If you hang out on the internet, you may be familiar with a certain ongoing fight over big-budget superhero movies that all traces back to an interview in which director Martin Scorsese called Marvel movies “theme park films.” Scorsese meant the comment negatively, contrasting MCU films with “real” cinema. But as I played Vader Immortal, a virtual reality Star Wars series that concluded this week, I realized that “theme park” is the perfect term for it. And here, that’s not an insult.
Vader Immortal is a short-form narrative VR game for the Oculus Quest and Rift headsets, written by screenwriter David S. Goyer. It’s composed of three episodes, each of which lasts less than an hour, although there’s a non-narrative “lightsaber dojo” for long-term play. The episodes tell an original story set between Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope, centered on an unknown smuggler (you) who is pulled into a grand scheme by Darth Vader himself.
The episodes feature lots of different gameplay mechanics, from scrambling up ladders to fighting lightsaber duels. But they add up to something that’s less of a traditional game than an interactive movie — and a great wish-fulfillment fantasy.
Vader Immortal strips Star Wars down to its swashbuckling adventure roots in a way that creator ILMxLAB’s earlier, smaller Star Wars VR experiments haven’t. It’s set on the lava planet Mustafar where your smuggler protagonist has been grounded and captured by Darth Vader. Your down-to-earth droid copilot ZO-E3 (voiced by Maya Rudolph) helps you temporarily escape alongside one of Mustafar’s few residents.
As you try to leave Vader’s fortress, you learn that you’ve got Force abilities and that Mustafar wasn’t always lifeless. A long-gone royal named Corvax destroyed it in a disastrous attempt to resurrect her dead husband with the Bright Star, an extremely powerful MacGuffin that looks sort of like the new Firefox logo.
You, it turns out, are Corvax’s long-lost descendant. And since she made the somewhat questionable decision to restrict her inner sanctum (including its elevator repair capabilities) to her bloodline for eternity, you’re the only person who can find the Bright Star again. Vader catches back up with you, adopts you as his new apprentice, and recruits you to help resurrect his wife Padmé. Yes, the one he accidentally murdered.
You experience all of this action in a nearly unbroken, cinematic flow. If you fail to deflect a stormtrooper’s blaster fire, the screen will flicker red, but you’re effectively invulnerable. If you fall into a chasm, you’ll restart on a nearby ledge. You typically teleport to “walk” around levels, but at important moments, you’ll be fixed in place to watch a scene unfold. There’s not a significantly branching story, although characters might briefly acknowledge how well you performed a task.
You can take Vader Immortal’s mechanics very seriously, although outside the lightsaber dojo, that’s mostly for your own enjoyment. Or you can give each section your best try and go with the flow, and the experience will push you along if you’ve failed too many times. This can be paradoxically frustrating when you’re learning a task like Force-grabbing objects because the narrative sometimes rushes along before you feel like you’ve mastered the skill. But it avoids the trap many cinematic games fall into: making players repeat a climactic moment over and over because they hit the wrong button at the end.
And even if you can’t change the overall narrative, Vader Immortal’s combat is surprisingly versatile and satisfying. By the last episode, you can decide whether to fight your many battles by grabbing and throwing enemies with the Force, countering their blows with a lightsaber, or using some of the game’s less common mechanics — like deflecting a stormtrooper’s fire and sending them toppling off a ledge, then Force-pulling their abandoned blaster into your hand.
Vader Immortal is similar to Secrets of the Empire, an actual theme-park-style experience created for location-based entertainment company The Void. The Void puts visitors into a VR headset, then guides them into a physical maze where they can touch walls and furniture, feel heat or wind, and walk through the VR world like they would a real one. Its experiences are based on movies like Star Wars, Avengers, and Wreck-It Ralph. They’re known for dizzying architectural set pieces, opportunities to interact with popular characters, combat based on fantastical powers instead of hard physical tools, and pacing that prizes seamless narrative flow over painstaking skill-building.
Vader Immortal can’t make you literally feel the burn of Mustafar’s lava. On the other hand, Void experiences like Secrets of the Empire are short mini-stories built for groups. Vader Immortal is about the length of a feature film, and its narrative is the kind of bizarro mystical hero’s journey that made people fall in love with Star Wars in the first place.
Being surrounded by the VR experience — even more completely than you’d be in a movie theater — makes familiar narrative tropes more fun. Star Wars has always been broad melodrama, and Vader Immortal’s plot beats are a bit predictable. (Note to characters: if you strike a partnership with Darth Vader, it’s just possible that he’ll start altering the deal.) But its snarky droids, ancient prophecies, and “chosen one” revelations feel charming and fun.
Vader Immortal uses its limited interactivity to build a compelling illusion of physically engaging with Star Wars’ fantasy world. And ultimately, that’s the point of a theme park — not just the spectacle and the inevitability, but the sense that you’re actually in the middle of it all.