The Imperials know we’re coming, somehow. Or at least they suspect something is amiss. We cannot bring our weapons and we’re ordered to head straight for an inspection.
I’m not used to wearing a stormtrooper armour, and I can tell neither of my teammates is either. As the ship’s doors open, we can feel the heat of the lava and smell the smoke that permeates the air of Mustafar.
I take a first, hesitant step onto the skiff that will carry me over the lava and into the uncertainty. “I have a bad feeling about this,” I say quietly to my companions, because well, somebody has to. I know the rules of the universe, after all.
We’re in a Star War.
To be exact, this is Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire, created by Lucasfilm, ILMxLAB, and The VOID, and immersive virtual reality experience which has you play a part of a rebel operative infiltrating an Imperial base on Mustafar in search of an ominous cargo.
Set sometime before Rogue One and A New Hope, the story is grounded by the presence of familiar faces, like Captain Cassian Andor of Rebel Intelligence, who sends you on the mission, accompanied by his trusty droid, K2SO. There are hints at a larger story and another amazing (and terrifying) appearance from a well-known character, and the mission itself *feels* like Star Wars, which is the highest compliment you can give, honestly.
I’m not a great fan of virtual reality experiences in general. The visors and the whole technical set-up usually pulls me right out of the narrative, and the images give me vertigo. This time however, there were no negative effects whatsoever, and the clever concept of the story means that the helmet and the vest you’re wearing enhance your immersion – you are, after all, moving around in a Stormtrooper’s heavy armour, it’s supposed to feel unfamiliar and strange and restrictive.
The whole experience is incredibly tactile. As you move room to room, you encounter puzzles and elements of the base you are supposed to interact with, and there’s an indescribable joy in everything, even pulling a simple lever to make an elevator go. Solving a very simple memory game grows into a whole experience when K2 insults you every time you make a mistake (I flubbed at least three times on purpose, because he was hilarious. Apologies to my teammates, who were watching my back and shooting troopers to buy me time to solve it. It was worth it though.)
The whole experience takes about twenty minutes (well, more like thirty if you’re accidentally-on-purpose bad at solving the codes, I suppose), but feels much longer, feels like a whole action film package. It also feels like not nearly long enough, but you can always go through it again – I have, four times, and it was damn thrilling on every repeat.
There’s a sequence near the end – SPOILERS for those who want to experience it yourselves, skip this paragraph – there’s a sequence that’s going to make you not only feel like you’re living Star Wars, it’s gonna make you think you’re gonna die in Star Wars, too. Once you get to the cargo, the item you were after suddenly jumps into the air on its own and floats into a darkened corridor. And you know what’s coming, you knew damn well since you stepped onto the skiff on Mustafar, and you’ve seen this scene play out in Rogue One, the hapless rebels taken out one by one. And now you’re a hapless rebel, armed with a blaster against the power of the Dark Side, and you can practically feel the buzzing heat of the lighstaber get closer… That alone was worth the thirty quid for the ticket and the plane trip it took to get to London. It doesn’t get more Star Wars than that.
Secrets of the Empire will probably appeal to anyone who’s a fan of video games, who’s interested in virtual reality, or who just likes fun new experiences. But if you’ve been in this fight since you were six years old, if you’ve played X-wing pilots on the playground, and made astromechs out of trashcans, this is going to be the thrill ride of your life.
I cannot quite get over how we get to live in the future, basically, where the technology allows you to experience Star Wars in visceral, tangible ways. I mean sure, I’ve been dressing like I’m a smuggler-turned-rebel-intelligence for years now (if that sounds oddly specific, it damn right is – her name was Noelia Gin, she was my first Mary Sue, and if the Galaxy’s Edge allows you to pick your own name for the whole LARPing experience, I’m making my ten-year-old self proud) but now I can own a droid who responds to gestures and voice commands, I can practice the ways of the Force with a replica lightsaber, and I can apparently inflitrate an Imperial base and smell the lava.
My ten-year-old self is freaking out.
Geek fashion postscript: I wore Musterbrand’s Cassian Andor’s jacket the first day and Her Universe’s Leia’s Hoth vest the second, and both were definitely clocked by people in the queue. Special shout out to the girl wearing the Rey jacket ahead of me and the girl showing off her Loungefly R2 bag. Fandom fashion definitely brings people together 😀