‘War Remains’ immersive installation takes you into virtual, yet chillingly realistic, trenches of World War I

[This review of an immersive installation that recreates the experience of a World War I battle describes an intense and emotional presence experience. See the original review in Patch for a different picture, a 1:03 minute trailer and a 7:37 minute ‘making of’ video. For more information see earlier coverage in Variety and Engadget and the War Remains website. –Matthew]

Austin-Exclusive ‘War Remains’ Immersive Exhibit Packs A Wallop

Dramatic narration by Dan Carlin of popular ‘Hardcore History’ podcast gives voice to emotionally powerful experience.

By Tony Cantu, Patch Staff
August 10, 2019

AUSTIN, TX — Unless you’ve experienced combat, you’ll never truly know what it feels like. An immersive installation titled “War Remains” taking participants into virtual, yet chillingly realistic, trenches of World War I opening on Monday approximates the experience in a powerfully impactful way.

Organizers provided Patch with a sneak preview of the installation, outfitting a reporter with special goggles and instrument-laden backpack to experience the production housed within a small building at 500 E. 5th St. As one enters the otherwise nondescript structure in downtown Austin, accouterments of the early part of the 20th century provide the needed vibe to experience a throwback feel.

In the tangible, real world as one enters the space, there is an old-school typewriter resting on a weathered end table with an old lamp next to it. There is a sheet of paper in the carriage against the paper rest, as if left at the vacant desk by a soldier writing a letter to his sweetheart back home only to step away to collect his thoughts.

Once suited up to enter the virtual reality battle scene — walking tentatively across virtually realized wooden planks — is to enter a whole other dimension. Realistic virtual soldiers meticulously illustrated in uniforms of the day — doughboys in nomenclature of the time — fight against a brutal assault of enemy gunfire with a waist-level trench as sole, makeshift protective barrier. Some soldiers don’t make it in the battle scene reenactment, vividly illustrating the ultimate sacrifice so many made in real life to safeguard our liberties.

After assimilating the scene — as if having entered into a war movie reminiscent of “Saving Private Ryan” — one starts to negotiate the wooden floor below amid the darkness to reach a a recreated bunker just a few feet from the firefight. Scurrying rats at one’s feet (thankfully virtual but so realistic) scatter on approach, screeching along the way. Along the wall of the small enclosure are canteens and other military tools and supplies one can both see and touch.

One exits the room into another space to emerge in a seemingly free-floating state as the 15-minute experience comes to its conclusion. It’s vaguely unsettling state of suspended animation yielding an odd sense of peaceful resignation from a sky-high vantage point, looking down at the war-ravaged earth below amid lethally effective weapons of war as Carlin recaps what the VR experience represents. Dirigibles float across a darkened sky intermittently illuminated with fiery flashes, looking like ghostly sentinels bearing witness to the ravaged landscape below.

It’s intense, with impressive production values and dramatic narration by Dan Carlin of the popular “Hardcore History” podcast. Creators include Dallas-based Flight School Studio and MWM Immersive. Skywalker Sound lent its considerable expertise in yielding an impressive aural experience.

The installation combines VR and a physical set to transport audiences to the Western Front with powerful effect. The combo between the virtual and tangible enables guests to reach out and touch in a sensory experience that throws in practical effects — haptic feedback, floor rumbles, wind — into the mix to enhance the realism. The exhibit recently was unveiled at the Tribeca Film Festival, and will show exclusively in Austin starting this Monday, Aug. 12.

In a making-of video, Carlin details his creative process.

“Did you enjoy the experience?” a helpful docent asks as one is relieved of the VR pack. But any variation on the word “enjoyment” seem inadequate to describe the experience. Moving, resonant, impactful, chilling, thought-provoking and even emotional might better fit the bill in an accounting of the experience. Given the parameters and layout of the exhibit space, the tour accommodates a single person at a time — heightening one’s focus and deepening personal reflection as one negotiates seemingly labyrinthine paths alone in yielding a singular, unencumbered assimilation as the sounds of war rumble in the background.

The docent directs one’s gaze to a quote affixed on a wall before one exits the space, yielding an apt postscript to what’s just transpired. These are musings on war by Paul Nash, British Army officer, surrealist painter and artist of the time. “I may give you some idea of its horror, but only being in it and of it can ever make you sensible of its dreadful nature,” the text partially reads.

Such is the effect of “War Remains,” making the abstraction of war — and its attendant sacrifice and loss — that much more concrete in one’s mind and spirit, leaving one suffused with a renewed sense of gratitude to those unknown soldiers who fought so long ago to ensure our freedoms.

For tickets currently on sale, click here. The exhibit runs from Aug. 12-31 at 500 E. 5th St.

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