In early September, footage of upcoming surreal mystery game Militsioner went viral on Twitter. It’s easy to see why: The trailer features an enormous policeman who can, at any time, interfere with what the player is doing around the map. The imagery is as arresting as it is evocative — which might explain why it’s also caught the attention of state-owned Russian media, Russia-24.
Developer Tall Boys uploaded translated footage of a recent news segment, where an anchor argues that the game is somehow anti-Russian, especially since the policeman could be considered the villain. The news segment then goes on to interview multiple people about the apparent shady aims of the video game, which supposedly uses realism to make you, and I quote, “involuntary hostages of this story.” One expert criticizes that the game will use emotions, sensations, and music to envelop you in its agenda. Player beware!
Why is a cool-looking game inspiring such paranoia and backlash? Well, the eponymous Militsioner is a storied Russian figure that can be traced back to a poem where a policeman is framed as a brave and noble hero known for their good deeds. (And their height.) But as website Super Jump notes, the figure has also been posed by artists in the 80s as a more big-brother type figure. The game seems to continue that trend.
You’re a criminal who is planning an escape from the Giant-Policeman, while he’s trying to provoke you into actions that expose your guilt.https://t.co/IMQCOYHqhd#TALLBOYS #indiegame #gamedev #UE4 #UnrealEngine pic.twitter.com/4ZXVcofqSD— TALLBOYS (@mytallboys) July 17, 2020
Speaking to Polygon over email, art lead and game designer on Militsioner Vladimir Semenets says he was “surprised” to see the TV spot, especially at the allegations that the studio is somehow being “paid to spread fear of people in uniform.”
In some ways, the news segment almost gives the studio too much credit. Speaking to Polygon, AI programmer Vyacheslav Pecka expressed anxiety around being a “newcomer” in the industry with only one game under its belt. That lack of “practical experience,” he says, exerts a “strong pressure,” which likely isn’t helped by all the attention the game is getting on social media.
“It’s a constant struggle between being meticulous and the desire to do everything right, and the need to show quick results by which we can judge that we are moving in the right direction,” Pecka said. The studio is still feeling out how the ominous giant will communicate and interact with the player on a basic level, they say. There’s not a release window yet.
Actually, when the game was initially conceptualized, there wasn’t even a policeman in the picture.
“At one time, that character was a location, like the Zone from the ‘Stalker’ movie by A. Tarkovsky,” said team lead Dmitry Shevchenko. Shevchenko described a giant fish with an island on its back as the initial concept, until the team realized that a human might be more compelling.
“Suddenly, the idea came to us,” Shevchenko said. “What if this giant has an occupation?” The team recalled the work of artist Andrey Surnov, who depicted a giant policeman sitting in a field.
“After that we drowned in the symbolism of this image and started looking for its interpretations and the correct size,” he continued. “During the search, the policeman was both an ordinary tall man and an Atlantean with the city on his shoulders.”
It’s true, then, that Militsioner reflects something about Russian culture — after all, the people who are making it are Russian. “For me personally, at first he embodied the burden of Responsibility, then the fear of losing my freedom and power of Conscience,” Semenets said. “It is also a reflection on my life in Russia.”
But it would be a mistake to call the game purely a reflection or critique of Russian politics. In our chat, the Tall Boys also mentioned that that an iconic game by Team Ico was also big influence on the title.
“Shadow of Colossus had this very powerful moment, when at the end of a battle intelligent Colossus’ eyes appeared in front of the player,” Dmitry said. That, Tall Boys said, was a feeling that the studio is chasing — except with a more humane twist. The Militsioner will have moods, thoughts, and will even need to eat and sleep. All of these can impact the player, but conversely, the player can also influence how these bodily functions get carried out.
“He is able to absolutely annihilate a player with one pinky, grind them into dust together with the city and all its residents,” Dmitry said of the Militsioner character. “But his moral code would not let him do such a thing. The player is devoid of strength, but he has no moral framework, unlike the Militsioner, who has the titanic power, but is restrained with morality.”
While the Militsioner can antagonize the player, Tall Boys said that they aren’t trying to paint the police, much less Russia, in a negative light.
“Our goal isn’t to create an evil image of the police, but to investigate the issue of responsibility and power,” Vladimir said. “What does it mean to be the biggest policeman in the world and what responsibilities does it impose on you? He tries to be a positive character in this story. But even we don’t know yet if he will succeed in being one.”