's haunting journey into the heart of Darth Vader's inner sanctum
May 07, 2019 at 11:00 AM EDT

We’ve been to Darth Vader’s lair — and escaped to tell about it.

The virtual reality experience Vader Immortal from ILMxLAB is one of the key titles for the upcoming Oculus Quest wireless headset, immersing the user in an environment where even the bravest denizens of the Star Wars galaxy might fear to tread: The Sith Lord’s hellish castle on the volcanic world of Mustafar.

Vader Immortal is part one of a trilogy its creators plan to roll out, with volume one available for download for $9.99 to the Quest headset when that $399 device becomes available May 21.

The main question from Star Wars fans is: What exactly is Vader Immortal?

Even its creators struggle with this. None of the usual words apply. “What’s fascinating about VR is it’s not a video game,” says writer and executive producer David S. Goyer, best known for the screenplays to Batman Begins, Man of Steel, and the series Da Vinci’s Demons.

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It’s also not a movie or a show, since there’s interactivity involved and it’s all viewed through the first-person perspective, like Doom or Call of Duty. And they aren’t even sure what to call you.

“We didn’t want to say ‘player’ because that connotes a video game,” Goyer added. “We didn’t want to say ‘viewer’ because the experience is much more immersive than just viewing.”

Smuggler’s Blues

The creators call the user the “participant” or the “visitor,” and the experience of Vader Immortal is actually most comparable to being in a stage play with the most fearsome villain of the Star Wars universe, albeit a show without an audience except for the star performer.

“‘Performer’ might give people anxiety,” Goyer says. Okay, so no on that word, too.

There’s no exact comparison, which is evidence the designers at ILMxLAB, an offshoot of Industrial Light and Magic and Lucasfilm’s special virtual reality division, really is pioneering a new kind of storytelling.

Vader Immortal feels most analogous to a play because you have a role to fulfill — actions to take, places to go, and even some stage fighting in the form of lightsaber swordplay.

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You’re performing as a captured smuggler who first spends a few minutes exploring his own ship with droid co-pilot ZO-E3 (voiced by Maya Rudolph.) You don’t speak, although in future virtual reality experiences perhaps your voice will become another way of engaging.

“What we did instead was say, ‘Okay, well, we’d need to use our sidekick droid, Zoe, to give you a voice,” says Vader Immortal director Ben Snow. “One of the great aspects of being able to get Maya Rudolph to play Zoe, was we needed the character to be your guide. The character had to be worldly, knowledgeable and feel assured and confident. And also, she had to lighten the mood sometimes.”

A Bad Feeling…

As your starship is drawn to the volcanic world of Mustafar, you learn you have latent Force powers that Vader believes can help him solve an ancient mystery that will lead to relics that can help the Sith bridge the chasm between life and death.

In that way, Vader Immortal borrows inspiration from another Lucasfilm property — Raiders of the Lost Ark. “Of course, we’re big fans of that. That’s a really fair comp,” says Snow. “He’s got this connection to the Force that he alludes to and talks about in Star Wars: A New Hope when the generals are criticizing him. He obviously had this mystical connection, and this allows us to explore that in a way that gets you a bit more intimate with Vader.”

Only his interest in these artifacts is personal. He’s gathering them for a specific, almost heartbreaking purpose that threads into his past as Anakin Skywalker. “It’s less about a military aspect of Vader’s role and much more about his own spiritual mystical interests,” says Mohen Leo, the project’s narrative director.

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Sometimes you’re assisting Vader. Sometimes you’re fighting side by side. Other times you’re trying to escape and catching glimpses of him through the slats of a ventilation corridor, communing with one of his relics like the Ghost Glass, the sunrise-glowing crystal (pictured above) that reveals part of Vader’s secret anguish.

“That was a moment that I pushed for from the very beginning,” Goyer says. “It just seemed like one of the promises of this experience would be getting into his personal space, in these kind of privileged environments where we really shouldn’t be.”

That’s where the suspense of this stageplay comes in. “On the one hand, there’s the apprehension that he’ll catch you,” Goyer says. “That’s an eerie moment, but the promise is also to evoke empathy in these characters.”

“What does Vader do when he’s not Force-choking people?”

Can you feel sympathy for this galactic devil? Vader Immortal reveals aspects of his existence that may make you see him as Luke did, when pity overwhelmed his contempt for the monster. “Vader is in constant pain,” Snow says. “He has a constant headache, and his whole body is in pain. I think that help makes him such an iconic and rich bad guy.”

But like all villains, there has to be other dimensions to him. “I raised a question, ‘What does Vader do when he’s not Force-choking people?’” Goyer says. “What does he do when he walks into his meditation chamber, and his shoulders slump, and he doesn’t have the weight of the Empire on him for that moment? What does he think about? We tried to start to get at that in that [spying] scene as well.”

It’s not all Sith angst. Vader has no qualms about invading your personal space too, confronting you in a prison chamber with a torture droid to his left and the mechanical-faced Admiral Karius looming to his right (seen at the top of this article).

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“We were pretty sure people would be intimidated by Vader when he walks up to them,” Goyer says. “Some of the people that have tested it are just completely freaked out, which is awesome.”

Vader isn’t the only one who’s immortal here. Unlike a video game, you can’t really die. Walk off the edge of a narrow ledge you’re traversing on the exterior of Vader’s castle and you will hover in mid-air like Daffy Duck before he realizes he walked off a cliff. You mays slip down a ladder, but you can’t fall to your death (unless you have an actual sinkhole in your living room).

Vader Immortal is less about puzzle solving or surviving and more about exploring the space of this foreboding and forbidden place. In that way, another less-obvious comparison might be a Halloween haunted house. You have to get yourself through the labyrinth, but the thrill is what you discover in the shadows as you make your way.

This segment is also only volume one of Vader Immortal. It’s a trilogy, with two other installments due this year. In the first, your smuggler learns about the lore in the caves beneath Vader’s temple, and crosses paths with a native Mustafarian priestess (pictured in concept art here) who is determined to prevent Vader from accessing her civilization’s secrets.

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You also learn how to wield a lightsaber, using the two Oculus Quest touch controllers that manipulate your character’s hands. In Volume Two (which doesn’t have an announced release date) you’ll use these to add Force movements to your repertoire.

“As we move into the second episode, there’s a lot of one-on-one interaction between you and Vader, who has to teach you the Force,” Goyer says. “As you can imagine, he’s not the most patient teacher.”

A New Language

The struggle to articulate exactly what Vader Immortal is will likely be answered by the audience itself. ILMxLAB is trying to create a new language, and no one does that alone.

“The audience itself will mature, and the audience will guide us,” Goyer adds. “I liken some of the stuff that’s happening in VR storytelling now as almost like that original Walt Disney cartoon, Steamboat Willie. Like we’re not even at the first half hour long cartoon yet. We’re at Luxo Jr.” That’s the once-groundbreaking now-primitive digital animation short Pixar created with hopping desk lamps in 1986.

“You have to understand that no one has attempted to do what we’re doing before, to create this robust, serialized kind of adventure in VR,” Goyer says. “I mean, the pieces that have been released so far have been relatively modest in scale compared to this, like Trials on Tatooine.”

That’s the seven-minute short ILMxLAB created in 2016, available on the HTC Vive headset, which allows the user to defend the Millennium Falcon from Stormtrooper attack on the desert world, deflecting blaster bolts with a lightsaber delivered by R2-D2.

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There’s a legend that the first audience to see the Lumière brothers’ 1895 short motion picture of a train pulling into a station screamed and dove out of the way as the locomotive approached the screen. Something similar happens with virtual reality. The audience marvels at the wonder, then has to get acclimated for the new storytelling form for it advance to the next narrative level.

Mark S. Miller, executive creative director for ILMxLAB, recalled one such incident during a demonstration of the relatively static Trials on Tatoonine. “One guy literally, even though he knew in his smart brain that he was in a little eight-by-eight plastic room, he just put his head down and charged the Stormtroopers and ran right into the wall,” he said. “Luckily, he wasn’t hurt or anything. But then we had to start telling everybody, ‘You can’t run. You can’t walk. You’re in a limited space.”

Experimentation Stage

“When we formed ILMxLAB, the reason we put in the word lab — because that throws people — is because we knew we were going to be experimenting,” says Vicki Dobbs Beck, the executive in charge of the company. “We knew we were going to be learning things. And some things were going to work and some things didn’t.”

The company’s Secrets of the Empire virtual reality experience has an entirely different approach from Vader Immortal or Trials on Tatooine, relying more on real-world environments, even if you can’t see them. That one, also set at Vader’s castle, is shown only at The Void commercial spaces that have walls and doorways you can move through, and objects you can pick up or touch, which all mirror what you’re seeing in the virtual realm.

Other titles, like the company’s Project Porg, are mixed reality experiences. In that one, made for the Magic Leap goggles, you can see the world around you — tables, chairs, stairs — but holograms of the feathered creatures from The Last Jedi are wandering around and appear to be climbing around those objects. But there was no real story. Just playtime with virtual pets.

The story they’re telling in Vader Immortal is canon, and it’s set before the events of Rogue One, which fills in the blanks of what Vader was doing in the years between becoming the rasping, robotic Sith Lord and his appearance as a Rebellion-smashing enforcer in 1977’s original Star Wars.

“It’s like if we’re going to go to the trouble of telling this it has to hook in [to the larger narrative,]” Miller says. “But we didn’t want to hook in directly, like recreating a scene from one of the movies. That might be interesting, but as a passive observer — ‘oh yeah, I remember this scene’ — the fans would quickly get to the point of ‘Okay, now what?’”

Early iterations of Vader Immortal also had a new story playing out with the “visitor” having no role or action in the story. You were just an invisible presence, watching Vader interact with The Emperor or other minions, without engaging with you at all.

Instead, you get to battle ancient droids, reminiscent of the resurrected skeletons of Ray Harryhausen from 1963’s Jason and the Argonauts, only these ones are mechanical and swinging electrostaffs. (You’re not a Stormtrooper, though. This is just concept art.)

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A Day Long Remembered

Dobbs Beck, says that even though Vader Immortal is the cutting edge of what they can create right now, she already is looking forward to the day it’s looked back on like Luxo Jr. or Steamboat Willie — a charming relic that began a much bigger journey.

“Every project that we’ve worked on has been a stepping stone toward a bigger future,” she said. “What we’re really aspiring toward is this idea of living stories and persistent worlds. The way we think about it is taking a really holistic view to a narrative and then designing individual stories that all add up to a greater whole. “

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Someday, she said, “what you do in one experience will actually influence other experiences. Eventually not only does your choice matter for you in that individual experience, but the choice that you made actually impacts what others experience as well.”

That will be the day when virtual reality ceases to be a play, and starts to become another way of life.

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