‘War Remains’ puts guests amid horror of WWI

James Robertson

Fountains of dirt blown skywards, whole forests reduced to splinters, clouds of chlorine gas borne on the wind — these were common sights to the soldiers on the frontlines of the First World War.

A new virtual reality experience in downtown Austin, “War Remains,” allows attendees to experience the horrors of trench warfare in a mixed-reality experience where you can see, hear, touch and move through a war-ravaged Europe.

Created by Dan Carlin of the popular podcast “Hardcore History” in partnership with MWM Interactive, “War Remains” premiered earlier this year at the Tribeca Film Festival for the Immersive VR showcase.

“I am a deep believer that VR has the magic ability to place you somewhere,” said Ethan Stearns, executive vice president of content at MWM Interactive.

The virtual reality experience includes untethered VR equipment which allows guests to freely move around the highly detailed set. The space offers props to touch, simulates weather and carries a soundscape designed by the company which produced sound for the original Star Wars trilogy, Skywalker Sound.

“If we do a good job in creating that experience that you’re standing in, hopefully you’re going to walk away with a memory of your own, almost as a life experience more than it was a story that you read or something that you saw on the silver screen,” Stearns said.

Rather than simulating a WWI battlefield, Stearns said the team sought to create an immersive memory. The team used Carlin’s six-part podcast series “Blueprint for Armageddon” on WWI for information to bring the war alive. The project was originally pitched as a time machine that placed patrons within the experience of a frontline soldier.

“Dan had said several times that because we want this to be a learning tool, we don’t want to disrespect the actual experience that real people went through and still go through to this day in wars that they fight in,” Stearns said.

At the same time, elements of the First World War battlefield had to be toned down in order to make the experience palatable for guests, Stearns said. Battles such as Verdun and Passchendaele were some of the most gruesome and horrific events in all of human history.

Erin Reilly, Moody College director of innovation and entrepreneurship, sent her students to “War Remains” as a part of an experimental storytelling class that utilizes media technologies such as virtual reality to create experiences for brand marketing.

“It is an example of living empathy on the horrors of war,” Reilly said. “We need more of these mixed reality experiences situated in learning. ‘War Remains’ offers an embodied learning experience for my students to have a feeling of presence as they journeyed through history and experienced firsthand the real tension on a battlefield.”

“War Remains” is the first fully realized historical battlefield experience of its kind, the creators of the experience said. Unlike other VR projects that also premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, “War Remains” is a single-player experience that stresses the alienation of the individual brought about by the First World War, said Brandon Padveen, the producer for “War Remains.”

“For our whole team, it’s always about twisting the nature of a VR project,” Padveen said. “(We’re) trying to push it further and do something new. How do we tap into something new, how do we tap into something a little more terrifying?”

Editor's Note: This story has been updated since it was originally published to correct the name of MWM Interactive. The Texan regrets this error.