The latest, stunning demo of Unity, one of the world’s most popular game engines, is not just an example of how developers can use new shadow effects or rendering tools. It’s also a dark, beautiful philosophical journey stuffed into a short animated film. “I am fascinated by the technology and its impact on us humans. our psychology, the sense of self-identification and our deep-rooted sense of spirituality, “explains Veselin Efremov, creative director of the Unity demo team. “I thought it would be fun exploring these existential and philosophical issues in the form of a simpler adventure story.” The new short film is called The Heretic and lasts less than four minutes. Inside, a man in a tattered leather jacket, who would look good on Ryan Gosling in a new Blade Runner, walks through a grubby hallway, with a strange mechanical substance that seems to follow every thought. Finally, after a series of terrible changes that are strangely wreathing the world, it appears at the open mouth of a cave with a towering futuristic cityscape dominating the horizon.
According to Efremov, the concept for the demo began with a goal that has been bothering entertainers and game designers for a long time: to build a virtual person that looks and feels real. “Creating realistic digital people is a problem we’ve always been curious about, but we’ve stayed away from it,” he explains. “In previous demos, the stories were always about characters who did not look human. This has been an interesting challenge, as everyone deals extensively with the issues of humanity and what makes us human. However, in recent years Unity’s abilities have improved so much that we felt that The Heretic was the right time to get wet with the problem. “Unity has a growing history of tackling these types of problems by creating beautiful demos. In fact, the company has an internal team dedicated to building projects such as The Heretic. They seem like an indie studio in Unity, one that exploits the limits of what a small team can do with technology. The addition of new features and functionality to the engine means that more sophisticated projects are being tackled. For example, Last Year’s Dead Book was a vivid exploration of interactive storytelling with relatively new tools such as photogrammetry. However, with the historically discouraging goal of lifelike characters, Efremov and his team decided to return to The Heretic for a more straightforward movie.
For game developers and movie entertainers, the short film features many improved technologies to look forward to. Things like 4D capture and what Unity calls a “high definition render pipeline” essentially means higher-quality shadows, reflections, and other important visual effects. But for everyone else, it’s just a great vision of a cyberpunk future. One reason for this is the way the team tackles these demos. It’s not just a technical showcase, but a fully realized fiction, with all that world-building and storytelling brings.