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Something about Assembly 2007

Now that it's over a week since this year's Assembly started, I think the time is right for a semi-well-thought summary.

[Impossiblator 3 by PWP]

After three years of delay, I finally released a VIC-20 demo that uses the bus trick I described in summer 2003 in my "VIC-20 frontiers" article. Basically, the trick makes the processor put specific bytes on the data bus in a specific order, and these bytes get fetched by the video chip as "bus noise". It's quite nice for the kind of effects where you pick individual lines from a bitmap picture to be displayed on specific scanlines. Y-stretchers, rotating bars, fake-3D twisters, you name it.

On the last day of working on the demo, I noticed that there was some difference in the bus implementation in different individual PAL VIC-20s, resulting certain bit leaks to occur differently. Although I declared in the demo that "the last secrets of the VIC-20 hardware have finally been discovered", it seems that there is still some work to do regarding the differences in different motherboard revisions. It is like doing fundamental science: every time you think you have grasped the ultimate explanation, the reality suddenly becomes more complex.

I brought my own VIC-20 to ensure that the demo actually works correctly in the competition. And I also brought an Atari 2600 for displaying Trilobit's VCS demo in case their own machine fails. This particular 2600 was actually dumpster-dived by my friend Maraz, and it indeed turned out that Trilobit's console had some video problems, so this "abandonware" machine actually became vital for the competition.

I was also on the AssemblyTV with Visy/Trilobit commenting the oldskool demo competition. (And consequently, we were also on the Finnish national TV on some obscure channel no one actually watches). On this commentary session, I mentioned that now that we have the first Assembly demo for a 1970s platform, the next frontier could be the 1960s. Indeed, it would be immensely great for making a PDP-1 demo using an emulator, and then ask the Computer History Museum to run it in the real hardware (as they have the only PDP-1 in the world that still works). A recorded video could then be put in some competition.

Neither PWP or Trilobit won the oldskool demo competition, however. The winner was Aspekt with their NES demo, including effects of the kind I've never seen before on that machine. The members of Aspekt are only around 18-21 years old (the youngest succesful demogroup in Finland), so this is a definitive proof against the usual Assembly organizer mantra "only the old farts can program these things". Actually, I would say that it is much easier to learn democoding on an 8-bit machine than on a bloated API hell of a modern operating system.

I don't know whether the members of Aspekt want to admit it, but the group was formed in the context of a Finnish teenager nerds' programming site called "Ohjelmointiputka". For some years already, I've seen a lot of potential in the users of this site -- not because of the site itself (it was lame, and it still is) but because of their enthusiastic attitude and the talent some of these guys show. And, as nearly all of the very young Finnish demosceners (born 1987 and later) have some background in Ohjelmointiputka, there has to be something worthful in that community.

[Youscope by Tejeez]

Another success for Ohjelmointiputka guys at Assembly was the oscilloscope demo Youscope, which ended up third in the short film competition. This demo, using a soundcard to draw images with an oscilloscope, was completely made by Tejeez, a 15-year-old guy who has also been doing some electronics projects as well as 8-bit programming.

I spent quite some time at a demoscene outreach effort called SceneBooth, and this proved to be quite a success in building a link between some of these young people and the established scene. For some years, I've been trying to get some of these people to visit real demoparties or even Boozembly, with limited success; perhaps they have just been afraid to participate in "underground" events like these. However, now that we had SceneBooth, many of the visiting youngsters have decided to attend the next Alternative Party in November.

A pleasant surprise was that one of the Ohjelmointiputka guys I met was only thirteen years old. On IRC I had assumed him to be much older than that, as he seems to know surprisingly much about MOD music and old hardware and has been writing stuff in assembly languages. Now that even most of the newcomers of the demoscene tend to be twenty-something, it is really a healthy sign that some of those who are in the "optimal starting age" also become involved. Also, the more folks of this age range we have, the farther away we are from the "dying subculture" scenario.

One of the problems with this year's Assembly was the uncertainty as to where the common "hang-around areas" were. There was a Boozembly, but the new place wasn't really succesful in my opinion. Also, the so-called "oldskool" area was put on the "gamer floor" this year, which wasn't quite appealing either. As a result, quite many sceners ended up spending their time at the SceneBooth. I'm really looking forward to the possibilities of expanding this concept, perhaps even replacing the "oldskool" area altogether with an expanded SceneBooth at Assembly.

And yes, I'd like to change the name. "Scene" is somewhat vague, and I've been quite sceptical against "scene-centric" thinking anyway. And I'd like to drop the misleading and harmful "oldskool" label as well.

[Lifeforce by ASD]

One cannot write a party report like this without mentioning the main demo competition.

As on so many years before, most of the competition was rather boring. For some reason, peecee groups tend to produce a lot of "non-surprising high-quality stuff" for the Assembly competitions. Most of these demos would have been worthy winners on any smaller party, but seeing a dozen "similar" productions in the middle of the night makes you want to have a nap. Also, as the majority of the audience has not got used to watching demos, the competition may seem to them as even more pointless and boring than to someone like myself (with years and years of experience in actually watching this kind of crap.)

The failures of the competition in short: far too little experimentation with new concepts; far too little deviance from the "generic demo style"; far too much dependence on the music and relying on generic abstract visuals. Actually, some of the most memorable entries were "non-scene" ones, such as the fractal-based demo and the one with a massive orchestral soundtrack. I don't say these are technically any good or even worth watching again, but at least they left a memory trail, and that's what counts.

Another thing that irritated me was that Microsoft had bought quite many groups to produce demos for XNA. This also includes some groups known for their 64K intros (Conspiracy), and that's probably why the level of the 64K intro competition was extremely poor. I don't really like the way how all kinds of capitalists interfere with the progress of a more or less "anticommercial" subculture.

There was one entry, however, that saved the show, that is, Lifeforce by ASD. I actually had a hard time deciding how to relate with this demo. On one hand, it felt like a kitschy crowdpleaser with a lot of immensely beautiful but mutually unrelated 3D scenes connected to one another. But on the other hand, I really enjoyed it, and after watching the video capture several times, reading the group's explanation on the symbolism and finding some coherence, I have started to consider Lifeforce as something groundbreaking. That is, it isn't just your average "pseudo-artistic" crowdpleaser that looks deep despite being superficial, but something with an inherent artistic value of its own.