When virtual reality company The Void released its first collaboration with ILMxLab, Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire, the mission was pretty straightforward. Star Wars fans want nothing more than to step inside the world of that franchise, so the experience, which lets participants play Rebel spies infiltrating an Imperial base, had to deliver something that looked and felt as much like Star Wars as possible. It did exactly that, and Secrets of the Empire has become a marquee title for The Void as it has increased the number of its location-based entertainment centers.
The latest title from the two companies is Ralph Breaks VR, which is now available at seven different Void locations across the United States. Created in collaboration with Walt Disney Animation, it’s inspired by the new film Ralph Breaks the Internet, in which Wreck-It Ralph (John C. Reilly) and Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman) break out of the arcade games they call home and roam the online world. But while the movie is a well-assembled, enjoyable romp, it wasn’t guaranteed to work in virtual reality. For the most part, previous Void experiences have tried to re-create locations, props, and characters from films with actual physical counterparts. The Wreck-It Ralph films, on the other hand, exist only in the realm of animation.
As it turns out, Ralph Breaks VR melds the two mediums seamlessly. Using the premise of the new film as a jumping-off point, it embraces the video game origins of the Ralph franchise to create one giant, co-op virtual adventure.
Work on Ralph Breaks VR started about a year ago when The Void and ILMxLab sat down with Ralph Breaks the Internet directing duo Phil Johnston and Rich Moore and screenwriter Pamela Ribon. “We got to see some early screenings, we were seeing a lot of the concept stuff,” explains lead experience designer Jose Perez III. “Immediately, there was this [sense of] ‘Well, you know, Ralph is a video game IP. Now, it’s all internet. How do we merge that?’”
The answer was to embrace both approaches, much as the film does. The finished VR experience casts groups of players as internet users — netizens, in the parlance of the film — who have ventured into the digital world to help Ralph and Vanellope with a mission. After strapping on one of The Void’s VR headsets and haptic vests, players appear to each other as one of several different colorful cartoon characters. In the demo experience I took part in, participants were able to select their character ahead of time by selecting a card with the illustration of the character on it. Right from the beginning, the cartoonish avatars establish Ralph Breaks VR as strikingly different from other Void titles.
The other participants’ avatars were surprisingly expressive. Hand-tracking is part of the experience as usual, but the cartoon images also match their players’ eye movement to provide a better sense of connection when you’re looking at one another. When a participant speaks, the system analyzes the audio in real time, allowing the avatars to adopt the appropriate mouth shape on the fly.
“When you’re talking, the different phonemes you’re saying are being picked up,” Perez explains, making exaggerated mouth shapes to demonstrate. “So if you go, ‘oooo,’ you’ll get the oooo thing. As you go ‘eee,’ you’ll get eee. All of that stuff, which was a big deal getting that to work right off the bat.”
From there, the experience mimics the movie by leading the players into a shuttle that shoots them into the internet: a massive, futuristic cityscape, filled with in-jokes and riffs on familiar online brands. The scale works wonderfully in VR, with Ralph and Vanellope guiding players through the experience. Many of the assets were pulled directly from the film, with Ribon writing the dialogue.
But while the trip to the internet is the introduction, the bulk of the 11-minute VR experience is actually a series of mini-games. First, participants enter something called the Dunderdome, where they split into two teams to play a massive, life-sized riff on Space Invaders (which has a cool Star Wars Easter egg I won’t spoil here). Later, players enter a diner-turned-shooting-gallery, where they have to take out swarms of attacking kitties or bunnies with a gun that shoots pancakes and milkshakes. It sounds nonsensical, but if you’ve seen the movie — in which Ralph plays a mobile game where he uses pancakes and milkshakes to feed a pair of cuddly animals — it makes a little more sense.
As with other Void “hyper-reality” experiences, Ralph Breaks VR leads participants through a physical maze overlaid with the imagery they’re seeing in their headset maps, and incorporating real-world physical elements as well as sensations like heat, smells, or vibrations. To play the giant Dunderdome game, participants hit actual physical buttons that pair with virtual ones they’re seeing in their headsets. This combination of physical and virtual is what sets the VR experiences of companies like The Void and Dreamscape Immersive apart. The Void is, without a doubt, still the best in the field at creating these kinds of hybrid experiences.
Given the Wreck-It Ralph franchise’s origin as a bit of retro gaming nostalgia, the experience also embraces an old-school competitive mechanic: points. Throughout the experience, players can check their avatar’s left wrist for a pop-up holographic display that tracks how well they’re doing playing the various games (and feeding bunnies and / or kitties), with the final scores highlighted at the end of the experience.
The inclusion of points, use of animation, and kid-friendly tone all make for an experience that is much more lighthearted than The Void’s other offerings, though that comes with its own trade-offs. Secrets of the Empire strives to re-create a very familiar world with a real sense of peril; The Void’s latest horror title, Nicodemus: Demon of Evanishment, embraces a dense backstory and puzzle mechanics. Ralph Breaks VR, by comparison, feels like a lightweight amusement.
Couple that with the fact that The Void seems to be recycling a few sequences — people who have played Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire will recognize the style of the shooting gallery sequences and the use of scenes set on platforms overlooking vast falls — and Ralph Breaks VR may play as a bit of a letdown for those who are familiar with the company’s other work.
But as The Void builds out its assortment of games, this kind of diversification in genre is what the company needs as it tries to expand its audience. Not everyone is going to be drawn in by Star Wars or Ghostbusters, and the kid-heavy audience of a Wreck-It Ralph movie undoubtedly demands a more child-friendly VR experience. Given that children from the ages of 10 on up can partake in The Void’s shows, there’s as much room for an arcade-style experience with familiar animated characters as there is for anything else.
With The Void and ILMxLab slated to create a number of new experiences based on Disney properties, including Marvel, there will also be plenty of opportunities to iterate and play with more complex gameplay mechanics and styles moving forward. Talking with the teams at The Void and ILMxLab, it appears that one of the most anticipated of those upcoming titles will do exactly that.
“There is really cool stuff coming, actually,” says Curtis Hickman, chief creative officer at The Void. “It’s some new things we’ve never done before. Marvel’s going to take advantage of that next year. We’re excited for that.”