A short clip from an upcoming first person shooter is making the rounds online this week, but it looks so real you might not even recognize it as a video game at first if it just flashed across your feed. At a glance, it looks more like footage recorded by body cameras worn by police officers that only appear in our news feeds for horrible reasons.
In the video, we see the first person perspective of a man with a gun chasing someone through a warehouse. The game, called Unrecord, uses Epic Games’s popular Unreal Engine 5, which is already implemented in Fortnite, and that you’ll soon see in countless games including Arkane Studio’s upcoming Redfall. But whereas Redfall and Fortnite look more like animated movies, Unrecord looks so much like real life. You could easily mistake it for a video you’d see in the news, which is maybe why the clip has been shared outside just video game spaces.
Games using the latest version of Unreal Engine always make a great first impression, but there’s nothing technologically revolutionary about that Unrecord video. Following the virality of that clip, Unrecord’s small French developer Drama responded to people online who thought the game looked so real it had to be some kind of “scam.”
“The game is developed on Unreal Engine 5, and the game footage is captured from an executable and played using a keyboard and mouse,” Drama said in a post to Unrecord’s Steam page. “It is not a VR game. In reality, it seems rather flattering to compare the graphics of Unrecord to reality, but fortunately, we know that a game first focuses on gameplay and universe on which we primarily concentrate.”
On the game’s Discord channel, the developers shared another video of a player moving through the same environment, just to show it is in fact a video game and not some kind of trick.
Unrecord level designer and environment artist Michele Evangelista also clarified to Motherboard over Discord that the environment we see in the video wasn’t a real environment simply “scanned” into the game (sometimes this process is called photogrammetry).
“A lot of people think the entire environment is scanned, but it is not, it is handcrafted using megascans, store assets and bespoke assets made by us.”
So how does a small team of developers using common game development tools manage to produce a video that can be confused for real life? It’s not that Unrecord has more polygons or more sophisticated shaders than other games. Instead, it’s cleverly lifting the aesthetic of the media where most of us actually see real world violence: bodycam footage, which have become more visible in recent years as more police departments require them, and a growing interest in police shootings from the public.
Unrecord is not alone. Thursday, developer Digital Cybercherries” released a new trailer for Paranormal Tales, which it described as a “bodycam horror game.” Ready or Not, a SWAT shooter game that Unrecord cites as an influence in its pitch deck, lets you see what other members of your squad are seeing through their helmet cams. Even last year’s Call of Duty: Modern Warfare allows players to spectate their friends via a helmet cam.
Rather than trying to make the player feel like they are embodying a cop or a soldier, these games feel more real because they emulate a type of media we’re all unfortunately familiar with and associate with real world violence. The fisheye effect, the shakiness of the camera, the way two hands holding a gun awkwardly reach into the frame. We view a lot of these videos for work at Motherboard and when one comes across our desk, more often than not it means we’re about to see something horrible. Besides injecting realism, these games mine our familiarity with police body cam footage that generate a sense of tension and even dread for the player.
The fact that Unrecord’s intended audience responded so strongly proves that it’s an effective stylistic choice. Unsurprisingly, the media that it’s evoking is also making some potential players uncomfortable.
“Pro-police of Anti-police?” reads a title for a section in Drama’s recently published post. “As a French studio addressing a global audience, the game does not engage in any foreign policy and is not inspired by any real-life events. The game will obviously avoid any undesirable topics such as discrimination, racism, violence against women and minorities…We also respect and understand people who may feel disturbed by the game's images. Art cannot fight against interpretation.”
It’s also not the first time video games have evoked media we associate with real world violence. 2007’s Call of Duty: Modern Warfare shocked audiences when it included a level where the player takes control of an AC-130 gunship. It looked almost indistinguishable from the grainy, night vision footage we saw in the news at the time from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with Unrecord’s stylistic choices. Other games have portrayed uncomfortable violence through the affected lens of specific media that heightens the feeling of dread. Rockstar’s Manhunt series (VHS) and Kane and Lynch 2 (cellphone camera) certainly come to mind. But the fact that game developers are now drawing inspiration from police body cams at home as opposed to videos of wars abroad shows how fear and violence have captured our imagination in recent years.