I’m standing by some rusted-out screens in a dimly lit cantina, cables overhead. The bartender, this huge, five-eyed thing named Seezelslak, is talking to me, but I’m not listening. I’m looking out the window. Outside, down below, I can see the Millennium Falcon. I’m looking at the streets of Black Spire Outpost, from Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge. I want to go down there. I can’t, though. But I’m so close.
This was supposed to be the year I’d be going to Disney, to see Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge. Trips canceled, plans changed. My theme park and travel dreams have gone virtual. I’ve worn VR headsets to see theater pieces, attend art shows, go to concerts. Now, the latest Oculus Quest Star Wars game almost promises to take me to the Disney park I never went to.
Star Wars: Tales from the Galaxy’s Edge is a spiritual sequel to Vader Immortal, a three-part VR experience released last year by Disney’s experimental entertainment tech group, ILMxLab. Vader Immortal blended impressive voice acting and storytelling to feel a bit like a game mixed with a home theme park experience. Tales from the Galaxy’s Edge, set on the same world of Batuu as Disney’s vast new real-life Star Wars lands, is like a side-trip to that universe in a VR headset. It could eventually be an experience that blends with Disney’s real-world parks even more. But for now, it’s a tantalizing taste of what could lie ahead for theme park-VR overlap.
Exploring the fringes of Batuu
It feels like I’m entering a theme park from the very beginning, with touches of Disney magic: I’m on a ship orbiting Batuu, learning the ropes of my controls while fighting off pirates from the Guavian Death Gang. Overhead screens tell me what’s ahead, almost like the TV displays I’m used to while waiting on lines at Disney rides. On an Oculus Quest 2, the graphics are extremely sharp and convincing. Still, I know it feels more like a video game than a trip to a real place.
The game then moves down to the surface of Batuu, introducing me to a cantina that acts as a home base of sorts. SNL alum Bobby Moynihan voices Seezelslak, the massive alien bartender, who’s a lot taller and more intimidating than I expected. The facial animations are amazing. I’m told to go find ingredients for a magic drink that, when made, will transport me to a separate substory from The High Republic, about a Jedi who explores an ancient temple along with Yoda. That mini chapter unfolds like the previous Vader Immortal, with lightsaber and force powers at my fingertips.
The rest of the experience moves out to a series of more video game-like run-and-shoot levels set in wildlands in Batuu, where pirate gangs lie waiting. It’s a lot of loading up of guns and other blasters, picking up treasure and power-ups, and finding money. I can holster and store things on utility belts, and I jump around and dodge people shooting at me constantly. At the medium difficulty level, I get knocked out a lot.
Occasionally I have to figure out how to open crates, using a utility device on my belt that unscrew things and melt metal. These parts feel like mini puzzle challenges, but they’re few and far between.
There are some surprises, too, and I won’t give them away, but C-3PO and Yoda appear, voiced by Anthony Daniels and Frank Oz, and it’s really cool to stand so close to them. Hours pass and I forget to take off my headset.
Where the park ends, my virtual world begins
Tales from the Galaxy’s Edge never really lets me explore the Black Spire Outpost area in Disney’s Galaxy Edge park the way I’d wanted to. It’s held at arm’s distance in VR, like a cruel tease. The cantina I can visit isn’t the same as Oga’s Cantina at the park, although it’s referred to. I can visit Mubo, who runs the make-your-own droid Droid Depot at Galaxy’s Edge park. I go to his workshop space that’s located right next to the depot. He’s adorable, blue and very Disney/Star Wars-like.
“We worked very closely with [Disney] Imagineering and the story group to flesh out who that character is, and now that character exists,” says ILMxLab’s Tales from the Galaxy’s Edge director, Jose Perez III.
It’s like visiting the back room to the actual park. I’m so close to places in the actual Galaxy’s Edge park, but they’re right next door. I imagine that, maybe, beyond that door near me, I could just step into the park. Sometimes I wonder, if you were at the park, would you possibly be able to peer through a window and see me?
“We worked really closely with Walt Disney Imagineering, and they built the place, so they know what it’s like, and we used all the resources there to faithfully reproduce what’s in the park,” Visual Director Steve Henricks says. “So what you see is what you’re going to get for the most part.” As for the Millennium Falcon I can see out the cantina window, he says, “We actually took the Falcon from Episode IX, and basically converted it into something that will run on these platforms. We are definitely doing asset transfer stuff on any of the models that we can get from ILM.”
Will I get to explore Black Spire someday?
Exploring Black Spire as Disney imagined it isn’t possible, but in the future it isn’t out of the question. “We’re not taking it off the table, but we’re not talking about any of that stuff right now,” Perez says. “This is something that can grow over time. And we’re going to be listening to the fans a lot and thinking about the stories that we’re telling.”
In that sense, as a way to virtually go to Disney somehow, the VR experience disappointed me. But the game was never designed to replace the park, and was conceived before the pandemic shut down the parks and travel. Now, Tales from the Galaxy’s Edge takes on a different meaning, because it represents a park most people can no longer easily visit.
I want to just explore more, hang out. I can play repulsor darts in the cantina, but there aren’t that many other activities. I’d love to just walk around Black Spire Outpost, really, and see what the layout is like. Just for a little bit?
“Black Spire Outpost is there, it’s a physical place,” Perez says. “We’re mainly telling the outside stories and building off that. But we definitely want to get to the heart of some of these stories.” But Perez also suggests there will be dovetailing, for sure. “We’re making the relationship between Black Spire Outpost and Tales from the Galaxy’s Edge…there’s going to be a little bit of crossover, things that we make may show up there, and things they’ve made clearly show up in our thing. That’s the nerd heaven crazy stuff, where you’re making a thing and wondering, ‘is this stuff going to show up at Disneyland?'”
“For us, it’s what can we do that you couldn’t just do in the theme park? We know you can’t cover two meters in a theme park: let’s do that. We know you don’t have training remote [droids] that are flying around and tagging things: let’s do that.”
The missing piece: Other people
The whole first part of the Galaxy’s Edge game takes a few hours to play, with more expansions coming next year. But all of this is single-player. I’m alone in VR, but at Disney, I’d be with friends and other people. ILMxLab explored multiplayer VR with Star Wars and Wreck-It Ralph experiences in location-based VR attractions via The Void, but so far the home VR games have been individual outings.
Multiplayer is being considered eventually, though, even if it’s not in the plans for this and next part of Tales from the Galaxy’s Edge, coming next year. “We’ve got a couple of things we’ve experimented with,” Perez says, referring to ILMxLab’s multiplayer projects with The Void. “I’d love to see more co-op stuff happen. It’s definitely going to be a huge part of our future at some point, there’s no denying it.”
Once I can go to Batuu with friends, or even groups of friendly and willing strangers, it could start to feel like an immersive theater experience, or being at Disney. Part of seeing something amazing is sharing it with someone else. Right now, this Star Wars trip is a solo expedition.