On April 20, the independent developer DRAMA released the first video Of Unrecord, a first-person shooter video game that is causing a lot of discussion. The video shows a policeman entering an abandoned warehouse, and, in a montage of different scenes, some chases and several shootouts, all shot from the player’s point of view. But why Unrecord has attracted so many comments from enthusiasts and insiders is that it stands out from all other games of this genre for its incredible realism: the first seconds of the video are almost indistinguishable from reality, both as regards the game environment, close to the photorealism, both for the animations of the protagonist and of the other characters, far more convincing than the norm.
First-person games simulate the movements and actions of a character from his point of view in order to increase the player’s level of identification, and make some game mechanics, such as that of “shooting”, more engaging and effective. Usually on the screen you don’t see only what the protagonist should see, as in Unrecord, but also graphic elements related to the game interface, such as a map, which weapons or ammunition you have. Having none of these elements makes the game experience more complex from a usability point of view (it is not excluded that being in the early stages of game development this information will be added later), but certainly more effective from that of identification.
To add likelihood to the video there is then the particular framing used: usually in first person shooters the camera is positioned at eye level and its movement follows that of the character’s head, while in Unrecord the point of view is that of the bodycams supplied to the police, the small cameras usually positioned at chest height. The view then somehow imitates the distortion of the wide-angle lenses of the bodycams, making the video extremely similar to the footage accompanying some news stories.
First-person view games have been the go-to shooter genre since Doom came out in 1993. They belong to this category call of Duty, Overwatch And Destiny, which are some of the most successful video games of the last few decades. However, none of these, due to artistic choice or the lack of suitable tools for their realization, had ever reached the realism of Unrecordso much so that in the first days after the publication of the video, many wondered if it was actually game sequences or if it was not a real video modified to look like a video game.
“Someone has raised concerns about the authenticity of the images,” developer DRAMA wrote Steam page (the largest computer digital video game store) of the game. «Unrecord it is developed with Unreal Engine 5 and the video material has been acquired from a playable version of the software, with mouse and keyboard as controller». The studio then also specified that given the enormous cost that production studios have to bear to make video games, if all this were a scam it would be a “colossal scam”. DRAMA is a small independent studio founded by Théo Hiribarne and Alexandre Spindler, and this is its first production.
Unreal Engine 5 is the latest edition of one of the most widespread and appreciated middleware, the type of software to which graphics engines belong, i.e. a set of tools used to program all aspects of a game, from object physics to modeling of the characters. In order to use it, you need to sign a license agreement with Epic Games, the owner of Unreal Engine. The advantage of relying on a licensed middleware is that you don’t have to develop one from scratch on your own, thus limiting yourself to modifying and customizing it for your needs.
At the moment there are not many video games already published that use Unreal Engine 5 (Fortnite is the most famous, developed by Epic Games itself) because the spread of this engine has been slowed down by the pandemic and the problematic diffusion of new generation consoles. The global trade crisis triggered by the coronavirus pandemic has made the components for assembling PCs (mainly microchips and video cards) more expensive and difficult to find, just like PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X|S, the latest consoles from Sony and Microsoft . The limitations imposed by the pandemic then had a huge impact on publishers and developers, who had to reorganize all workflows remotely or hybridly, so as to be able to continue working, albeit more slowly, even during the lockdowns. At the moment there are about 50 games in development with Unreal Engine 5, and they will increase more and more in the coming years.
However, the fact that these new technological tools make it possible to achieve such a high degree of likelihood (at low cost) could quickly turn into a problem: according to Keza MacDonald, journalist of the Guardian«in games like Ride 4 [un simulatore di motocross] photorealistic gameplay is a nice addition. But if video games show violent acts, as they often do, it becomes more unpleasant». Of course, violence exists in a lot of TV and movie entertainment, MacDonald adds, but there’s a big difference with video games because they’re interactive, requiring actions to be actively performed by a person.
Also Stacy Henley from the magazine The Gamer it is critical about making these kinds of games so realistic, especially when the stories they tell are so close to current events. In fact, according to her there are no elements that suggest that the game wants to stimulate a discussion related to the abuses and violence committed by the police, and indeed her impression is that the game tends to celebrate the policeman who is the protagonist of the video. “Considering that we are used to seeing body cam images only when a police officer has gone too far with unnecessary force and violence, the idea of associating this specific imagery with anything positive or exciting is extremely problematic.”
In recent years, with the increase in awareness of social issues such as gender discrimination, systemic racism or the role of the police and the military in modern society, many publishers have found themselves in the position of having to specify that their video game “was not political”, that is, who did not want to address problematic issues of modern society but limited himself to telling a context linked to current events without taking a specific position for this. It happened to Ubisoft with The Division 2a video game set in the Washington of a post-apocalyptic world in which the protagonists must stop an out-of-control government cell that wants to seize power, and with Far cry 5, where the enemies are a Christian sect from a rural area of the United States heavily armed and ready to rebel against the government. Large publishers such as Ubisoft always try to avoid that their products can be defined as too politicized in order not to alienate potential gamers, and not to suffer media retaliation (in the form of negative reviews and comments on social profiles, forums and video game sites) of a noisy minority who often hold to reactionary positions.
On the game’s page on Steam, DRAMA explained that its desire is to appeal to the widest possible audience, which is why Unrecord it is not inspired by true events. «We must bear in mind that games are “political” regardless of their desire to be so» MacDonald writes again, and that anyone, in a world in which police violence actually exists, will connote the game with a political value, in one sense or in the other. In any case, the development studio of Unrecord specified that the game will avoid particularly sensitive topics such as discrimination, racism or violence against women and minorities.
Again for Hanley «the problem is that many video game characters are policemen in their essence. They think they are right and act with authority, all the time. They believe that strength makes them right, and the narrative around them tends to justify this view. We always joke about how many people Nathan Drake [il protagonista del gioco d’avventura Uncharted] kills only because they are unwitting pawns between him and his goal, but most games provide us with lethal weapons and teach us that it is okay to kill if you are right.
This conflict, i.e. the divergence between what is told through the story (and therefore cutscenes, voiceovers or in any case everything over which the player has no control) and the actions that must then actually be carried out while playing, is called “ludonarrative dissonance”, a term invented in 2007 by Clint Hocking (a leading developer of LucasArts and Ubisoft). The most understandable and famous example of ludonarrative dissonance is precisely that of Uncharteda light-hearted adventure video game developed by Naughty Dog.
The protagonist is called Nathan Drake, and he is an adventurer in search of legendary treasures: the tone of the story is that of an Indiana Jones-style adventure, with great action scenes and a certain light-heartedness in the story and in the dialogues. Nathan Drake is a “good guy” in the classic sense of the term, and so it is told in all the cutscenes that carry the plot of the game forward. But when you actually play, a large part of the experience involves shooting and killing dozens of soldiers, militiamen or treasure raiders, thus creating a dissonance between what the story says about Nathan Drake and what you actually make him do.
The controversies about the alleged social danger of video games are cyclical: in 1993 there was so much talk about the violence of video games Mortal Kombat (a “fighting game” also characterized by a level of realism above the average of the productions of the time) that in the United States it came to the creation of the ESRB, the system that still today defines which age group a video game. Over time then there have been many complaints, controversies and parliamentary questions related to Grand Theft Auto, one of the most famous video game series in which you play a criminal free to do as he pleases in the game world. Although violence in video games has often been exploited in the past, there are no conclusive scientific studies about it: a report of 2021 of the Royal Society Open Science analyzed 28 studies carried out in recent years and found no significant correlation between exposure to violence in video games and actually more violent behavior.