viznut's amazing discoveries

[2007-09-03]

Looking in the past to understand the present

Last weekend, I saved some bits from my old 5.25-inch PC floppies. These bits included a lot of "modem stuff", like QWK message packets from BBSes and all kinds of compressed textfiles, but what I found the most interesting were the older files, from around 1988-1991, when I wasn't into BBSes or demos yet. These were mostly text files and BASIC/Pascal programs, but there were also some pictures in CGA-bitmap and vector formats as well as some "articles" made with desktop publishing software.

Yes, I used x86-peecees quite early. Although my active computer history started with the VIC-20 and the C-64 in the mid-1980s, I also got to use my father's 512K Macintosh and 8088-class PC. And in around 1990, I was already a proud owner of my father's old PC. I skipped the usual "Amiga period" between the C-64 and the PC, and I didn't have an Amiga of my own until the 2000s.

Anyway, looking at these old files made me wonder about a couple of questions:

In my early childhood, I used all kinds of available tools for doing something creative. I used to draw a lot with pencils and crayons. I also used an old typewriter to write stories, and a cassette tape recorder for making listenable stories.

In December 1984, when I was just under eight years old, my "arsenal" was expanded by the VIC-20 home computer. Programming in BASIC was the obvious path for exploring this new medium, and I started to experiment with BASIC straight from the beginning.

Some of the earliest things I made with BASIC were animations. That is, print a frame with PRINT, wait a while with an empty FOR:NEXT loop, then print the next frame, etc. As I very early ran out of memory with this technique, the animations hadn't much of a "plot" to speak of. I also wrote a lot of games. Once I got the Super Expander (which had actual graphics and sound commands) I experimented with all kinds of programs that combined abstract graphics with some sounds.

Despite doing a lot with the VIC-20, I continued with the old mediums as well. I started to draw comics. I still recorded stories on the tape in the usual way, although they gradually started to include some computerized sound effects as well. Most of the stuff I created was related to an imaginary world that improved along with the new stories. The world had a lot of friendly space creatures, robots and weird dream-manipulating machines -- even before I started to read science fiction.

One day, my father bought a Macintosh for himself, and I had the chance to use it every now and then. Although there was a BASIC interpreter, the application I used the most was MacPaint, which I regarded as a kind of improved substitute for the paper, pencil and typewriter.

During my PC era some years later, I was doing more or less the same things as before, but with far more elaboration. The stories I wrote were most often "news stories" or some kind of encyclopedic articles about different planets and spaceship classes of my third fictional world, the "Zurs" universe. I tried to use every possible program for something Zurs-related. I used a desktop publishing software, a presentation graphics program and even a database. Yep, I definitely needed to put all the fictional planets and species into a database.

I also tried to adapt some of my written stories into a kind of "movie" or "TV series" format. As I happened to have PC rather than Amiga at the time, these mostly became soundless, subtitled slideshows with some relatively simple effects in between. I dreamed about a more elaborate animating system, as well as putting in some animated 3D for space sequences and some decent sound.

I was also dreaming about several big programming projects, mainly games. I started countless game projects in the 1980s, mostly on the C-64 and the PC, being only able to finish a fraction of them. And yes, some of the ideas were quite closely connected to my sci-fi world. I was dreaming about creating a big Starflight-like crpg/adventure game located in this world, but I never had the motivation to do anything else than the basics for it.

In the early 1990s, I became an active user of modem, and some years later I also accidentally became involved with the demoscene. This provided me with much of the creative motivation I needed at the time, however it also affected my focus and attitude quite a lot.

In the mid-1990s I still considered most demos to be very "superficial". Nice effects, graphics and music and stuff, but not much underlying structure, and nothing very interesting besides the technical excellence. In my previous creative work I had always concentrated quite a lot on the world and the story, and what the demoscene was making mostly looked like "empty shells" to me. However, I visited demoparties for meeting my BBS friends, and I considered this an outstanding excuse for creating and releasing something of my own. So, I started to release humor-based PC textmode demos for the competitions. And of course, these demos had plots and a recurring cast of characters, as I felt that demos should have them in order to fill up the "empty shell".

Naturally, most of the sceners thought that I was making these "jokedemos" only because I wasn't able to do any "real stuff". So, I had a lot of pressure for improving my graphics-programming skills and learning the "demo ways" in order to prove my potential. So, only a year and a half after my first attempt at a demoscene release, I won the 4K intro competition at the Assembly party with my first "serious" release ever. And yes, it had a story, as I really didn't want to "regress" to the "superficial" mainstream demo design despite the serious technical effort.

Nowadays, after a decade, however, I have a feeling that some of this "regression" has already taken place:

So, where would my creative focus be now if I had never been on the demoscene?

As the signs were quite clear from the beginning, I guess I would probably doing some kind of computer animation and perhaps music, but outside the demoscene context and with less focus on the technique. I might also be writing fiction rather than doing anything audiovisual. I could also be actively involved with some big open-source project, perhaps a game. And I also suspect my professional career would be completely different, as I would never have had this demoscene "wildcard" to show to my potential employers. It's also likely that my friend network would be completely different as well.

I've noted that "what-if" scenarios like this are sometimes very good for widening one's view of life from one narrow path into a big grid of different paths. Seeing a whole set of future possibilities via these "alternate timelines" also expands the freedom of choosing what to try next.