“Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order” was the big game reveal of Star Wars Celebration in Chicago this weekend, but Respawn Entertainment didn’t share a single second of actual gameplay. However, “Vader Immortal: A Star Wars VR Series – Episode I,” first announced last fall alongside the standalone Oculus Quest headset, was playable—and impressive, too.
Strapping the Quest to my head, I was transported to a dark holding cell, where an Imperial officer with a half-metallic face warned me of the trouble I was sure to face when Darth Vader entered. And when the Sith Lord did indeed appear, he struck a very imposing figure—looking up at his iconic helmet is the kind of moment that takes on an extra edge in a VR setting. After being commanded to unlock some kind of puzzle box to his satisfaction, I realized that Vader actually had big plans for me ahead.
The story component only lasted a couple of minutes, but the second part of the demo was all about lightsaber-swinging shenanigans in the Lightsaber Dojo, as I swatted freely with the Quest’s motion controllers to slice through saber-wielding droids and reflect laser blasts from hovering drones. As the Quest is fully self-contained and not tethered to a computer or game console, I could easily spin to meet my foes from all angles, with the headset’s outward-facing cameras keeping tabs on the real-world play space and warning me if I came too close to a wall.
It was a short demo, but the first taste of “Vader Immortal” dazzled on both ends. “Episode I,” which releases this spring alongside the Quest (and will also come to the Oculus Rift), is the first of three compact chunks of the experience. This part of the story lasts about 45-60 minutes, according to the developers at ILMxLAB, along with the separate, arcade-style Lightsaber Dojo mode that can be played time and again.
According to director Ben Snow, the game began as an experiment in VR storytelling—albeit one that initially wasn’t very interactive. No matter how impressive the game might’ve looked in that state, it wasn’t particularly exciting. “It initially was a more passive experience. We realized that it just wasn’t that satisfying to walk into a room, and there’s two guys talking to one another—and they’re ignoring you,” Snow recalled. “So we then changed it to essentially make you more of the center of the story.”
“Vader Immortal” casts you as a smuggler who winds up on the volcanic planet of Mustafar, where the Fortress Vader castle resides. The locale first appeared in 2016’s “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” and has been in Marvel’s Darth Vader comics, but it’s a place and subject matter that hasn’t yet been explored in an interactive space. The timeframe between “Revenge of the Sith” and “A New Hope” has seen more attention in the Star Wars universe in recent years, and this is one aspect of it that seems deeply intriguing.
Creating an immersive Star Wars experience in virtual reality comes down to a combination of elements, said Colum Slevin, head of media, AR/VR experiences at Oculus. He noted spatial audio techniques that immerse you in the virtual setting, haptic feedback in the wireless controllers, detailed interactivity, and the sense that your hands (the controllers) exist in the world—along with the “six degrees of freedom” control offered by the Oculus Quest.
Slevin said that the lack of a cable connecting the Quest headset to another device is “the x-factor” for a game like “Vader Immortal,” as I experienced while frantically swinging my virtual lightsaber in the demo—although the Rift version must be played with a connected PC. In any case, he said that all of those elements together helps create a different kind of game experience within the headset, and fosters a certain kind of empathy for a game character.
“You’re literally embodying someone, and you’re encountering characters in the first-person for the first time,” said Slevin.
Nearly anyone who’s watched and loved the Star Wars films has probably mimed lightsaber antics over the years, whether it’s with a broom, pool noodle, or officially-licensed plastic facsimile. Luckily, all of that pretend play serves as practice for the virtual lightsaber seen in “Vader Immortal,” with the Touch controllers capturing every nuance of your hand movements. Better yet, while you’re actually holding a small plastic controller, it feels like you have a real lightsaber in your hand thanks to the subtle humming of the haptic vibrations. You can switch hands and even wield the saber with both hands if you please. It really helps sell the illusion.
“We put a lot of work into that. A lot of us come from working on the films, and we had Skywalker Sound to also do the audio, so we put a lot of the work into making sure it sounded right, looked right, and behaved right,” said Snow. “The Oculus Quest has really good haptic arrangements so that you can feel almost like it’s lagging sometimes when you swing it. That was really key to us. We wanted to definitely go out there with something that was the best that we could do in terms of creating the best lightsaber experience for people.”
While lightsaber play is a key part of “Episode I,” Snow teased that the Force and its myriad powers will be a bigger focus in “Episode II,” which has no announced release target at this point. ILMxLAB’s mandate is to develop new kinds of Star Wars games using cutting-edge technology like virtual and augmented reality, and delivering that sort of experience requires both entertaining gameplay and a compelling story hook.
Slevin suggested that VR gameplay is relatively mature at this point, but that “storytelling is really the last unconquered frontier for immersive media.” He said that it’s critical to have a studio with the creative pedigree of Lucasfilm exploring this space because it knows how to utilize technology in service of storytelling. That’s the kind of mentality that might elevate the next generation of VR experiences.
“There’s a certain dryness to understanding the specifications of a piece of hardware,” he said about Oculus headsets. “But once you see what cinematic storytellers and developers and creators do to push the boundaries of what’s possible, it turns from into a piece of plastic and glass and silicon into something different.”
For Oculus, the collaboration has netted what could be a standout exclusive for the Quest and Rift, the latter of which is about to see upgraded edition Oculus Rift S. And for ILMxLAB and Lucasfilm, virtual reality provides an opportunity to tell Star Wars stories in a way that has never been experienced before now.
“Star Wars has always been something that’s been on the other side of the screen,” said Mohen Leo, narrative designer on “Vader Immortal.” “You’re watching a movie or playing a video game, but it’s still like you’re just puppeteering a character that’s on a screen. VR is really the only medium that allows you to be in Star Wars.”