Tick, Tock. Dozens of fighter squadrons dogfight in three-way fights, some thousands of feet in the air above a border town. Tick, Tock. A wolfpack of submarines has popped up in the middle of a carrier group and is violently hunting the vulnerable ships down, sending each one to the bottom of the sea. Tick. A notification appears: DEFCON 1. Tock. Hundreds of nuclear-equipped missiles are launched at the major air bases, fleets, radar stations, nuclear silos, and cities of the world. Tick. Some are intercepted by air-defense systems, but there are so many missiles and so few still-operational defenses that it’s almost pointless. Tock. An explosion of white consumes a huge area. A notification appears: 17.3 million dead. That was just one missile. There are dozens more on their way.
DEFCON provides nothing more but the most abstract look at the horrors of nuclear war, but it’s the most intense and terrifying wargame devised. You will lose millions upon millions of people every playthrough. Your carefully devised military setup will in the end be destroyed by overwhelming numbers, and at that point, you can only pray that the cities being targeted have air defense shelters. After all, you just need to lose less people to win. Every hit you take is points deducted at the end of the game, but I can never shake that dreadful feeling when I see that a city has been reduced to a series of craters, with only a few survivors managing to stumble from the wreckage.
Compounding this dread is that DEFCON can be played in real-time, so you can watch a missile appear on the horizon, dodge all intercepting attacks, and slowly descend into a metropolis over the course of 10 minutes. The waiting makes it worse. Tick, Tock.
Do not go near DEFCON if nuclear war freaks you out, because this game will make you lose your mind. It is without a doubt, the most terrifying wargame ever, but will hopefully remain purely hypothetical. Tick. Tock.
“Then there staggered into our midst French soldiers, blinded, coughing, chests heaving, faces an ugly purple color, lips speechless with agony, and behind them in the gas soaked trenches, we learned that they had left hundreds of dead and dying comrades.”
There is something especially terrifying about the First World War as a lived experience that ensures it crops up again and again as a horror setting. It’s easy to see why. The First World War, especially on the Western Front, has become the popular definition of madness, incompetence, and wanton violence of modern war. There’s good reason for this association, even though it was not the first nor the last war to have these terrible characteristics in spades as the previous decade’s wars can attest. The First World War effectively undid the notion of war as something glorious or worthwhile that had been growing in the time with European tension.
In gaming, we tend to see WWI handled in one of a few ways. The futility of the conflict is generally highlighted, even if the narrative might present the war as a pseudo-Second World War, like Battlefield 1. That persistent futility might be highlighted alongside the sorrow of a war that lacked the recognizable morality of the Second World War, like Valiant Hearts. Other games, more traditional wargames generally, focus on the logistics and politics of the war, because at least there player input can matter along the Western Front. But occasionally a game comes along that dives headfirst into the literal ‘horror’ of the Western Front. It’s easy to see why the Western Front presents such a cohesive background to a horror game, especially horror games that play at Lovecraftian feelings of human futility. Trench warfare, outside of some special circumstances, reduced the impact of personal initiative to virtually nothing. There was little an individual could do during an offensive to personally impact their own or their comrades’ chance for survival. Similarly, the everyday living conditions brought forth the worst combination of monotony and terror imaginable. Front trench living was endless discomfort, terrible food, the noise of shelling, the smell of decay and necessarily lapsed hygiene. Add to this industrialized warfare, new terrible weapons, and the inability of either side (for a good chunk of time anyways) to make any progress, and it becomes clear that the First World War is as close to a literal Hell on earth as any mass amount of humans had been subjected to in a long time.
First World War Horror
Now let’s talk about a couple specifics shall we? A game that clearly demonstrates the ‘First World War as madness’ motif is the excellent Eternal Darkness. A launch title for the Nintendo Gamecube in 2002, Eternal Darkness tells the centuries long story of a family’s attempt to stave off an invasion by Lovecraftian elder gods. As such, the story progresses across hundreds of years and contains one level set in a field hospital in a cathedral during the Battle of the Somme. The player character, a wounded soldier, must creep around the ancient church to figure out why his wounded comrades are disappearing from their beds. Long story short, it turns out the eldritch being living beneath the church used its immense power to scramble the brains of world leaders to ensure a war occurred over his home, thereby supplying him with the necessary violence and bodies to sate his undying hunger. Grim stuff, but it plays into the idea of pulling reason out of the madness of the First World War. It can’t have been for nothing, so it was ancient aliens. The story itself does a good job of highlighting the endless violence of the war and the pointlessness of its continuation through the constant shelling and overwhelming number of wounded and dead bodies you have to walk by. I always found the use of an external force to create the madness of modern warfare a telling sign of the popular revulsion people have felt in the face of the Western Front’s butchery. In Eternal Darkness, you are just one small pawn in a broad chess game. Very familiar.
A new game coming out in 2021, Conscript, places players in the trenches at Verdun in an homage to classic survival horror games like Resident Evil and Alone in the Dark. Here players traverse an increasingly dead section of trench solving puzzles and dealing with a slipping grasp on reality. It’s a dour little gaming experience (only a demo so far) but highlights again the descent into madness that is so easily placed alongside First World War stories. The monotony of trench life allows for a slower paced game in which the player character must collect keys, salvage weapons to defend themselves from barely human German soldiers, and creep past the physical horrors of rotting comrades, bloated horses, and deadly gas. Conscript highlights all the visual aspects of an extended period on the front lines and keeps players uneasy, as they should be.
Other Wars and Horror
There are games that set themselves against the horrors of other wars, of course. Amnesia: The Dark Descent makes several references to ghost stories surrounding atrocities committed during the Thirty Year’s War, and the terrible Vietnam shooter Shellshock Nam ’67 throws every horrible Vietnam movie cliché it can at the wall. With most of these settings, and the First World War for that matter, the common thread seems to be the breakdown of the understood normalcy of war. The Thirty Years war brought unprecedented horror to the German countryside, and I don’t need to go into detail here about what the American Vietnam War did to the popular perception of war in the United States. In Amnesia, the souls of long dead traitor soldiers who were lost in the Prussian woods ended up as the disfigured creatures seen above. The long memory of war can easily play into horror stories because of the former’s connection to all that is negative in humankind. In Shellshock, the violence of boobytraps, civilian casualties, and the blurred lines between insurgent and innocent takes the player down along a fairly straight path of horror, culminating in the fight against a cult leader-like NVA commander. What this says about American perceptions of Vietnam, I’ll save for another article.
 Gerard J. Fitzgerald, “Chemical Warfare and Medical Response During World War I” Am J Public Health 98.4 (April 2008), 611-625.
 I don’t mean to undermine the absolutely hellish circumstances that surrounded most conflicts in the 19th century and earlier. WWI stands out in the scale of this horror that it visited upon societies that were generally not subjected to this sort of extended violence. This fact comes out in the overwhelming writing that flowed from the pens of veterans of all nations after the war’s conclusion. A fact that stimulated the creation of narrative war horror.
Back in September, the devs behind Combat Mission put out a request for diverse voice actors for their games, citing the Derby House Principles and a wish to make the soldiers in their new game reflective of the service members in the British military. The UK’s Ministry of Defense actually uses Combat Mission in an official capacity, and the addition of these voice actors is viewed as a way to further “promote diversity and drive change” in the industry. This is certainly a positive decision, there’s no way anyone could be upset about that!
…is what I’d say if there weren’t people upset about that. Wargamers mad that women, LGBT, and non-white people exist have been complaining that games that have shown almost exclusively white straight men in the past are “kowtowing to PC culture”. The UK Armed Forces Biannual Diversity Statistics survey for 2018 showed that over 10% of the military was female, and around 8% were non-white service members. This is certainly much whiter than the US military (which is only 57% white, and really should be even more diverse in games), but with numbers around 10% for both women and non-white service members, NOT seeing someone who isn’t a white man should be more striking than seeing someone who is in those groups. This is especially the case since all military positions are open to women in the UK, and the UK recruits from many of its former colonies, which are largely non-white.
So really, the question boils down to this: why are people mad that video game characters look different from them? It’s an important question to ask, especially since the wargaming field itself is largely older, straight, white men. Many others who have shown interest in wargaming can be and have been turned off by a community that doesn’t represent them, and repeatedly has shown to be hostile to outsiders. It’s very easy to see when booting up a multiplayer wargame or visiting the subreddit for a wargame that bigotry in many different shades exists pervasively in the field. I don’t want to attempt the fool’s errand of appealing to bigots’ sense of decency, but i do want to point out that newcomers are the lifeblood of every hobby, and by letting wargaming become more diverse, we’re more likely to have new players, friends, and game developers from different walks of life join us in the hobby. Bigotry should have no place in our community, so big kudos to the people at Battlefront and Slitherine for spearheading this initiative.
Do you know of other wargame studios promoting diversity and inclusivity? Let us know!