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What is the Demoscene?
An Interview with Filipe Cruz on the Influential but Obscure Art Form
Demoscene has influenced everything from video games to digital art – and yet, it’s still something of an obscure art form. Unless you’re a computer programmer or engineer, you probably haven’t even heard of it.
In this interview, we talk to Filipe Cruz, who uses the handle ps (@psenough on Twitter, etc. – as ps is too short of a username). Cruz is a long-time demoscener who runs a YouTube channel about demoscene.
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On the Arts: What is the demoscene, anyway? And what is a demo?
Filipe Cruz: The demoscene is a sub-culture of digital art, a community of people who focus on showcasing what their machine can do with audiovisual presentations, the so called demos. It has its roots in the game piracy scene that boomed in the late 80s with the proliferation of the early personal computers (Apple II, Commodore 64, ZX Spectrum, Atari, Amiga, etc.), where people, mostly teenagers, would trade floppy disks with software and games and sometimes add small intros that would play in the beginning, communicating who had been responsible for breaking the copy protection or fixed/enhanced the game in some way, or how to get in touch for more trading.
Rupture by ASD / Andromeda Software Development (2009)
These folks would gather regularly at physical events to trade disks and learn from each other how to use the machine to draw pixelart, produce music, code your own graphical routines, etc. When game trading became more dangerous, the groups became more focused on the artistic side of things and by extension, those LAN copy parties became known as demoparties, holding competitions for best new demos, music, and graphics.
The advent of the Bulletin Board Systems and then later the internet made the culture more international and there is still to this day an active community of people around the world who regularly release new demoscene productions and organize demoscene events.
It's very focused on Central and Northern Europe, with Revision during Easter in Germany being the biggest pure demoscene event. Assembly Summer in Finland during the summer being one of the events with the longest running tradition, despite also catering to other computer culture related scenes.
But it's worth mentioning the demoscene is also active outside Europe, in places like the United States, Argentina, Australia, Japan, etc. Some countries with a bit more tradition than others. For example here in Portugal, where I'm from, we only have a single demoscene event per year, the Inércia Demoparty that I help organize with some friends. It's quite small compared to other parties, but we are always looking for new blood to come learn about the culture and participate in the community.
Incyber by Satori (SK) & Aural Planet (PL) (2000)
OTA: Any favorites or recommendations for cool demos?
FC: Oh yes, I have a lot of favorites for a lot of different reasons. From the late 90s, releases from the Orange demogroup "Deesbab" and "Megablast" have a special place in my heart. Then from early 2000s "Incyber" from Satori, "Gerbera" by Moppi, "Barn" from TDA.
Also some of my own productions that I collaborated with in the past and am particularly proud of like "Your Song is Quiet pt 2" with Russian friends from CPU, "Anoxia Redux" with Greece-based ASD, "fr-045: life after with Finnish section of Farbrausch, "The Lost Religion of Light" with my Serbian friends of Kosmoplovci.
In more recent years, I’ve actually started recording a series of demoscene highlights videos, which covers the best demoscene releases by year. You can see them on my YouTube channel.
OTA: Why do demosceners create demos? Is it purely for artistic reasons, or more about pushing the limitations of computer hardware?
FC: A little bit of both. In the late 80s and early 90s the technical aspect was definitely a driving force behind the culture. It was easier to compare things when everyone had the same machine, so it was down to the programming skills and artistic talent to get the most out of the platform. When the IBM PC clones became highly adopted by the masses, some of the active demoscene lost a bit of its charm in that regard, but people kept making demos and gathering at demoparties.
Back in the 90s, it was still relatively possible for small groups of people to develop technology for a demo that was superior to what you would see in most games released in the market, which was a strong contribution to the popularity of the demoscene in the computer culture of the 90s. Nowdays it's much harder to compete as a hobby with the professional research and artists from AAA studios and commercial engines. Even though a lot of those companies carry demosceners in their ranks.
kosmoplovci & minimalartifact - the lost religion of light (2007)
There are still plenty of demos being regularly released though, both for vintage machines and more recent platforms. The Meteoriks awards tries to highlight some of the best releases of the year and their website is a good place to start if you're looking for recent demos. The more impressive demos tend to have a mix of interesting technology with a focus on style / direction / message / artistic expression.
Also worth mentioning is that during the last couple of decades, the demoscene seems to have become more known in the mainstream computer media outlets for its achievements in procedural programming and size-limited productions. Releases where your entire program executable must fit within a certain ridiculously small size. The more popular categories being 4 kilobytes and 64 kilobytes, but there is also a very active tiny size intro community in even smaller categories like 128 bytes, 256 bytes, 512 bytes, etc. The Lovebyte Demoparty online event that started during the pandemic being one of the major factors for that particular boom of popularity. Nano Gems is a website / online gallery that highlights demoscene tiny size coding productions.
For me personally, demomaking is mostly about artistic expression, I try to use the technology I have available instead of focusing on developing new tech. But for a lot of other demosceners, exploring new technology to make something impressive is still the main driving force. And then there is a large aspect of demomaking that is also just about having fun doing something creative with your friends, sharing it, and talking about it with other friends in the demoscene.
OTA: Demos are usually created by teams, but are there individual artists too?
FC: There are individual artists too, they are more rare because you typically need a broader range of skillsets to fulfill your vision when you're doing things alone but they do exist in the demoscene.
Doing things in teams is a bit more common. In a team you can typically focus on what you are more naturally inclined to do and then ask your friends to help you out for the other aspects of making the demo that they are more comfortable with. Sometimes you have to relinquish your vision or spend a lot of time and energy debating things that were already locked in your head though, but at the same time you can also end up with something interesting beyond your expectations. So there are pros and cons to both ways of doing things.
OTA: Demoscene seems very much driven by the “scene” (hence the name) of events, called demoparties. How does that work? Do teams typically work on a demo together and only share it at events? And is it a competition, with winners, or just a place to show work? Do creators have portfolios of their work, or is it mostly an event-based art form?
FC: Yes, most social aspect happens at the demoparties. There are typically competitions for many different categories where you submit your latest work. The competition format is a bit of a cultural thing. A lot of the participants don't really care about the position their entry gets and they just enter it to the competition to have it shared on the big screen / livestream for others to see.
After the event the party organizers typically upload all the releases and results online, usually to scene.org. There are people actively trying to preserve all of this demoscene metadata and keep it publicly available, with demozoo.org as the most generalist complete demoscene website, where you can find all the releases, results and history. For example, here is my scener page, listing all the events I’ve helped organize, all the productions I’ve ever released, the demogroups that I am or was a part of in the past, etc.
Assembly 2004 – a combination of a demoparty and a LAN party
There are other demoscene websites doing similar work like pouet.net, csdb.dk, or janeway.exotica.org.uk. Some of them focus on specific platforms or just certain aspects of the demoscene. Demozoo tries to cover it all but is still an ongoing process, the database is not complete.
OTA: What do demo creators use to make demos? Are these graphics entirely made with code, or do people use programs like After Effects or Blender too?
FC: Depends on the person and the project. Some people develop their own tools and frameworks to work with or to help their group members collaborate making a production. Particularly if you're targetting size limited categories like 4kb or 64kb you need specialized tools which don't exist commercially. But there is a bit of a culture of sharing your tool and framework for others to reuse / learn from after you have released your production. For example, in4k gathers resources for creating productions of 4kb.
Others do all the code by hand, for example, there are executable graphics categories where you have to generate a single static image under 4kb within 30 seconds of precalculation time. This allows you to use rendering techniques that you wouldn't be able to do at 30 frames per second and can get quite impressive. Executable.graphics is a website / online gallery that showcases these kind of productions.
To create graphic assets or music, I would say it's culturally accepted in the demoscene to use commercial tools if you want. It's all about the end result. Same for doing video releases. Using commercial engines for realtime demos is still a bit frowned upon by the demoscene purists though, because it removes or blurs the line a lot of what actual coding is involved in the process making it hard/unfair to judge, but overall demos using commercial engines are still allowed to participate in the competitions, as long as it is properly credited so people can try to vote accordingly.
OTA: In general, are there any real “rules” to demoscene, other than making a cool demo?
FC: Each demoparty has its own set of competitions. And for each of these competitions there are usually rules lined down, to ensure the competition is fair for everyone participating. Those are the main constraints when releasing something on the demoscene. That being said, most demoparties typically have a wild competition category where anything goes: video, weird platforms, live performances, whatever you can think of.
And you can also release your demo outside of any competition or party. It will get less visibility though, which is why most active demosceners prefer to release at demoparties where they or their friends are attending.
There are some conventions and tropes from the four decades of culture that reoccur a lot, like for example most demos have credits and greetings scenes. But there is no committee that gets to decide what is or is not a real demo and it's culturally accepted that anyone is free to release whatever they enjoyed doing. If it becomes praised by the community or not that's another story. Also party organizers sometimes disqualify from the competition screening some things that are in bad taste, but you can still release them outside of a demoparty.
OTA: Demoscene has recently been labeled as intangible culture by UNESCO in some countries. What effect do you think this will have, good or bad?
FC: I been closely following that effort and am part of the discussion group of demosceners who have been actively pushing for that to happen across the globe. We call it "The Art of Coding" initiative.
We are also trying to push for it in Portugal as one of the activities of our Associação Inércia, the nonprofit entity we have in place here in Portugal focused on promoting demoscene culture.
I think it's good. It can open some doors when you are trying to get some support from local municipality to help you organize future demoscene events. It gives your proposal a bit more legitimacy when you are actively promoting something that has been recognized internationally as intangible cultural heritage.
Altair - Mara (2019)
OTA: How long have you been involved in the demoscene? And how does your YouTube channel relate to it?
FC: I been active in the demoscene since 1997 after a neighbor / classmate of mine showed me some demos and challenged me to learn graphics programming. I did many different types of releases since then, mostly for the MS-DOS and Windows platforms. I also dabbled in audio production, am known as an experimental / noise artist of sorts in the demoscene for focusing on glitch audio aesthetics in many of my releases. But I also try other aesthetics now and again, depending on the project idea.
The demoscene was never that big in Portugal, so most of my early contact with it was by reading about it through diskmag articles. Diskmags are the equivalent of an independent news zine of sorts, but in an executable file format and fitting inside a single floppy disk, hence the name, a mag inside a disk. I became a bit obsessed with the medium, was even an amateur editor and co-editor of different number of demoscene publications throughout the years. So it was common for me to keep track of the active demoscene, what groups are active, the new parties coming up, the best latest releases that just came out. Getting to know all the different groups and platforms of activity and how they correlated with each other, did a whole bunch of interviews with all types of demosceners, etc.
Long story short, once the Internet became more prevalent the diskmag format kind of faded away, becoming replaced with online portals for news and forum discussions, blogs with specialized articles, event reports and interviews, etc. But it's kind of a bit all over the place and hard to follow if you don't know what you're looking for, so now with my YouTube channel, I try to do a continuation of what the diskmags used to bring to the table in that regard, consolidating the information into a single place that becomes a bit easier to keep up with the demoscene – with my monthly reports for example, or creating in depth discussion videos about specific demoscene topics, guides for new people getting into things, etc.
My channel is still a bit of a mess, in the sense that it's not strictly focused on just this one single demoscene promotion goal. It also caters to other things in my range of interest that might warrant the occasional video, such as games, technical help videos, book reviews, random things really. Which is a big no-no on all the "how to make your channel grow" tutorials out there, but it's been working for me so far, so I don't care.
BACK TO THE PET – shiru8bit (2022)
OTA: If someone wants to get involved with demoscene, where should they start? Your guidebook and related video on “Teach Yourself Demoscene in 14 Days” is a good place to start for sure. Any other recommendations? And where can they find demoscene events to attend?
FC: Definitely “Teach Yourself Demoscene in 14 Days”, it was prepared especially with that goal in mind and peer reviewed by other demosceners. There are other resources out there of course, but it largely depends on your area of interest:
If you are more into learning the livecoding shaders culture in the demoscene you can go to Demozoo’s Livecode
If you are interested in coding small things you can go to Size Coding
If you are more interested in textart there is 16 colors
The Zine podcast radioshow is also a good way to get to know more about the demoscene.
As for finding demoscene events to attend, Demoparty.net is the main resource, but the front page of Demozoo also lists upcoming events. I would also recommend to join some demoscene Discord servers and getting to know the active community depending on what you're most interested in.
Through that interaction it'll become clear what upcoming events people are looking forward to or preparing their releases for, and then just try to participate. If you can't attend physically, most events also welcome remote participation and usually have a livestream of the event available.