Jeff Wayne's The War of The Worlds: The Immersive Experience
A truly deranged immersive VR thrill ride
£47.50-£71.50 per guest
1 hour 50 minutes
Jeff Wayne’s The War of The Worlds: The Immersive Experience (TWOTW) is a real world experience based on the 1978 Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds, a rock opera album musical which itself is based on H. G. Wells’ 1898 story The War of the Worlds.
Even if, like me, you haven’t read Wells’ story, you know the gist: Martians invade Victorian England, overpower its defenders with huge three-legged machines equipped with heat rays (“tripods”), eventually succumbing to earthly microbes. The rock opera follows similar lines, but is even weirder.
Over the past half-century, the opera – never mind Wells’ story – has seen many adaptations, including live shows, an audiobook, and three video games, demonstrating its endurance and malleability as a piece of pop culture IP – and therefore its suitability as immersive entertainment.
TWOTW wasn’t on my increasingly long list of games to write about; it’s much less game-like than Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser or Phantom Peak, other real world experiences I’ve covered, but I unexpectedly had a morning free in London and it was the most enticing result from my deeply-considered research process, to whit, googling “immersive experience london”. I guess we can call it a real world walking simulator – but wouldn’t that just be “walking”?!
Except where specified, I’ve used photos and images from the company’s photo gallery, trailer, and social media because you can’t use phones during the experience. Despite being promotional photos, they are all pretty true to life. I also couldn’t take notes, so if I get some events out of order, that’s why.
TWOTW is located in the City of London, the most wealthy, soulless, and benighted part of the UK, one that has not traditionally been the place to find weird art/tech/culture like this, instead finding its true purpose as the money laundering capital of the world. With Brexit and the shift towards remote work, however, the City has been grasping for ways to attract visitors on evenings and weekends for its “leisure economy”, much as a spider does with its web, if its web were novelty mid-market restaurants and experiential entertainment (e.g. crazy golf, Duck and Waffle, etc.).
I was told to arrive unnecessarily early, a whole 45 minutes before my session’s start time. There are formalities to be completed beforehand, like signing a safety waiver and stowing your stuff in the free lockers, but the other 40 minutes is for buying drinks at the bar. Immersive experiences with lots of actors and support staff typically have non-existent profit margins, so they make it up on ancillaries like food, drink, and souvenir photos.
As bars go, it wasn’t bad – steampunk to the max, with screens masquerading as “moving pictures” on the walls, an odd brass sculpture with miniature train, and massive Martian tripod eyes that blew coloured steam at the start of sessions. I wasn’t hungry enough to sample the themed menu with its Tripod Turkey Burger or The Monocle pizza, but others were already getting in the beers in even though it wasn’t yet 11am – who says the UK has a drinking problem?
My group of ten guests lined up when red smoke billowed from the tripod. We were a family of five, two couples, and me. Through a door, we entered a narrow alleyway and walked into Victorian London. A man with a top hat and steampunk goggles told us the Martian invasion was several years ago; humanity had made leaps and bounds since then, and we were about to see a retelling of those events aided by Martian technology like (VR) goggles so as to prepare for the future. It felt fussy as a framing device – why not just drop us in the action? – but I’ve seen worse.
This first actor encounter set the tone for the rest, with a minute of chat and easy questions (“you don’t have any Martian communicators or watches on you, do you?”) preceding the delivery of essential plot (“let’s escape into the tunnels!”). But first, we sat down in a theatre to watch a Pepper’s ghost projection of journalist George Herbert and his wife Carrie Herbert explaining, once more, the events of The War of The Worlds. The projection looked pretty good but the accompanying slideshow behind them was too dim to see well, perhaps as a result of all the glass.
George and Carrie walked off and what I can only describe as a trailer played all around us, including on the theatre walls: mostly tripods blowing things up, concluding with a title card for, yes, Jeff Wayne’s The War of The Worlds: The Immersive Experience. How many times were they going to introduce the story? Weren’t we already in the immersive experience!? I began to doubt whether I’d chosen wisely. The only saving grace was that the music was absolutely banging, probably because it was directly from the album.
We went through a smoky, mirrored corridor to an observatory. A mumbling astronomer guided us towards “telescopes” to view green clouds on Mars. Looking through the eyepiece at a gyro-enabled tablet screen, you could pan the view a bit, but sadly there was no zooming in. It was only after a couple of minutes of purposefully-dull narration when our telescopes showed us an explosion at the nearby Horsell Common, with a massive metal egg at its heart, that I realised we were now in the “past”.
The astronomer led us to the Common – in reality, a wooden platform separated from a grassy area and part of the metal egg painted on the wall. He wandered around muttering to himself about measurements, eventually getting himself killed by the tripod’s heat ray. This was accompanied by flames from two lines of gas burners embedded in the grass which, I’ll be honest, did not look great. I don’t know how you can convincingly portray a heat ray in real life but this ain’t it.
We were rushed by a soldier down some stairs to the street outside George Herbert’s house. As she banged on the door, she grilled us about what we’d seen, chiding us for our unrealistic reactions: “Why are you all smiling when you just saw someone vaporised?” and so on. I mean: yes. But also: no! I just think it’s unfair to cherry pick guests’ out-of-character moments; it’s not like we were wearing proper Victorian clothes or speaking in appropriate accents. This happened with other actors, too, and while I understand the desire to get guests into character, I don’t think chiding is the way to go.
Stymied by the door, we jimmied open the window and climbed into Herbert’s dining room. Fun! The maid arrived, the soldier ran off, and we sat down at the dining room for tea. She rubbished all the talk of Martian invaders (“who’s Martin, eh?”) until we began hearing gunshots and explosions.
The lights flickered, then we were plunged into total darkness. Eerie sounds of a tripod’s metal tentacles circled around the room, then a strobing light came through the fireplace and the maid was pulled through, screaming. Hell yeah! Who knew that leaning on audio and leaving visuals to the imagination worked so well? (Me, that’s who).
We rushed out with the soldier, who’d magically reappeared, and weaved through the kitchen. In a corridor, we saw a Pepper’s ghost projection of George saying something unmemorable, then we ended up crouched in a trench. Once again, we couldn’t see the tripod, but the sound effects sold it well, with our soldier telling us to run as she lay down covering fire.
On the other side we reached an alleyway, its walls covered with letters searching for missing people. Spotlights drew our attention to one after another until a door opened to a small pantry. An injured man was lying on the floor; our soldier appeared, saying we could trust him.
He made a decent joke about one of our guests who was wearing a Nirvana T-shirt (“that’s an odd name for a girl!”) before telling us to escape on a boat. We were to pretend to the boat pilot we were members of XYZ family, and he gave us some money in case they needed further convincing. Our exit was a hole in the wall hidden behind some shelves:
After walking over a wooden bridge, we made it to the dock, where two boats were waiting with VR headsets perched on the seats. The pilot tricked us, saying to a couple of real life siblings, “if you’re X then you must be her brother Y”, but of course, Y didn’t exist. Classic! Thankfully the money bought us passage, and we were onto the boats, beginning the first of three VR sessions in the experience.
It was a little weird to pause the fiction while we put on our “Martian technology goggles”, and I suppose this was the reason for the framing device of a recreation inside a recreation, but in 2023 I think most people understand what they’re getting into when they buy a ticket for a VR-enhanced immersive experience, all of which is to say, it’s not any more weird than having flashbacks in movies, it’s just something you get used to.
I was initially disappointed by what I saw: a sunny river with autumn trees on either side, rendered at fairly low resolution with a noticeable screen-door effect; TWOTW uses HTC Vive VR headsets, which are popular among retail and entertainment companies, if not state-of-the-art. On the plus side, the experience was in true real-time 3D with six degrees of freedom tracking rather than an immersive panorama, meaning I could’ve seen other guests if I turned around.
I’ve played a lot of VR games on the Meta Quest 2 and done a few real-world VR experiences, so I wasn’t as blown away by the boat ride’s PS2-era graphics as the other guests were, but as we entered fog and appeared in a London with Martian tripods blasting Parliament to bits, I felt pretty immersed. The rock opera came into full flow here, and while you might imagine it’d feel out of place, it actually worked perfectly to amp up the energy and convey the story. Using a boat ride as the first VR experience was also a smart move, as it kept people sitting down, less prone to motion sickness.
But by the time we transitioned to the sea, watching HMS Thunder Child taking down a Martian tripod and getting exploded for its trouble, I was a little too immersed – the boat was being rocked sort of in time with the massive waves engulfing our boat, testing my nausea to the absolute limit. We were also sprayed with water, which was fun but also puzzling: how did they manage to avoid hitting the headsets? A guest who’d taken off theirs, presumably due to nausea, later informed me the staff were doing it by hand. Of course!
Once we’d made our escape, we were led to a pub that was being used as a holding area for survivors – in other words, the interval bar.
I picked up the Martian-themed cocktail I’d preordered with my ticket – look, it was after 12pm by this point – and sat down. An adult said to their kids, “In the future, if you want to go to Tokyo you’ll just put VR on and then you’ll be there.” Their daughter noted that that sounded awful. “Yes, but that’s what will happen!” Such are the effects of VR on an unsuspecting person.
Not long after we arrived, another group entered the bar. TWOTW welcomes new groups up to every ten minutes, a conveyor belt delivery system that partly explains why actors keep coming and going between its “24 interactive scenes”. I wonder what it’s like to repeat your spiel six times an hour, but I figure there are far more repetitive jobs in immersive theatre and theme parks.
After 20 minutes, we were sent back in. As with many shows, the second half was much shorter, around 40 minutes compared to the first half’s hour-long duration.
Our boats had washed up on the shore near a spooky candlelit churchyard. A woman greeted us, relieved to meet more survivors, and ushered us inside to meet the priest. We were all much more subdued and in character after the interval – that’s what a well-dressed bar gets you.
We filed into individual confession booths and put on VR headsets. In VR, the priest appeared behind a grille and began lecturing me on how the Martian invaders were a punishment from god for our sinful ways. It was exceedingly creepy and well-acted despite – or perhaps, because of – being lo-fi.
The priest left his side of the booth and drew open the curtains on mine. He continued his ranting, with the woman we met earlier unable to stop him from setting the church on fire. As the building started coming down, a Martian tripod stabbed a tentacle through the window and killed both of them before lifting my entire booth into its body.
The screen went dark for a second, then I “woke up” inside the tripod’s vast spherical body. The same window from which I watched the church burning down was now a portal through which I could see hundreds of pods like mine, tentacles roving back and forth between them. Real world shrieks and laughter came from nearby booths; I quickly discovered why, when a syringe-like proboscis poked through my window and searched around for me. I backed away but it kept coming and physically poked me a few times until giving up and retracting.
Let there be no doubt: this entire sequence was truly deranged shit, the likes of which I have never experienced in VR. The tentacle stuff was undoubtedly accomplished by someone prodding me with a Vive tracker on a stick, explaining how its position was rendered perfectly in real time. They must’ve had two or three people poking us in turn while the others waited in their booths. Is it scalable? Not really! But was it fun? Yes! Will it get old if every VR experience does it? Absolutely.
After the thrills, there was an explosion and resistance fighters led us out of our booths and down a metal slide; only later did I discover this was meant to be “the claw of a Martian Handling Machine”. We were evacuated to an underground hideout where the soldier we met earlier explained her plans to create a glorious new civilisation hidden from the invaders. This was illustrated by a pleasingly bonkers video projected onto a dome, accompanied by excellent rock opera music.
The narrator of the video, George Herbert, expressed doubt in the plan, so the soldier bid us farewell and went to a radio room where we listened to a military transmission declaring they were going to surrender. There were enough knick-knacks inside I thought we were going to do a mini-escape room puzzle, but instead someone came in and explained their plan to fly away in a hot air balloon.
We entered a large room with balloon baskets, each with a pair of VR headsets. Before donning them, we were instructed to locate the handle at the top of the basket. Since there was only one handle, I let the other guest in my basket drive, which in practice meant lighting the burner to make the VR balloon go up. In a nice touch, their body was rendered as George Herbert. Otherwise, this last VR experience was the least impressive – as we flew over devastated towns, the graphics limitations manifested as unconvincingly boxy houses and flat landscapes.
We drifted toward an immobile tripod and the narrator (Herbert again) explained the Martians were killed by microbes; the basket touched down and George was reunited with his fiancé Carrie. Yay! Then we took off again, zoomed into space, flew to Mars, landed in a crater, then toppled through a hole into a vast cavern full of tripods. Roll credits, a photo opportunity, and then we were out!
TWOTW is a very fun, very silly two hour thrill ride. Beyond the slow start, it’s excellently paced and frequently overwhelming, leaving you little time to think upon the horrors of war and the extermination of humanity. The designers could dwelt on this longer, spending more time in the underground city or with injured people, but they opted for pure entertainment. And honestly I have no problem with that – it’s just a thriller. If we get a dozen of these in a row, then I’ll be worried.
I’m still agog at the choice to adapt Jeff Wayne’s rock opera album. It would’ve been a lot cheaper in terms of royalties and licensing fees to do a more conventional adaptation of Wells’ story, which is in the public domain. Then again, Wayne’s music and narration made sequences like the VR boat and balloon rides, along with the underground city tour, into the strongest in the entire experience.
When I mentioned I was going to this immersive experience, I was taken back by people’s genuine affection for Wayne’s musical, often inherited from parents who’d listened to it in the 70s and 80s. I’d vaguely heard of it before but assumed it was far too cheesy for my liking, but everyone’s positive reactions meant that I wasn’t bracing myself for the worst.
I saw a surprising number of guests in their 40s and 50s and older in the bar, so perhaps the smart move for immersive experience designers is to target the generations that can afford to drop £50 on an afternoon by adapting other stories from their youth. Or maybe the secret is making a fun, original experience with great music and a gripping story? Given that 180,000 people have apparently seen TWOTW so far, it seems to be working.
Bonus: Immersive Food Corner
With the Martian invaders defeated, I headed to lunch at Marugame Udon, an “authentic” Japanese udon restaurant. Marugame Udon opened its first kitchen in Japan in 2000, where it’s known as Marugame Seimen. Today it has over 1000 branches worldwide, mostly in Japan, but with the first UK restaurant opening in 2021.
Like so many new fast casual restaurants, the idea is to provide a more interactive, immersive experience, in this case by pretending to be a Japanese cafeteria.You stand in line at a counter where a chef takes your order, dunks fresh udon noodles into broth for two seconds, deposits it in a bowl, and layers your chosen protein on top. Then you slide your tray down the counter to the “tempura station”, a set of wire shelves where you pick your own sides. After paying, there’s another station where you can pick your own garnishes and chillies and spices to go on top.
Restaurants have always tried to simulate the places that inspired them, but beyond the kitchen there were two things that distinguished Marugame Udon, and neither of those were the food, which was perfectly average. Firstly, you can sit in any number of “rooms” in the restaurant, all of which are named. Secondly, my room had a huge ultrawide wall screen showing a snowy Mount Fuji.
I wonder if the secret of creating a profitable restaurant chain in our everything-is-immersive era is simulating “exotic” places where a virtue is made of a) getting customers to do things themselves and b) packing them in more tightly. If done well and supplemented by well-designed, immersive, distracting hard product, people won’t mind the communal tables in Wagamama or busing their own trays in Marugame Udon. Expect more immersive restaurants in the future!
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