When developer Alexandre Spindler revealed footage of a “body cam style game” he was working on last fall, it exploded across the internet as people marveled at its eerie ambiance and photorealistic look. “This is awesome,” wrote District 9 director Neill Blomkamp. Now the game has been announced for real, and it’s stirring controversy over its concept and scepticism over its shockingly realistic graphics.
Spindler’s game is officially called Unrecord, and its graphics look even more incredible than they did six months ago in a new trailer posted this week on Steam. DRAMA, the French studio behind it, describes it as a mashup of narrative walking sim Firewatch and tactical SWAT shooter Ready or Not. You play as a police officer using tactical skills and detective instincts to solve a confusing case, and while the existing gameplay footage points to a conventional shooter with “die and retry” combat, in Unrecord’s Steam page description the developers say the game will feature diverse characters and several plot twists.
— Alexandre Spindler (@esankiy) April 19, 2023
Even more so than last year, Unrecord’s latest trailer immediately blew up because of just how alarmingly real it looks. At first glance it looks like a virtual reality game in the vein of Half-Life: Alyx or a full-motion video (FMV) recording, but DRAMA says the game is being made in Unreal Engine and the footage in question is taken directly from gameplay rather than scripted scenes. “These images are from real-time gameplay, not pre-rendered,” Spindler tweeted.
Is the bodycam footage faked?
What’s so eye-catching about Unrecord isn’t necessarily that the graphics are “better” than other visual powerhouses like Cyberpunk 2077 and Horizon Forbidden West. It looks less like a painstaking virtual recreation of a realistic environment than a recording of one, which makes sense given the whole point is to mimic the look of a bodycam recording.
We’ve seen this before with the “scarily real” looking Ride 4 footage and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II’s Amstedam level. When lighting, blur, and other visual effects are calibrated just right, in-game scenes can take on a heightened sense of reality, at least when briefly viewed in passing on your phone. Later in Unrecord’s trailer, things begin to look much more recognisably game-y.
Not everyone’s buying it though. Some devs have questioned how exactly the game will control since the character, camera, and gun all appear to move separately in the announcement trailer. There have also been suggestions it could be more of a glorified tech demo than an actual game. Doubts have also been raised about how much better the new trailer looks than the footage that was shown just six months ago. At the very least, it seems prudent to wait and see how the finished product turns out, especially considering how little is known about the relatively new studio working on its first game.
But even if DRAMA isn’t playing fast and loose with the project’s presentation, the found-footage aesthetic combined with the cop sim premise instantly turned stomachs, especially in the U.S. where high-profile police killings are a regularly recurring news event. While some violent shooter sims try to distance themselves with stylised art direction or sci-fi trappings, Unrecord’s creators appear to be intent on making the game look as much like a real-world hate crime simulator as possible.
The cop sim is an instant turnoff for some
The studio attempted to address both the doubts and controversy in an update on Unrecord’s Steam page. “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,” it wrote. “The game will obviously avoid any undesirable topics such as discrimination, racism, violence against women and minorities.”
The studio added that Unrecord won’t take a black-and-white approach to criminal acts and police violence, and it understands if people “feel disturbed” by the game’s look and content. “Art cannot fight against interpretation,” it wrote. DRAMA also says that trying to defend the concept of the game on its own terms would effectively require spoiling the narrative.
“The public generally trusts film, [TV] series, and novel writers on the intelligence of the point of view when it comes to detective, gangster, or police stories,” it writes. “Why not for a video game? If the game presents political messages, they will be made consciously or in your interpretation. If the game aims to be subversive in certain countries, we will assume the label.”
It’s far from clear whether the studio means Unrecord might end up being “subversive in certain countries” because it interrogates policing and state violence, or because it tacitly endorses it. The title certainly alludes to a corrupt coverup, with plenty of recent real-world analogs to play off of. For now it sounds like a version of Far Cry publisher Ubisoft’s frequent claims that its games aren’t political, combined with “please trust us.” Given how rarely games do end up approaching serious topics with nuance and sensitivity, however, trust hardly feels owed.
With regard to whether the game footage is even real or not, DRAMA remains adamant it’s legit. “Considering the high production costs of a video game and our global reputation at stake, if Unrecord were a scam, it would be a blockbuster scam,” the studio wrote. “Therefore, it is logically not one.”
The buzz around Unrecord has apparently led the developers to try and speed up production, even as the team remains small and self-funded, though maybe not for long. The game is still in pre-production, with no mention of even a vague release window.