Journalist Dan Carlin, best known for his popular long-form podcast Hardcore History, has teamed up with MWM Interactive to create a new World War I-themed virtual reality experience. Developed by Flight School Studio, War Remains is — like its source material — a passive experience. But the presentation of that material, which draws from classic cinema, Broadway-style set design, and Carlin’s own unique vocal delivery creates something truly magical.
My only complaint is that War Remains, at around 10 minutes, is entirely too short. Compared to Carlin’s Blueprint for Armageddon series, which spans six episodes and has a run time of around 24 hours, the vast majority of the veteran podcaster’s work on WWI was left behind for this VR experience.
War Remains opened by putting me inside the copula of a French Caquot-type observation balloon as a fur ball of period fighter planes swirled around each other in a densely clouded sky. The action then dove deep below the trench line, where I was able to experience the pounding of an endless artillery barrage directly overhead. That’s where the sound design — handled by the legendary team at Skywalker Sound — came to the fore.
The conclusion found me rising bodily from the muddy pits of Passchendaele as a cloud of green gas poured over the ground. That’s when the light shifted, revealing the horrors that had previously been hidden in the darkness all around me. Even recalling that final scene now, as I write this, makes my flesh crawl.
Ethan Stearns, executive vice president of content at MWM Interactive, told Polygon that the challenge for his team was to temper the experience for a general audience. It originally premiered as an installation piece at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2019.
“It was always a balancing act,” Stearns said. “And I also think there was a lot of work that we did with Dan, specifically, on how we wanted to present this. How much of it is real versus how much of it is suggestive of what it was like? How do we put Dan’s voice at the center of this without it being distracting or compared against what you’re seeing visually?”
For Carlin, VR aligns nicely with his goals as a podcaster. He’s always trying to recreate the extremes of human experience, to teleport people to different places and times with his work. But there were challenges.
“There was a lot of stuff we had to work around,” Carlin told me. “They took me to a bunch of different places that were working on human figures, and had me get really close to a virtual reality version of a human being, to show me the limitations of the technology, of where it is right now. If you get too close to a person they don’t look real anymore, and then your suspension of disbelief goes away.”
In the final version of War Remains, individual soldiers are rarely seen head-on, and many are wearing gas masks. Indeed, the most graphic sequences — soldiers engulfed in flames or being torn apart by bullets — happen at the edges of the scene or are obscured by terrain.
“What I always try to tell people is that this is nothing like the real experience,” Carlin said, “because you know you’re going home. It’s closer than you’ve ever been able to get, and what [the design team] had to spend a lot of time on is how close do you really want to get to a negative experience? We have this visceral fascination with it, but if it gets too real that goes away and you don’t want any part of it. So, if it’s not real enough it’s hokey. If it’s too real you have a lawsuit on your hands.”
Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. For more information, see our ethics policy.