Thursday, 2 April 2015

My first twenty years on the demoscene

Since I have been somewhat inactive in computer art for a while, I felt it might be a good idea to sum up the first twenty years of my demoscene career. Besides, my previous summary is already a decade old.

Back in 1994, I got involved in some heated BBS discussions. I thought the computer culture of the time had been infected by a horrible disease. IBM PC compatible software was getting slow and bloated, and no one seemed to even question the need for regular hardware upgrades. I totally despised the way how PC hardware was being marketed to middle-class idiots and even declared the 486 PC as the computer of choice for dumb and spoiled kids. I was using an 8088 PC at the time and promised to myself not to buy any computing hardware that wasn't considered obsolete by consumption-oriented people. This decision has held quite well to these days. Nowadays, it is rather easy to get even "non-obsolete" hardware for free, so there has been very little need to actually buy anything but minor spare parts.


In the autumn of 1994, I released a couple of silly textmode games to spread my counterpropaganda. "Gamer Lamer" was about a kid who gathered "lamer points" by buying computers and games with his father's money. "Micro$oft Simulator", on the other hand, was a very simple economic simulator oriented on releasing new Windows versions and suing someone. I released these games under the group title PWP ("Pers-Wastaiset Produktiot" or "anti-arse productions") which was a kind of insider joke to begin with. The Finnish computer magazines of the time had been using the word "perusmikro" ("baseline microcomputer") for new and shiny 486 PCs, and this had inspired me to call them "persmikro" ("arse microcomputer").

At that time, Finnish BBSes were full of people who visited demoparties even without being involved with the demoscene. I wanted to meet users of my favorite boards more often, so I started visiting the events as well. In order to not being just another hang-around loser, I always entered a production to the PC 64k intro competition starting from 1996.

(The demo screenshots are Youtube links, by the way.)


Of course, I wanted to rebel against the demoscene status quo. I saw PC demos as "persmikro" software (after all, they were bloated to download with 2400 bps and didn't work in my 8088) and I was also annoyed by their conceptual emptiness. I decided that all PWP demos should run on 8088 in textmode or CGA, be under 32 kilobytes big and have some meaningful content. The afore-mentioned "Gamer Lamer" or "Pelulamu" character became the main hero in these productions. PWP demos have always been mostly my own solo productions, but sometimes other people contributed material as well – mostly graphics but sometimes music too.

The first three demos I released (the "Demulamu" trilogy) were disqualified from their respective competitions. Once I had developed some skill and style, I actually became quite succesful. In 1997, I came second in the 64k competition of the Abduction demoparty with "Isi", and in 1998, I won the competition with "Final Isi".

My demos were often seen as "cheap", pleasing crowds with "jokes" instead of talent. I wanted to prove to the naysayers that I had technical skills as well. In 1997, I had managed to get myself an "obsolete" 386 motherboard and VGA and started to work on a "technically decent" four-kilobyte demo for that year's Assembly party. The principle of meaningful content held: I wanted to tell a story instead of just showing rotating 3D objects. "Helium" eventually came first in the competition. Notably, it had optional Adlib FM music (eating up about 300 bytes of code and data) at a time when music was generally disallowed in the 4k size class.


My subsequent PC 4k demos were not as succesful, so I abandoned the category. Nevertheless, squeezing off individual bytes in size-optimized productions made me realize that profound discoveries and challenges might be waiting within tight constraints. Since Unix/Linux I was starting to get into wasn't a very grateful demo platform, I decided to go 8-bit.

In 1998, there was a new event called Alternative Party which wanted to promote alternative demoscene platforms and competitions. The main leading demoscene platforms of the time (386+ PC and AGA Amiga) were not allowed but anything else was. I sympathized the idea from the beginning and decided to try my hands on some VIC-20 demo code. "Bouncing Ball 2" won the competition and started a kind of curse: every time I ever participated in the demo competition at Alternative Party, I ended up first (1998, 2002, 2003 and 2010).

Alternative Party was influential in removing platform restrictions from other Finnish demoparties as well, which allowed me to use the unxepanded VIC-20 as my primary target platform just about anywhere. I felt quite good with this. There hadn't been many VIC-20 demos before, so there was still a lot of untapped potential in the hardware. I liked the raw and dirty esthetics the platform, the hard-core memory constraints of the unexpanded machine, as well as the fact that the platform itself could be regarded as a political statement. I often won competitions with the VIC-20 against much more powerful machines which kind of asserted that I was on the right track.

In around 2001-2003, there were several people who actively released VIC-20 demos, so there was some technical competition within the platform as well. New technical tricks were found all the time, and emulators often lagged behind the development. In 2003, I won the Alternative Party with a demo, "Robotic Warrior", that used a singing software speech synthesizer. The synth later became a kind of trademark for my demo productions. Later that year, I made my greatest hardware-level discovery ever – that the square-wave audio channels of the VIC-I chip actually use shift registers instead of mere flip-flops. Both the speech synth and "Viznut waveforms" can be heard in "Robotic Liberation" (2003) which I still regard as a kind of "magnum opus" for my VIC-20 work.


Although I released some "purely technical" demos (like the "Impossiblator" series), most of my VIC-20 productions have political or philosophical commentary of some kind. For example, "Robotic Warrior" and "Robotic Liberation", despite being primarily technical show-offs, are dystopian tales on the classic theme of machines rising against people.

I made demos for some other 8-bit platforms as well. "Progress Without Progress" (2006) is a simple Commodore 64 production that criticizes economic growth and consumption-oriented society (with a SID-enhanced version of my speech synthesizer). I also released a total of three 4k demos for the C-64 for the German parties Breakpoint and Revision. I never cared very much about technical excellence or "clean esthetics" when working on the C-64, as other sceners were concentrating on these aspects. For example, "Dramatic Pixels" (2010) is above all an experiment in minimalistic storytelling.

A version of my speech synth can also be heard on Wamma's Atari 2600 demo "(core)", and some of my VCS code can be seen in Trilobit's "Doctor" as well. I found the Atari 2600 platform very inspiring, having many similar characteristics and constraints I appreciate in the VIC 20 but sometimes in a more extreme form.


When I was bored with new technical effects for the VIC-20, I created tools that would allow me to emphasize art over technology. "The Next Level" (2007) was the first example of this, combining "Brickshop32" animation with my trusted speech synth. I also wrote a blog post about its development. The dystopian demo "Future 1999" (2009) combines streamed character-cell graphics with sampled speech. "Large Unified Theory" (2010), a story about enlightenment and revolution, was the last production where I used BS32.


Perhaps the hurried 128-kilobyte MS-DOS demo "Human Resistance" (2011) should be mentioned here as well. In the vein of my earlier dystopian demos, it tells about a resistance group that has achieved victory against a supposedly superior artificial intelligence by using the most human aspects of human mind. I find these themes very relevant to what kind of thoughts I am processing right now.


In around 2009-2011, I spent a lot of time contemplating on** the nature of the demoscene and computing platforms, as seen in many of my blog posts from that period. See e.g. "Putting the demoscene in a context", "Defining Computationally Minimal Art" and "The Future of Demo Art" (which are also available on academia.edu). I got quoted in the first ever doctoral dissertation about demos (Daniel Botz: Kunst, Code und Maschine), which also gave me some new food for thought. This started to form basis on my philosophical ideas about technology which I am refining right now.

Extreme minimalism in code and data size had fascinated me since my first 4k demos. I felt there was a lot of untapped potential in extremely simple and chaotic systems (as hinted by Stephen Wolfram's work). The C-64 4k demo "False Dimension" (2012) is a collection of Rorschach-like "landscape photographs" generated from 16-bit pseudorandom seeds. I also wanted to push the limits of sub-256-byte size classes, but since real-world platforms tend to be quite problematic with tiny program sizes, I wanted a clean virtual machine for this purpose. "IBNIZ" (2011) was born out of this desire.

When designing IBNIZ, I wanted to have a grasp on how much math would be actually needed for all-inclusive music synthesis. Experimentation with this gave birth to "Bytebeat", an extremely minimalistic approach to code-based music. It became quite a big thing, with more than 100000 watchers for the related Youtube videos. I even wrote an academic article about the thing.


After Bytebeat, I had begun to consciously distance myself from the demoscene in order to have more room for different kinds of social and creative endeavours. The focus on non-interactive works seemed limited to me especially when I was pondering about the "Tetris effects" of social media mechanisms or technology in general. However, my only step toward interactive works has been a single participation in Ludum Dare. I had founded an oldschool computer magazine called "Skrolli" in autumn 2012 and a lot of my resources went there.

Now that I have improved my self-management skills, I feel I might be ready for some vaguely demoscene-related software projects once again. One of the projects I have been thinking about is "CUGS" (Computer Underground Simulator) which would attempt to create a game-like social environment that would encourage creative and skill-oriented computer subcultures to thrive (basically replicating some of the conditions that allowed the demoscene to form and prosper). However, my head is full of other kinds of ideas as well, so what will happen in the next few months remains to be seen.

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