Conscript, Trenches, and the Advent of World War 1 Horror
World War II gets all the attention. In games, movies, books, and all other forms of media, there’s a weird fixation on the second official world war. I happen to be utterly fascinated by both World War 1 and II, so when I saw that WW1 was starting to get some traction in the horror community, I was transfixed. I’m talking of course about two games in particular: Conscript, and Trenches.
Conscript is an upcoming top-down World War 1 horror game that sees you playing as a French soldier stuck in the trenches during some of, if not the worst, fighting of World War 1. I played Conscript way back when it was just a plucky alpha, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed watching it grow. Trenches, on the other hand, was a complete surprise to me. DreadXP Head of Productions Ted Hentschke reached out via email and said, “Hey, look at this game”. I can’t receive an email like that and not be compelled to check it out.
Trenches is quite different from Conscript. Imagine if the trenches of WW1 were a haunted house attraction. You’re about halfway to Trenches. There is nothing wrong with its type of horror. Streamers, YouTubers, and content creators around the world love a good “hall of jumpscares”-type game. It’s not my personal favorite, but I get it. You know Trenches is gonna have some serious jumpscares when you see a “no jumpscares” option on the main menu. It was built around the jump, and I can’t begrudge it that. When you get past the frankly obnoxious screaming monsters, there’s actually a well-written and decently well-told story underneath the BOO. Don’t write it off because of the jumpscares, I beg you. What’s there, in its Early Access state is amazing if you just stick with it.
Conscript, on the other hand, covers the thing most people know about WW1: It was ugly. Ugly, dirty, brutal, and disgusting. The trenches were not a fun place to be. Cramped quarters, constantly wet, and you never knew when the other side would start dropping shells on you. It could be the middle of the night. It was nasty. Infection was rapidly killing more soldiers than the fighting. No one wanted to be there. World War 1 saw the adoption of the shotgun for military units. A nasty thing called the “trench sweeper” that the Germans lodged a diplomatic complaint against for being just too brutal.
So, why is WW1 horror just now finding its legs? We’ve had Wolfenstein for years covering our WW2 horror niche, along with about a hundred other games. When you look at WW1 games, the pickings are slim. I think a big reason that WW2 gets all the attention is because of how the war was perceived. Many consider it to be the last “clean” war. The U.S. was fighting against evil, and you can’t be wrong fighting against evil. There was an identifiable head bad guy to point out. It almost writes its own game. Each country the U.S. was fighting had their own little miniboss to get through on their way to the heart of Germany to get at the big bad.
In reality, WW2 was not a clean war. I could write about why and how, but that would be very sad, and make a lot of people mad at me. I’ll just try and stay in the realm of video games. WW1 is due its time in the spotlight in horror. Trenches are claustrophobic, with blind corners, and no lights most of the time. The sound of shelling covers up any suspicious noises that might be happening in the trenches themselves. The proliferation of chemical warfare in the form of various gasses is there for the taking. Conscript is already touching on a lot of these points. It doesn’t seek to glamorize WW1, but instead, show it in all of it’s muddy, messy, imperfect glory.
Trenches has its jumpscares of course, but also has a terrifying enemy that communicates its displeasure via air raid siren. The sheer creativity in Trenches makes it a fun opposite to Conscript. I can easily bounce from the super-serious “war is hell” narrative of Conscript and right into “what the hell is even that?”-type feelings in Trenches. I’m loving the variation between the two games. The problem with WW2 games is they all start to feel the same. Stop me if you’ve heard this one: “Hitler is doing [occult thing] leading to an outbreak of [monster], you are a [soldier, spy, sniper] behind enemy lines in [Germany/Italy/France] and you must stop him.”
It gets…tiring. The messed-up part is I still love it! Maybe I’m the problem? No, it’s the developers who are wrong to continue making serviceable horror games about WW2. I’ve long been a proponent of change in our established stories. WW1 is ripe with new stories. In a couple of years, I hope we can all look back and say, “I’m so damn tired of WW1 games. Remember when it was just Conscript and Trenches?” Trenches is out now, and Conscript is slated for a 2022 release, but recently had an excellent demo premiere during the Steam Next Fest.