Requiem for a soldier: 1916 – Der Unbekannte Krieg

By Julie Horup
29 January 2012 01:04 GMT

A much loved indie is getting a second lease on life. Julie Horup checks in with the dinosaurs, tank maggots, and WWI trenches of 1916 – Der Unbekannte Krieg.

1916 – Der Unbekannte Krieg

An unusual first person horror game with an emphasis on survival, not combat.

A product of The National Academy of Digital Interactive Entertainment, picked up for professional releases by macbody games.

Student version available online.

I’m stuck in a trench, alone and terrified. Above me a war is being fought, but there’s absolutely no sign of life down here. It’s dark, cold, wet, and I’m fighting for my life against an enemy I never could have imagined possible. While painful screams resonate in the trenches, I see some kind of shadowy figure in the distance, and then I know: This literally is hell on earth.

But, actually, it’s not hell. It’s 1916: Der Unbekannte Krieg, an indie game build around a soldier lost in the trenches during World War 1. But despite taking place during a war, it’s nothing like we’ve seen from war-riddled games before. Instead the player is hopelessly confused and lost, clinging on to a precious life and about to meet the harbinger of death: a dinosaur.

However, despite being invaded by dinosaurs and various other hellish creatures, 1916 at its core isn’t about fighting extinct animals; it’s not about a doomed soldier; nor is it about shooting guns until the war is won. It’s about fear.

“We aimed at hitting one note on the player’s emotional palette and that was fear,” said game director David Adler.

“One of the qualities inherent in the game is creating a bigger experience for the player than what is actually in the game. This opens the universe for carrying the player deeper into the psychology of terror, not just a mere flesh wound.”

While fear is and always has been an obvious tool in games development, the combination of WW1 and dinosaurs is less obvious. Instead both are often seen as things of the past, which we only hear about in schoolbooks and on the telly. According to Adler, this was part of the reason why the odd couple was chosen as the combined mainspring of 1916.

“I am of an ignorant generation; the two subjects are equally alien to me. The dinosaurs and WW1 are just two programmes after each other on the Discovery Channel,” Adler admitted.

Watch on YouTube

1916 – Der Unbekannte Krieg.

“The First World War was when the world lost its innocence. All hell broke loose, and what happened couldn’t be understood. The rules of civilization didn’t make sense after the powerful nation-states sent their young men to the front where they slaughtered each other. It was a conflict as nonsensical as trying to fight a dinosaur.”

Taking these two elements and putting them together in one distressing experience also helped steer the game away from traditional shooters, where the player is often depicted as the one in charge in a typical “hunter and the hunted”-situation. Instead Adler and his team reversed the approach, letting the player be the hunted, constantly fighting for his or her life.

“Taking the game of war away from the glorified battlefields and down into the muddy trenches was a big motivator. Fear comes from not being in control. This was an attempt at getting closer to a more emotional relationship with your opponent,” he explained.

Back to school
Despite being an ambitious lot, the team behind 1916 did face obstacles when starting out. None of them are professional game developers, but instead hail from DADIU – The National Academy of Digital Interactive Entertainment. Here young aspiring students from different educational institutions in Denmark get together during the span of a month to create games that often push the creative boundaries. An approach that can just as easily fail as it can result in spectacular projects.

“The advantage is that you are a bunch of hungry students all burning to create and challenge yourself on this very technical media,” Adler said about DADIU.

“On the negative side, the students at DADIU are not very well trained in working in a ridged pipeline like game production requires. Most people on the team have never worked with a director before.

“In a short production knowing where to focus your energy is the key to getting a rounded game in the end,” he added.

The focus of energy turned out to be crucial for the game. With a short amount of time to create something that neither DADIU nor the Danish games industry had seen before, the team quickly realised their boundaries, but also learned how to take advantage of the obstructions forced upon them.

“In an independent production you must focus on originality. We can’t compete on the level with AAA games so we have to stray off the beaten path in order to be noticed,” Adler explained.

“For this to work a lot of things had to fall into place. We knew we were limited, so many of the decisions were made on this premise. Making the game look old was one of the ways to get around our limited resources. I wanted the game to feel like it was made in the trenches during the First World War.

“The game is clinching because grenades were going off near the programmers while they wrote the code in a bunker,” Adler added about the team’s rather odd yet functional work habits.

He’s also keen on underlining the importance of the game’s development as something that didn’t just focus on basic gameplay, but instead conveyed a feeling of hopelessness and a gripping experience.

“Game mechanics, HD graphics and surround sound are all tools to make you feel. When gameplay really works for me I don’t notice it, I’m too immersed in the experience.”

Obviously it worked. 1916 spurred quite the hype as it featured as one of the graduation games from DADIU back in Spring 2011. With a promising yet small indie scene in Denmark, it fitted right in – but also drew a lot of attention because of its resemblance to LIMBO, the ultimate vanguard of Danish indie development.

But while Adler remains thankful for what Playdead achieved with their massive success, he’s also quick to dismiss the notion that 1916 relies on the com,parison.

“I think that LIMBO and 1916 both aimed at doing the same thing but with completely different philosophies. I really admire LIMBO for opening the doors for more experimental indie games, for this I am quite thankful,” Adler commented.

“My thoughts and ambitions for 1916 were to get the player deep into the psychological horrors of war. I believe LIMBO took a more subtle approach.”

Stepping up the game
Despite seeing the light of day nearly a year ago, it’s been quiet around 1916 until late last year. The people behind the game had gone their separate ways until developer macbody games showed interest in the game – an interest that turned out to stem from a mutual love for relentless creativity.

“Indie games are made on furious creative will, and here macbody and I found a common ground. Macbody wanted to make games that pushed the limits of what computer games could be and they saw this in potential in 1916,” Adler said.

“When I saw David’s plans for the full game I was literally floored,” macbody games’ CEO, Peter Thomsen, added.

“He took a first person avoider game – in which the object was to be killed by dinosaurs and escaping via a ladder – to one lonely, deranged soldier’s quest to find his lost squad, and along the way the horrors of WW1 were seen through his eyes.”

“Airplanes become flying lizards, tanks become giant maggots and so on. The fact that all the monsters are in the soldier’s mind, that is brilliance at work!”

With a promising partnership in place, the hard work has only begun. Even though Adler and macbody games share the same vision for 1916, they still need to get funding, and while they’ve teamed up with Bandello, a Danish agency dedicated to help out indie developers, there’s still a long way to go, especially when it comes to expanding the game into a financially viable version of 1916 rather than a graduation game from DADIU – something Thomsen is fully aware of and ready to deal with.

“I sincerely believe, more than anything in this world, that 1916 – Der Unbekannte Krieg will be not only a hit, but a game that will get the entire industry talking. It is so personal and so ambitious that there is little to no danger of being lost in the shuffle.”

“The expanded 1916 is more than just dinosaurs, in fact the player can expect to see some new and scary monsters. The expanded game is a lone soldier’s quest to find his squad, the backdrop is still WW1, but we have much more than dinosaurs in store for the players,” he explained.

The release date for 1916 is currently set some time during 2013 with platforms like Steam, PlayStation Network and Xbox Live Arcade being considered, but nothing has been set in stone yet. That doesn’t change the fact, though, that Thomsen is confident that snapping up the game was the right move.

“David is an ambitious man, and so are we in macbody games,” he stated.

“I sincerely believe, more than anything in this world, that 1916 – Der Unbekannte Krieg will be not only a hit, but a game that will get the entire industry talking.

“It is so personal and so ambitious that there is little to no danger of being lost in the shuffle,” Thomsen concluded.

The DADIU version of 1916 – Der Unbekannte Krieg is currently available online at Kongregate.

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