17 - 2D: To get on the right trackTo get on the right track
by Archmage of Andromeda
Due to my revived interest in the scene, I recently felt in need of some updating on the last decade of PC demos. In order to keep my time on pouet to an absolute minimum, however, I opted for the smoother alternative of buying a copy of Mindcandy vol. 1. As is the case for any pre-selected highlight collection like this, this DVD certainly had its ups and downs, but as far as my general impression went I was very surprised with a couple of its aspects. In contrast to the demos I have seen over the past couple of years of my scene activity, a lot of the demos on Mindcandy struck me as having more of a personal touch than much of the thumbs-up material you see today. I was also surprised to see that some of the demos on the DVD featured rather stunning 2D graphics, the likes of which have been very rarely seen in 2007. As I am no doubt a fellow who is guilty of jumping to conclusions, I was quick to connect these two impressions. And even if the part about the personal touch owes more to my own personal taste than to any form of objective analysis, the fact remains that there has been a fairly recent change in the way demos look in the area of 2D graphics. Observing this change has triggered some questions that I want to explore a bit further in this small article. What does the change consist of, and why has it happened? Further more, what is the status of 2D graphics in the demoscene today, and how does the future look for 2D?
Saffron's work in Live Evil
First off, it can be interesting to try to pinpoint just what the change consists of. As far as one can regard the Mindcandy DVD as presenting a representative selection of its period, it can be said that the demos from around Y2K contain a lot of advanced 2D. Demos by Noice, Maturefurk, Mandula and Haujobb among others really display a graphics scene that has evolved far beyond the pixel-by-pixel girls, swords and dragons of the we desperately need something on the screen while precalculating-days. Beautiful pieces of art done by Flood, Timo, Visualice, Made, Acryl and the ever-brilliant Saffron are integrated in ways that add grace to these demos without overshadowing the technicality and immediacy of the effects. Furthermore, the traditional demoscene logos have been integrated into the realm of graphic design all for the benefit of the viewer.
The time around the change of the Millenium was, as people have pointed out to me repeatedly, an era of layers, and it is quite clear that the demoscene is not about to go back there. But even though the scene has moved on from the layer-upon-layer style, this does not provide a good reason why the presence of 2D has diminished to the extent that it has. Today, if one excludes those who do texturing for 3D, only a handful of 2D graphicians are left in the scene. To be quite frank, they mostly range from mediocre to decent, but rarely beyond. Paradoxically, this is also the heyday of Photoshop and Painter. Computer art forums covering all areas from concept art to 8-bit pixelling are currently exploding with new talent - so why is it that these people do not find their way into the scene? One reason is that not many years ago the scene was as natural a starting point as any for anybody who wanted to put paint on the screen. But now the 2D'ers have formed scenes of their own. Most of these people have never even heard of the demoscene, and those who have heard of it have either moved on or are just paying a visit for old times sake - only to find demos without any 2D. There is simply no recruitment going on, and demos are no longer regarded as an arena for 2D. This could have been different, of course, had it not been for the extreme change in demo aesthetics that the scene has undergone on this side of the Millenium.
Bridgeclaw, now a pro artist, revisits the scene in Onward by Traction
In order to explore this change in aesthetics further, we have to take a look at some macroscopic changes in the demoscene. Even though I dont expect a widespread consensus to my point of view here, I think it deserves mentioning. Whereas demos before were pushing new ground on almost every platform, demomaking on the PC today is increasingly trying to invade the aesthetics and technical territory of present day gamemaking. This leads to a devaluation of the demo as a unique phenomenon, and over time demomaking has largely been reduced to imitation. To break this statement down a bit: in 1994 a demo on the Amiga could build on far more advanced code than any game on the same platform even though comparing the two might seem a strange idea at the time. Consequently demos were pushing ground for demos. Nowadays, however, the positions are switched, and what is generally considered a top notch PC-demo can barely live up to the technicality of a low budget game, although it oh-so desperately wants to. We all know the game industry has boomed since the mid-nineties, and one might argue that its influence is unavoidable. Even so, it is still the case that demo engines are more and more trying to approximate game engines because thats the path the scene has chosen for itself. The fact that we are even talking about "demo engines" only adds weight to this point. Today it is considered pretty hardcore to hard-code demos, and only a few coders would be good or bad enough to attempt to make more than one production without building some sort of engine or tool. In most cases, this is also where the good ideas are left behind and where everything starts to look more or less the same. There are exceptions of course, and coincidentally the productions that actually stay out of, or only occasionally enter, the fully equipped toolshed, are also among the productions that get the most cheering when they do show up.
So, the major change in the way that demos are perceived consists of the fact that absolutely everything has to move. This is, in my opinion, a direct consequence of standards relating to cultural phenomena such as gaming and, of course, music videos. Because what happens in the scener's mind when you put a 2D picture on the screen? It disrupts the demo instead of enriching it. Or at least, that is the fear of most demomakers. In the words of the widely respected, scene defining and all around good guy Gargaj of Conspiracy: "Nowadays, everything is animated and everything must be in motion, because that's what people enjoy doing - 2D pictures are too static, unless they have some extra flair with added effects. They might disrupt the flow of a demo; sometimes 2D is just too stale.". To me, this represents a demopolitical view rather than a factual one, but it also happens to be the view that most sceners subscribe to.
There are, however, those that dare to challenge the fear of the average pouet lamers "BORING!" thumb and you do still see the occasional demo where 2D plays a part. One recent demo done on the Amiga was Ephidrenas awesome "Lux Aeterna Lucetat Eis", where Cheetahss beautiful 2D blends subtly with the rest of the demo. This is a demo that actually goes against the aforementioned grain of motion addiction, and I truly believe that most demo watchers find this an extremely atmospheric and beautiful viewing experience. Another example, on the PC this time, is the scene.org awarded Track One by Fairlight. Mazor has done the 2D for an incredible zoomer in the start of this demo. No one can deny that Fairlight is a group that is really pulling their weight when it comes to pioneering new concepts in demomaking, so there just might be a place for 2D in the future of the demoscene after all. I won't go further into my subjective conviction that 2D art brings you closer to the actual artist, and that this personal touch adds to the X-factoresque "demofeeling", but I do think that Track One clearly shows that 2D art is capable of conveying a sentiment very different from that of 3D. In short, 2D can serve a totally different artistic purpose, and consequently, it should no longer be regarded as an artform that ranks below 3D on the demo-evolutionary ladder.
Mazor's work in Track One by Fairlight
Hopefully demos like Track One and Lux Aeterna point demomakers toward realising that 2D does not necessarily equal staleness, and that present day demos can come in all sorts of tempos and still retain a fair share of nerve and demofeeling. It is important, though, that my views -- and any demos that feature 2D graphics for that matter -- not be labeled as part of any current nostalgia buzz. Had my argument here been for the sake of oldskoolness, it would have been a lost cause by definition. Instead, I hope that the future demoscene will get on a track where it can include an artform that is now -- more than ever before -- capable of adding to demos in a positive way, as recent (albeit too few) releases prove.