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How a small team at Unity made the stunning graphical showcase Book of the Dead

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Every few years, Unity, the company behind one of the biggest game engines in the world, releases a technical demo that shows off just how cool games can look on the platform. The first two were short films, including a Norse mythology-inspired piece called Blacksmith, and Adam, a sci-fi short about robots escaping from jail that was eventually expanded by District 9 director Neill Blomkamp. Tonight at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, the company showed off its latest graphical showcase, a gorgeous and creepy interactive piece called “Book of the Dead.”

Unity actually teased the demo back in January, but today it provided a more detailed look, delving into the new features that went into its creation. The full version is expected to debut later this year, and is designed to run on a PlayStation 4 Pro. Unlike past demos, “Book of the Dead” is more than just a beautiful animated short. “It’s our first properly interactive project that’s built like a game,” says Veselin Efremov, creative director on Unity’s demo team. “Book of the Dead” takes place in a lush forest, where things twist and move in unsettling ways. As you wander through, you’ll hear characters talking and whispering, revealing the bones of a story. It’s reminiscent of narrative-focused indie games like the poetic Dear Esther, crossed with the unsettling style of the psychological thriller Hellblade.

Book of the Dead

The similarities to notable indie titles are intentional. Efremov says that the demo team — which is currently 12 people — is designed to work much like a small game studio. “We’re trying to pretend to be a small indie team that works with Unity and pushes it as much as possible,” he explains. That means figuring out ways to create projects that look cool, yet can be accomplished with relatively minimal resources. The main focus for these demos is typically visual, an area where Unity has sometimes struggled when compared to more powerful engines like Unreal. For “Book of the Dead,” the initial idea was simple. “I had never seen a really great-looking 3D forest made in Unity,” says Efremov. “So that was one challenge that I just wanted to try.”

Of course, the team has some clear advantages over other game studios, since they’re part of the company and have access to internal resources. The dozen members of the demo team are spread out across seven countries, and many work embedded in Unity’s engineering teams, including several at the company’s Copenhagen office. For each new project, the goal is to create something the engine can’t actually do right now but could in the future. “When we set out to make a demo, we always set the bar at a level that Unity can’t achieve at the moment,” says Robert Cupisz, the demo team’s engineering lead. “If we’re aiming at something that Unity can do today already, that’s an idea we discard.”

This means using tools that are still in development; sometimes they’re not even in a usable state when the demo team first gets their hands on them. For “Book of the Dead,” the team spent close to a year simply prototyping and researching ideas. The process of finally putting the demo together, meanwhile, took around three months. This process has two main benefits. By using the latest technology available — “Book of the Dead” includes relatively new Unity features like photogrammetry, where real-life objects can be scanned into a game — the team is able to make something that looks great and shows off the potential for the platform.

Book of the Dead Unity demo

But there’s a practical side effect as well: they’re also able to troubleshoot these new features before people outside Unity start using them. “We use the latest there is, and sometimes the latest there is isn’t even good enough,” producer Silvia Rasheva says of the process. “So we prototype a solution for that, and we pass it on to R&D.”

Even if you’re not a game developer, and you don’t get excited by the idea of a powerful new “rendering pipeline,” the idea is that these demos should still speak to you. They just look cool, regardless of whether or not you understand how they’re built. With the push toward democratizing game creation tools and letting new voices into the space to create interactive experiences, this is an important part of a project like “Book of the Dead.”

“Whatever we make, it shouldn’t just speak to the people who know what Unity is and what game development is,” says Efremov. “It should be something that reaches people who haven’t even considered making games.”