ASCII by Jason Scott

Jason Scott's Weblog

Demoscene Week: The Drama —

It’s too easy, when recounting the Demoscene and its history and motivations, to convince yourself or your audience of a clean-room version, where it’s all about the creations and the resulting programs, and little else; kind of like the image put on by game publishers. (It is here, where once it was not, and it is done and complete and nobody cried). This cuts out the most vital aspect of this culture: the people, the events and the drama. These demos we can download and view over and over are just the artfiacts. (And damned beautiful artifacts, indeed.)

To assist me in illustrating, I’m formally introducing one of the more important Demoscene websites to you. It’s name is Slengpung and it contains thousands of photographs from dozens of demoparties of the last 20 years. It is blazingly easy using their interface to zoom to a specific party, a specific group, and even to specific people through the years. From this, you get the actual images of what a party was like, not just words or distant rememberances. I wish more “scenes” did things like this so slickly.

The initial demo parties (sort by year, then go to 1987 and onwards) show themselves to be exactly what they were: collections of teenagers, screwing around, drinking way too much soda (or beer), copying software, trading wares, bullshitting all into the night. This is a natural outgrowth of a bunch of kids with computers hanging out, and is where the big memories come from. There’s no competitions, no money changing hands outside of paying for pizza, and tons of home computers stacked near each other as kids hang out. This happened all over the world, especially in the era of slow-form networking.

There is a worthwhile discussion point regarding why there are then dozens and dozens of “Copy” and then “Demo” parties in Europe and very little in the US. I’ll cover that tomorrow. Let’s keep going in the current direction.

So, you have a situation in the late 1980s where groups are releasing demos out onto BBSes and as part of pirated software (or even as additional drop-ins to mailed packages of pirated software), and also releasing them at parties. And you therefore have a case where you are assembling, more and more, parties where there are tons of young guys who are entering contests (first for beer, then later for prizes and cash) with these demos. Some groups never go to parties. Some only go to parties and never actually release demos. Some people are individuals doing both but never actually in a group. And so on, down the myriad paths.

When making these sorts of accomplishments, that is, programs that are meant to impress and which are impressing others, there’s a flip side. You set yourself up for criticism, for questioned skill, for accusations. This is, after all, a situation with all the attributes of other types of “art”. There are accusations of stealing ideas, of lifting music, of claiming you are hand-building something you had made for you or which you took from someone else not affiliated with the “scene”. Additionally, if you spend months putting something together, or even a few short days, and especially after a few days which include drinking, you’re prone to boast. The other groups who are making stuff like you do it wrong, and you call them out. Others are the ones you know you have to live up to, or who have members who were once in your group, or who generally have been great guys. They deserve recognition from you as well.

If you go back and look through the old demos (and it has gotten easier and easier to do this online, thanks to both YouTube and the incredible website Pouet), you see all of these traits come out in the demo. Most of them have a “Scroller”, literally scrolling text presented in different styles that speaks from the creators of the demo to the audience. For earlier demos, the scroller will be the entire demo, with the music blasting and the text scrolling along the top or bottom while a graphic effect takes up the main part of the screen. This template is rampant; you can’t not find demos that do this in any collection.

Typically, for demoparties, the scroller text is the last thing typed in before the deadline at a demo party, meaning it contains whatever was on the mind of the authors at the party. Calls for more beer, shout-outs (“greets”) to people at the party or groups hanging out with them, and basically the expected quality of text that comes from a off-the-top-of-your-head rant. These are frozen forever, downloadable anytime, scrolls written by people now deep into a different world, or into the ground.

The curse of a popular scene is the number of voices clamoring to be heard. With demos becoming more and more prominent in the early 1990s, you can start to see bold attempts to be “first” with a new effect, or accusing others of stealing their ideas. Many groups are super-protective of their new demos, not wanting them to be seen until the last possible minute at a competition.

These complaints, however, are at a different level: the taunts and chiding of people actually producing demos. Much more intense are the shouts and cries from the audience, the people who don’t do any coding whatsoever and who are merely there to be entertained. “Too long.” “Too short.” “Lame colour scheme.” “Boring story.” “Uninteresting girl.” “Welcome to two years ago.” These are less easy to find for older demos but they exist to the present day; just go to the message base about Debris and notice the criticisms buried among the accolades.

“I dont know, it looks fantastic, it’s brilliantly directed, yet it’s still hi-tech, german and rather boring. Probably because it’s hell slow on my machine. Yet (just thinking) if you gave it a little bit of fairlightish freshy groove and sync, it’d be so much better, as i see it!”

“actually, i dislike it don’t get why there is such hype about it. really, i don’t think THIS responds to the scene spirit mostly. no point, story goes from nowhere to nowhere, after 30 seconds it happens to lose its initial potential and becomes repetitive, then boring. somehow, i don’t think i want to see it again (unlike other demos).
on the other hand, what i liked were the documentary-like shots; pitty it was all incoherent and without any conception; and the fact about the exe size. the soundtrack doesn’t deserve a respect – it’s average, actually.”

This last comment is a treasure trove of understanding the mindset of the demoscene; the values that are important, even if the conclusions in this case don’t mesh with the majority of the rest of the audience. Terms like “Scene Spirit”, “Story”, “Hype”, “Soundtrack” get bandied about, important aspects in determining quality in films, in performances, also play here. As much as it’s computer programs on a screen, so is there the idea that all hands are lifting a “scene” to new places, following a “spirit”.

Watch enough of these, and you’ll start to see where they’re coming from. Because you will find That Demo.

That Demo is the one where you watch it and for the moments you watch it, you are transfixed, astounded, no longer thinking polygon counts or frame rate or placing in a competition, but are just watching an amazing thing go by. Obviously, the younger you are, or more attuned to the type of hardware your machine is packing, the more recent That Demo will have been made.

Understand that I have a best friend, a fellow named Trixter, who has been involved in the demoscene for many, many years. He was “active” in the scene many, many years before I ever was (and my involvement would be called tangental at best). He is a member of Hornet, an American Demogroup (rare indeed) that ran the Hornet Archive, a collection of music and demos that for a long time was unparalleled on the Internet. He also was the technical director of the Mindcandy Series of Demo DVDs, which I have praised before for their world-class quality. He is, as they say, really really good.

We also argue incessantly as soon as we stray into topics of the demoscene. We’re both hardheaded perfectionists, insisting that stuff be gotten “right” with the assumption that there will be no revisions, no appeal to an authority to fix that stuff later. Subsequently, we bicker as like hens over our tiny debates, both of us intending, in our hearts, to educate and understand the other. It’s great, and the only lame thing is that we can’t use the energy we spend on them to heat our homes.

Subsequently, we argue: what are the best demos? What are the demos that changed everything? What makes a demo good? Where did things go right and where did they go wrong? We could down a shared meal, wreck through multiple 3-liter sodas, and shadow the incoming rays of the dawn with our flailing hands if realities of work and commitment didn’t interfere.

For example, I think the splash of FR-041, or Debris, has changed demos in a major way; the small executable size, the cinematic quality, the jump in technical proficiency, the environment of its debut to a room of people in the Breakpoint 2007 party as the last shown demo… these all add up to a seminal event in demoscene history. No longer can a group simply be good; they have to be incredible, or go for the clownishness of a “funny” demo. The “pure style” video, having raged and won the competitions year after year in the modern era of DirectX, have now been pushed aside to a hybrid style and substance once more. This, I say, is my opinion. Trixter does not agree. I will not pretend to try and recount his here. The point is, this debate is very important to us.

It’s a debate that is very important to anyone who cares about this scene, this idea of a place that exists in screen to screen, program to program, contributed freely and with great delight and hubris from the era of the C64 to the present day of the Dual-Core CPU, Hardware Rendering and the Precedural Texture. It is a lot of energy to pour into something like this, but it rewards us, year after year.

That’s worth every drop of the drama.

Next: The Countries.

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One Comment

  1. Trixter says:

    Very very glad to see that your point is the debate itself, not if a particular demo is THE BEST or not. 110% correct. Part of what makes the demoscene so fantastic is precisely the different pieces people get from each demo. I am a coder. I get the coding aspect. I don’t care nearly as much about the graphics or colors as I do the cleverness of the code. But I am just one person; there are artists who “get” the pixeling; there are musicians who “get” the music, etc. For me, the true art is the combined product.

    BTW, I have no idea how you write so much every day. At age 35 my hands are finally finally starting to succumb to fatigue and I make tons of mistakes typing… and I can’t keep any sort of coherent story in my head longer than a page. You’re some sort of machine.