How the new virtual reality 'Star Wars' experience gets us closer to a theme park 'metaverse'

"Star Wars: Tales from the Galaxy's Edge" is an extension of the "Star Wars"-themed lands at Disney theme parks.
"Star Wars: Tales From the Galaxy's Edge" is an extension of the "Star Wars"-themed lands at Disney theme parks. (ILMxLab / Disney / Oculus)

After a fulfilling and action-focused ending to the second season of "The Mandalorian," fans of the "Star Wars" brand are no doubt hungry for other experiences within the space opera universe. Few offer as thrilling a pitch as "Star Wars: Tales From the Galaxy's Edge."

The game stands as a showcase for the latest in virtual reality, one that has us engaging in blaster fire with pirates, seeing familiar faces and peering deeper into the mystery of the franchise's Force-like powers. So yes, there are films to rewatch, games to play and plenty of books and comics to discover, but only one can drop us into a virtual "Star Wars" landscape to engage in game-inspired immersive theater, albeit of the digital sort.

But there might be some fine print.

One needs access to an Oculus virtual reality headset (the Oculus Quest 2 was just released) And unlike previous "Star Wars" VR experiences from Lucasfilm's experimental ILMxLab, "Tales From the Galaxy's Edge" does little hand-holding. Expect in short order to juggle blasters, droid-fixing tools and then droids.

But if you take the time to acclimate yourself to the "Star Wars" universe, you will be enveloped in a world that's equal parts danger and wonder (I "died" quite a bit).

I find "Tales From the Galaxy's Edge" compelling, not just because it's an extension of "Star Wars" storytelling. Though not its publicly stated goal, the game to me is a welcome expansion of Disney's theme park worlds, namely its 14-acre Galaxy's Edge lands that opened at Disneyland and Florida's Walt Disney World in 2019.

"Tales From the Galaxy's Edge" lays the groundwork for a future where virtual spaces are more overtly connected with physical, public ones, a long-standing concept that has been moving at an accelerated pace during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Obviously, we're playing a lot with virtual reality right now, mixed reality and location-based experiences. I think it's all going to merge," says Jose Perez III, director of "Tales From the Galaxy's Edge."

While stressing that he’s not talking about a potential "Star Wars" project, Perez imagines a future where a persona we craft for playing in a virtual space — a game — and a physical space — a theme park — becomes one and the same.

"You're going to start to find that you're going to have an avatar that means something in the virtual world that might mean something in the physical world," he says. "The way that extends — when I imagine something like going to the parks in the future — having, when they're ready, augmented reality glasses and seeing ships fly around and seeing porgs. Maybe we'll catch some of them and bring them home."

That isn't going to be an immediate post-pandemic reality, but such a world is closer than we may think. Theme parks were already heading in this direction before COVID-19. In the case of "Star Wars" alone, Disney is close to completing in Florida the Galactic Starcruiser, a two-night experience that will transform a hotel stay into a full, 24-7 "Star Wars" live action game.

The Millennium Falcon sits at the heart of the in-real-life Galaxy's Edge at Disneyland.
The Millennium Falcon sits at the heart of the in-real-life Galaxy's Edge at Disneyland. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Disney's chief technology officer, Tilak Mandadi, spoke of such a future recently at a themed entertainment conference, where he talked up the idea of a "theme park metaverse." While the word "metaverse" can lend itself to vague technological predictions, Mandadi envisions a future "where physical and digital worlds converge," as he described in an article on LinkedIn.

Applications could vary, of course. Some may focus on the ability of guests to continue engaging with the parks via the devices in their homes (an app on a smartphone, for instance). Others will look to accessible, familiar technology such as easier-to-use augmented reality glasses to forge a deeper connection with what's in the parks. We increasingly seem to be heading toward an overlap.

Mandadi didn't give too much away in a recorded presentation as part of this year's virtual expo from the International Assn. of Amusement Parks and Attractions. He did, however, tease a potential use of what appeared to be an augmented reality headset at Walt Disney World's Animal Kingdom park, an experience Mandadi said is being tested. It would provide closer looks at the park's wildlife, as well as the potential to offer additional insights into what the park has to offer via digital overlays. It's also easy to imagine such animal-focused educational efforts having an appeal to those who have visited the park.

More overtly playful was a preview teased by game design legend Shigeru Miyamoto of the Super Nintendo World land that is coming to Universal Studios Japan in early 2021 (a version is also coming to Universal Hollywood, but no timetable has been given). From what Universal and Nintendo have shown, Super Nintendo World wants to feel like a walk-in arcade re-imagined as an all-encompassing "Super Mario Bros." environment, where interactions and games are embedded into all aspects of the design, from the attractions to walkways to a restaurant.

The way we "play" in Super Nintendo World will be via smartphone and a wristband that Universal will sell. Miyamoto noted that those bands will work in a similar fashion as Nintendo's plastic Amiibo "toys-to-life" figurines, which are connected wirelessly to consoles, implying that some game-like activities will extend from the theme park to our Nintendo devices. One can even consider Nintendo's "Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit" a theme park accessory, as it brought an augmented-reality version of the popular racing game to our homes before the "Mario Kart"-themed ride in Super Nintendo World opened.

Even Meow Wolf, the Santa Fe, N.M.-born art collective whose communal, exploratory spaces take influence from the theme park world, has spoken of a near-future where an app will turn its physical exhibition spaces, as well as our homes, into a giant alternate reality story that continually feeds the Meow Wolf universe. A company rep spoke earlier this year of a post-pandemic future where its app could connect "pop-up art exhibits, spontaneous underground parties, fashion shows and secret dinners," among other one-offs, to the tales embedded in the company's physical locations.

These are different from the souvenirs of yore, but it is an evolution of them, as well as a more sophisticated understanding of why we feel connected to physical spaces. Theme parks, like any vacation from daily life, offer the ability to explore — an experience such as "Tales From the Galaxy's Edge" plays into that.

C-3PO is among the familiar characters we'll see in "Tales From the Galaxy's Edge."
C-3PO is among the familiar characters we'll see in "Tales From the Galaxy's Edge." (ILMxLab / Disney / Oculus)

Although a trip to Galaxy's Edge isn't required for enjoying the VR work, the experience will certainly be enhanced by it. I know the folks at ILMxLab will likely disagree when I say this, but I'm not sure that "Tales From the Galaxy's Edge" can be fully appreciated unless you've been to Galaxy's Edge. For me, it was part game, part memento and part extension of a lived experience.

When inside Galaxy's Edge at Disneyland, we look up at the “petrified trees” that make up the land's spires and wonder what's beyond them or above them — sure, Toontown, Tom Sawyer Island, offices or a parking garage, if you want to play the role of a skeptic. The design of Disneyland's Galaxy's Edge, however, should weaken that cynic view, as it's a full-scale platform designed to feel like a lived-in place.

Thus, the parts of "Tales From the Galaxy's Edge" that worked best for me were those that allowed me to see beyond what we see in the park, whether it's a look into the past of the planet or the forests that the park can only hint at. These were the moments that drove home the idea that Disneyland's Galaxy's Edge is home to a number of stories yet to unfold. Standing atop a cliff and looking down at Black Spire Outpost made me feel that the place I had visited was real in the same way, say, that Seattle is real.

Think of how we experience a kick of recognition when we play a game or see a movie set in a locale we've visited. Our brains know the difference between Chicago and the Chicago of "The Dark Knight," but there's a more complex psychological equation at work when we're playing in a pure fantasy space. Inside the Oculus Quest 2, I felt akin to a tourist, only I was seeing a part of Galaxy's Edge previously off-limits. Everything was new to me. All I wanted was to wander around and linger. It was certainly the best Disney theme park experience I've had in the last nine months of 2020.

Unknown still is what a post-vaccine world will look like. But I like to think that this year, we've gained a deeper appreciation for the places we miss and a broader understanding that the ability to connect with them at home is powerful. It's also important to note that all the projects referenced here, including "Tales From the Galaxy's Edge," were in development long before the pandemic arrived.

These fantasy worlds are not a replacement for the real one. But pre-pandemic, mid-pandemic or post-pandemic, the entertainment that asks us to rethink the places we've been to — and how we play when we visit them — serves as a reminder to look for the extraordinary in the everyday.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.