The "hifi" and "lofi" of demos

By Maija "DiamonDie" Haavisto

I have to admit, I don't have the ears of an audiophile. I'm quite happy to listen to music on my tiny computer speakers. When I was younger I traded audio bootlegs. They were in the form of cassettes, which were copied from other cassettes. Sure I could hear the difference in the sound quality, but it was all good, as this was the only way to get some music I wanted in the pre-MP3 era. And speaking of MP3s, I usually can't tell the difference between a 192 kbps MP3 and a CD. I bet many of you don't either, but would like to pretend that you do nonetheless. 128 kbps often doesn't sound bad to me either. Maybe I suck, but I don't mind if it means I can enjoy music that others would frown upon.

Nowadays I hardly ever listen to the cassettes any more and I can't remember when I last watched a VHS video. It's more due to convenience than audio/picture quality, though. It's actually quite funny how we've abandoned VHS video in favour of DVDs with far better image quality - yet we watch blocky and fuzzy videos on YouTube. Sometimes the videos are even ripped from a VHS tape and the quality can be horrid, but it's still a great way to watch e.g. old music videos. The content is far more important than the quality.

Still we usually prefer our audiovisual entertainment in the most high quality form. The quality can always be improved further, at least resolution can. Now that VHS has been replaced with DVD, people aren't even satisfied with DVD and want a higher resolution. Many have abandoned MP3s in favour of FLAC. Many people choose their digital cameras mainly based on the number of megapixels. It seems like your ability to capture things with the camera comes second to the number of megapixels.

To be able to watch the latest demos, you need to constantly upgrade your hardware (and drivers!), or you have to wait for the videos. The latter isn't necessarily such a bad choice. These requirements do make sense, because the hardware enables coders to create more stunning effects, which I guess is the whole point of demos. But are the demos really getting better? I'm not so sure. I'm not even sure if the effects are really getting better. Often the new features and the increased CPU/GPU power is used for rendering larger textures and generating more realistic lighting effects - probably many more things that I'm not aware of, and that don't matter much to me since I'm not a coder.

I have nothing against such technological progress, but the results often leave me cold. There are two reasons why I generally prefer the "lofi" demos, retro demos, whatever you want to call them. The first reason is that they look like demos - the mental idea I have of what a "demo" is. I probably don't see that kind of stuff on TV or on YouTube, which is why demoscene is so fascinating. I do prefer demos to have a flow and preferably a design (which does not necessarily mean perfect consistency), and that matters a heck of a lot more than resolution, volumetric shading or whether the sprites are antialiased.

Another reason is that I am generally more fond of design that is a bit quirky and rough. I like pretty much any kind of style if it's done well, but I have a particular soft spot for some specific stuff, like Satori's Metamorf. It's probably not technically intriguing, and many people find it downright ugly, but I love the style. Same goes for some Kosmoplovci prods. I also disagree with people who have found the design in ASD's Lifeforce inconsistent. Sometimes apparent inconsistency is what really makes the design and keeps it together. Sometimes rough edges or unexpected transitions really spice up an otherwise dreamy atmosphere. Trying too hard to be stylish and consistent can result in something boring.

Lifeforce no doubt made great use of both CPU and GPU power as well as coder skills. You couldn't have made it in 1995. But I do believe you could have made a demo just as good and just as impressive in 1995. It would have been different, but it could have had the same impact. Whether such a demo was made back then or not is subject to opinion. I often like 4k/64k intros and non-PC productions better than the state-of-the-art demos. What is a great demo on the Amiga would generally be considered "too simple" or "too old-fashioned" on PC. It would be interesting to see ASD apply their current style and skills to a more restrictive medium.

So what is the demoscene about, what are demos about? This isn't far from "what is the meaning of life?" No doubt we all have our own perspectives on that. Demos used to be "real-time demonstrations that showcase programmer skill", but I don't think they have been that or just that for quite a while now. I don't watch compos to see programmer skill. I expect to see and hear something I enjoy (and with luck might even impress me) and I would bet that's the case for most sceners. If you just want to witness programming skill, Siggraph is probably a better place.

Back in the day I used to watch PWP's MS-DOS demos on my 386, which didn't even have a soundcard, but luckily they had PC speaker music - that actually sounded pretty good (a PC speaker compo for next Altparty, anyone?) I would probably have watched more demos had they had speaker music. Demos without any sound at all tend to be a bit dull. It's well possible that nostalgy affects the way I think of demos. I definitely don't want to pretend to be a grumpy elitist who thinks that all modern demos suck. But I'll also admit that I still watch the old PWP demos every now and then. There has got to be something more to them than just aesthetics or programmer skill.

Nowadays there isn't much challenge on PC any more, except for size optimization and squeezing more polygons out of the 3D card, which I find boring as hell as a concept. Demoscene should not entertain just coders. We've already seen it all. 64k intros that seem to have an endless amount of content. 4k intros that feature "video" or very detailed 3D models. We've had smoothly animated human figures on the Amiga, rotozoomers on TI calculators and real-time sounth synthesis on the NES and VIC-20.

Now programmers can waste the massive resources they have on hand on the silliest things. A coder I know who shall remain nameless wanted to have realtime JPEG/MPEG compression artifacts. The way he did it? Every frame that was rendered by the CPU (or GPU) was saved as a heavily compressed JPEG image and then put on the screen. I'm not sure if the guy ever got it to run smoothly - this was some 4-5 years ago - but I have a feeling he was at least close. That made me cringe, wasting millions and millions of perfectly good CPU cycles just to make something look uglier. Ok, that's something a lot of demos do these days, but he did it on purpose!

Another coder friend of mine couldn't stop raving about Debris. Many of you couldn't either. I saw it live on the Breakpoint stream and I couldn't catch the hype. I don't find pure technical excellence entertaining in itself, if there isn't something more to it. That's why I've said that there's no way on hell you can compare Debris to Lifeforce. You might think Lifeforce is pretentious, you might not like the music. But it has affected many people on an emotional level, which I doubt most Farbrausch demos have ever done. When they made a demo that did (828), many people were quite unhappy.

A demo does not have to be technically impressive to be enjoyable, but it does not necessarily have to be aesthetically impressive either. State of Mind is still the favorite demo of many folks, including mine, but it's all about the mood (ok, so the great - albeit ripped - music helps a lot with that). I feel like it has the good aspects of a demo and the good aspects of a music video combined. Who even remembers the 3D flyby that beat the demo to second place back at The Party 1998? I can remember the moai statues, but the rest was pretty forgettable.

I've got much more out of watching HiRMU's Muna at parties than I've got from watching any modern demo at home. Does that make Muna a good demo? I'd be willing to say yes, even if that makes some folks tempted to lynch me. It is often disappointing to see a "joke prod" win at a party, but there is a reason why they win - because people, at least some people, like them. Rob is jarig probably didn't take much effort to make, but it has provided people with a lot of fun over the years. Demoscene is not so serious business that we shouldn't laugh at ourselves. Many joke prods are funny just once or twice, but others can make a more lasting impact.

You don't need a 3D card to produce a good demo. You don't need 24 or 32 bit graphics. Just like a good camera doesn't make anyone a good photographer, neither does a platform make a good demo. While demos have perhaps got graphically more impressive (and more family member/coworker-friendly) with time, I feel like they haven't improved all that much ever since people realized that demos could actually have design - I bet some people already did it in the 80s, but others laughed at them so the resulting productions were forgotten. This isn't to stay that the development has stalled, or that demos are worse now, but perhaps I am hinting that some people could stop releasing the same production over and over again.