I remember the first time I played Myst on the Macintosh Performa. In retrospect it’s just a grainy slideshow where you click around puzzles and wish you were smarter, but in 1995 it blew me away. I thought video games could never get better than Myst. If you’d taken me to the future and shown me The VOID at Mall of America, my fragile little kid brain would have imploded.
When you arrive at The VOID, you’re first taken aside to watch a little movie that sets up the plot for your augmented reality adventure. A Star Wars character explained to me and my friend that we had to go steal a MacGuffin which the Empire was going to use to be even bigger jerks than they already were. We’d never let something like that stand, so we suited up for battle.
You don’t sit at a computer at The VOID — you wear it. The helmet has headphones and a visor with a digital screen, and the vest feels like an article of clothing you’d wear if you were going out to defuse bombs. Fully attired, we were led to the start of our quest and asked to sit down.
The whole room took on a brain coral pattern for a second, and then suddenly we were sitting in a space ship. My friend turned into a stormtrooper, as did I. The thing hadn’t even started properly yet, but I was already floored just by looking at my hands. I hadn’t looked at my hands so intently since I did mushrooms in college. I waved at my friend, who waved back, and then I tested out a choice hand gesture on him which he kindly returned.
I won’t spoil the plot of the adventure for you, but I can tell you that it feels exactly like you are there. When you stand on a moving platform, you can’t help but worry that you’ll fall off. When lava bubbles around you, you feel the heat wafting up. But the real fun starts when you get a laser blaster.
The sardonic robot who acted as our guide throughout the ordeal told us to be careful once we got our guns, so as to not tip off the real stormtroopers that we were phonies. Instead I shot my friend, who shot me back. This caused us to learn that our vests had little haptics built into them, which do a perfect job of making you know when you’ve been hit by a laser. This added stakes: Then, more than ever, I didn’t want to get hit by a laser.
The simulated bad guys very much wanted us to get hit by their lasers, however, so the rest of the experience played out as a frenetic gun fight. They were no match for real people, though, not the likes of us at least. They ought to make a Star Wars movie with me and my friend in it, just us waving our hands around while blithely shooting each other in the face.
The adventure has several climaxes, but none so intense as the ending which I expect the good people at The VOID would hate me for alluding at. But it’s Star Wars — who else could you run into that would instantly make your blood run cold? In the face of true peril we got the MacGuffin to where it needed to be, saved the day like heroes do, and then the room turned back into a room. I asked to see the series of chambers and hallways we’d just navigated with my bare eyes, but they are secret.
At no point during my time at The VOID did I feel like I wasn’t actually in a Star Wars movie. It was the most engrossing digital entertainment I’ve ever enjoyed. I’m looking at my hands right now, as I type this, and wonder if my real life is just a simulation. Hey, that would be a great idea for a movie, too!
Go to thevoid.com if you want a glimpse at the future of amusement.
By David Scheller