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I love demos

My new Mindcandy DVD came in the mail the other day, and it reminded me all over again why I love the demo scene.

Demos aren’t easy to describe. If you’re not familiar with them, think of them as graffiti art for computer geeks. They’re like music videos, with abstract, real time computer graphics…but more. At their best, demos are a striking, uncomfortable, hauntingly beautiful art form unlike any other.

The best way to experience demos is at a demo party, a huge, multi-day competition where authors exhibit their work and sometimes create whole new demos from scratch in just a day or two. Unfortunately, demos are mostly a European thing; there are almost no parties here in the US.

When I discovered demos in the mid ’90s, YouTube and internet video were still years away, so I downloaded them from sites like pouet.net and scene.org and ran them on my own computer. My video card creaked and sputtered them out at frame rates that made me cringe, but they were still magic. Classics like Second Reality and Stash made the hair on the back of my neck stand on end. I’m still amazed at what they squeezed out of computers that barely ran WordPerfect, and that inspiration is a big reason I ended up in my current career.

Now, of course, I can watch any demo I want on YouTube. Still, I don’t follow the scene closely, so I appreciate the archiving, curating, and love Dan Wright puts into his DVD compilations. Dozens of landmark demos from the biggest demo parties over seven years, well organized and polished. It’s especially fun to watch techniques and styles evolve over time: non-photorealistic rendering gives way to programmable shaders, material and liquid rendering gets more sophisticated and abstract, and post-processing effects like film grain and distortion explode in popularity.

I haven’t finished the latest DVD yet, but I already have some favorites. Passing was lonely, unsettling, and I couldn’t tear my eyes away. Only One Wish, a collaboration between scene legends Fairlight and The Black Lotus, is a riot of kindergarden finger painting and inside jokes in garish colors, painted with a palette of unusual 2D techniques. Bombman‘s oily vision of organic surfaces and industrial settings through a gritty filter made me think of the recent Fukushima meltdown. And of course, no demo compilation would be complete without mind-blowing visuals from Farbrausch.

I can’t wait to go to a demo party in person someday. In the meantime, I’ll have to be satisfied with the Mindcandy DVDs, YouTube, and my sense of childlike wonder. OK, at least the first two!

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