June 20, 2019
“Vader Immortal” virtual reality experience: face-to-face with Vader himself
The experience, created with Unreal Engine, is getting rave reviews for fulfilling the most exhilarating Star Wars fantasies: jumping into hyperspace, wielding a lightsaber, and most of all, letting audiences feel the uniquely intimidating presence of Vader himself in a fully immersive environment. The Vader Immortal experience puts the user front and center in the story, but it didn’t start out that way. When the team started the project, the initial story was more of a linear narrative with the user as an onlooker.
“We experimented with a couple of different stories, most of which were more from the film tradition,” says Colin MacKie, Experience Designer at ILMxLAB. “We did some initial tests on one of them, and while it was a compelling story and it looked visually beautiful, when you experience it, you didn't necessarily feel part of the story.”
So the team took a step back and asked themselves, what is the ultimate Star Wars fantasy? “I want to go into hyperspace, I want swing a lightsaber, and most of all, I want to meet Vader!” laughs MacKie.
“We want to have Vader actually right there in front of you, and he's got to talk to you,” he continues. “Not only that, he has to give you some literal activities so that you can really participate in the story.”
ILMxLAB was also mindful that all the action and dialogue over the entire story had to fit into the Star Wars universe. “It's about crafting and creating a story that puts the user in the center, but also is a legitimate Star Wars story that holds up with any of the films,” says MacKie.
The team created a quick prototype of a prison cell scene in Unreal Engine, with Vader towering over the user and talking one-on-one. “That was it,” says MacKie. “It was the impetus for the story that ended up being Vader Immortal. We ended up using that scene in the final version with almost no change.”
Testing for the QuestCompleting Vader Immortal involved many iterations and tests to preserve the Star Wars storyline and also add interactive elements that fit the narrative. Not only that, the team was working with brand new hardware, crafting the experience to work with the as-of-then unreleased Oculus Quest.
“Creating test builds for the Quest was easy and fast with Unreal,” says Steve Henricks, Lead Environment Artist at ILMxLAB. “Unreal just facilitates change. We were rapidly changing as we went along, discovering beats in the story that were working or not working. It really just allowed me to preview quickly and test quickly.”
As they iterated on the story and scenes, the team made an important discovery—they found that the “fourth wall” of traditional cinema had no place in an immersive experience. For example, if two characters in the story are having a conversation, they must expose the fact that they know the viewer is there with body language and eye contact, even if they don’t speak directly to the user. This differs from traditional cinema, where the characters act as if the viewer isn’t there at all.
This discovery had a huge impact on the final version of Vader Immortal. “It ends up being important for the two who are communicating to actually include and look at and acknowledge the player in a very natural way,” says MacKie. “In movies, the characters generally don’t look directly at the camera. But in VR, it’s critical that they do.
“It’s a different way of telling stories,” he continues. “That was a sort of a major rewrite that we did at one point, but it was a discovery that wasn't obvious when we when we initially wrote the script.”
The team went back and made sure that every single scene in Vader Immortal includes the player in some way, whether directly or indirectly, to immerse users in the story as fully as possible.
Birth of a home VR experienceBefore Vader Immortal, fans of a VR Vader already had an opportunity to explore a galaxy far, far away in Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire, a location-based VR experience that ILMxLAB created in collaboration with The VOID. That project pairs virtual environments and characters with physical sets and effects like heat and wind. Vader Immortal, on the other hand, was designed to be an at-home experience— all you need is an Oculus headset and enough room to swing a lightsaber.
With this use in mind, the Vader Immortal team paid a lot of attention to optimization, balancing the kind of rich, nuanced detail Star Wars fans expect with the performance requirements of the untethered Quest headset.
“We spent a lot of our time [in VR] set dressing the scenes,” says Henricks. ”One of Unreal’s tools that makes that really easy for us is the VR previewer. We can literally go in-headset and set dress while we're standing in the exact position that we expect the participant to be standing in. It's super helpful.”
The team also made heavy use of Unreal Engine’s automated LOD tools, using them to generate LODs which they then customized for the Quest.
”For us, it’s about getting the story across in as visually pleasing a way as possible on the given hardware,” says Henricks. “We spent a long time crafting every inch of this experience to maximize the capabilities of the platform.”
Ironically, ILMxLAB began work on Vader Immortal before they started on Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire. What the team learned from production of Secrets of the Empire influenced and informed their work on Vader Immortal.
There’s a lot of crossover talent between the two experiences: David S. Goyer was the writer and executive producer on both of those projects, Mark Miller was the executive creative producer on both, and Henricks was on the teams for both projects. ILMxLAB credits this continuity, coupled with Unreal Engine technology, with enabling them to create these special experiences.
Ultimately, the team for Vader Immortal: Episode I created a home VR experience unprecedented in its level of engagement. ILMxLAB looks forward to taking what they’ve learned to their future endeavors, including two more episodes of Vader Immortal.
Unreal Engine will remain a key tool in these projects. “There are a lot of benefits to using Unreal, especially like materials, all the overdraw view modes, all the performance capturing tools,” says Henricks. “Everything in there is just super easy to jump in and use.”
“I'm a bit of a fanboy of Unreal,” agrees MacKie. “I find that the total package of tools are intuitive and understandable. I love that just one person can sit down and prototype something, all by themselves.”
Want to create your own immersive VR experiences? Download Unreal Engine and get started on your own journey into hyperspace and beyond.