'Star Wars: Tales from the Galaxy's Edge' Director Jose Perez III and Producer Alyssa Finley on Expanding the Universe in VR [Interview]

The new virtual reality video game experience Star Wars: Tales from the Galaxy’s Edge debuted on Oculus devices yesterday. In addition to having an opportunity to play through it early (read our review here), /Film was able to have a virtual chat with the game’s director Jose Perez III and producer Alyssa Finley, who both worked on the Vader Immortal VR experience and have a long history working in video games.

Throughout our discussion surrounding Star Wars: Tales from the Galaxy’s Edge, we talk about the challenges and thrills about fitting a story into the established Star Wars universe, especially one set in an always evolving theme park land. The two creators also talk about getting the exciting opportunity to play in a fresh new era of Star Wars thanks to the upcoming publishing initiative known as The High Republic, as well as small hints of how the tales will continue in future installments.

Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How much did you collaborate with Disney Imagineers to make this virtual reality experience work in conjunction with everything they have in place at Galaxy’s Edge?

Jose Perez III: Tons! The way that Lucasfilm has been working with Imagineering has been very intimate. They’ve been doing a lot of stuff to get Galaxy’s Edge to where it is. And that’s us. We’re Lucasfilm, we’re [Industrial Light and Magic], were ILMxLAB, so there’s a huge amount of collaboration that goes on. A lot of it would be the people at ILMxLAB coming up with some story ideas, getting structures we wanted to execute on this thing, and then we’d go to the story group, which is Matt Martin and James Waugh and a bunch of those folks. They have all of the threads of Galaxy’s Edge, where it is now, where it’s going, where it’s been. They have all the stories in their minds, so we figure out how to fit it in.

Once we’re all really comfortable, we’ll also start bringing in people like Scott Trowbridge, one of the head guys at Imagineering in Galaxy’s Edge. We work with him to make sure it’s all authentic and see what things might go back and forth between the parks and our experience and where those boundaries lie. So lots and lots and lots of collaboration.

Alyssa Finley: It was super exciting because just after we finished Vader Immortal was right when Galaxy’s Edge was opening up. So the team got to go on a trip to see it early on, and I think that really helped cement everything for us, just how real this place is and how our pieces need to fit together with it.

Were there any roadblocks that you ran into as far as the story that you have clashing with what’s in the works for the future of Galaxy’s Edge?

Perez: That’s how Star Wars works, right? It’s actually one of my favorite things about this universe. You have to figure out how to fit with everything. You can’t just burst in and be like, “This is all just gonna be this way. Sorry, every Star Wars thing ever!” We love this world. We love the prequels, the sequels, the original trilogy, it’s all fun. So we want to be really respectful and make sure we’re honoring this tradition and that we fit properly in canon. You’re constantly running into things where it didn’t quite work, but then you realize that if you spin it like this, it’s even better because story group talks about this character, so we’ll turn him into a droid repair technician and bring in Mubo [the owner of the Droid Depot in Galaxy’s Edge]. There’s lots of room to maneuver, but you definitely run into road blocks.

Finley: But I would say with every roadblock also comes an opportunity. We knew we wanted to tell a story with Jedi, and we knew we wanted to tell a story in an ancient temple on Batuu, but the fact that we got to put it in the brand new High Republic storytelling era for Star Wars, that’s all about the story group coming to us and saying, “Here’s this opportunity for you guys, and we can work together to help build out this world that we’re opening up right now. So it definitely goes both ways, if not an incredibly generous tip towards our way.

So was the bonus “Temple of Darkness” adventure originally going to be something else?

Perez: Yeah, we knew we wanted to tell a Jedi story, and I was playing around with a couple things in that arena, and Bryan Bishop, one of our other writers were kind of goofing around, and then James Waugh came in, who had been working heavily on High Republic. We didn’t know a lot about what was going on with that side of things. We’re very secretive at Lucasfilm as a whole. So there were certain things that they weren’t quite ready to let the whole company know about, but he let us in early, and that really opened our eyes and gave us a lot of freedom to do things that would have been a lot more difficult if we would have been in The Clone Wars era or the sequel era. Those Jedi have a lot of threads that go to all these different areas, so the High Republic gave us a nice clean space for a story that we really wanted to tell while digging into a whole new era of Star Wars.

Speaking of the other eras of Star Wars, having the bartender Seezelslak being such a great storyteller with a lot of information about the rest of the universe would seem to afford you the opportunity to visit or relive some of the iconic moments from Star Wars in virtual reality. Are there any plans to explore those possibilities, or are you more focused on original adventures in this less crowded storytelling arena?

Finley: We have the opportunity with that platform to do whatever feels great, and our mandate as ILMxLAB is to be innovative in telling stories. So we’re gonna try to pick the ones where we really feel like we can dig into some aspect of the Star Wars universe that hasn’t been fully explored. Beyond that, the sky’s the limit.

Perez: Yeah, what we’re really excited about at Lucasfilm is the future of Star Wars. What are we doing that’s gonna be new? How do we give those feels that we all had when we grew up with Star Wars? How do we bring more of that to the fans? Digging into these stories and digging into new parts of this universe are first and foremost something we want to do. That being said, the way it’s set up, I’m sure there’s lots of different ways to play with other areas. It would be fun to explore stories we’ve seen before but maybe from different angles. No plans on that right now, but it does allow us to expand and try new things.

Is there anything you hoped would fit into this experience that just didn’t fit with the story or had other complications that left certain elements on the cutting room floor?

Finley: Yes, totally. But we knew that this was a two-part experience. This is the beginning of the story, and there’s more story to be told. We have things that we’re super excited about that didn’t make it in this time. But they’re gonna go in part two, and we’re super excited about that because I think they’ll be even better with the time to cook that they’re gonna get.

You guys are really good at keeping these secrets.

Finley: *laughs* Well, when we’re talking about the future.

Perez: It’s because there’s a part two, and we want to be cool about that.

So is part two meant to be the conclusion to this specific story, and then future installments will move on to different stories?

Perez: I think what’s so great about this is that there’s room to grow. For the droid repair technician, part two is going to be a big moment with a nice conclusion to what we’re doing with that story. But the world can grown and move and change, and there’s multiple tales and all sorts of other things that are gonna happen as we go along.

Finley: And I don’t want to sound more excited about part two as if part one isn’t all that, because what you’ll see when you get through the story of what’s there in part one is that it is a story with a beginning, middle, and end. It’s just that there’s more to the story to explore, and that was always at the heart of our goal for Tales from the Galaxy’s Edge, to make it an extension of the world of Batuu that wasn’t finite, so that we can always keep adding. You can play space darts now, but maybe in the future there will be another thing you can do in the bar. We just wanted it to be the beginning of a bigger world.

Perez: Yeah, there’s a complete story that you get in part one, and it wraps up in part two. But for us, it’s about expanding, so we’re gonna take these characters, places, and things, and we’re gonna keep building on those as we continue to grow this project.

This whole story takes place on the outskirts of Batuu, but is there any desire to create a virtual experience of walking around Galaxy’s Edge as it exists in the theme parks, especially since one of them has been closed since the spring?

Perez: Early on there was a lot of talk about how much we want to spend time in Black Spire Outpost proper. And that was even before the pandemic. But for us, those stories are being told right now, and you can go to the theme park, and it’s this physical place that’s real. We want to build out the stories that people can’t experience that are just on the other edge of the cliffs. The pandemic has made things a little bit different, so some people may be exploring this outer edge before they get to the interior. But we’re hoping that the stories we’re telling now will make that experience more rich when people go there and vice versa. If you’ve been to the parks and you’ve had this experience meeting Mubo and all these characters, you’re like, “Oh, this is the guy who owns the Droid Depot, I didn’t know that!” So there’s a lot of cross-pollination that’s going on. We definitely talked about that, but for us, it was like, if you want to make a lightsaber at Savvi’s Workshop, go do it in real life. It’s awesome. If you want to eat a ronto wrap, I guarantee it’s going to taste better at the parks then it does in VR. But for us, it’s about how we tell the stories that are on the outskirts that make this real area you can go visit more rich.

One of the things I love about VR here is the immersion into the Star Wars universe makes certain moments feel much more special than they would if this were just a regular console game. Standing next to C-3PO is actually a cool experience. Looking down at Master Yoda is kind of surreal, even if it’s just in a virtual space. Can you talk about crafting those moments?

Perez: Yeah, there’s these moments when something invades your personal bubble, and you feel something. You legit feel something. I’ve been working on games for a long time, just like Alyssa, and when you’re in traditional flat screen games, anytime you get some kind of visceral, physical reaction, you’re like, “Oooh! We got’em! Nice! They reacted!” With VR, it’s one massive physical reaction. So for us, when C-3PO steps out of the crate, if that was on a flat screen video game, you’d be like, “Okay, C-3PO stepped out of the crate.” But here, it’s like, “Whoa, don’t step on me,” and you have to back up away from him. When we looked at Vader Immortal, we were really excited about what would happen when people see Vader for the first time. There would be this sense of terror, and you’re like, “Oh my gosh, he’s way taller than me.” And with Yoda, we’ve got the complete opposite. You just get filled with these weird, warm fuzzies. He’s this little guy but there’s so much power and wisdom there. It’s really hard, especially if you’re playing standing, to not get down on one knee so you’re level with him and being more respectful. I love video games, and something like that has never happened to me in a traditional video game.

Is there anything that hasn’t been done or isn’t in the works for Star Wars VR experiences that you would like to see embraced in this format?

Perez: The thing about Star Wars is that it’s an embarrassment of riches. I can go on for days about anything that would be fun. Let me ride a bantha in VR, let me be a porg in VR. For us, building this structure is so we can explore those things. We can’t wait to get more people into part one and see what it’s like to be a Jedi padawan and a droid repair technician exploring the Batuu Wilds. And as we look forward to part two, we’ve got some pretty dramatic mechanical changes that will happen with some of those tales that will just continue to grow this thing.

When you say mechanical changes, what do you mean by that?

Perez: I can’t say anything more than that. *laughs* That was me going too far. Lucasfilm’s publicist is going to jump in and be like, “Stop talking!” For the tales, moving forward, you can expect that not all of them are going to be about the shooting mechanics and the training remotes or even the lightsaber. We’re going to be playing with different things as we move on.

Star Wars: Tales from the Galaxy’s Edge is available now on Oculus devices. Read our review of the experience right here.

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