Sunday, 28 September 2008

The feeling that is gone..

This is a complement to the previous post. It's all about this magic feeling of the demoscene, the demos doing the impossible thing and how it is gone. Not because of age, not because of modern hardware, not because of any cliche reason you'd think (like the scene is dead). Because it's different when you watch the first demos, trying to code your first effect and imagining how the hardware works. It's different when you go to your first demoparties, it's different when everything is new for you than when the demoscene is all you were doing for years.

I still can stare back at C64 achievements, CPC effects or 386 demos and respect the effort and genious behind some "impossible" ideas. But they will never give me back the same feeling as during the first times. The feeling of the impossible, the feeling of my dreams.

Someone said that democoding is like magician's work. You are trying to do something which in the far end can be explained but seems to be impossible. It's programming and trickery combined. The young democoder starts as a newbie, trying to learn the basic trick with the cards while staring with awe upon the cut in half with a saw high level magicians, wondering if it's really a trick or they have sold their soul to the devil. As they learn more, they figure out that even the most amazing tricks are nothing really extreme in reality. The magic is gone.

We used to stare at effects like the above done on an 8bit and wonder how is it possible? Today, most of my favorite C64 effects (bitmap manipulating, precalculated mapping, etc) are just big unrolled codes of LDA/STA. It only remains to precalculate the 3d to 2d coordinates and correlate the pixels of a bitmap to the positions of the screen for a bunch of pixels to be written. Then you only scroll the bitmap or increase/decrease an index register (depends on the size of your bitmap and what you want to achieve), rerun the unrolled codes for each frame and voila! It's no big deal (the biggest pain is to generate the unroll codes and fit them in memory I think), though the first time I would see this effect on an 8bit I would think it's impossible. Now the magic is gone.

The magic is gone even for the more clever codes. Or at least, I have seen now what a C64 can really achieve, I even know that if these things are possible on the C64 they can easilly be done in the CPC too at similar speeds, I have a big idea of what is possible in 8bits, 16bits or early 32bits today, so it's really hard for me to feel the magic. I may still be impressed, especially when C64 coders continue to do slightly better versions of these effects today, as they continue to improve when you first think there is nothing more to be done. I think the best times for someone in the demoscene are maybe the first years.

The magic was getting even bigger as someone started learning to code. During the first years I didn't know much about optimizing Z80 assembly, my code was slow, I didn't even thought someone would unroll codes to the last pixel and that would save him from other things too (no need for compare/jump, values could be given directly instead read from tables, etc) and when I tried to scroll say 1000 bytes the screen was almost refreshed once and then I thought "If I need a vbl to move 1kb then how can they move and even manipulate whole screens? I never expected it to be soooo slow..". Then everything seemed more impossible because I didn't had the experience to know the tricks and the limits.

I believe that small fractions of the feeling can come back at times. At rare times someone tries not to do a slightly better version of an effect but something new, not done before especially in this speed (for example, the free directional tunnel of Error 23, not seen before on the C64 and thought it was PC territory because it needs floating point calcs even with subdivision). It's not because the scene has changed and people code less impressive things, it's because you have seen everything and have a wider view of why they are possible. Maybe it really is because we have done a lot and it's harder to impress (like in music when a new genre appears and everything after that is copies, because the original is done once) but maybe this feeling was always present at any age and maybe when people age in these territories they feel that everything is stagnating unlike their first years. Maybe it's just a feeling. But one I can never experience in the same sense again. I just long for those rare impossible effects that can bring the feeling back for a while..

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