Participants don headsets at the VOID, which provides an immersive virtual-reality experience amid sock kiosks and mocha dispensaries at shopping centers from California to New York.
It is clear-cut canon that the personal abode of Darth Vader sits amid the Outer Rim Territories, above a locus of the dark side of the Force, on the moonless planet of Mustafar. I visited its environs just the other day, while playing Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire, which is essentially a noisy theme-park ride beamed into a virtual-reality headset. My squadmates and I ventured there, on behalf of the Rebel Alliance, and we shot up some Storm Troopers, and I could have sworn that Lord Vader himself brandished a lightsabre in our direction. Mustafar this time of year is a volcanic hellscape—awesome and exhausting at once, much like the V.R. sensory experience.
Secrets of the Empire is a simple first-person-plural shooting game, a disorienting energy-drink buzz of sensation, and a frothing display of a powerful franchise. It’s also a trust fall into the arms of the VOID, the producer of the show. The company’s name is an acronym of Vision Of Infinite Dimensions; before starting it, in 2015, its founders had careers as a theme-park entrepreneur, in the field of interactive design, and among Las Vegas magicians, respectively. The VOID’s initial attraction, Ghostbusters: Dimension (2017), which set up shop at Madame Tussauds wax museum in Times Square, provided customers with the digital illusion of a proton pack, and sent them through a few small rooms in the guise of paranormal exterminators. The VOID has flourished from the parks of Disney to the emirate of Dubai. A bushel of Marvel content is on its way.
Consult your local shopkeeper for further details. In 2017, the Times reported that the VOID “sees itself as a new draw for dying malls.” In 2019, the VOID is resuscitating properties developed by Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield, a commercial real-estate developer with a Pynchonian name that suits the postmodernity of the proceedings. Going wide, Secrets of the Empire is now screening at shopping centers from California to the New York island, among the sock kiosks and mocha dispensaries, monetizing meatspace in the age of the online marketplace. The commercial monoculture is consolidating, it seems: the fortresses of brick-and-mortar retailers shore themselves up by offering carnival rides to virtual worlds with hall-of-fame brand-recognition rankings. This could be a staple of the mall experience on par with testing ingeniously meaningless products beneath the disco lights of Spencer Gifts, or taking the reins of a coin-operated riding duck.
I caught Secrets of the Empire at Westfield World Trade Center, where its minimalist low box loomed like a polite monolith at the center of the Oculus. A woman asked some questions at the front desk and reported back to her partner, in a skeptical tone, “It’s eighteen minutes and it’s thirty-eight dollars.” A fellow waiting for his appointment piped up cheerfully. “You won’t regret it,” he said. “I did it at Disney World.”
Players entered in groups of three or four. I was the third wheel on the date of some strangers; we shared the guarded cordiality of commuters. We entered an anteroom to receive our mission from Diego Luna, who flickered onto a screen as Captain Cassian Andor, from the stirring ancillary property titled “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” (2016). The captain was urgent and clear, like Leia pleading for Obi-Wan’s help, and also as if Luna had Skyped the performance in from his laptop. We revisited an essential trope. Disguised as Storm Troopers, we rebels would infiltrate an Imperial stronghold. It was espionage in pursuit of a MacGuffin stored within a cargo crate, which looked sometimes like a coffin and sometimes like a dagger, in adherence to the sinister tradition of Sith design culture.
The headset and digital prosthesis dropped us into the fiction, and I might have been elated just to tiptoe cooing at the depth of the animated galaxies, as seen from the windows of spacecraft. There’s an instant kick of visceral excitement, a Pavlovian jolt, in being enveloped in a bone-familiar pop fable. This gives way to mild queasiness. We hesitated in confusion before grabbing our blasters, the plastic toy guns serving as wireless gaming controls, but we grabbed them. I found myself committing to the absurdity of trying to follow correct gun-handling practices while preparing to blast away at computer-generated Storm Troopers.
It was, obviously, a lot of fun to waste the Storm Troopers—a disposable class of being, with rights and privileges on the level of zombies—but it was loud. I had no sense of time, but, after a solid two minutes of shooting, I was bored. How did slaughtering these villains, whose slain bodies fell into vast lava pits, advance the mission? What were the cultural implications of being in here, at the heart of a franchise, at luxurious leisure, in the age of mass shootings? How many scalps had I collected? Wouldn’t it taste sweeter to see a numerical tally floating like a ghost?
A beast rose from a lava. An igneous arachnid? A Mustafarian lava flea! I reflexively shot at the lava flea, which was busy destroying a Storm Trooper. I wondered whether I had erred in prejudging the lava flea; the enemy of my Storm Trooper is my friend. A large lava flea advanced. We shot it. It was tediously resilient, but it died, and we advanced to the next stage. A third-tier sidekick droid named K-2SO, allegedly programmed to support the Alliance, chirped sarcastically at us. The rigging of my suit buzzed, from nowhere, like an unanswerable phone, or a pickup-window gizmo for a meal I hadn’t ordered. We shot more Storm Troopers. I might have shot the cargo crate bearing the precious MacGuffin. Was this Lord Vader himself? His sabre flared as if to strike us down, but things changed, incomprehensibly, and Diego Luna told us we’d done a good job.
When Secrets of the Empire ejected us back into the mall, I steadied myself by the merch stand peddling caps and clothing. The most attractive of these was a soft, black, made-in-the-U.S.A. T-shirt with a cryptic gold graphic, like pseudo-Masonic runes, with a design somewhat indebted to the album art for “Badmotorfinger.” It cost twenty-five dollars, according to the screen at the cash wrap. The merchandise itself does not have price tags, which makes you wonder if the cost is subject to fluctuate, like an Uber ride or a lobster roll. The shirt was a souvenir of participation. We had been “participants”—not quite so autonomous as “players,” but not so complacent as “audience members.” At times, I’d had the sense of watching myself being played. We had been on a journey to the locus of the dark side of the Force—a distant corner of a blockbuster franchise, a branded arcade all up in your cyberspace, in the middle of the mall, in an empty room.