antti.silvast [a] iki.fi
markku.reunanen [a] aalto.fi
See below for an English version of the editorial
WiderScreen 1-2/2014:n teemana ovat tietokoneharrastajien yhteisöt, joiden juuret ulottuvat 1970- ja 1980-luvun tietokonekulttuuriin: demo-, kräkkeri-, warez- ja chip-skenet. Viimeisten kymmenen vuoden aikana näistä yhteisöistä on tehty jonkin verran tutkimusta, mutta monet niiden piirteistä tunnetaan yhä huonosti. Tämä WiderScreenin kaksoisteemanumero tarjoaa uutta tietoa skeneistä ja nostaa esiin kansainvälistä tutkimusta niiden eri osa-alueista. Numeroon sisältyy kuusi vertaisarvioita tutkimusartikkelia ja kaksi katsausta, jotka kertovat osaltaan skeneihin liittyvän tutkimuksen jo saavuttamasta kypsyydestä.
Ensimmäiset skenetutkimukset olivat verrattain kuvailevia, mutta monet viimeaikaiset tutkimukset ovat tuoneet skenejen tarkasteluun laajoja empiirisiä ja teoreettisia näkökulmia. Olemme keränneet ja arvioineet näitä tutkimuksia verkossa olevassa demotutkimusbibliografiassamme, Demoscene Researchissa, vuodesta 2004 alkaen. Tähän erikoisnumeroon kerätyt artikkelit kehittelevät eteenpäin useita skenetutkimukselle tärkeitä aiheita, mukaan lukien tietokoneskenejen erilaisuus ja monimuotoisuus demo- ja kräkkeriskeneistä marginaalisempiin musiikki- ja Flash-demoskeneihin; eri skenejen vuorovaikutussuhteet; tietokoneskenejen kansalliset erityispiirteet ja skeneläisten kulttuurinen identiteetti; skeneteosten media-analyysi sekä niiden “autenttisuuden” ja “epäaitouden” tarkastelut; sekä – ei suinkaan vähäisimpinä – tietokoneskenejen jäsenten omat kuvaukset siitä, miten yhteisöt ovat toimineet käytännön tasolla.
Kahdessa ensimmäisessä artikkelissa käsitellään kotitietokoneskeneistä vanhinta, kräkkeriskeneä. Patryk Wasiakin artikkeli, “Amis and Euros.” Software Import and Contacts Between European and American Cracking Scenes, avaa tärkeitä näkökulmia eurooppalaiseen ja amerikkalaiseen kräkkeriskeneen sekä niiden väliseen vuorovaikutukseen mannertenvälisessä piraattipelien levityksessä. Wasiak osoittaa haastattelujen ja aikalaistekstien pohjalta, kuinka kulttuurinen identiteetti ilmeni piraattien toiminnassa: kummankin skenen jäsenet ylläpitivät selkeää jaottelua eurooppalaisiin (“Euros”) ja amerikkalaisiin (“Amis”). Toinen samaa aihepiiriä käsittelevistä artikkeleista, Markku Reunasen kirjoittama How Those Crackers Became Us Demosceners, paneutuu kriittisesti usein toistettuun tarinaan demoskenen polveutumisesta kräkkeriskenestä kirjallisten lähteiden sekä haastattelujen kautta. Reunanen osoittaa, että kräkkeri- ja demoskenen eriytyminen oli siloiteltua syntytarinaa monimuotoisempi prosessi, johon vaikuttivat lukuisat rinnakkaiset tietoteknisen kulttuurin muutokset.
Doreen Hartmann käsittelee animaation eri merkityksiä sekä rooleja demoskenen historiassa artikkelissaan Animation in the Demoscene. From Obfuscation to Category. Hartmannin tutkimuksen perusteella reaaliaikaisten ja valmiiksi laskettujen animaatioiden raja on huomattavasti häilyvämpi, kuin miltä ensisilmäyksellä vaikuttaa, ja animaatioon liitetyt asenteet sekä käytännöt ovat jatkuvassa muutoksessa. Myös Canan Hastikin artikkeli, Demo Age: New Views, kytkeytyy elokuvan historiaan. Hastik on soveltanut visuaalisten aineistojen analyysiin kehitetyn kulttuurianalyytikan (cultural analytics) menetelmiä ja työkaluja demoihin. Kirjoittaja tuo demoskenen teoksista esiin uusia, muuten vaikeasti havainnoitavia piirteitä, kuten toisto, rytmi ja värimaailma. Artikkeliin sisältyy lukuisia mielenkiintoisia visualisointeja, jotka tarjoavat uutta näkökulmaa demoteoksiin ja samalla kytkevät ne elokuva- ja mediatutkimuksen traditioihin.
Viides tutkimusartikkeli on Marilou Polymeropouloun Chipmusic, Fakebit and the Discourse of Authenticity in the Chipscene, joka käsittelee chip-musiikkia ja -skeneä. Chip-skene on muusikoiden yhteisö, joka luo tunnistettavaa retroesteettistä musiikkia joko alkuperäisillä laitteilla, kuten Nintendo Game Boyllä tai Commodore 64:llä, tai niiden äänimaailmaa mukaillen. Polymeropoulou lähestyy musiikin, aitouden sekä epäaitouden käsitteitä antropologian ja etnomusikologian avulla ja tutkii chipmuusikoita osallistuvasti, etnografisella tutkimusotteella. Erityisesti hän keskittyy “fakebit”-genreen, jossa moderneilla välineillä luodaan vanhoja äänipiirejä imitoivaa musiikkia. Teksti jaottelee chip-muusikot kolmeen eri sukupolveen, joilla on kullakin oma luonteenomainen suhtautumisensa fakebitiin ja aitouteen chip-musiikissa. Kuudes artikkeli on englanninkielinen käännösversio WiderScreen 2–3/2013:ssa ilmestyneestä Markku Reunasen artikkelista, jossa 4k-introja – pieniä reaaliaikaisia demoja – tarkastellaan eri näkökulmista. Eräs teemoista on pienten introjen musiikki, joka kytkeytyy teknisessä minimalistisuudessaan myös chip-musiikkiin.
Myös Ville-Matias Heikkilän katsaus, Käsittämättömät koodirivit musiikkina: bytebeat ja demoskenen tekninen kokeellisuus, käsittelee minimalistista musiikkia. Aitouden pohdinnan sijaan tarkastelussa on kuitenkin varsin erilainen aihe, bytebeat, eli äänen syntetisointi lyhyiden koodirivien avulla. Artikkelia voisi luonnehtia tiheäksi kuvaukseksi (thick description) innokkaasta yhteisöllisestä kokeilusta, jonka kautta bytebeat-ilmiö syntyi ja lopulta myös hiipui. Viimeinen artikkeleista on Jaakko Kemppaisen kirjoittama katsaus, Flash-demoskene: Reaaliaikaisten verkkoanimaatioiden esiinnousu ja hiipuminen, joka tarjoaa vastaavan kokonaiskuvan Adobe Flash -alustalla toimineen marginaalisen demoskenen synnystä, huippuvuosista ja suosion hupenemisesta. Oman aktiivisen osallistumisensa ja sisäpiiriläisten kokemusten pohjalta Kemppainen luo tarkan kuvauksen mm. niihin teknisiin seikkoihin, joita Flashin lukuisat eri versiot toivat tullessaan ja miten demoskene hyödynsi kohentuneita ominaisuuksia äänien ja visuaalisten efektien ohjelmoinnissa.
Kiitämme kaikkia kirjoittajia sekä arvioijia, jotka mahdollistivat tämän teemanumeron julkaisemisen. Seuraava WiderScreenin numero ilmestyy syksyllä 2014 ja käsittelee mediaurheilua. Vastaavana toimittajana toimii Riikka Turtiainen.
The theme of WiderScreen 1–2/2014 are computer hobbyist communities that have their roots in the computer culture of the 1970s and 1980s: the demo, cracker, warez and chip music scenes. During the last ten years, such communities have been studied to a certain extent, but many of their properties are still not well understood. This double special issue of WiderScreen contributes to our knowledge on scenes by collecting together international research on their various aspects. We are happy to have the opportunity to present you six peer-reviewed research articles and two discussion papers that also demonstrate how scene-related research has already reached certain maturity.
While the initial publications on the topic were fairly descriptive, today, computer scenes have been widely discussed both in empirical and theoretical research. We have summarized this research and followed new studies in our online bibliography, Demoscene Research, since 2004. The new articles presented here deepen scene research by advancing important topics relevant to the theme: the variety of computer scenes and their practices, including not only demo and cracker scenes, but also more marginal music-based and Flash demo scenes; the dynamic and evolving interrelationships between different scenes; the existence of various national computer scenes and the cultural identity of their members; media analysis of scene artworks and the problematics of their “authenticity” vs. “inauthenticity”; and last but not least, rich insiders’ accounts of everyday practices in a computer scene.
The first two articles deal with the oldest of the computer scenes, the cracker scene. Patryk Wasiak’s article, “Amis and Euros.” Software Import and Contacts Between European and American Cracking Scenes, opens an important perspective on the European and American cracking scenes, and their interactions in the trans-Atlantic trading of pirated games. Drawing on interviews and texts written by contemporaries, Wasiak shows how the pirating activities expressed specific cultural identities: the sceners established and maintained a strict distinction between American and European sceners, naming each other as “Euros” and “Amis”. The second contribution, titled How Those Crackers Became Us Demosceners, is written by Markku Reunanen. In his paper, Reunanen revisits the often-told story about the birth of the demoscene and its origins in game cracking. Referring to texts written by the two scenes, interviews and research literature, Reunanen argues that the demo and cracking communities were not as clearly separated as often suggested, and that their eventual divergence followed from a number of parallel developments in computing cultures.
Next follows Doreen Hartmann’s article Animation in the Demoscene. From Obfuscation to Category, where Hartmann discusses various meanings of the term “animation” and how the demoscene has seen its role over the years. She shows how the relationship between real-time and offline calculated animations is, in fact, significantly more complex than it initially appears, and that the opinions and practices concerning animation are subject to considerable change. Canan Hastik’s Demo Age: New Views is, likewise, linked to the history of cinematography. In her study, Hastik has applied tools and methods from cultural analytics to demos in order to reveal their hidden patterns, such as repetition, rhythm and coloring. The article features several interesting visualizations that offer new perspective to demoscene productions, and connects them to the research traditions of cinema and media studies.
The fifth article, by Marilou Polymeropoulou, Chipmusic, Fakebit and the Discourse of Authenticity in the Chipscene, moves to the theme of computer music, the chipscene in particular. The chipscene is a community of musicians that develop music with distinct retro aesthetics, often resembling (and frequently using) the sound chips of original platforms like the Nintendo Game Boy and Commodore 64. Starting from anthropological and ethnomusicological perspectives on music and its “authenticity”, the article draws on long-term online and offline ethnography among the members of the chipscene. The specific focus is on the musical genre of “fakebit”: music that uses modern equipment to imitate the musical aesthetics of retro sound chips. The paper outlines three generations of chipmusicians that have distinct outlooks on the phenomena of “fakebit” and the notion of “authenticity” in chip music. The sixth article is a translated contribution by Markku Reunanen (originally published in WiderScreen 2–3/2013) and explores the practices of demosceners who produce very small real-time presentations, so-called 4k intros, from various perspectives. Reunanen also discusses the musical side of these intros, presenting a link to the technical minimalism of chipscene practices.
Ville-Matias Heikkilä, too, continues with the theme of minimalistic music. Rather than focusing on authenticity vs. inauthenticity, however, the article discusses sound synthesis using short lines of code, so-called bytebeat, and is titled Käsittämättömät koodirivit musiikkina: bytebeat ja demoskenen tekninen kokeellisuus (Incomprehensible Lines of Code as Music: Bytebeat and Technical Experimentation in the Demoscene). The paper could be described as a thick description of the collective experimentation through which bytebeat music emerged and vanished due to scene members’ enthusiasm. The final paper, Flash-demoskene: Reaaliaikaisten verkkoanimaatioiden esiinnousu ja hiipuminen (Flash Demoscene: The Rise and Fall of Real-Time Web Animations) by Jaakko Kemppainen, takes a similar view on the development, popularity, and the waning of the Flash scene, a marginal scene built around the Adobe Flash multimedia platform. Through his insiders’ views and active participation in the scene, very much like Heikkilä and Reunanen above, the author gives intricate details about the technical possibilities of different Flash versions and how those were utilized in graphics and sound programming by demoscene members.
We would like to thank all the authors, as well as the anonymous referees who made the special issue possible. The next issue of WiderScreen, edited by Riikka Turtiainen, will deal with media sports, and is expected to come out in fall 2014.
Kulttuurianalytiikkaa ei tule sekoittaa humanistisiin kulttuurinanalyysin tai kulttuurintutkimuksen perinteisiin. Termi viittaa massiivisten mediakirjastojen automaattiseen analysointiin.
A visual analysis method for massive media repositories, not to be mixed up with the academic cultural analysis or cultural studies traditions.
Numerous authors ranging from hobbyists to researchers have tried to explain the roots of the demoscene in their texts. Most often such histories have been brief and almost identical to each other: first appeared crackers with their crack intros, which then evolved into the demoscene during the late 1980s. In this article, I shall reiterate the canonical story and offer new perspectives to the events that led to the purported separation of the two communities. I approach the topic by looking at it from three different angles: first by dissecting the canonical story, then through the recollections of early hobbyists, and finally by comparing the two to the discussions found in contemporary texts. Based on the findings, the divergence between the two scenes was the outcome of a number of parallel developments, and was neither as clear-cut nor rapid as often portrayed.
The history of the community known as the demoscene dates back to the mid-1980s when the first groups started to appear, and the first crack intros, shown at the beginning of a cracked game, were released. Here, “cracking” refers to the removal and circumvention of copy protection schemes that game companies tried to employ in order to stop users from duplicating the game media, such as tapes and floppies. The intros were preceded by simpler static screens that served the same purpose of telling the world who was behind the release. Later on, the early scene diverged, when some of the hobbyists became increasingly interested in just the intros, leaving software piracy and related activities aside.
Above, we have an example of a story that has been repeated and canonized numerous times in various publications ranging from disk magazines to academic papers (for example Leonard 1994; Gruetzmacher 2003; Saarikoski 2004, 191–192; Tasajärvi et al. 2004, 12–15). Most of the authors who have written on the topic were not part of the original scene themselves, so they have had to rely on second-hand sources where conflicting details have already been left out. My aim in this paper is to trace the origins of the story and offer a new perspective to the various reasons that led to the gradual separation of the two scenes.
As a matter of fact, even the too evident assumption that there ever was such a split should be brought into question, as several groups started with cracking and retained legal and illegal activities side by side for quite a while (Kauppinen 1991; Polgar 2005, 99–101). As another counterexample, during the last few years the demoscene has started coming into terms with its roots, and crack intros made by legal demo groups have started appearing again – although they should be considered more as nostalgic or ironic references to the wild past rather than to the realities of contemporary software piracy (see The Commodore 64 Scene Database (CSDb) for recent examples). Nowadays, one of the most active all-platform demo websites, Pouet.net, also features crack intros as one of its numerous production categories.
The concept of a “scene” requires some attention before moving any further. In this article, I shall use the word scene as an umbrella term that encompasses all the related activity and refer to specialized communities as the demoscene and the cracker scene (also known as the warez or illegal scene, among other names) for the sake of clarity. Arguably, the distinction is somewhat artificial, as the members of both have simply considered themselves to be in the scene. In other contexts, many other communities have been referred to as scenes, such as the graffiti scene, clubbing scene, or punk scene (for example, Straw 1991; Hitzler & Niederbacher 2010). Sociologist Michaela Pfadenhauer provides the following general definition for a scene in her article Ethnography of Scenes (2005):
Thus we refer to a thematically focussed cultural network of people who share certain material and/or mental forms of collective self-stylisation and who stabilise and develop these similarities at typical locations at typical times as a scene.
When applied to the demo and cracker scenes, Pfadenhauer’s definition raises some relevant questions: for example, what are “self-stylization” and “typical locations” in the case of networks that are largely virtual by nature? There is hardly any demoscene attire that would instantly reveal the identity of its members to others, unlike in many other scenes that are outwardly more pronounced. Therefore, the self-stylization must be mostly mental – which it is. As to the typical locations, virtual spaces, such as online discussion forums, need to be considered in addition to physical spaces. The flip-side of similarities inside a scene is that there must also be differences to other scenes that ultimately set them apart.
The demoscene has, at times, been discussed in terms of a subculture (for example Roininen 1998, 69–79; Saarikoski 2001). Omitting the elusive definitions of parent, counter-, and subcultures here, it is still evident as to how subcultural studies are a valuable frame of reference when discussing scenes, since the two concepts (i.e. scene, subculture) are so clearly related and, at times, even used interchangeably (cf. Pfadenhauer 2005). As a well-known example, Dick Hebdige, in his book Subculture: The Meaning of Style (2010/1979), traces the genealogy of British subcultures ranging from teddy boys to punks, and shows how they have preceded and influenced each other. Even though British subcultures seem spectacular and deviant when compared to demo and cracker scenes, the idea of evolution and lineage are equally applicable – scenes, subcultures and communities do not appear out of nowhere.
David Muggleton (2004/2002) has criticized the work of Hebdige and his peers, stating that they fail at understanding the indigenous viewpoints of actual subculture members (3). Valuable points made by Muggleton are that a subculture should not be seen only as a response to economic and social changes, as many earlier studies tended to view them (9–10), and that the role of an individual in a subculture may be fluid and fragmented (107–128). Both Hebdige (2010/1979, 92–99) and Muggleton (2004/2002, 131–154) recognize the importance of incorporation, where deviant subcultures are defined, trivialized, and turned into commodities by the parent culture in order to render them harmless. In the case of the demo and cracker scenes, such trivialization has frequently occurred in, for instance, newspaper articles dealing with demo parties. However, Douglas Thomas (2002, 148–160) states that hacker culture has proven to be largely resistant to incorporation due to its technical nature and existence in a highly fluid electronic medium. Neither Hebdige’s nor Muggleton’s case studies included digital subcultures, so they do not mention technological change as something that affects subcultures, but in this study its role, quite obviously, cannot be omitted.
When thinking of the motivation behind the scene activities, Sarah Thornton’s Bourdieu-inspired concept of subcultural capital offers a useful theoretical frame of reference. According to her definition, subcultural capital defines an individual’s status in the eyes of the other members and can be earned through different means, such as attire, ownership of valued artifacts, subcultural knowledge and “cool” behavior (Thornton 2005/1995). Similar traits have been observed in studies dealing with digital culture, for example in Alf Rehn’s (2004) article, where he discusses the practices of the warez scene and refers to them as “honor economies”. Meritocracy is also heavily present in the related cracker culture (Vuorinen 2007) and the demoscene (Reunanen 2010, 33–35).
In the following sections I will explore the shared history of the two scenes from three different angles. First, the focus is on the origins and forms of the canonical story, which highlights how the scene has seen itself, presented itself to outsiders, and how outsiders, in turn, have interpreted the history. The second set of source material, consisting of interviews of first-generation sceners, brings forth rich details that have been lost in the standard story. Lastly, I will look at contemporary texts of the late 1980s and the early 1990s in order to illustrate how people experienced the ongoing developments, in contrast to later recollections that can easily be colored by nostalgia or belittling.
Reading the Story
The scene started to document its roots early on, when the first histories and personal recollections were published on diskmags (disk magazines) in the early 1990s, and a few years later on the World Wide Web. One of the best-known descriptions can be found in the PC Demoscene FAQ, originally written by Thomas “Tomaes” Gruetzmacher in 2003. Section 2.3 “Where does the demoscene come from?” starts with crack intros and software piracy, after which follows a description of the divergence:
In the late 1980s the legal part of the cracking and warez scene slowly drifted away from the illegal part. Intros became more advanced, (mega-)demos (several advanced intros linked together) appeared. The demoscene was born… sort of. A few individuals are still active in both, demoscene and warez/cracking scene.
The cracker scene is seen as the predecessor of the modern demoscene and, somewhat exceptionally, even the remaining link between the two is mentioned. There is no clear explanation as to why the two communities started drifting apart exactly, but the illegality of the warez scene is mentioned twice, which hints at one possible reason. According to the description, the demoscene “was born” and took the trade forward, which creates a distinction between old and new: crackers are portrayed as aging forefathers who are still alive but, at the same time, passé. Another similar account was provided by a long-standing demoscene activist, Jim “Trixter” Leonard, in PC Demos Explained (1994), where he wrote as follows:
Around this time, a gradual shift occurred, from people cracking games to writing graphic/sound demonstrations that showed off the computer they had just learned to program. Sure, cracking games was still popular, but some people decided that learning about the machine and using it as a tool for creativity was cooler” than cracking one dime-store game after another.
In this case, the legality of the hobby is not seen as an important factor. Instead, Leonard emphasizes the creative nature of demo programming as opposed to the repetitive cracking of low-quality games. Compared to the PC Demoscene FAQ, Leonard’s text is significantly earlier – the first version appeared already in 1994 and was updated until 1998. In the early 1990s the self-awareness of the demoscene was on the rise, which could be observed, among other things, in its attitudes towards computer games (Reunanen 2010, 29–30, 77). Early on, games were a natural part of scene activities, but became a taboo when the community started defining its borders and aggressively distancing itself from other communities occupying the same computer hobbyist domain (ibid.). In this light, the older description of the events resonates well with other sentiments of the time, whereas in 2003 there was already less need to emphasize the uniqueness of a firmly established community.
Several authors of demoscene-related articles and books have included a variant of the canonical story in their texts, which has further strengthened its status. When comparing the versions provided in four different publications (Roininen 1998, 30–31; Burger, Paulovic & Hasan 2002; Saarikoski 2004, 191–192; Tasajärvi et al. 2004, 12–15) it becomes evident how similarly the roots of the demoscene are described: first there were crackers with their intros that later – somehow, and we are never told exactly how – evolved into demos. The authors have not invented the histories; instead, they are based on first- or second-hand accounts provided by demoscene members themselves, which goes on to illustrate how deeply the community itself has adopted the standard story. Between the lines one can also sense nostalgia that colors the recollections.
There are two notable works that describe the early days of cracking and software swapping in detail. The first description can be found in Freax: The Brief History of the Demoscene by Tamas Polgar (2005, 40–62). Even if Polgar’s approach is rather informal, it provides relevant insight into the practices of the early hobbyists, such as copyparties, international swapping, and cracker magazines. According to an interview with Grendel, the separation of the demo and cracker scenes started as early as 1988–1989 and became stronger during the following two years (ibid., 57). The other notable peek into the history was written by Patryk Wasiak, whose Illegal Guys (2012) documents the rise and fall of what he called “the illegal scene”. Wasiak links the increased interest in legal demos directly to the West German police raids of the late 1980s, where illegal software collections got confiscated.
Owing to their common origin, early crackers and demosceners shared many traits, such as groups, handles, tools, parties, and communication channels. Therefore, it is easier to look at the differences between the two rather than the similarities. One deciding factor, indeed, is the relationship to law enforcement that started interfering with software piracy in the early 1990s, when copyright legislation started catching up with digital products (Saarikoski 2004, 319–337; Wasiak 2012). Such negative publicity and the fear of sanctions (Zine #2 and #3) can be seen as two probable reasons as to why the demoscene has emphasized its creative aspect and, at the same time, distanced itself from software piracy.
According to Vuorinen (2007), the cracker system can be seen as an offspring and a mirror image of the commercial model, clearly different to the open source movement that has its roots in the original hackers of the 1950s and 1960s (cf. Levy 1984). The cracker economy, in its purest form, is inherently linked to the commercial world, since it needs a constant influx of commercial software in order to function, whereas the demoscene is more self-sustained by nature because it produces its own artifacts: demos. Even though the modern warez scene, as described by Rehn (2004), differs from the pirates of the 1980s, the two can still be considered as parts of the same continuum.
As the second part of the study, I conducted six interviews with long-standing scene members who had started their career in the 1980s on the Commodore 64. It turned out somewhat difficult to recruit interviewees, as many of the pioneers are hard to locate after almost thirty years, and because there still seems to exist a certain veil of secrecy that makes it hard for an outsider to ask around. My own role as a demoscener and researcher – reflected on the title of the article, too – created a setting where I was regarded as an outsider by some representatives of the early cracker circles. The insider–outsider issue has been further elaborated by Rhoda MacRae (2007), who divides researchers’ approaches into three basic categories: outsider-in, outsider-out, and insider-in (see also Hodkinson 2005). Hebdige (2010/1979, 139), too, noted how subculture members were often opposed to any attempts to formally define them.
The interviews took place online, some by email and some on Internet Relay Chat (IRC). The respondents represented four different nationalities: two Finns, two Swedes, one German, and one U.S. scener who could provide a rare view to the otherwise chiefly Eurocentric scene. The personal recollections of O’Hara (2006) and Savetz (2012) shed some further light on the American BBS and pirate scenes, while most other authors appear to have focused on the hacker culture (cf. Levy 1984; Taylor 1999; Thomas 2002).
When compiling a typology of the answers, it soon became evident that the Eurosceners’ answers were mostly similar to each other, whereas Jon, the American interviewee, had rather different views on the events altogether. One notable difference was how software piracy went online in the U.S. earlier than in Europe, where mail-based swapping of floppies was still relevant in the early 1990s (cf. O’Hara 2006; Savetz 2012). Jon’s low interest in demos is in line with the common notion of the demoscene being a mostly European phenomenon. As another example of national differences, the small size and geographical fragmentation of the Finnish Commodore 64 scene was emphasized by both Finns, Grue and Micron. The search function of CSDb finds 188 Finnish groups which, indeed, looks like a modest figure in comparison to Sweden (571) and Germany (1,493).
Jon’s recollections go back as far as 1984, when the Commodore 64 scene was only starting to take shape. As a curious detail, he mentioned how his first group, Apple Commodore Connection (ACC), was modeled after some earlier Apple II crews. Apple II crack screens (see Figure 1 for an example), which could be described as messages and defaced title screens attached to pirated games, started appearing around 1981, and can be regarded as predecessors of later flashy crack intros. A large collection of the first screens can be viewed online at Jason Scott’s collection Apple II Crack Screens.
The interviewees described the 1980s scene as active, colorful, competitive and elitist. According to Grue, after the turn of the next decade, the community started becoming more organized, and small meetings grew into large parties. There was a constant influx of new people, and at the same time some first generation sceners already started to retire due to work, studies, family, and loss of interest – some even left after getting busted. As an external factor, the Commodore 64 was starting to disappear from the market towards the end of the 1980s and was getting replaced by the Commodore Amiga and IBM PC Compatibles, which affected the scene, too: all of the respondents recalled people migrating to another platform, mostly to the Amiga (cf. Saarikoski 2004, 134–140, 389; Polgar 2005, 99–111; Botz 2011, 107–114). Comparable migrations (Amiga–PC, MS-DOS–Windows) have repeatedly taken place ever since. What might appear as a simple case of purchasing a new computer is in reality a complex negotiation process that affects individuals and the community at large in multiple ways. Even though new hardware is “better” in absolute terms, it needs to be appropriated before it can be accepted. (Reunanen & Silvast 2009.)
Based on the interviews, there were no sharp borders between different activities before the 1990s: cracking, swapping, intro coding and demos coexisted side by side. While some programmers were involved with all of the above, it was also common to specialize in, for instance, cracking only. Thus, intros could be created by another specialist, not the cracker himself, which provides an interesting comparison point to the canonical story: sceners did not somehow “become” interested in pure audiovisual programming, as there were such people right from the beginning. The early 1990s saw the rise of legal demo-oriented groups and sections, but there had been such groups and individuals even earlier (cf. Polgar 2005, 57). Of my interviewees, Bacchus mentioned two groups, Horizon and Ian & Mic, as examples that were not involved in cracking, whereas Bitbreaker stated that he was not interested in the illegal side, and Grue told that his group at the time (Beyond Force) started focusing solely on demos towards the end of the 1980s.
Swapping was an integral part of the early scene and all of the respondents had, at least initially, been involved in it. So far, scene histories have mostly focused on the three main roles involved in demo creation: coders, graphic artists (“graphicians”) and musicians. The often overlooked role of active swappers in the success of a group was much more pronounced in these interviews:
There were a lot of us, and I would argue that we were the grease in the scene. (Jon)
The swappers role was really important back then (alltho it felt they didnt get the thanks they deserved). (Pantaloon)
The impression conveyed by these responses is that swapping, too, was a highly competitive trade where speed, quality, and the number of connections were essential if one wanted to gain recognition. Grue, who, according to his statement, did not even have a significant number of connections still stated that he had to spend “a terrible amount of time” to keep up-to-date. Likewise, Micron recollected sending a copy of the same floppy to around a hundred other swappers, and how some BBS traders eventually burned out and quit the scene altogether. Sceners involved in more creative activities did not necessarily regard swapping highly, as illustrated in the quote above and a statement by Micron, where he claimed that among artists swappers were “of course not appreciated”. The same schism still popped up in 1993 in R.A.W. #5, where Vastor lamented the situation in his article Are swappers lame? The reason for this disparity is most likely that a successful swapper could only demonstrate social instead of technical skills.
Police raids were already mentioned in the previous section, but the police was not the only institution that cast its shadow on swappers. As mentioned by Bitbreaker and Micron, it was a common practice for mail traders to “fake” (reuse) stamps for saving on postage, which could lead to trouble from the postal service. The busting of high-profile or close connections would send a shockwave throughout the community, as in the following cases:
These are sort of stupid to think about now, but there was always rumors of guys getting busted, phreakers ratting out other phreakers, or software houses demanding user lists from BBSes and all sorts of nonsense that a 14 or 15 year old would easily believe. So I would put my codebooks and warez collection up in my ceiling tiles “just in case.” (Jon)
But I happened to be a user at the JRC, so when it got busted I got the creeps. I hid all my floppies for a couple of months. (Micron)
The wealth of detail revealed in the personal reflections proves that there is still plenty that has escaped demoscene historians so far. In particular, the formation of the early illegal scene is little known, as well as the links between the U.S. and Europe. Another issue that is highlighted by the interviews is how sceners tend to focus on visible figures, such as well-known coders or swappers, and omit less central scene members, such as hangarounds (cf. Muggleton 2004/2000, 82–104). Scene researchers have often inherited the same practice from their interviewees and textual sources, and the less known borders of the community have, thus, remained largely unexplored.
One more way to go back in time to the late 1980s and early 1990s is to read contemporary discussions of the period. Probably the best source for them is disk magazines (diskmags for short) that could be described as scene journalism. Together with the scroll texts found on demos and intros, there is practically no other surviving and as easily accessible collection of contemporary thoughts. I have already used diskmags as a valuable source in earlier studies dealing with the adoption of different computing platforms by the demoscene (Reunanen & Silvast 2009; Silvast & Reunanen 2014). Similar, although paper-based, zines have been common among several subcultures, where they have served various purposes ranging from self-expression to social networking (see Duncombe 2005/1997).
By reading two of the earliest diskmags, Sex’n’Crime (for Commodore 64, see Figure 2) and Zine (for the Commodore Amiga) it again becomes clear how games, piracy and demos initially co-existed side by side in the scene circles. Both of these mags originated in Germany, which was the center of the Euro scene at the time. Sex’n’Crime served the cracker scene and frequently featured game reviews, top cracker charts written by the editors, plus plenty of heated scene rumors. In Sex’n’Crime #3 from 1989 there is an interesting statement by OMG, well in line with the discussions of the previous sections:
A lot moved to the Amiga and the others stopped cracking as the police was cleaning Germany. So, many people started coding demos or they just decided to be legal forever and coded a few games.
Moving from cracking to demos, as seen from his perspective, was more of a necessity to avoid sanctions than strive for self-expression. Another possible coping strategy was to move into game programming, which I will shortly return to. Police raids and the busting of high-profile pirates were frequent topics also in Zine, which published several articles on the legal status of software piracy in different European countries (see Zine #2 and #3). While Sex’n’Crime was mostly an illegal magazine, Zine represents a transitional diskmag where the shifting focus from cracking to demos can be observed. Already in 1990 and 1991 there were commentaries that would have seemed out of place only a couple of years earlier:
Very soon there won’t be any coders who are coding games, no software-companies who sell games on AMIGA, because it’s not worth selling them because none is going to buy them and so companies and coders don’t get enough money to continue their job. (Action, Zine #7)
Powerful Amiga-scene is the only thing that can ”cure” Amiga’s reputation and amount of programs. You should reduce (or stop) cracking programs. (Pasi Kovanen, Zine #11)
R.A.W. (for the Amiga, see Figure 3) and Imphobia (for the IBM PC compatibles) can be considered as two representatives of prime demoscene-oriented diskmags that were published just before the discussions started moving to the Internet in the latter half of the 1990s. Imphobia started as a mixed publication, but became demo-only by 1993. The increasing divergence between demosceners and crackers was aptly captured in the interview of Tom Jansen in Imphobia #4 (1992), where he stated: “I have no favorite crack groups, I dislike all of them.” A figurative generation gap was opening in the scene, when newcomers joined in and did not subscribe to the values of the pioneers:
Newcomers are disease in the scene. They don’t know anything about the past, give a strange look if you say Pure Byte, Warriors Of Darkness, Megaforce, Fusion, Ikari or Ackerlight. They don’t respect the old guys or old groups. But…. The Scene would also wither without them. (Grendel, Maggy #10)
The above disdain is clearly linked to two things: power and recognition. Even though the writer laconically acknowledged that the scene would not survive without new members, at the same time it was evident that they should respect the first generation for their accomplishments. Thornton’s (2005/1995) concept of subcultural capital is easily applicable here: the ongoing changes threatened to diminish the value of the capital acquired with hard work and years of participation. To despise something as seminal as cracking can be seen as an approach that let newcomers omit the existing “economy” and define one on their own.
One more notable change, also related to the generation gap, is how in the mid-1990s’ demoscene mags computer games were an almost unacceptable topic. The demoscene had become increasingly self-conscious and independent, and drew the line between itself and other hobbyists. (Reunanen 2010, 29–30, 77.) In contrast, game development was a theme that did receive attention, as a number of demo authors started viewing it as a possible profession that would let them utilize their skills in the working life, which they had to face sooner or later (for example, R.A.W. #5). On the Commodore 64 the threshold to move into game programming had not also been high (Sex’n’Crime #5, #11). Many of the 1990s game companies do, indeed, have their roots in the demoscene (Saarikoski 2004, 205; Sandqvist 2012). Demosceners getting employed by and founding game companies was – humorously – even lamented, since many of them ceased their demo-related activities shortly thereafter (R.A.W. #9).
Moving from the scene to the working life can be considered as a form of incorporation. Applying the skills acquired as a cracker or demo coder in the IT industry renders underground activities harmless and comprehensible from the society’s point-of-view and returns them back to the mainstream. A deviant, or at least unknown, lifestyle is trivialized into a sort of pre-school leading to an honorable career. From a subcultural capital perspective, the currency gained in one context is turned into real money in another. The two are more closely related than what it might appear at first: Thornton (2005/1995) observed a similar conversion of subcultural capital into economic capital in her study; several people made their living out of the club culture as DJs, club organizers and clothes designers.
Based on the diskmag articles, it would seem that the demoscene had practically departed from its illegal roots by 1993. However, reading the contact/swapping ads found in their own section paints a somewhat different picture. Among other ads there are references to “hot stuff” or more directly to warez and illegal swapping (R.A.W. #5, #6). There were good reasons to not advertise illegal content publicly, especially if you provided your full contact information, but according to the interviews with former swappers, it was very common that the same people distributed both demos and warez at the same time. For some of the respondents even the whole concept of a legal swapping seemed contradictory. As Bacchus put it in his interview: “Never heard of [a] legal swapper.”
The developments that took place between 1988 and 1995 are clearly reflected on the pages of the diskmags, even if in a condensed and edited form. The gradual emergence of a purely demo-centered community during the early 1990s is most evident in Zine and Imphobia, that both changed their orientation during the period. As a counterexample, swappers seem to have acted as nodes that linked the illegal and legal sides together at least until the middle of the decade.
I started by re-examining the canonical birth story of the demoscene and now, at the end, I shall conclude that it should be considered as a constructed narrative that ultimately serves purposes other than historical accuracy. Especially during the interviews it became clear that the purported split is a question of perspective: early cracker/pirate sceners perceived demos as a natural continuation of their early endeavors, whereas demosceners felt a need to distance themselves from the first generation.
Internal and external factors involved in the divergence are numerous, and no single one of them can explain the course of the events alone. Firstly, the market share of a computer or software platform is a strong external factor that cannot be controlled to any significant degree by the community, but needs to be reacted upon one way or another. The commercial demise of a loved platform, such as the Commodore 64, creates a junction point where an individual has to either stay aligned with the aging computer, or move over to another system and learn new skills – or even drop the hobby altogether. Crackers and swappers, in particular, were directly affected by the disappearance of new software and, thus, needed to reiterate their position. Another external factor is the tightening of the previously loose copyright legislation, which exerted pressure on software piracy that started becoming illegal in many European countries in the late 1980s and the early 1990s. On the other hand, as can be seen in the previous sections, wide-spread alarmism, coupled with unsettling news and rumors, probably had more effect on the community than the actual laws themselves.
The demoscene has often emphasized its creative nature; the best programmers, graphic artists and musicians have been held in high respect by the community. Seen in this light, it is hardly surprising that an increasing interest on creative endeavors has been proposed as a major reason for the split. It seems, indeed, valid to talk about generations here, since the newcomers of the 1990s did not necessarily share the same history with the 1980s pioneers, who often did not extend their scene career beyond a few active years. Real-life pressures and “growing up” popped up frequently as reasons for leaving the circles.
The rotation can be considered as an indigenous reason that explains why the practices of the community were in constant flux. For some, the changes appeared unwelcome or even threatening, since newcomers were not equally impressed by old fame – in other words, the existing subcultural capital. The split has been emphasized by demoscene members as part of a quiet power struggle over who gets to define the scene and decide what is valuable. One example of reiterating the practices is how “pure gaming” started increasingly turning into a despised hobby in the early 1990s’ demoscene discourse, in dire contrast to the first generation, whose activities were inherently tied to computer games.
The pirate–demoscene split illustrates the complex mechanisms of how a community is born out of another, establishes its own practices and repurposes the existing ones. Having said that, it is also evident as to how such a separation is not a binary one: there have been links between the two communities as long as they have existed, and by time divergence can even turn back into convergence. Moreover, the fluidity of sceners’ identities lets willing members cross the border between different cliques and generations, and thus identify with more than just one group.
I would like to thank the Kone Foundation for supporting the Kotitietokoneiden aika ja teknologisen harrastuskulttuurin perintö (Home Computer Era and the Heritage of Technological Hobbyist Culture) project, as well as Yrjö Fager, Tero Heikkinen, Petri Saarikoski, and Antti Silvast for their helpful comments.
Botz, Daniel. 2011. Kunst, Code und Maschine – Die Ästhetik der Computer-Demoszene (Art, Code and Machine – The Aesthetics of the Computer Demoscene). Bielefeld: Transcript Verlag.
Burger, Boris, Ondrej Paulovic, and Milos Hasan. 2002. “Realtime Visualization Methods in the Demoscene.” In Proceedings of the Central European Seminar on Computer Graphics 2002, 205–218. Vienna: Vienna University of Technology.
Clarke, Gary. 2005/1981. “Defending Ski-Jumpers: A Critique of Theories of Youth Subcultures.” In The Subcultures Reader, edited by Ken Gelder, 169–174. London: Routledge. 2nd edition.
Duncombe, Stephen. 2005/1997. “Community: The Zine Scene.” In The Subcultures Reader, edited by Ken Gelder, 530–540. London: Routledge. 2nd edition.
Hebdige, Dick. 2010/1979. Subculture: The Meaning of Style. London: Routledge.
Hitzler, Ronald, and Niederbacher, Arne. 2010. Lieben in Szenen. Formen juveniler Vergemeinschaftung heute (Life in the Scenes. Forms of Youth Culture Today). Wiesbaden: VS Verlag.
Hodkinson, Paul. 2005. “‘Insider Research’ in the Study of Youth Cultures.” Journal of Youth Studies 8(2), 131–149.
Levy, Steven. 1984. Hackers. New York: Anchor Press/Doubleday.
MacRae, Rhoda. 2007. “‘Insider’ and ‘Outsider’ Issues in Youth Research.” In Youth Cultures: Scenes, Subcultures and Tribes, edited by Paul Hodkinson, and Wolfgang Deicke, 51–61. London: Routledge.
Muggleton, David. 2004/2000. Inside Subculture: The Postmodern Meaning of Style. Oxford: Berg. Paperback edition.
O’Hara, Rob. 2006. Commodork: Sordid Tales from a BBS Junkie. La Vergne: Rob O’Hara.
Pfadenhauer, Michaela. 2005. “Ethnography of Scenes: Towards a Sociological Life-world Analysis of (Post-traditional) Community-building.” Forum: Qualitative Social Research 6(3).
Polgar, Tamas. 2005. Freax: The Brief History of the Demoscene. Volume 1. Winnenden: CSW Verlag.
Rehn, Alf. 2004. “The Politics of Contraband – The Honor Economies of the Warez Scene.” Journal of Socio-Economics 33(3), 359–374.
Reunanen, Markku, and Silvast, Antti. 2009. “Demoscene Platforms: A Case Study on the Adoption of Home Computers.” In History of Nordic Computing 2, edited by John Impagliazzo, Timo Järvi, and Petri Paju, 289–301. Berlin: Springer.
Reunanen, Markku. 2010. Computer Demos – What Makes Them Tick? Lic. thesis, Aalto University School of Science and Technology.
Roininen, Tarja. 1998. Demoscene: että tietyt aineettomat arvot ja tavat yhdistävät joukkoa ihmisiä (Demoscene: That Certain Immaterial Values and Customs Unite a Group of People). MA thesis, University of Lapland.
Saarikoski, Petri. 2001. “Valtavirtaa vastaan – Demoscene suomalaisen kotimikroilun historiassa (Against the Mainstream – Demoscene in the Finnish Home Computer History).” Lähikuva 3/2001, 54–65.
Saarikoski, Petri. 2004. Koneen lumo: mikrotietokoneharrastus Suomessa 1970-luvulta 1990-luvun puoliväliin (The Lure of the Machine: The Personal Computer Interest in Finland from the 1970s to the mid-1990s). Nykykulttuurin tutkimuskeskuksen julkaisuja 83. Jyväskylä: University of Jyväskylä.
Sandqvist, Ulf. 2012. “The Development of the Swedish Game Industry: A True Success Story?” In The Video Game Industry: Formation, Present State, and Future, edited by Peter Zackariasson, and Timothy L. Wilson, 134–153. New York: Routledge.
Silvast, Antti, and Reunanen, Markku. 2014 (in press). “Multiple Users, Diverse Users: Demoscene and the Appropriation of the Personal Computer by Demoscene Hackers.” In Hacking Europe – From Computer Cultures to Demoscenes, edited by Gerard Alberts, and Ruth Oldenziel. Berlin: Springer.
Straw, Will. 1991. “Systems of Articulation, Logics of Change: Scenes and Communities in Popular Music.” Cultural Studies 5(3), 361–375.
Tasajärvi, Lassi, Stamnes, Bent, and Schustin, Mikael. 2004. Demoscene: the Art of Real-Time. Helsinki: Even Lake Studios & katastro.fi.
Taylor, Paul A. 1999. Hackers: Crime in the Digital Sublime. London: Routledge.
Thomas, Douglas. 2002. Hacker Culture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Thornton, Sarah, 2005/1995. “The Social Logic of Subcultural Capital.” In The Subcultures Reader, edited by Ken Gelder, 184–192. London: Routledge. 2nd edition.
Turkle, Sherry. 1984. The Second Self – Computers and the Human Spirit. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Vuorinen, Jukka. 2007. “Ethical codes in the digital world: comparisons of the proprietary, the open/free and the cracker system.” Ethics and Information Technology 9(1), 27–38.
Wasiak, Patryk. 2012. “‘Illegal Guys’. A History of Digital Subcultures in Europe during the 1980s.” Zeithistorische Forschungen/Studies in Contemporary History 2/2012.
Hebdige represents the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS). According to Ken Gelder (2005/1997, 81–85), CCCS studies were founded on Marxist theories and tended to focus especially on working-class subcultures. See Clarke (2005/1981) for more discussion on their approach.
Demo parties are typically described by the press, somewhat condescendingly, using expressions such as “the nerd heaven”. For some examples, see Yle.fi 2012; Taloussanomat Digitoday 2013.
In my own fieldwork, I have frequently noted that former sceners are not always willing to discuss their past, which they may consider embarrassing or something that is best kept secret.
For examples of early scene nostalgia, see Maggy #10, #11 and R.A.W. #1.
Jukka O. Kauppinen, also known for his work in the Finnish computer press, especially the MikroBitti magazine.
In Finland, similar procedures started in the 1990s and were targeted mostly at pirate BBSs (Saarikoski 2004, 330–335).
The interviews with Finns were conducted in Finnish. Translation of the quotes by MR.
Technical skill was highly appreciated already by the early hackers (Levy 1984). Another point of comparison is the concept of “hard mastery”, which, according to Sherry Turkle (1984, 101–115) is more typical for male than female programmers.
The legal status of software piracy varied among different European countries. The reports found in Zine were often alarmist and speculative with plenty of uncertainty about legislation and its upcoming development.
This kind of disdain is nothing new: for instance, Hebdige (2010/1979) mentions how newcomers were accused of trivializing the original mod style.
A follow-up and a longer statement on newcomers can be found in Maggy #11.
For an example of the hardships of legal swapping, see Maggy #11 and “How to Be Completely Legal” by Obligator.
Note how the concept of “pure gaming” still leaves open the possibility that even the most devoted demoscener could play games at times, but doing only that would be considered inappropriate.
Animation is not described as a dichotomy, but as an essential part of demoscene practices and productions. Focusing on the stand-alone animation category and the related scene-internal discussions, the article will shed light on the status of animation and animation artists within the scene. As a starting point, I will have a look at some general definitions of animation as a term and a technique in order to show some parallels and differences between demoscene productions and other forms of animation. The following sections will shed light on the altered usage of the term animation in scene-internal text through the ages and trace back how animation developed into a stand-alone category. Based on these analyses, some conclusions about the role of animation artists for today’s demoscene can be drawn. Finally, I will connect animation-related demoscene productions to more general criterion of demoscene’s practices and attitudes.
This article aims to clarify the emergence of animation in the context of the demoscene, both as a term, technique and aesthetic artefact through the ages. Such an effort requires us to consider different data and material. Previous demoscene research on its technological history can explain which role animation played in the scene and why it was deprecated at times. But in order to understand the social circumstances and aesthetical development of demoscene animation, it is necessary to dig deep into the scene-internal discussions on the topic. Hence, these texts are used both as data and as a theoretical resource. However, this is well-founded in the fact that most of the demoscene research originates from demosceners themselves. Additionally, the related artefacts themselves, their rating, and the altered structure of the demoparties have to be taken into account.
Most of the portrayals of the demoscene focus mainly on one of the aesthetic artefacts the scene produces, namely the demo itself. Public attention to the demoscene is connected to these “[e]xecutable programs which produce, in real time, engaging computer graphics and music”, as Vincent Scheib puts it as an answer to the question “What are Demos?” in his much-quoted Five Ws article (Scheib n.d.). As a matter of fact, the scene does not only produce demos, but also stand-alone graphics, music, diskmags and animations. This paper puts a spotlight on the different forms of animation produced by the scene both as part of the real-time executables and as stand-alone category.
‘Animation’ is an umbrella term for different kinds of imagery that are generated out of single pictures and played back at an adequate speed in order to make them move for the human perception. One of the simplest forms of animated images is the flip-book. The etymological roots of animation stem from the Latin word ‘animare’ meaning ‘to enliven’ and – closely connected – from the Latin ‘anima’ meaning ‘soul’.
Both traditional animation techniques and computer generated animation (CGI) follow the aim to entertain the audience, to make them laugh, cry and feel (cf. Lasseter 1987), mainly by focussing on the credibility of the animated characters. Thus, animators try to breathe life into the lifeless, giving characters empathy and emotion, for example, via facial expression (cf. Buchanan 2007). Demos, on the contrary, do not try to animate characters, but most often show abstract graphic effects and more-or-less lifeless material. Narration and realistic character design are not a primary intention of demoscene productions. Whether or not this is due to limited personal and temporal resources, this characteristic may count as valid to differentiate between demos and (pre-rendered) CGI animation or real-time tech demos.
Furthermore, in the CGI context the term ‘animation’ has an additional meaning. In the current academic discourse on digital filmmaking, it becomes obvious, that definitions of animation are often based on technical distinctions and thus are somehow tautological. Lev Manovich stated that “digital cinema is a particular case of animation which uses live action footage as one of its many elements” (Manovich 2001, 302). Accepting this statement means: “Animation is all film – since everything is technically possible in digital film, so all digital film is technically animation”, as Caroline Parsons pointed out (Parsons 2013). Demos, by definition, are not filmed; they show digitally generated moving images, animation if you will. In the context of the demoscene there seem to be some differences.
Thus, another definition may be instructive that is based on content rather than on technical distinctions. Philip Denslow asks “What is animation if not the desire to make real that which exists in the imagination?” (Denslow 1997, 4). Here, animation is neither seen as a technique nor as a narrative charged with emotions, but “a specific genre that privileges the unique characteristics of animated storytelling, for example metamorphosis, [or] the transgression of physical laws” (Parsons 2013).
Having these definitions in mind, I will take a closer look at the occurrence of animation in the demoscene and especially on the connections between real-time and pre-rendered animation in order to clarify the emergence of animation as a term, technique and (aesthetic) artefact in the context of the scene.
‘Animation’ in the Context of the Demoscene
It becomes apparent that a lot of the authors writing about the demoscene avoid using the term ‘animation’, when they are defining what demos are. Instead, demos are circumscribed as “real-time generated audiovisual works” (Carlsson 2009, 16), “real-time multimedia presentations” (Reunanen 2010, 46) or as “a small file that executes” (Montfort 2012). The reason for this is not only that these descriptions focus on the real-time demo artefacts (not on pure animations works), but – as I assume – that the term ‘animation’ has a somehow pejorative meaning in the context of the scene.
When explaining the term ‘executable programs’ of his aforementioned definition, Scheib states: “A program is different than just an animation. An animation is simply a pre-recorded set of images played back for you.” (Scheib n.d.) Animation in this sense indicates pre-recorded or pre-rendered images with real-time generated graphics as a counterpart. Evidently, most of the definitions strictly avoid to identify connections between real-time and pre-rendered animation. Lassi Tasajärvi points out: “It’s important to understand how demos differ from videos or 3D-animations. In a demo, the objects and effects you see on screen are created in real-time, calculated and generated by the computer as you watch.” (Tasajärvi 2004, 17). More recent descriptions do not adhere so rigidly to this ‘splitting of terms’, as the definition of demos as “real-time audiovisual animation[s]” (Hastik and Steinmetz 2012, 43) exemplifies.
The origins of this divide between pre-rendered, animated and real-time sequences date back to the early demoscene’s usage of 8-bit machines, which weren’t capable of handling animated sequences due to, for example, their limited memory size and processing power, as well as the fairly simple graphics chips, and small and slow mass storage. Real-time was considered the only option to bring moving objects onto the computer screen. Tasajärvi emphasizes this tight connection between real-time and the limited technological resources as characteristic for the production methods of the early demoscene: “The memories of the first home computers were laughably small. […] Besides, the same memory has to also have room for the code and the music. For this reason, anything with any degree of complexity to it had to be realized via code and in real-time” (Tasajärvi 2004, 17). Thus, the difference between the two is an ontological one: real-time demos are live, they are generated anew every time they are executed, whereas pre-rendered animations are just played back.
While it is import to draw this ontological distinction, it does not explain why the demoscene keeps it up so rigidly. One main reason may be that with today’s significant enhancements in hardware and programming interfaces, handling complex graphics animation in real-time became possible for the demoscene as well as for the professional CGI industry. The latter gratefully integrated real-time 3D animation into their production processes, whereas the demoscene adheres to their principle of minimizing the amount of animated sequences. Based on their surface, the artefacts may not be told apart and, thus, the viewer has to be made aware of the different kinds of production modes. Demoscener’s careful usage of the terms probably adheres to this concern.
Connections between Animation and Real-Time Presentations in the Demoscene
Knowing about these technological and historical circumstances, one could assume that the demoscene’s real-time principle excludes animation. But this is not the case: Animation is part of the demoscene almost since its beginning and it has appeared in different kind of forms, as previous demoscene research has already pointed out. For instance, early demosceners already cheated their audience with animated graphics that were pre-calculated in the background while other effects were shown (cf. Reunanen 2010, 47 and Leonard 2006) or with effects that were calculated only once and then played back as animations. Especially on the Amiga 500/OCS in the late 1980s and early 1990s this cyclic structure was commonly used without being disapproved by the scene (cf. Botz 2011, 293).
Because of the minimal RAM of the Commodore 64, animations initially did not seem possible on this platform. Daniel Botz pointed out that less spectacular text/logo animations can already be found in the cracktros of the late 1980s (Botz 2011, 110–111). However, it was not before the second half of the 1990s, when demosceners managed to realize fluid and thus plausible animations on the C64 with the help of mathematically complex compression and vector-based techniques (cf. Botz 2011, 291 and 301–302). At large, animation was used to show astonishing effects which the hardware system couldn’t handle in real-time. So, real-time and animation cannot be seen as a dichotomy, but as necessarily connected – at least for the early scene productions.
According to Tasajärvi, the “cheats and ‘magic tricks’” (Tasajärvi 2004, 25) were accepted as long as they were obfuscated for at least some time. This is why programmers are occasionally compared to magicians: both trick their audience, which in turn evaluates the magician by his/her skills in cheating and hiding his/her tricks for a maximal duration (cf. Botz 2011, 291). The aim of the magician as well as the programmer is to astonish their audience. In return, the spectators like to reveal how these effects are made. Therefore, Botz describes watching demos as a perpetual process of seduction and unravelment (cf. Botz 2011, 293).
Furthermore, the animations had to be combined with programming skills in order to be accepted. Tasajärvi writes: “By combining a suitable number of magic tricks and true programming prowess, you can generate controversy while remaining credible.” (Tasajärvi 2004, 25–26; cf. Botz 2011, 292–295). A well known example are the works of the Norwegian group Spaceballs. For their demo State of the Art (1992) they used pictures that were remixed on the basis of film or video material. These “3d vector graphics are fake – just an animation”, as Jim Leonard aka trixter put it (Leonard 2006). The video sequences were extensively edited in order to get this two-dimensional silhouette look. All pictures were laboriously vectorized by hand, which means that each single video frame was traced; one second of animation meant one hour of drawing (cf. Leonard 2006).
The demo led to controversial discussions. The main reproach against this production was that not enough programming work had been done. But this critique is not really valid. Although the pictures and animations were not computer-generated in itself, creating this demo meant digging deep into the platform specifics. Spaceballs had to hack the Amiga’s chip architecture in order to use the processing power of the hardware to full capacity. The demo used memory of an additional extension port rather than request memory from the original Amiga 500 platform (cf. Steapleton 2008, 77).
Additionally, State of the Art has to be seen as a pilot scheme to a huge programming project that the group started for their following demo, 9 Fingers (1993). The programmers of Spaceballs developed a vector drawing application that automatically vectorized the outlines out of the digitised video material. It is important to point out again, that these animations could only be produced with the help of elaborate programming techniques and thus, necessarily needed to be evaluated in relation to the technological restrictions of the hardware they were made for (cf. Botz 2011, 303). Regardless of that, the opinions oscillated between the positions ‘real classic’ and ‘no demo’ (cf. Pouet 2000–2013).
Animation as a Stand-Alone Category
Parallel to the pre-rendered add-ons to real-time generated demos, animation has developed into a stand-alone category. “Since the emergence of so-called wild compos (competitions with flexible rules) at parties the demoscene has increasingly produced video clips, with 3D animations and amateur short films being among the most common types.” (Reunanen 2010, 78). In the first years after their emergence (foremost at the Assembly demoparty in 1995), these ‘pure’ animation videos were released in the combined competitions which were called ‘wild’ or ‘animation’. This led to the following situation: A wide range of works were positioned next to each other.
Real-time demos on extraordinary platforms (e.g. gaming consoles, mobile phones, old home computers, LCD displays, cash machines etc.) were put right beside digital films with different degrees of post production, or fully animated works. So it came to pass that real-time productions, that did not fit into another competition and were shown in video format (only due to the lack of the specific hardware needed for running the real-time executable), had to be compared and voted for or against funny reports of the party events, traditional stop motion animations or digital generated imagery.
Demoparty organizers became aware of the situation and successively changed the competition categories and rules. First of all, the Assembly split up their ‘animation’-compo into two separate competitions. While it comprised pre-rendered animation as well as ‘wild’ platform demos before, these entries were separated into ‘animation’ and ‘wild demo’ in 1998. Surprisingly, they re-combined the compos (tagged ‘shortfilm compo’) again in 2004. In 2008 (until today) they returned to their split compo model for either ‘shortfilm’ or ‘wild demo’.
Nowadays, many demoparties maintain separate non-real-time animation competitions. For instance, the German Demoparty Evoke (taking place in Cologne every August) separated the ‘animation compo’ from the ‘wild compo’ in 2005. Demodays (formely Buenzli, taking place in Olten/Switzerland) host a ‘Mini-Animation’ as well as a ‘Non-real-time’ compo since 2011. According to their rules, the entries have to be pre-rendered and non-interactive. In their compo descriptions the Demodays organizers stated whom they want to address with these categories: “You might have a whole story line for a demo in your mind, but you’re no programmer? Get your animation software started and create that production anyway” (Echtzeit n.d.). Based on this statement, one could ask if animation videos have become kind of storyboards for real-time demos. Probably the answer has to be ‘no’. But the scene is interdisciplinary, and two main activities involved in being part of the scene are contributing to its cultural archive of (aesthetic) artefacts and gaining reputation for their productions. Therefore, it was just a matter of time – or rather of technological enhancements – that animation artists started to release their solo works in addition to their participation in real-time demo releases; among graphicians (graphic artists) and musicians this was common practice for a long time already.
So, animation has its place in the demoscene today – not only as an obfuscated part in real-time demos but as well as a stand-alone competition category with a notable amount of releases. Hence, it seems interesting to have a look at how the demoscene’s perspective on the topic of animation has changed since its beginnings.
Altering Opinions throughout the Years
In August 2012, there was a discussion on the demoscene forum Pouet.net about the question “How about adding an ‘Animation’ Genre here?” (daXX 2012). The thread dealt with the problematic situation of the wild category mentioned above and its transfer into the patterns of the digital archive. The question was, if the non-real-time category ‘wild’ should be split up into (a) pre-rendered computer animated productions done with 3D tools and (b) digitally filmed productions made with a camera and different degrees of post production.
Concerning the available categories for the uploads on Pouet.net, the discussion does not seem to be so necessary, since there are already possibilities for separating the productions: pure pre-rendered animation videos can be grouped as type ‘wild’ and platform ‘wild’ and a demo coded on an extraordinary platform can be categorized as type ‘demo’ and platform ‘wild’. However, apart from the remotely relevant question regarding the possibilities the archive offers, it is pretty insightful to have a closer look at this online discussion in order to get an idea of the current state of opinions on animation in the demoscene.
Do the animation-related discussions within the scene still oscillate between affirmation and rejection? Most of the sceners nowadays endorse good stand-alone animation pieces. There are only few demosceners arguing against animation.
Rudi B. Stranden (in the scene also known as rudi), one of the anti-animation-advocates, posted the following comment: “the point of real-time would be meaningless if pre rendered animation existed (as an important platform)” (Stranden 2012a). Further down he states: “doing things in real-time is such a big thing in the demoscene for it to take animation too seriously” (Stranden 2012b). Unsurprisingly, these arguments met opposition from most of the other sceners. The author of the PC Demoscene FAQ, Thomas Gruetzmacher, was right on target in answering: “Just because there’s cinema, doesn’t mean live theater is dead. Different mediums will always be complementary and coexist” (Gruetzmacher 2012a).
The dispute between the opponents and the advocates of animation is one of fairness of comparison. The demoscene is interdisciplinary and integrates a lot of disciplines which all have to cope with different limitations and challenges. The discussion quoted above put focus on the necessity to set up precise rules for any form and to steadily realise the distinctions of the creations. The point is not that some form will replace the other only because of technological developments. Both may coexist within the demoscene, but need to be judged differently in order to fit the scene’s competitive nature.
Maybe this criticism towards the narrow skills of the animators can be explained historically and again in connection to the demoscene’s real-time principle. In explaining the specific features of demos, Lassi Tasajärvi once stated that “[t]he viewer has to have an understanding of the real-time nature of the works, otherwise the viewer may demand the same things from a demo that they do from a video or animation” (Tasajärvi 2004, 20). Turning this statement upside down can give a hint on how some demosceners judge pure animation works. It could be that some expect non-real-time animations to show more complex and elaborate audiovisual quality, since they do not generate effects in real-time, as demos do, and thus have to consider fewer challenges.
Obviously, there is a clash of opinions on the assumption, that animation is a possibility for people with less skill to participate in the demoscene. In the above-mentioned Pouet-discussion on demoscene animation, Thomas Gruetzmacher stated: “Learning to code is not in any way more expensive or time consuming than learning to properly use a 3d animation package […] there’s no reason to not take it [non-real-time animation] seriously or dismiss it, because ‘democoders are not into it’.” (Gruetzmacher 2012b). Actually, it is not very prudent to make generalizations about who has to be more skillful, since the works created are pretty diverse. More proper would be to say that both face different problems and do require different skills.
Oliver Borgardts, the creator of the non-real-time CGI animation The Lacquerer (2011) posted a quite long statement in the thread, which can give a first-hand insight, not just on the issue of skills, but as well into the working process and the status of animation artists in the demoscene. Borgardts states:
it was a one man production and – trust me – really hard work to do […] the techniques / principles of animation – the knowledge you need to create something like that – in real-time or rendered – are the same. please don’t get me wrong. i have the deepest respect of the coders and groups doing the greatest stuff in real-time. but… doing quality stuff prerendered […] is not less valuable than doing stuff in real-time. so show some more respect please – or you’ll end up without good gfx artists and welcome back to coder colors ;) (Borgardts 2012)
Disregarding the somehow abrasive undertone in his defense, Borgardts touches a central issue in his closing sentences: the important role that animation artists (and new sceners in general, who do not have a coder background) played for the development of demo design.
On Some Peculiarities of the Demoscene’s Artefacts and Practices
At a first glance, the design of demoscene animations does not seem to vary so much in form, style, design, content or function compared to other CGI. Concerning the fully pre-rendered computer-generated animation works (and leaving out filmed party reports and the like), there are a lot of visual references to digital productions from outside of the scene that can hardly be told apart from each other.
Borgardts’ The Lacquerer has tight visual reference to Chris Cunnigham’s music video flex (2000) as well as to the morphing scenes of the character Mystique in the movie X-Men (2000). A lot of demos – due to their technological basis – do not distinguish from cutscenes or the game engine aesthetic of machinima films (see Dead on Que’s Fake Science (2002) or Tomislav Bezmalinovics Engine (2005)). And obviously, there are tight connections to the renowned CGI company Pixar, that is a sponsor of the scene’s server Scene.org. The people at Pixar Animation Studios do appreciate the work of the demoscene: they invited demosceners to visit the company in 2007, which is why demosceners gave the company’s mascot Luxo Jr. a ‘real-time life’ and brought it as a special gift. Finally, the visuals of the demo Elevated (2009) convinced Pixar to hire its programmer Iñigo Quilez for becoming ‘their gardener’, developing the scenery for the CGI movie Brave (2012).
As the references (may) illustrate, the skills of a demoscener are not only appraised and voted for inside of the scene but as well from the outside creative industries. This observation is accompanied by the conclusion that there is no aesthetic principle that counts as valid for the scene only and in its entirety. The demoscene is much too diverse and their productions are influenced by a whole lot of things. However, there are examples from the demoscene’s subcategory of animation that can unearth some general aspect of demoscene artefacts and practices.
Experimenting with geometric, abstract forms or typography and the physical (mis-)behaviour of these elements seem to be an essential ingredient in a lot of demoscene animations. Many demoscene animations make use of classic demo effects in order to ‘win the hearts’ of their audience, as e.g. the stop-motion works of Gaspode can illustrate. In his productions, he uses demo effects as a topic by analogously re-building them (see Noodles (2010) or Sugar Shock (2013)). These productions are very popular within the scene, certainly for reasons of self-perception. On the contrary, non-demoscenish computer-generated works and digital film productions put focus upon storytelling.
Nevertheless, this is not to say that a canonical set of effects has necessarily to be shown in demoscene-related animations in order to be appraised by scene members. The beforehand mentioned The Lacquerer, for instance, does not show demo effects but is without exception voted with ‘thumbs up’. Rather, another aspect of successful demoscene animations seems to be operative in this case: synchronisation between audio and visual effects. This is perhaps the most central criterion for appraisal, which is hardly surprising since it is a main aspect of real-time demos as well. JCO’s animation work Visual Approach to the Aesthetics of Sampling (2013) may serve as an example here.
Another characteristic trait is non-commerciality and that animations have to be done for the scene only – thereby animations follow the overall demoscene ‘ethic’. This, too, marks a main difference to other CGI festivals (such as the Ars Electronica Animation Festival), where commercial pieces are voted side-by-side to amateur works. The problem, though, is not that demoscene productions cannot compete with professional works; albeit such an approach is somehow untenable. Instead, the social context of the community and the non-commercial DIY production method play a central role in the demoscene. Perhaps this is a central reason, as to why some CGI artists decide to release their animation videos in the demoscene and not elsewhere. The aim not to be subsumed by other real-time 3D animation scenes may count as valid for the animation antagonists as well. From their point of view, the wish to maintain the purity/clarity of the demoscene can be better achieved by sticking to the social circle/structure of the scene, than by fulfilling the historically necessitated aesthetic principles.
Summing It up
Real-time in itself is an important attribute for executable demos and intros, but – concerning the context of the scene – cannot count as an all-dominant criterion labelling the demoscene in its entirety. More than that, the eponymous demonstration seems to be the aim in effect here. All the demoscene works exemplarily show how the scene’s urge to continually outdo each other is constituted by at least three factors of demonstrating: demonstration of the maker’s technical skills, of their innovative concepts, and of exploiting the technological possibilities up to levels never seen before. Additionally, sceners like to see some ‘scene tradition’, for instance, canonical effects or insider stories or jokes. These are the things that demosceners appraise and that count in the positive or negative voting of a production – be it a pre-rendered or a real-time animation work. These are the parameters that serve as the demarcation of demoscene-related productions from other forms of digital animation.
Borgardts, Olli (aka cosmicollie). 2012, August 15, 4:11 p.m., comment on daXX 2012.
Botz, Daniel. 2011. Kunst, Code und Maschine: Die Ästhetik der Computer-Demoszene. Bielefeld: Transcript.
Carlsson, Anders. 2009. “The Forgotten Pioneers of Creative Hacking and Social Networking – Introducing the Demoscene.” In Re:live: Media Art Histories 2009. Refereed Conference Proceedings, edited by Sean Cubitt, and Paul Thomas, 16–20. Melbourne: University of Melbourne, and Victorian College of the Arts and Music.
Gruetzmacher, Thomas (aka tomaes). 2012a (August 14, 8:35 p.m.), comment on daXX 2012.
Gruetzmacher, Thomas (aka tomaes). 2012b (August 15, 7:36 a.m.), comment on daXX 2012.
Hastik, Canan, and Steinmetz, Arnd. 2012. “Demoscene Computer Artists and Community.” In Proceedings of Collaborative European Research Conference 2012, edited by Patrick Bours, Bernhard Humm, Robert Loew, Ingo Stengel, and Paul Walsh, 43–48. Darmstadt. Accessed November 31, 2013. http://canan.hastik.de/science/cerc2012.pdf.
Lasseter, John. 1987. “Principles of Traditional Animation Applied to 3D Computer Animation”. ACM SIGGRAPH Computer Graphics 21(4), 35–44.
Leonard, Jim (aka Trixter). 2006. Audio comment on Voyage by Razor 1911. In Mindcandy Vol. 2: Amiga Demos. DVD, Fusecon.
Manovich, Lev. 2001. The Language of New Media. Cambridge (MA): MIT Press.
Steapleton, Carl. 2008. “The Art of Demos.“ In ApoV – Amiga Point of View, edited by Adrian Simpson, No. 3, 74–85.
Stranden, Rudi B. (aka rudi). 2012a (August 14, 4:22 p.m.), comment on daXX 2012.
Stranden, Rudi B. (aka rudi). 2012b (August 15, 0:08 a.m.), comment on daXX 2012.
Tasajärvi, Lassi (ed.). 2004. DEMOSCENE: the art of real-time. Helsinki: Even Lake Studios and katastro.fi.
Whereas the Scene.org Awards dropped this category.
Matt Westcott aka gasman, one of the makers of the new platform http://demozoo.org, said that they implemented an even better categorization ontology (in daXX 2012, August 14, 01:49 p.m.).
In any case, this should not be mistaken as an apology for worse quality productions as – for example – the early machinima community argued.
The same thing can be said about/on the influence that musicians have on scene productions.
Interestingly, this even works the other way around: When 3D artists (by using tools as 3ds Max or After Effects) show visual effects similar to the kinds of demoscene effects, there is a good chance that sceners will like it (e.g. see the videos of Korean artist Ishu Yoon). Another example is the ‘import’ of works from fractalforums.com to the Evoke 2013 compo timeline.
Party reports, that are as well released in the animation-category, are appraised for exactly this same reason.
Voting behaviour at parties as well as the difference with regard to the forum could be a topic for a whole article, though I do not dare to say too much about it here.
How would you explain demoscene artworks? One way is an euphoric individual statement, a personal story linked to a demo art production with an enormous amount of detailed technical background information. Another way is to browse through pouet.net or demozoo.org and show some representative works. For a clearer understanding of demo artworks both are necessary: the overview with as much contextual information as possible and some explicit details. This is how demoscene material should be accessible and explorable: in different levels of detail and through different views. The MEGA Demoage Project is dedicated to providing as many views as possible on the scene, to make the sociological and technological aspects as well as the artworks themselves searchable and comprehensible. This article wants to present some new distant as well as close views on demo art material to support communication about demoscene phenomena. Focusing on the aesthetic aspects of demos, a qualitative analysis has been done by examining visual effects, sequences, composition, and scene changes as well as other attributes like brightness and colour usage in demos.
The demoscene is a historically grown digital sub-cultural art scene producing highly elaborated real-time computer generated applications along with music and graphics. Demoscene productions can be seen as computer generated audiovisual media art. Today there are over 53.452 known demoscene productions (status 30th of December 2013), according to Pouet.net. The original source code of demoscene artworks is rarely available. Instead, different versions can be downloaded as executable binary or video files based on different compression algorithms. Particularly the demoscene is an example of networked collaborative artistic creation processes on the Internet taking advantage of technological opportunities, constantly producing new genres and promoting the development of trends. There are different types of demos. These types correspond to a sub-classification and represent specific characteristics of a demo like hardware platform characteristics, size and aesthetics.
Demos are representative for scene specific aesthetics, technical culture and the diverse usage of platforms, and they rarely communicate stories or messages (Reunanen 2010). The almost overwhelming variety of demo artworks illustrates the evolution of design principles and techniques. Until now demo artworks have not been thematically classified yet. It can be determined that demo productions are often inspired by science fiction, fantasy and comics (Borzyskowski 2000). Especially visual effects together with music shape the aesthetics of demo artworks (Botz 2011). The development of new elaborate visually and technically impressive effects depends on the underlying hardware and is one important technique for sceners. As a scene expert you have to know as many demos as possible and know at least the most important demos to get a feeling about the development of styles and aesthetics in the past.
There is no effect database you can access, and communication about demo effects is not simple. The term “effect” is used arbitrarily and a comprehensive definition of the term “demo effect” is still missing. One reason might be that digital art is still a young field and any effort to define terminology that is used within this discipline risks rapid obsolescence, is rather ambiguous or context dependent due to the fact that digital art is a mesh of many different disciplines like traditional animation, computer animation, image processing, photography, computer science, electronics, physics just to name few (Brinkmann, 1999). Another reason might be that certain technical platforms have their specific aesthetic dimensions (Monfort and Bogost 2009) which need to be opened up. It is well known that when artists develop their ideas further current definitions are often being replaced (Berger 1987), but the recognition of the particular structure of objects in visual arts is of fundamental importance. So how could someone, for example, find a certain effect in demos?
The research presented here contributes to the development of a multifaceted access to domain knowledge about the demoscene. Therefore a classical approach for generating access to content has been used and tested on demos. The goal is to develop an automated or semi-automated subject analysis methodology for demos to make scene knowledge easily accessible in the future.
Manual Subject Analysis
The classic method for generating a close view on the content of any media is manual subject analysis. The transcription in form of a protocol to transfer audiovisual content in a textual form is also necessary in film analysis. In particular, the listing of film sequences based on a timeline is used to describe the structure of a film (Faulstich 2004). Media objects are described or classified by representative terms or short annotations. These key terms form a controlled vocabulary for use in bibliographic records. For demoscene effects a collection of index terms exists (Reunanen 2010). In the field of digital composition a glossary is also available (Brinkmann 1999). With these terms typical notions of demos can be explained and described. Manual subject analysis needs to be done either by experts or professionals in the field of new media production. Ideally, artists index their demoscene productions themselves.
Within a sample case study a selection of 26 demos has been manually analysed and indexed by scene experts and games & animation students (Table 1). The visual effects of six Atari VCS demos have been identified by two sceners. The other fourteen Atari VCS demos have been analysed by students. Furthermore, six demos on different platforms have been described by students. In combination with an index term a screenshot and the exact timestamp have been documented.
Human Traffic, Batman Forver, Chaos Theory, numb res, MGC 2011, Uncovering Static
Table 1. Selection of demos analysed by experts and professionals.
This case study shows diverse, heterogeneous and partially incorrect results. Some demos were analysed frame by frame instead of based on the individual runtime. Particularly the students’ results do not include appropriate index terms used to describe effects and effect compositions. Nevertheless, this case study shows three levels of how effects can and should be described. Integrating screenshots of effects exemplifies the technical term or description and supports comprehension. The time-exact definition of terms and screenshots is a major aspect in indexing demos. The underlying idea is to guarantee direct access to the designated effect. Therefore, the resource needs to be clearly identifiable and thus be archived because for example a single time shift in relation to wrong frame rates and runtime will result in incorrect indexes. In Figure 1 the screenshot shows one demo effect routine which can be described using one single term.
Several effects are often combined like in Figure 2. In this case, more than one key term is necessary to describe a certain effect composition.
For more complex effect compositions a short annotation is necessary in order to describe demo graphics like in Figure 3.
Manual subject analysis offers a close view on demoscene material. The subject terms are technical terms used in contemporary media art production. This makes these terms not generally understandable. Short annotations are useful to describe complex demo effects. Sound and music, too, should be considered in textual descriptions because only the combination of visual effects and music shapes the overall atmosphere of a demo. Unfortunately, this method is much too extensive when we think about retrospectively analysing all demos published so far. Experts or, ideally, producers need to support this approach to enable access to demos especially regarding the effects used. Maybe a crowd sourcing project like Metadata Games (Metadata 2014) could be an option, but how can this elaborate process be accelerated, simplified and maybe even automated?
Automatic indexing of large scale born-digital material, especially images, audiovisual collections or user-generated content, has emerged as a new field of study, and is now predominantly occupied by commercial companies, such as Google (Lazer 2009). Primary sources are provided in research infrastructures for exploratory analysis and empirical research of multimedia, complex and user-generated content, dialogues and interpretations (Prescott 2012). The vast amount of cultural content like conversations, opinions and other cultural activities offer new opportunities towards a better understanding of cultural processes, models and the past. Therefore, traditional paradigms need to be expanded to make new approaches (Berry 2011). But there is still no solution to the automated indexing of computer-generated art like demo artwork.
Visualisation takes a key role in accessing big cultural data and helps to question specific cultural phenomena. There are already techniques to analyse massive visual collections of still or moving images. Especially the time-lapse technique for still images, first developed by Georges Méliés in 1897, and the concept of slow motion for moving images, invented by August Musger in 1904, are indispensable. Both techniques are changing the time scale of the underlying material and result in storytelling of another dimension (Becker 2012). While time-lapse offers new perspectives through a series of still images and makes slow changes, variations and modifications visible by increasing the frequency of images, slow motion is used for fast moving images to recapture key moments or to make certain phenomena visible and document them. As slow motion makes imperceptible changes visible the method can be described as a microscopic examination of time (Storfer 1911). It seems reasonable to convert demo videos into single images to make those short audiovisual effect sequences easier to process.
Certain tools for the exploratory analysis of massive cultural datasets have been developed since 2007 by Software Studies Initiative (Lab 2007), with example projects in the field of Manga books, painting or user-created art. So why not use the software ImageJ/ImagePlot by Lev Manovich to visualize demos and generate new views for finding basic approaches to the automated analysis of demos in the future? The analysis of digital images by Lev Manovich (Manovich 2007) provides possibilities to analyse different images and image sequences. Image sequences in the form of videos need to be stripped down into single images.
Demos are generally based on different frame rates (fps), such as 25 fps, 30 fps, 50 fps or even 60 fps. Therefore, each demo needs to be processed individually to ensure that the frame count of the resource is the same as the volume of all single images. As sources, if available, youtube videos published by the original authors and alternatively emulator recordings were used. Commercial software like Adobe After Effects CS6 (Adobe 2014) and free tools like VLC media player (VideoLan 2014) or FFmpeg (ffmpeg 2014) allow to convert video files into a sequence of single images or key frames. Key frames are images within a video stream that exist as a whole instead of a delta (changed areas only) of the last image and help to identify scenes within a movie. The rate of key frames within a video stream depends on the codec, bitrate of the stream, and other factors.
For complete image sequences, the higher the frame rate of a demo is, the more single images have been extracted. In this process some demos consist of several thousand images. These single images were reduced to a manageable size considering the original aspect ratio and have been imported into ImageJ. In the following process montages, orthographic projections and histograms were generated using ImageJ and ImagePlot.
ImageJ provides different possibilities to analyse images. One basic way for an analysis is to create montages of the image sequence. Each frame can be arranged in a chronologic order. The montage of a demo resembles a storyboard that displays the general composition of each demo. Instead of having access to 35 manually indexed or annotated screenshots, these montages make it is possible to capture hundreds or thousands single images of the demo at once.
The example in Figure 4 shows a montage of the Atari VCS demo Doctor. This montage allows identifying different sections, such as text scenes, used pictures and effects. The montage clearly shows the overall usage of shapes as well as colour settings. Breaks are represented by black images. In addition, the montage gives an overview of the demo concept and the time used for credits and greetings in relation to the total runtime. It can be seen how often certain scenes have been reused.
The montage of Stella Lives!, presented in Figure 5, shows how colourful this demo is. The saturation and colour gradients are changing over the total length of the demo. Especially the yellow-brown tone present in almost every picture is obvious. It also becomes clear that there are different sections in the beginning, which are introduced or separated by text scenes, and in the end there are different effects directly after each other as in a show reel. The relative length of the scenes and the transitions between scenes are recognizable.
Another montage view of Stella Lives!, as shown in Figure 6, displays only the key frames of the different scenes within the demo. The montage is reduced to a minimum of relevant frames. The composition of the demo gets transparent and understandable at a glance. The repetitions of scenes are getting clear. In addition, the arrangement consisting of effect scenes mostly followed by a textual or credit screen becomes obvious.
The montage of Beam Racer in Figure 7 shows no certain pattern of composition compared to Stella Lives! It is recognizable that the demo is based on one single scene with a series of similar effects. The demo shows a massive presence of so-called “coder colours”, meaning the programmer of the demo probably chose the colour scheme and visuals himself instead of relying on a graphics artist. This often results in very colourful screens using the whole RGB spectrum. Most of the textual statements displayed in the demo can also be captured from the montage.
The montage of Saigon, as presented in Figure 8, includes 3540 images. It illustrates how the screen animations are changing frame by frame. Slow animations with little movement are hardly traceable in this montage, whereas fast animations are clearly noticeable. Also text, blending effects and repeats become visible. It can be recognized that this demo is more monochromatic than, for example, Beam Racer. All the scenes, transitions and effects seem well balanced colour-wise while not appearing too colourful. The scenes are well determinable.
The montage of drip.bin in Figure 9 represents the individual atmosphere of the demo. Fast movements, turnarounds and gradient changes of the cascading graphical elements increase the psychedelic atmosphere of the demo. In the middle of the demo the interval of colour changes is shorter and the gradient changes up to 90 degrees. The montage is like a rainbow-coloured kaleidoscopic mosaic. Repeating sinus lines within an always similar colour space can be noticed. The whole demo is based on frequent and iterative use of different colours. It seems that the same program code runs in a permanent loop with just a slight colour shift. At the beginning and the end the composition changes slightly.
Through the montage of Human Traffic, shown in Figure 10, a total of ten different scenes can be identified. Blue is the dominating colour in this demo, and there are only one red and two yellow-green scenes in addition. The montage indicates that the demo is quite sequential and follows a fixed rhythm. There are no big variations to the screen action.
In summary, it can be said that the montage of a demo image sequence shows the general composition of the demo artwork. Patterns, such as scenes, text, blending effects, saturation, colour gradient and changes as well as graphical elements (e.g. sinus lines) and pictures can be identified and analysed in detail by zooming into the montage. Differences and variations can be noticed easily.
Much more detail about the spatial relationships among objects within scenes can be extracted by visualizing demo material as sliced frames, which are then put together in an orthogonal XZ- or YZ-projection view. At first glance, this visualisation seems to be confusing. Orthographic projections are mainly used to represent three-dimensional objects in two dimensions and are useful for identifying how objects are building up and moving horizontally and vertically. An orthogonal projection gives an interesting perspective of the demo as you can clearly see changes of settings and transformations in relation to time and space. The orthogonal XZ-view uses one horizontal (X) slice from the centre of each image and adds every line underneath the last one in a chronological order along the Y-axis (Z). The YZ-view uses vertical lines (Y) from the source images to display the time (Z) along the X-axis.
The orthogonal XZ-view of Human Traffic, as presented in Figure 11, gives a good impression of each section of the demo. Again, each scene becomes clearly identifiable. It is traceable how the pictures within a demo are building up horizontally line by line. In addition, with the orthogonal XZ-view, the scrolling of 2D images can be identified.
Figure 12 pictures the orthogonal XZ-view of numb res. The projection shows how particle elements are moved over the screen and then disappear. Especially the transitions of the organic objects become visible in this view. It becomes very obvious that the whole demo consists of particle effects. The movement of the particles along the X-axis can be recognized, but it is not possible to identify text or objects.
The orthogonal YZ-projection, shown in Figure 13, reveals how long each scene takes. White particles on a black background a building up to images and text. Moreover, the text is clearly readable and the images are recognizable. This indicates that objects are built-up in a horizontal way.
In summary, the orthogonal views give an interesting distant view of the demo composition. Scrolling through time also reveals the changes in the different settings at different points of the picture. With these views, demos can be analysed from a distance without watching the whole demo over and over again. Patterns, particular characteristics, styles and other technical features are recognizable.
The special Z-Projection Sum Slice function shows which areas of the screen are mainly used for the demo. In the example case, Saigon, the centre of the screen is used most frequently. The scrolling text element uses the entire width of the screen. In particular, the lettering catches the eye. It is repeatedly used in the demo and functions as a watermark across the entire presentation (Figure 14).
Besides methods, such as montage and projection, which are proven to be quite useful for a visualisation of demo features, there are much more possibilities which can be reasonable for individual analyses. Some functions calculate numeric results on properties, such as brightness or colour changes, or give values for the complexity of an image. These numeric results can be used to calculate and display colour density or grayscale calibration of demos in histograms.
Colour histograms visualize the used colour spectrum and settings within a demo. With the median function the average brightness and contrast values can be determined. In live mode, for example, the demo can be interactively analysed in several dimensions and with regards to motion.
Analysing Human Traffic regarding the brightness over time, as shown in Figure 15, indicates an organic gradient of colour and brightness with smooth transformations. Some scene changes are very dark. The highlights of the demo composition and the density of used effects become clearly visible with this view.
Summary and Results
Manual subject analyses of demo effects, based on a predefined corpus of descriptors using time stamps and screenshots, are a common method to enable access to media content and to support communication about media objects. It has to be pointed out that meaningful results are caused by the combination of controlled terminology with time-exact images. Descriptions vary between one or more key terms and short annotations explaining compositions. One advantage is that sound can be included in the analysis. A disadvantage is that the analysis is reduced to the perception and knowledge of the analyst. This can lead to misinterpretations and deficits. Furthermore, this method is far too time-consuming and should only be executed by experts.
At the moment there is no way to automatically analyse, extract, annotate and describe relevant features from demos. But automated image montage tools, such as ImageJ, offer promising functions to analyse demos frame by frame with regard to time, motion, composition, colour and more. Visualising these aspects provides a good overview about the general characteristics of a demo.
To sum it up, demos can be accessed quite efficiently by using automated image analysis. When analysing sequences of effects used in demos the most helpful functions of ImageJ are montage, orthogonal projection and a gradient histogram of colour and brightness. It is no longer necessary to watch the demo or video again and again to capture as much information as possible. The automated visualisation shows key frames, coherence, repetitions and sequences explicitly. Especially for longer demos, these functions are meaningful.
However, there are a number of issues when dealing with huge amounts of images. First of all, the process needs more preparation, because it is not possible to import video material directly into ImageJ and sound cannot be processed at all. Secondly, even if demos usually have a runtime of approximately three minutes, large amounts of data must be managed. Similar to the problem that the eye has limits when viewing video sequences over time, there are also restrictions in the perception of single images. As shown in the case of demos that feature light effects and smooth transitions, the montage visualization does not work very well. In particular, small objects as well as slight and irregular movements become better visible when watching video sequences.
Still, to understand these complex visualisations some context information as well as knowledge about the technical aspects of a demo and the underlying data is necessary. In addition to the form or visual characteristics, as Lev Manovich’s concept of automatic image analysis does, the production and presentation practices as well as the socio-cultural context of demoscene artwork are also relevant.
In conclusion, it can be said both approaches provide only conditionally meaningful results by generating distant and close views on demos. But both methods can complement each other perfectly. One possible use case could be to analyse scenes in demos and extract key frames automatically and then manually describe these key frames using index terms.
Anyhow, the visualisation of massive cultural data sets provides a general overview about the underlying material and presents new views which help us to question cultural phenomena. Manual subject analyses can be seen as high quality annotation of specific material and offers the possibility to research and compare demos regarding defined aesthetic aspects. Experimenting with automatic frame-based analyses is important for finding attributes and algorithms to support the development of future fully-automated analysis tools.
Still, neither of these methods is able to carry the whole atmosphere contained in a demo. To get the right impression which is mainly based on sound and tempo of a demo it is essential to watch that demo, preferably on the original hardware, not as a video.
This paper is the first attempt at using ImageJ for the automated analysis of demos. It should be inspiring for others, from artists to analysts. A more elaborate analysis on the results will follow soon – there is plenty more that can be said about the projections.
In the context of the MEGA Demoage Project an ontology describing the production and presentation practices as well as socio-cultural structures of the demoscene culture has been developed (Hastik 2013). This model functions as a metadata schema for integrating and merging different heterogeneous sources which are relevant for the demoscene. It offers detailed terminology and can be extended with other glossaries or classifications. Furthermore, all objects within this ontology can be described in detail including demo effects, either processed with ImageJ or annotated manually.
I would like to express my special thanks to the games and animation students at University of Applied Sciences Darmstadt from the Technology and Society practical seminar in summer term 2013: Björn Biling, Stefan Horn, Pascal Bogensprenger, Lars Möller, Jörn Dürig, Sarah Schaack, Nicola Sebastian Pirker, Hendrik Großkurth, Felica Handelmann, Bianca Galloy, and the Atari sceners Svolli and Jac! who participated in this analysis.
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The so-called 4k intros are real-time audiovisual presentations that fit in four kilobytes. They have mostly been created by the demoscene, a technically-oriented community that emerged in the mid-1980s. In this article I study the history and cultural importance of 4k intros as a marginal form of digital art.
Two to the power of twelve, 4096 bytes, is a tiny amount of data: approximately as much as a row of pixels on a computer screen or a page of text. These days, when applications and media files consume gigabytes of disk space, it might be hard to think that one could fit something meaningful in just four kilobytes, or that there would even be a need for such compression.
4k intros, real-time audiovisual presentations created by the demoscene, a community formed in the mid-1980s, could be called miniatures of the digital age. In this article I discuss them, on the one hand, as cultural-historical artifacts that reflect the changes of the technological landscape and the demo culture itself and, on the other hand, as creative works of art that have let their authors exhibit their wizardry to others. In addition to a historical overview, I will focus on various tools and approaches that have been used to tackle the challenge of four kilobytes. Most of the discussion will revolve around intros created for IBM PC compatible computers due to their popularity, and because they illustrate the development of computing power and the graphical capabilities of mainstream computers starting from the early 1990s in the best way.
By definition, a 4k intro is an executable file that is at most 4096 bytes in length, including all the code, graphics and audio needed. In spite of their minuscule size, the best 4k intros are remarkably advanced, featuring several visual effects and music that sounds larger than its size, combined into a tightly synchronized audiovisual presentation (see Fig. 1). Two essential keywords that define the content are generativity and compression: both the graphics and sound are generated algorithmically and, in addition, the size of the code is optimized with special purpose-built tools.
Full-blown demos have grown in size year by year, whereas tiny intros have rather taken an opposite direction. Traditional 40k and 64k intros have been followed by 4k and even smaller categories, such as 1k intros, where all the content must fit in 1024 bytes. Even smaller powers of two are common: at Pouet.net (http://www.pouet.net/), a popular demoscene site, there are also categories for 512, 256, 128, 64, and finally 32 byte intros. These extremely small productions typically feature only one seemingly impossible visual effect that has been painstakingly hand-optimized byte by byte. These clearly defined categories also highlight how important it is for the demoscene to classify its works. (Reunanen 2010, 52–57.)
All in all, computer demos are a marginal research topic and, judging by the existing publications, 4k intros are in the margin of the margin. As an example, the two largest demoscene books, Freax (Polgar 2005) and Kunst, Code und Maschine (Botz 2011) hardly mention the topic at all. In my own licentiate thesis (Reunanen 2010, 52–57) there are a few pages dedicated to size-limited intros, but in general there is little research on the intros. One of the most interesting texts published on the topic is the interview of Sebastian “Minas” Gerlach, published in the SCEEN magazine, where the author of several high-ranking 4k intros describes his working methods (SCEEN #2 2007, 72–75). In addition to Pouet.net, important source material was found in IN4K (http://in4k.northerndragons.ca/), a collection of tools and tips for 4k intro programmers.
My personal connection to 4k intro programming dates back to 2003–2005, when I created three intros with Antti Silvast. The first of them, Yellow Rose of Texas (2003), clearly required the most hours, whereas the following two, Je Regrette (2004) and Make It 4k (2005), were experiments built on the already existing foundation. All three were first released for Linux, after which they were ported to other hardware and software platforms. Some of the ports were made by other enthusiasts in the spirit of open source software. These projects provided me with plenty of hands-on experience on the numerous challenges that limited size poses to audiovisual programming and the tools used.
4k Intros Then and Now
Modest technical features, such as minimal processing power and memory, of the 1960s and 1970s computers severely limited the means available to early computer artists and, therefore, digital art of the time is marked by minimalism. In addition to technical reasons, such minimalism was also a conscious choice: according to new media theorist Lev Manovich, the roots of the esthetic can be traced back to the modernism of the late 19th and early 20th century, which steered all visual arts into a minimalist direction. The first overview of the emerging art form, Computer Graphics – Computer Art, was written by Herbert W. Franke (1971). The pioneering works by artists such as Charles Csuri and John Whitney appear, in spite of their age, somehow familiar when compared to 4k intros; mathematically generated graphics and limited resources produced a similar esthetic 25 years later (cf. Saarikoski 2011).
For today’s tiny intro programmer the size limit is a completely arbitrary rule set by the community, but similar constraints found in early video game consoles and home computers were due to their technical features. In their book Racing the Beam Nick Montfort and Ian Bogost mention familiar figures about the Atari VCS game console: the 6507 CPU could address only eight kilobytes of memory, many games fit in two kilobytes and the maximum size of a standard cartridge was four kilobytes (Montfort & Bogost 2009, 25–26). Just like with tiny intros, we are dealing with powers of two. In addition to their mathematical properties, such numbers are also a way of understanding the complex internal workings of the computer, which leads to repeating them even in contexts where there are few technical reasons for their use.
The demoscene was preceded by a few years by the cracker scene, which was first characterized by so-called crack screens, static images placed in pirated games. Later on, in the mid-1980s, the screens developed into flashy crack intros. An intro, shown before the actual game started, could be described as a business card of the group that had removed the copy protection and distributed the game. Crack intros served multiple social purposes, such as increasing the status of the group, as well as forming and maintaining the social networks of software pirates. (Polgar 2005, 40–70; Reunanen 2010, 22–23.) Limited storage and memory led, again, to a certain minimalism. In addition, cracked games were compressed in order to save precious disk space (Wasiak 2012). Another example of tiny executables is the so-called BBS intros, ads that were circulated in Bulletin Board Systems (Reunanen 2010, 52). Based on this, I argue that size optimization has been at the very core of the demoscene right from the beginning.
According to Pouet.net, the first actual 4k intros were created in the early 1990s. At STNICC, an Atari ST hobbyist meeting held in 1990, there was a 3.5 kilobyte programming competition with a nostalgic title “VIC Times Revisited” (A Commodore VIC-20 reports 3583 bytes of free memory after starting up). Some of the works were games and some intros, which reveals how the practices had not yet settled at that time. One of the participants was British Jeff Minter, better known for his unique llama and camel games. After the STNICC, the category was practically forgotten for a few years before it became part of competitions (compos) held at demo parties.
4k intros turned from a casual curiosity into a relevant competition largely because of Assembly’94, one of the biggest demo parties of the time. Already at the Bush Party of the same year there had been a 4k compo, but Assembly brought intros to the limelight. As was typical of the era, the competitions were split by the platform and, therefore, the category was called “PC 4k”. In the results (Assembly 94 results, pouet.net) there are only eleven intros, but there were other participants whose works did not make it past the jury. Stoned by the German group Dust came out as the winner. The intro features typical demo effects of the time, such as an image rotator, a tunnel and a Mandelbrot fractal, which was often seen in contemporary music videos, too (Fig. 2). The following year the rest of the big parties, The Gathering and The Party, included 4k intros among their competitions, and they became a permanent part of the demoscene canon.
The ever-changing computer market and technological development affect 4k intros, but with a certain delay, since the demoscene does not adopt new technology instantly without criticism. Reunanen and Silvast (2009) discuss the topic in depth and mention a critical attitude toward mainstream computing and the purported ease brought by new computers as two reasons for the change resistance. Based on the competition results archived at Pouet.net, the gradual decay of the Amiga led to the dominance of MS-DOS based intros at big parties toward the end of the 1990s. Separate Amiga and PC competitions were combined into one. At the same time, 4k intros were adopted by retro computer scenes and started appearing for the Commodore 64 and the ZX Spectrum. There had been plenty of small intros for both even earlier, but not as a clearly-defined category.
One of the most fundamental paradigm shifts in the history of the demoscene is the transition from low-level “hardware banging” to system-friendly programming around the beginning of the millennium, fueled by the popularity of Microsoft Windows that did not allow for direct hardware access anymore. The shift was by no means painless and it required several years of accommodation. One important factor was the rise of affordable 3D accelerator cards, since their interesting features could only be used through the programming interfaces provided by new operating systems. (Reunanen 2010, 92–96.) Likewise, other services, such as audio APIs (Application Programming Interface), changed the essence of tiny intros dramatically, as there was no longer a need to program everything from scratch if a suitable component was already offered by the system.
As of this writing, in 2013, 4k intros are still relevant for the demoscene. According to the statistics gathered from Pouet.net by Bent Stamnes (2013), approximately a hundred new intros are released every year, and so it seems that they will not disappear anytime soon. The audiovisual quality of 4k intros has climbed so high – “4k is the new 64k” – that the focus seems to be shifting towards the next, even more challenging category, 1k intros, that have not yet been explored in the same depth. For example, at Assembly 2012 there were significantly more works in the 1k competition than in the 4k (Assembly 2012 results, pouet.net). In addition to the joy of discovery, it seems likely that the workload involved in the creation of a full-scale 4k intro has become discouraging for authors. Another recent competition category, “procedural graphics”, where the aim is to generate an impressive static image in little space, can be seen as another example of the demoscene going back to its roots.
It is practically impossible to include media files, such as digital video, sound clips, pre-made 3D models or even static images, in four kilobytes, and so the typical working methods of the new media field do not suit this context. The most important means of creating impressive visual effects is to generate them instead: objects, patterns and movement can be created with the creative use of mathematical functions, random numbers and fractals. In the heart of this kind of process is the programmer, whose creativity and skill mostly dictate the quality of the outcome.
When creating the aforementioned 4k intros, we quickly discovered another strategy that was refined already when some of the effects were used for visualizing music at concerts and clubs a few years earlier. The strategy was parametrization. In the context of concert visuals parametrization refers to altering the same content progressively so that it is possible to prolong the performance without additional material. Likewise, in the case of 4k intros precious data and code can be reused in multiple ways to provide the viewer an illusion of multiple effects. Typical means for parametrization are, for example, changing the color palette, mirroring the graphics, modifying and copying 3D objects using mathematical formulas, changing the camera angle and filtering the output in various ways. In other words, the content is not hard coded, but its parameters are left open and modified during the execution of the program.
Computational generation of graphics produces a distinctive, recognizable esthetic that is marked by abstraction: organic figures, such as lifelike human models, are tedious to generate. Thus, it is not surprising that most 4k intros do not even aim at replicating real-world objects, but are rather based on abstract forms instead. As a counterexample we could consider the numerous 3D landscapes that may appear very convincing at their best. Other real-world objects and phenomena that lend themselves to algorithmic generation are, for example, regular plants (Prusinkiewicz & Lindenmayer 1990), waves, clouds, buildings and mechanical machines, which have all appeared in both tiny intros and procedural graphics.
In the history of computer graphics there are numerous examples of similar approaches to creating photorealistic images, especially since the 1980s (see Goodman 1987, 102–164; Foley et al. 1996, color plates 12–41). Karl Sims’ animations, such as Particle Dreams (1988) and Panspermia (1990) are based on algorithmically generated imagery, and their at least indirect effect on demos is easy to notice. Another well-known case of algorithmic art is the works by Laurent Mignonneau and Christa Sommerer, who have brought art and technology together since the early 1990s. The typical division of labor between a programmer and an artist is alien to Mignonneau, Sommerer and the demoscene: the role of code is not hidden, but it is considered as an experimental and creative tool on its own (cf. Mignonneau & Sommerer 2006)
Currently, the most popular 4k intro at Pouet.net is Elevated, released in 2009 by TBC and rgba. The intro serves as a good example of the algorithmic generation and parametrization of real-time visuals. A virtual camera pans in a believable snowy landscape shown from multiple angles (Fig. 3). There is water in the valleys, clouds in the sky, mist in the air and the sun reflects from the surfaces – all typical means of increasing realism in computer-generated imagery, but this time implemented in a minimal amount of bytes. Music plays in the background and supports the illusion with its echo and wind sounds. Iñigo “iq” Quiles, the other programmer of Elevated, discussed the technology and production process of the intro in his presentation at the Function demo event in 2009 (Quilez 2009).
The development of mainstream hardware and software has undeniably affected the amount and types of content that can be included in 4k intros. Traditional MS-DOS and Amiga intros had to be self-contained, whereas modern PC operating systems are bundled with multiple useful components, such as libraries, fonts and compression software, which take some load off the programmer. As an example, in the case of 3D graphics the difference is radical: back in the day, everything had to be created from scratch, whereas these days equal or better functionality is available through standard API calls. The use of external components has transformed 4k intros and, at times, led to bitter arguments between the traditional do-it-yourself ethic and pushing the genre’s limits (Some thoughts on 4k competition rules, pouet.net).
Most 4k intros were silent until the end of the 1990s and, thus, rather ascetic compared to other demos; the tightly-knit interplay between visuals and audio is the main point of many productions. Still in the Assembly’98 competition rules (Assembly’98 Official Invitation Text, ftp.scene.org) the controversial situation was justified as follows:
NO MUSIC or other sound is allowed (this is because this a coders’ competition, not musicians’)
Behind this arbitrary constraint was apparently the idea that programmers, musicians and graphic artists should each have one dedicated individual competition, as full-blown demos are usually created by teams. After 2000 music finally started becoming an integral part of 4k intros, which increased the already high requirements of the category even further: in addition to visual effects you had to fit in a tune and a sound player routine.
Creating music in tight space heavily depends on the underlying software and hardware platform. Home computers of the early 1980s typically contained a sound chip with a few channels and different waveforms that would produce recognizable, characteristic sound. In the case of the Commodore Amiga and modern PC compatible computers, sound consists of digital samples, meaning that the waveforms have to be somehow generated first. Anders Carlsson (2010) deals with different sound chips from a composer point-of-view in his MA thesis. Here I will focus especially on software sound synthesis, even though it is not the only option: some 4k intros have utilized the speech synthesizer or MIDI playback provided by the operating system which, however, often leads to space-efficient but easily recognizable and plain sound.
My own approach in 2003 was also software sound synthesis. Syna, a minimal synth written in assembly language, took 1.5 kilobytes with a tune after compression, which was borderline acceptable, since plenty of other content had to be fit in as well. At its core Syna features four typical waveforms (square, saw, sine and noise) that can be played back at different frequencies, which is enough for simple beeps. The timbre is augmented by using envelopes that mimic real instrument behavior and a low-pass filter that smoothens the sound (cf. Tolonen et al. 1998). The music produced using these means still appears somewhat flat, so the output is fed to a delay loop echo that creates an illusion of space.
From a musician’s point of view, using Syna requires technical skill, patience and careful planning, since the composing is done by typing notes to a text file. Having said that, the modest feature set encourages creative problem-solving to overcome the limitations, as demonstrated by musicians that have created music with Syna. For example, adding distortion by increasing the volume or recycling the same melody with different instruments were not features that I had consciously implemented, but which emerged from real use and its needs instead.
As of now, the most popular tool used for 4k music creation is 4klang that was developed by the demogroup Alcatraz. Compared to Syna, it features multiple technical improvements, such as waveforms that can be modified and filtered more freely. One of the fundamental principles of 4klang is that simple building blocks, such as oscillators and filters, can be combined into complex instruments – a similar approach is used in a number of other so-called modular synthesizers. Instead of relying on a monolithic codebase that might contain unneeded features, 4klang outputs a playback routine that is optimized for the tune at hand and can be directly used by a programmer in an intro. Musicians’ workload has been reduced by creating a VSTi plug-in (Fig. 4) that can be used together with practically any common sequencer software. (Zine #14, 2010.)
The gradual improvement of tools and increasing standards have led to a situation where the best 4k intro tunes sound – as they should – rather massive in spite of their minuscule size of one or two kilobytes. In addition, visual effects and music are tightly coupled in order to create a carefully crafted show for the viewers. The algorithmic generation of instruments and limited space together restrict the realistically possible music genres to different types of repetitive electronic music that tend to be popular in full-scale demos, too. At times there is no music at all, but an ambient soundscape that supports the spatial illusion created by visual means.
Space Optimization Tools
In addition to their audiovisual content, 4k intros have their purely technical side, which needs to be understood when dealing with limited space. The correct use of tools, such as compilers and compression software, saves precious bytes for the actual content and reduces the programmer’s workload. Tools and approaches have improved gradually over time; the discoveries made by one programmer have been followed by others, and at the moment the workflow of creating 4k intros is already highly streamlined with its special methods and utilities. Ready-made examples help newcomers to get started by offering a platform on which own experiments can be built.
The executable files of the early 1980s home computers were simple: for example, a COM type program used in MS-DOS contains pure code with no extra headers, which has ensured its continuous popularity in the smallest intro categories. The primitive COM format dates back to the 1970s, when it was used in the CP/M operating system (see Digital Research 1983). In contrast, modern-day executables are considerably more complex and include various headers that, from an intro programmer’s point of view, can be considered as unnecessary overhead. One way of bumming bytes is, therefore, reducing the headers to a minimum. A Whirlwind Tutorial on Creating Really Teensy ELF Executables for Linux (http://www.muppetlabs.com/~breadbox/software/tiny/teensy.html) by Brian Raiter is an illustrative example of not just saving space, but also the effort that enthusiasts invest in their hobby.
My personal experience with system and code level optimization dates back to 2003, when Linux 4k intros were still in their infancy, much like their Windows counterparts. The beginning of the millennium was a transitional period, when intros had just started appearing on modern PC operating systems, as opposed to the traditional MS-DOS. A significant portion of the effort involved in the creation of Yellow Rose of Texas went to pure engineering, such as fine-tuning of compiler parameters, optimizing external library use, and finding suitable methods for code compression. With the two other intros the platform and workflow were already there, so we could mainly focus on the actual content production.
Perhaps the most mystic and hardest to control factor in byte bumming is dealing with compressed code. 4k and 1k intros typically consist of a small stub followed by compressed executable code that is decompressed and run by the stub. Thus, the original uncompressed program can be considerably larger than four kilobytes – for instance, in the case of Yellow Rose, 7632 bytes. Already the earliest intros created for the MS-DOS utilized PKLITE that can easily be recognized by looking at the beginning of the file. Because of its mathematical nature, the gains obtained by compression are hard to predict and the effect of small changes in the program code affect the size in an almost random manner: changing an individual number or even removing code lines, which would seem like a natural thing to do, may increase the size of the end result. In practice even small differences start to matter when approaching the hard limit of 4096 bytes.
The IN4K website (http://in4k.northerndragons.ca/) is a collection of tips and tools suitable for 4k intro programming. Crinkler, originally created in 2005 by Rune L.H. Stubbe and Aske Simon Christensen for Windows, serves here as an example of an advanced tool created for the needs of tiny intros. In addition to compression, Crinkler optimizes intros in multiple other ways, such as by loading the necessary libraries in a space-efficient manner. (The Crinkler executable file compressor, http://www.crinkler.net/.) The version history of the utility also reveals how system-dependent extreme size optimization is: new operating system versions and updates may render current methods useless, which results in unwelcome incompatibility when trying to view old productions.
The study of 4k intros brought up phenomena that are also relevant outside the demoscene. Tiny intros are an example of how early technical limitations have over time turned into a practice and tradition, which is only relevant to the community itself. There is no practical reason to limit executable files to four kilobytes on modern computers – the size counts because of the rules created and maintained by the community. The demo culture is strongly marked by the appreciation of technical skill and creativity, and to fit an impressive production in a few bytes requires both.
The demoscene creates tools, such as Crinkler or 4klang, for its own purposes in the do-it-yourself spirit. Painstakingly crafted utilities are often released for free, so that other members of the community may benefit from them. At the same time, the creation of advanced tools is one more opportunity to show one’s skills, and such development has taken the genre forward by allowing for more content in the same space. Another community-oriented trait is the publication of example programs that help others to get started. All in all, we may observe how the development at large has led to the automation of several trivial or tiresome steps, letting the programmer focus on what counts, namely the creative problem-solving tasks involved with audiovisual content production.
The two-decade history of 4k intros mirrors the evolution of computer hardware, software, and the practices of the community during the same period. In the historical perspective, new operating systems and hardware platforms have been adopted relatively slowly, often with considerable criticism. Especially in the case of old iconic platforms, demosceners have tried to “push them to the limit” and, on the other hand, have not been willing to lose the social capital they have gained – skills and a familiar community. Large demo events, in particular the Finnish Assembly, have had an active role in the construction of practices through their competition rules: which computers and operating systems are allowed, what kind of content is allowed and how a 4k intro is defined in the first place.
In the big picture, tiny intro programming can be compared to other art forms, such as miniature paintings, haiku poems, limericks or ships in a bottle. Their strict rules, which may at first appear arbitrary, require similar problem-solving and focus on the essential – wizardry and creativity often spring from limitations, rather than from a complete freedom of expressive means.
I would like to thank the Kone Foundation for supporting the Kotitietokoneiden aika ja teknologisen harrastuskulttuurin perintö (Home Computer Era and the Heritage of Technological Hobbyist Culture) project, and Yrjö Fager, Anna Haverinen, Petri Isomäki, Antti Silvast and Mikko Heinonen for their comments.
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