Sunday, April 12, 2015

Getting Real Pt 1. - Are we crazy?

The demoscene is an amazing, vibrant, highly technical art movement with a surprisingly long history. Like any art movement, great works come out from time to time. Just like every painter needs to be familiar with the Mona Lisa and know who Jackson Pollock is, the demoscene's iconic works are important viewing for anybody who wants to be part of the scene. Among them, one of the most famous, and most important, is Second Reality [1] by Future Crew. It's inspired thousands of people through its clever effects, design and soundtrack to develop artistic and technical skills needed to compete and contribute to the demoscene. The last major production by Future Crew, when it was released in 1993 (the same year as the first Web Browser), it absolutely blew people away and took 1st in the then biggest demoscene competition ever, Assembly '93.

Even though this all happened at a competition in a small country in Northern Europe, it sent shockwaves around the world (at least the world's technical communities). Spread via bulletin boards and early Internet connections, it showed what was actually graphically, musically and technically possible with PCs (which had just finally caught up to what the Amiga could do). Today, more than 20 years later, when computers are vastly more powerful, it's still celebrated in media far outside the demoscene community.

The 20th anniversary of Second Reality happened in 2013. That year, in celebration, the source code, art assets and music were released into the Public Domain. Since then (and even before then to be honest), it's been remade in homage and tribute several times for different platforms. To say that this demo is loved would be an understatement. More importantly, as the demoscene continues to grow and change and go through generational shifts (some sceners are now bringing their children to scene parties), this revisitation of our shared history is becoming more and more important as we build and maintain our unique artistic heritage and culture.

Among all the ports and remixes, many have been playful, or have tried to replicate the demo on older hardware, showing what might have been possible on pre-1993 hardware given the right combination of artistic vision and skill. Along those lines, my group, Fulcrum, decided this year to try to recreate it for the Revision 2015 8k competition. We wanted to ask the question, would Second Reality be possible with 2015 hardware, but packed in 8,192 bytes?

At first I thought our group coder, Seven, was a little bit mad. We'd competed and done relatively well in the ultra restrictive 4k and 8k competition categories, but those were usually fairly minimal productions -- a couple of minutes of a few interesting scenes and a thin soundtrack behind it.

Fitting Second Reality into the equivalent of two pages of text seemed impossible. But there's no way to know until you try. Here's Seven's writeup on the code-side of things. The end of a few months of feverish work was indeed a reasonable approximation of Second Reality, done on modern hardware, and within 8k -- something that we're incredibly proud of. We took 2nd place, a respectable showing in a very competitive category. Sure some things had to be cut, and the production is full of the kind of compromises you'd expect shrinking a massive artistic production down by 300x, but it's all basically there.

My part in all of this was the music. And the soundtrack for the demo is as iconic and loved as the visuals. I've been writing music off and on since 1992, and this was among the most challenging productions I've ever tried, and I had the score already done for me by the amazing Skaven and Purple Motion! I've had some interest in how we were able to squeeze the production down to 8k, and thought I can't talk for the coding side and the amazing work Seven put into it, I thought it would be fun to capture what it was like reorchestrating one of the most iconic pieces of music in demoscene history in order to fit it into just a few thousand bytes.

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