Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Viel Dinosaurier in 1916: Der Unbekannte Krieg

1916: Der Unbekannte Krieg is a free indie horror game by students of the Danish Academy of Digital Interactive Entertainment. Set during World War I, you play as a German soldier trying to escape the creatures that hunt you through the narrow, claustrophobic trenches by reaching the ladder at the opposite end of the territory. The creatures hunting you are dinosaurs, and you have no way of fighting them. You just run, using whatever tools you can find in the death-ridden trenches.

The game is ultimately fairly short and simple -- it only takes a few minutes to beat if you know what you're doing -- but odds are it'll take you several attempts before you really start to figure it out. The main criticism I have if that it takes too much trial-and-error to learn the basic mechanics of the game, which may turn people off, but once you understand how things work and what you're supposed to be doing, 1916: Der Unbekannte Krieg is a really tense, heart-pounding experience.

The big problem is that the game doesn't explain its mechanics to you. When you launch the game, it shows a list of controls for how to use things like flares, your rifle, or even a gas mask; seems sensible, but you don't actually start with any of this. One control tells you how to "take flesh," but there's no indication why you would need (or want) to do that. As you explore you eventually find these various items (including "flesh," which involves ripping a hand or a foot off of a fallen soldier), and they're all supposed to help you avoid or escape the dinosaurs, but you have to experiment and die multiple times before each item's effect is really clear.

Flares are used to block a dinosaur's movement; if you throw one on the ground between you and the dinosaur in a narrow trench, the dino will not cross the flare until it's extinguished. This effect buys you a few seconds to escape. Human flesh (ripped from corpses by holding the E key) can be tossed on the ground to distract dinosaurs; they'll lose interest in you and feed on the thrown limb. The rifle can be used to shoot dinosaurs; you can't hurt or kill them, but shooting them will cause them to recoil for a moment, giving you a chance to slip past them.

You can sustain about four hits from a dinosaur before you die, with your health represented as your field of view. Take more damage and your visibility shrinks, while the camera bobs more erratically. If you go long enough without taking damage, your health regenerates. Since you can't kill the dinosaurs, you have to use the various tools at your disposal to sneak past them or run away from them. They're pretty relentless once they spot you, and you only have limited stamina to sprint, so you pretty much need the items to navigate the trenches.

The atmosphere is really good, especially considering how short and simple the whole game is. Everything is rendered in a hazy black and white, which makes the game feel a little like vintage film from WWI while also accentuating the grim, depressing bleakness of the war. As you walk around, you hear the sounds of the war raging overhead; gunfire, explosions, creaking metal, death screams, and so on, juxtaposing the chaos up above with the calm stillness down below. The trenches even create the uneasy sensation of tunnel vision. And of course, the fact that there are prehistoric predators in the trenches is so weird and uncanny as to make the experience even more surreal and unsettling.

There's a thick air of tension as you progress through the trenches. The game does a great job of making you feel vulnerable because of the war raging overhead, because you have no way to defend yourself, and because there's nowhere to run when something starts chasing you. As a stealth game, you don't want to be spotted by the dinosaurs, so the horror stems from the fact that there are vicious predators lurking and patrolling among the trenches but you can't quite see them -- it's the anxiety of expecting to come face to face with a velociraptor around every corner, hoping you won't, and panicking when you do.

The game is pretty difficult at first, and that's what ultimately makes it such a heart-pounding experience. The dinosaurs are enough to induce panic all on their own, but the experience becomes even more tense when you get further than you did last time, exploring uncharted territory and hoping nothing will go wrong because you don't want to die and lose your progress. After dying five or six times in the first few areas, trying to test things out and explore the patrolling patterns of the dinosaurs, I got pinned between two of them and only barely managed to escape by shooting my way past one and then dropping a flare behind me.

I frantically sprinted through the trenches, searching for bodies to get more dead flesh since I knew the dinos would be back on my tail again, and the flesh is the only way to delay them long enough to make a safe escape. I couldn't find any, and soon the dinosaurs were chasing me down again and I was out of flares. No time to stop moving, to search for more flares or to take a moment ripping flesh off a corpse, no time to pay attention where I was going -- I was just running for my life. I turned a corner and came face-to-face with another dinosaur, fired off a quick shot, and just kept on running.

Somehow I managed to lose them, and my heart settled down a little bit, regaining composure. With no idea where I was, I just kept on moving forward and soon found a signpost pointing me to the ladder -- I'd finally made it, and I had no idea how to get back here if I were to die again. At that point, survival was even more imperative than ever before. I stopped to read a note pinned to the signpost and a raptor came around the corner, right in full view as I stood there reading the note. So I just booked it, sprinting over piles and piles of dead bodies while the dinosaur chewed on my rear, and somehow I made it out.

I was so panicked throughout this entire sequence that once I finally reached the ending cutscene, I had to sit back, exhale, and regain my breath. I was so relieved to be out of there, like the crushing weight had been lifted off my chest. Few games have ever gotten my heart racing that fast, or made me so worried about dying.

According to the official website, Der Unbekannte Krieg is supposed to be about expressing and experiencing "the horror and senselessness of war." I guess the game does a pretty good job of that, considering how terrifying it is trying to survive, and how little sense it makes to have dinosaurs in WWI. There are some really artistic things going on with this game that accentuate that theme, like the music that plays in the bunker, the ending sequence where you escape the dinosaurs only to meet another inevitable fate, the fact that you have to mutilate the corpses of your fallen comrades to escape your enemy, and the various notes from soldiers and their families which you can stop to read.

The problem with the notes, however, is that they're entirely in German, and the notes are a large part of what make up the game's artistic substance. I know some German and was able to understand the gist of the notes while reading them in-game, but I had to take screenshots and look up a lot of words to really understand what they were saying. For the most part, they allude to the backstory of the war between Germany and the "reptiles," or they provide insight into the thoughts and feelings of various soldiers, or they're just mundane topics about how a soldier's family is doing back home. These notes give you a little extra substance to chew on mentally, but they have zero effect if you don't know German.

So 1916: Der Unbekannte Krieg doesn't have traditional horror elements and it's not necessarily scary per se, but it sure has a lot of great atmosphere, tension, and terror. It's got a very unique premise, look, and feel about it, which makes me like it even more. Definitely worth checking out. As for some quick advice, be sure to follow the signs to Claudia and the Bunker -- there you'll find the rifle as well as a map, which will help you understand where you're supposed to be going.

It's also worth mentioning that this game reminds me a lot of The Snowfield, another experimental student project also set in the trenches of WWI. Whereas 1916 takes place in the heat of battle, The Snowfield takes place in the aftermath as you try to recover from the devastation. Similar graphic styles, similar atmospheres, and similar themes make The Snowfield another great recommendation if you like 1916.

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