REVIEW: Vader Immortal, Episode 1 – Vader May Be Immortal, But Is He Accessible?
A few months ago, Lucasfilm and ILMxLAB introduced the world to Vader Immortal, their trilogy of virtual reality Star Wars experiences starring the Dark Lord of the Sith himself. With episodes II and III coming soon, VR as a new storytelling medium seems firmly entrenched in the galaxy far, far away. And why not? Who doesn’t love swinging a lightsaber and using the Force from their living room?
Those who can’t, probably.
For all of Vader Immortal’s achievements — and it certainly is an impressive experience — the simple fact is that very few Star Wars fans will ever have the chance to experience it, due to the prohibitive cost of buying the game and the physical demands of playing it.
After all, Vader Immortal takes way more than the $10 download to actually play the game. It requires an Oculus Quest, a brand new, standalone VR headset that retails for $400. While that may be a standard entry fee for a new gaming console these days, buying a brand new piece of technology that there’s no guarantee of playing for more than an hour is a far cry from investing in the next Playstation, which by its very nature comes with games and technology to make the purchase worth it. $410 for a one-hour experience with Episode I (you can spend extra time in the Lightsaber Dojo, but the plot itself is relatively short) is a price that only a select few can pay, limiting accessibility to the awe of fighting alongside Lord Vader only to those in top income brackets.
Even more limiting is the technology itself. I, personally, had a blast playing through the story, parrying attacks with my saber and pulling levers to jump to lightspeed. I’ve spent multiple hours working my way through the Dojo, keeping on my toes as enemies surround me on all sides. The problem is: I’m an able-bodied man with the physical ability to stand for an hour at a time. If you aren’t, your experience will be quite different.
While I’m sure there are many out there who could work through the physical limitations, it seems nearly impossible for someone with limited mobility — or no mobility at all — to perform the walking, turning, and slashing required to play this game (though he wrote this piece before Vader Immortal came out, A.J. Ryan at AbleGamers.com walks through the myriad concerns that VR presents for people with disabilities). And even for those who are physically able to stand and walk, a lack of fine motor controls in the arms or hands could lead to dangerous collisions with walls or furniture (I’ve absolutely hit a wall or two in the heat of the moment). Vertigo, for those who suffer from it, would be an issue as well — looking out over the Mustafar lava fields and “balancing” your way across a maintenance pipe are realistic to the point of being dizzying for those who are unprepared.
All of these limitations add up to create an experience that only the financially and physically privileged can actually play: the upper crust of Star Wars fandom, as it were. Even the game’s demo at Star Wars Celebration Chicago could only be played by a select few who were able to run to the ticket line early enough in the morning to reserve a time (and those were the fans who could afford to be there at all).
Vader Immortal is, by any measure, a crowning technological achievement and a giant leap forward for the potential of Star Wars stories. It is a truly unique experience that puts you in the middle of the action, and makes even a cynic like me feel like we’re truly living it. And that’s a good thing; as a Star Wars fan, I want Lucasfilm to push the envelope. I want them to do things I didn’t know were possible and, to borrow from another fandom, to take Star Wars and the media of storytelling where they’ve never gone before.
But as we move into this exciting future, and creators get so caught up determining whether they can do something, it’s fair to ask who gets left behind. Star Wars is universal — it has been since 1977 when kids and adults around the world watched in awe as Luke blew up the Death Star. If the franchise loses those shared experiences that bind fans together as closely as does the Force itself, it runs the risk of not being a global phenomenon anymore. If Star Wars leaves lower-income or disabled fans behind, then the Emperor has already won.