Sunday 18 April 2010

Behind "Dramatic Pixels"

I released a minimalistic demo called "Dramatic Pixels" at Breakpoint 2010. It is an experiment in narrative using very minimal visual output: three colored character blocks ("big pixels") moving on an entirely black background, synchronized to musical accompaniment. (CSDB,

I was expecting the demo to cause very mixed reactions in the audience, but to my surprise, it actually won the competition it was in (4-kilobyte Commodore 64 demo) and the reception has been almost entirely positive. This -- along with the fact that a somewhat similar production was released by Skrju and Triebkraft for the ZX Spectrum just two months earlier -- inspired me to write this short essay about the philosophy behind this production. And besides, visy/trilobit has also blogged about "Dramatic Pixels" recently, so I think I am obliged to do the same.


For quite some time already, I have been on a philosophical excursion to the nature of "hard-core" digital creativity, especially the deep essences of the demoscene and the "8-bit" culture. The so far biggest visible result of this excursion has been my recent essay about Computationally Minimal Art, which, among all, separates the ideas of "optimalism" and "reductivism". I have noticed that the audiovisual digital culture (including the demoscene) has traditionally been very optimalist in nature, aiming at fitting as much complexity as possible within given boundaries. The opposite approach, reductivism, which embraces minimal complexity itself as an esthetic goal, is very seldom used by the demoscene, however.

In December 2009, I was pondering about how to express "complex real-world phenomena" such as human emotions via "extreme reductivism". I was planning to design a low-pixel "video game character" that shows a wide range of emotions with facial and bodily expressions, and I particularly wanted to find out the minimum number of facial pixels required to express all the nine emotional responses (rasas) of the Indian theatre. When minimizing the number of pixels, however, I realized that facial expressions might not in fact be necessary at all; movement patterns and rhythms alone seemed to be enough for differentiating fear from bravery, or certainty from uncertainty. If the character only needs to move around for full expressive power, its pixel pattern can very well be reduced to a single pixel.

I quickly did a couple of experiments with this idea of "pixel drama". As the results were convincing enough, I started to plan a minimalistic movie using only single-pixel characters. As the movie was quite probably to be implemented as a demoscene production, I thought it would be important to have a somewhat "operatic" approach, synchronizing the visual action with a strong musical accompaniment.

After some initial sketches, I didn't really think about the idea for a couple of months. But less than a week before the Breakpoint party, I decided to implement it on the C-64. The choice of platform could have been just about anything, however, from VCS to Win32. C-64 just seemed like the best and easiest choice considering the competition categories available at Breakpoint. The size of the demo ended up to be about 1.5K bytes, and I later also released a 1K version where the introductionary text was removed.

The demo itself

Technically, everything in "Dramatic Pixels" is centered around the music player routine, which is also responsible for the choreography: the bytes that encode the notes of the lead channel also contain bits that control the movement of the pixels. To be exact, every time a new note is played by the lead instrument, exactly one of the three pixels takes a single step towards one of the four cardinal directions. This is an intentional technical decision that ties the pixel movement seamlessly to the music. Internally, the whole show is a series of looping sequences that are both musical and visual at the same time.

All the actual musical notes, by the way, are encoded by only two bits each. These two bits form an index to a four-note set, which is defined by two variables (indicating base pitch and harmonic structure). These variables are manipulated on the fly by a higher-level control routine that is also responsible for the other macro-level changes in the demo. I prefer to encode melodies in this way rather than as absolute pitches, as a more "indirect" approach makes it more compact and closer to the essence of the musical structure. And, in the case of this demo, I wanted some minimalism (or maybe serialism) in the musical score as well, and the possibility to repeat the same patterns in different modes helps in this goal.

The 6502 assembly source code of the 1K version is available for those who are interested. It should be relatively easy to port to any 6502-based platform (with the music player probably requiring most work), so I've been planning on releasing separate versions for VIC-20 and Atari 2600 as well.

So, what about the story, then? Most of the interpretations I've heard have been somewhat similar and close to my own intentions, so I think my decisions about the audiovisual language have been relatively succesful: Red and Blue meet, fall in love, become estranged, cheat on each other with Green, and in the end everyone gets killed. However, there are some portions that are apparently more difficult.

When I created the characters, I had no intentions of assigning genders to the pixels. Still, some people have interpreted Red as male and Blue as female. This probably stems from the differences in the base pitches (when Blue moves, the pitch is an octave higher than when Red moves), but the personalities of the pixels may also matter. Red is more stereotypically masculine, making more initiatives, while Blue mostly responds to these initiatives. I don't know whether the interpretations would have been different if I had chosen Blue to be the initiator.

The second part, where Red and Blue spend time on the opposite sides of the screen, is perhaps the most difficult to follow. I intended this part to represent everyday life where both pixels have their own daytime activities and only see each other at home very briefly in evenings (and don't pay much attention to one another even then). Also, the workplaces are so far away that the pixels can't see each other cheating until Red decides to get closer to Blue's workplace. And no, Green does not represent two different pixel personalities depending on the partner -- it's the same despisable creature in all cases. The part is intentionally slightly too long and repetitive in order to emphasize the frustration that repetitive everyday routines may lead to.

Comparison to the Spectrum demo

I would now like to compare "Dramatic Pixels" to the 256-byte Spectrum demo I mentioned earlier, "A true story from the life of a lonely cell" by Sq/Skrju and Psndcj/Triebkraft. Although I'm trying to follow the Spectrum demoscene due to some very visionary groups therein, this demo was so recent that I never managed to even hear about it until I had finished "Dramatic Pixels".

In both demos, there are three characters represented by solid-colored blocks. The blocks express emotion mostly by the way how they move. In "A true story", all movement happens in one dimension, so it is basically all about back-and-forth movement in varying rhythms. "Dramatic Pixels" can be very easily seen as a refinement of this concept, adding a musical accompaniment and another dimension (although it may very well have worked in 1D as well). The stories in both demos are based on the love triangle model, although my story is a little bit more complex.

"Great minds think alike", yes, but the coincidence still baffles me. Is it really just a coincidence or a result of some external factors? Deep thoughts about the state of the demoscene, perhaps combined with some general angst about the potential of the art form in the 2010s, were part of the mental process that lead me to create "Dramatic Pixels". I haven't discussed this with Sq, but perhaps there was something similar going on in his mind as well.

To add an additional spice to the mystery: the recent video game inspired short film called "Pixels" was put on the web on the same day (2010-04-07) as I put the video of "Dramatic Pixels" on Youtube.

The bigger purpose

For some time already, I have been writing pretty words about "thinking out of the box" in the demoscene context. But pretty words are hollow unless you back them up with some practical evidence, such as an actual demo.

I considered it important to finish "Dramatic Pixels" for Breakpoint, as I had just recently released my essay about Computationally Minimal Art. I wanted to release a production that would support some of its ideas, especially the equality of reductivism as a "boundary-pushing" approach.

When working on "Dramatic Pixels", I made two observations about my mental reactions. First, extreme visual minimalism can give me the same kind of "boundary-pushing shivers" as some groundbreaking optimalist demos can, so I got the subjective evidence I desired about the power of the reductivist approach. And second, despite the existence of the narrative, I never felt any "narrative embarrasment" that is almost a given with story-based demos (even the good ones). I don't yet know what the missing embarrassing element is; narrative text, dialogue, human-like characters? I still need to think this over, I guess.

Anyway, I hope this experiment broke some new ground that would inspire some further experimentation in computational minimalism. I think traditional minimalists have already done quite a lot of "basic research" during the last hundred years or so, so I would like the inspired productions to choose a fresh route by emphasizing those areas that are unique in the computational approach.