Unrecord, the upcoming bodycam tactical shooter, has already garnered praise and criticism. But it also risks playing into the hands of video gaming’s harshest critics.
Captured on what looks like a grainy live feed, an anonymous law enforcer trudges through a derelict warehouse, trading shots with a group of armed suspects. The bodycam judders and heaves as the cop ducks behind graffiti-strewn walls to avoid incoming bullets. The cop’s gun jolts and kicks out puffs of vapour as they return fire.
It all looks eerily real, except it isn’t. Rather, it’s the latest footage from Unrecord, French developer Drama’s upcoming first-person tactical shooter. Powered by Unreal Engine 5’s cutting-edge tech, the trailer’s realism is such that viewer reactions have varied wildly. Some have asked whether it’s real-world footage rather than a game (Unrecord’s creators insist it’s the latter on their website). Others have heaped praise on its technical brilliance. Still others have suggested that the game’s depiction of gun violence is too close to reality for comfort.
There’s something to be said for all these reactions. Had Unrecord’s trailer emerged from a triple-A developer, it would still be noteworthy; that it comes from a relatively small indie team makes its technical polish all the more striking. And it’s also true that there’s something quite disturbing about the footage, too. Far from the hyper-stylised violence of most first-person shooters, Unrecord’s stand-offs are marked out by their low-key matter-of-factness. There are none of the blinding muzzle flashes we see in Hollywood movies. The way stricken bodies crumple to the floor is more unsettling than exhilarating.
As for whether Unrecord looks so realistic as to be indistinguishable from genuine bodycam footage – well, that’s in the eye of the beholder. While the level of detail in the textures and lighting is frequently stunning, there are plenty of signs that what you’re looking at are 3D assets. Indeed, one of the reasons why Unrecord looks so realistic is because of Drama’s creative choices. The footage mostly takes place in restrictive environments where it’s possible to favour level of detail over draw distance, for example. Small details like the camera’s movement and the animation on the cop’s hands are expertly designed.
Having fewer enemies, an almost non-existent HUD, and keeping weapons restricted to handguns also helps create a greater air of realism; had the same environment been teeming with enemies lobbing grenades and blind-firing machine guns, Unrecord would have looked far more like a typical action game.
Regardless of the tricks used to achieve it, however, Unrecord’s seeming realism is hard to deny. As a result, the game has reignited years-old discussions about the effect of ‘realistic’ video game violence on impressionable minds. Such mainstream outlets as Indy100 and the Daily Mail have recently run headlines like “First-person bodycam shooter video game Unrecord slammed for being too realistic.”
These kinds of anxieties and criticisms have shadowed video games for decades. The earliest first-person shooters, such as Doom and Quake, sparked a certain amount of controversy due to their (for the time) ‘explicit’ violence. In 2009, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2’s infamous No Russian mission sparked much debate over its depiction of a massacre of civilians at an airport.
What’s slightly unusual about the reaction to Unrecord, though, is that at least some of the dissenting voices are emerging not from hand-wringing newspaper columnists, but gamers themselves. Among the most commonly cited is Twitch streamer Trainwreck, who wrote in response to the trailer, “I’m going to get a lot of hate for this – but this level of realism in video games should be heavily moderated in shooters for anyone under a certain age. I hope parents do their job. This level of realism [in the] shooting and killing makes *me* feel uncomfortable, as if I’m watching a real leak from a military or police operation.”
Trainwreck then went on to make what is perhaps the important point in the whole conversation about Unrecord: “…this level of realism, in my opinion, gives real credibility to the nonsense politicians have been spewing for years about video games conditioning young people to lose a sense of empathy toward violent tendencies or situations.”
In other words, Unrecord runs the risk of playing straight into the hands of video games’ most vocal critics. Despite studies repeatedly disproving the link between video games and real-world violence, the belief that the two are connected still persists in the minds of some politicians and journalists outside the games industry. In 2018, then-president Donald Trump blurted out the opinion that “violence in video games is really shaping young people’s thoughts.” Only last week, Brazilian president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva said that video games are teaching kids to kill.
To those with only a vague understanding of the medium, all games look and sound like Call of Duty, Manhunt, or Grand Theft Auto. We can only imagine what they’re going to make of Unrecord.
For its part, the studio aimed to strike a reassuring tone in a response post on Steam. “The game will obviously avoid any undesirable topics such as discrimination, racism, violence against women and minorities,” Drama wrote. “The game will have no biased or Manichaean take on criminal acts and police violence. We also respect and understand people who may feel disturbed by the game’s images. Art cannot fight against interpretation.”
The developer also adds that there will be more context for the violence in the finished game: “Justifying the undisclosed content of the game would be a spoiler, and you will discover the direction of the themes for yourself. The public generally trusts film, series, and novel writers on the intelligence of the point of view when it comes to detective, gangster, or police stories. Why not for a video game?”
Ultimately, the games industry’s direction of travel has always been towards ever greater realism. The only real surprise about Unrecord, perhaps, is that its appearance feels so sudden, as though a gulf of a few years has passed in an instant. And while few would say that Unrecord should be censored – certainly, this writer wouldn’t – the game could be seen as a timely reminder that artists have a responsibility for what they create. If we are indeed on the cusp of a new era of quasi-photo-realistic games, then more thought than ever needs to be put into what they depict.
Unrecord is still in its early stages of development, so it’s impossible to know how it’ll treat its potentially thorny subject matter (the story of a tactical police officer) or whether the whole experience can match the apparent realism of that first trailer. Certainly, the game’s lead programmer and co-director, Alexandre Spindler, seems to recognise that his game has touched a chord so far.
“Crazy to see how much controversy and assumptions (despite the game still being in early development) have been made,” Spindler wrote on Twitter. “But I understand the need for vigilance, given the industry’s history.”