A Critical Look at the Demoscene

On “Direction” and Related Matters

Published 8th of May, 2021


This essay was originally written in early 2019 for the Demobit demoparty, held in Bratislava, Slovakia. At the time I promised to publish a more polished version of the text online after the party, but neglected to do so until now more than two years later. While the text was always intended to primarily be in the form of an essay, and was indeed originally largely written as such, it was published and delivered in the form of a presentation at the event. This inevitably shaped the text to be somewhere between an essay and a speech, which I find slightly awkward in retrospect, but also I don't feel it's relevant to revise the entire style of the text at this point.

The version you are reading here is mostly the same text, but with some grammatical issues addressed. I did not alter the tone however, and the text is intentionally somewhat provocative. I would not recommend taking it too seriously, but I do encourage you to assume good faith. However, even then, there are still many sections in which I disagree with myself nowadays, and, again, instead of revising that content I would rather provide the original text, and perhaps expand and revise my thoughts later in a new essay.

The Essay

During my times in the Demoscene I have time and time again ran into various misunderstandings with people, unable to understand what they sometimes mean when they talk about, and often even being unsure if I know what I mean by the terms I and many others are accustomed to using. We lack either cohesive or accurate definitions for many terms we transparently use in conversations regarding our work. Lacking well understood definitions for such commonly used terms can have a damaing effect when discussing not only the work of others, but also our own. The fact that we are not able to communicate clearly to me is a sign that he have not poured enough effort into analyzing the work we spend so many hours creating.

The intentions of this essay are to explore possibilities of reforming the understanding and usage of the abstractions and terminology we use. The methods are related to kind outlined within the field of Critical theory—especially by sociologists such as Horkheimer and Adorno, and the Frankfurt School in general. Critical Theory as defined by Max Horkheimer—to quote Wikipedia for the sake of brevity—in 'Traditional and Critical Theory' in 1937 is social critique, meant to effect sociologic change and realize intellectual emancipation, by way of enlightenment that is not dogmatic in its assumptions.

Note that despite Critical Theory's links with Marxism, this is not strictly a Marxist critique of the Demoscene, as I don't see class or capitalism in particular being a primary defining factor in the Demoscene, let alone regarding the exact topics this text is concerned with. That is not to say though that such a critique would not be relevant in general—and there are several possible avenues opening right from this essay too—but is explicitly left out of this essay to limit the scope. I encourage other interested parties to expand upon this essay though, to explore approaching the Demoscene through various other branches and schools of philosophy or sociology.

In the Demoscene we use various terms to describe the positions each person has in creation of a Production. This is of course no different from other technical and especially creative fields that operate primarily through collabiration, such as film making, pop music production, video game production or book publishing, and so on. In the professional context these roles have relatively strict scopes and responsibilities, resembling Fordian economic production model where labor was compartmentalised. This is largely necessiated by collaborative nature of most large-scale productions, as each function due to various external factors such as due to accidents, disagreements, schedules, etc., has to remain flexible for the completion of the project to occur within a reasonable time frame.

The Demoscene in its formational years—though not necessarily for the same reasons as the professional fields—generated similar structures, where each person involved in a production was assigned—or possibly self-assigned—relatively narrow roles in a similar fashion to those in existing professional creative fields. The reasons for this don't bear the same motivations as the professional creative fields though, but most likely rose from the fact that the average age of a “Demoscener” was relatively low, especially compared to nowadays, which of course means that they up to that point could not have feasibly accumulated a wide enough variety of skills to be a so-called “multi-talent”, or to be able to create a demo all by themselves. The technological conditions also set a precedent for a value hierarchy for each role: The programmer was on the top, since the creation of a Demo Production was not possible without them due to the lack of adequate tooling and the requirements for knowledge about the underlying hardware and software layers. There of course were solutions created back then for programmer-free workflows such as the infamous RSI Demomaker, which was highly derided and controversial at the time and since. What is clear though is the fact that either the creative control of Productions was decidedly in the hands of the programmer(s), or they could benevolently delegate it to a person of their choosing, as in for an example typically relinguishing the “design” aspects of a Demo Production to a graphics artist. No matter what though, others were still at the mercy of the programmer.

Considering how the programmer by default had the implicit control over the demo in a general sense, they essentially by most definitions of the word were the Directors. I don't want to diminish the value of the labour by the programmer though, their work was essential and valuable, and especially nowadays plenty of people who functionally act programmers-first are still very capable artists. However, because of the demands imposed by the responsibility of the programmer, the so-called directorial decisions were largely delageted to a secondary priority at best, and thus the artistic maturity of the Demoscene languished by and large.

Unlike about 25 to 30 years ago though, we nowadays have the means to create productions liberated from the implicit control of programmers, but we can't ignore the history as it has had irrecoverable effects. The echoes of this can be heard today in the artificial conflict between the programmers and their perceived loss of ground amidst outsourcing their capabilities to 3rd party tools. These tools are of course the so-called “Engines”, such as Unity and Unreal Engine. One reason used to justify this is notion that the goal of the Demoscene is to act as “a way to show what you can do”. The mind of the programmer though only sees this through the means of the technical though—something that is quantifiable; which routine is faster, or calculates more data points; which song as the most complex harmony and elaborate instrumentation; which visual artwork has the most male gaze applied to its female subjects. This again is reflected in how we primarily judge our Works in conjunction of being presented by assigning them numerical scores. Discussion hardly ever amounts to anything but sentences limited to a single thought or even just a handful of expletives.

All this leads to the question what do we by and large value in the Demoscene? To approach this question, let's consider the troublesome term “Direction”. As defined by Merriam-Webster:

[di-rec-tion] noun
1. guidance or supervision of action or conduct

Direction in the general sense is understood as in terms of Leadership, as in Director being synonomous with Leader. Relevant professional roles employing this concept for an example are the Creative Director, Art Director, and perhaps most essentially or at least most popularly, the Film Director. Let's first look into how the term most likely got introduced and popularized in the Demoscene.

We in the Demoscene don't know what we mean by the term “direction”. I don't just mean we have a differing opinions, but we seem to struggle even coming up with good definitions for it ourselves, let alone compatible and commonly agreed ones. The only way we collectively understand “direction” is either through compatibility with existing hazily defined institutional standards for noteworthy direction, most prominently, the ones set by The Academy Awards, or, when applied through the post-GPU era lens, via the complexity and easily quantifiable accuracy of synchronization. It is difficult to say where the definition for the term originated from in the context of the Demoscene. Because no records of such matters are consistently kept, it is difficult to even investigate such exact origins, but we have retained information of one helpful source: the Scene.org Awards.

The Scene.org Awards introduced the category for “Best Direction” on their very first year for productions of the year 2002, the awards ceremony being held at the Breakpoint 2003 Demoparty. No strict criteria for any category seem to have ever been published, but the first iteration of the Awards website in the years 2002–2005 gives us a brief impression on the criteria:

Definitions of the categories in the first Scene.org Awards in 2002, with the Best direction category emphasized.

This picture example is from their landing site 'awards.scene.org' viewed through the Archive.org Wayback Machine. It is the final year of this definition's appearance, around 2005. The subsequent editions did not introduce categories except in name only, let alone define their goals, in any way. Considering the the first edition of the awards, like most categories, the Best Direction category saw five nominees, all of which seem wildly incompatible, as predicted by the nebulous category specification. The nominees for the 2002 Awards were as follows:

The five productions nominated for best direction in the 2002 Scene.org Awards. Some of the thumbnail images are missing from the archive copy.

Initially these nominees appeared without further accompanying prose, but were later—presumably—paired with the jury's reasoning for the nomination. What is apparent though is how the definition of the category lends itself judging productions against one another by vastly different, orthogonal merits. While the complexity of the Demoscene is not reducible just a single committee-chosen collection productions such as the the selection orchestrated by the Awards staff, I believe it's a valuable avenue for inspecting general trends and parlance within it. After all the juries were mostly rotating each year, typically comprised of highly regarded members of our community.

Around this era we can also see a thread on Pouët titled “Demoscene needs more direction...”. The wording of the title alone is quite telling about the confusion around the term, as it implies “direction” is something quantifiable that you can just add to a production in order to make it more interesting. None of the thread shines any light onto what anyone actually thinks what Direction is aside from what we could also attain the Scene.org Awards description, which boils down to “Things that I like”.

Similarly we can inspect the ways the term is seen qualitatively and often times confusingly enough quantitatively used in critique.

“There wasn’t much direction”

“So much direction”

“Not so much direction”

“Lack of direction”

“Serious lack of direction”

“Extreme lack of direction”

“Boring direction”

“This kind of direction”

“He was definitely the master in this kind of direction”

“There’s plenty of direction”

“Clear sense of direction”

“Needs a lot of direction”

“Lacks a bit of direction”

“Some sort of direction”

“Not much direction going on”

“Way too much direction”

“How much direction do you need”

These examples of the usage indicate that direction supposedly is something you can somehow have too little of, and to remedy that just add some amount more of it to the Work. Often it seems that the actual criticism people are looking for is the sparsity of the editing or dullness of the camerawork, but the fact that we rarely bring these specific things up is a bit telling. Going back to the Scene.org Awards though, while we don't have a public record of the explicit criteria or definition for the categories for the 2007 awards, held at Breakpoint 2008, we do have this brief description delivered by the host of the show Netpoet as to what Direction could be.

“Direction is the art of conducting all the elements that a demo is made of. It is art, and in order to excel at this category you need to be a full-fledged art director. Art directors are to be founds in all sorts of job functions, in advertisement and publishing, in film and television—I've been told—on the internet and video games, and if we do it right very soon everybody will know you need this position in demos.”

It is not clear if this was the criteria used for choosing the nominees and the winner for the category, but it does shed some light onto how, at least implicitly or unconsciously, the juries approached their consideration for the category. In this case, the focus has clearly shifted more towards the definition of Art Direction, albeit the chosen nominees don't necessarily appear to reflect this. Art Direction as hinted at by the quote is a term and a role present in vast number of creative fields. In film production context for an example it could be defined as follows:

“When Art Direction is thrown in the mix [with Production Design], I often think of the term “Project Management”. If a Production Designer oversees the entire look of the film, an Art Director’s job is to facilitate and implement the Production Designer’s creative intent. This eventually gives the film its unique visual identity. They take care of the nitty gritty bits. From the largest scale locations to the smallest details.”

It seems unreasonable to try to detach the role of director from a management role. It is not clear whether director as an explicit makes sense for solo productions even. It would be desirable to extract the concepts of editing, camerawork (or possibly cinematography) out of the scope of direction, and instead transform the term strictly into the more clear term Art Direction. By wrapping them all under one common term that doesn't even describe them well, we in the process diminish their value as we don't explicitly let other parties know what we think. It is intellectual laziness. All of these are easily notable enough dimensions of “Direction” to be considered on their own. Considering for an example editing; it is a term that has existed as a concept essentially since the beginning of the Demoscene, but we never really speak about it explicitly. Instead in different times, depending on what state of technology has permitted, we have used various terms in disguise of editing to refer to it, e.g.

  • Linking (1980s and onwards)
  • Track loading, “Trackmo” (early 1990s)
  • Sync* (mid 1990s onwards)
  • Transitions (early 2000s onwards)
  • Direction (early 2000s onwards)
  • Cinematography (early 2010s and beyond?)

*essentially a variation on Eisenstein's metric montage

The contention is there, and has been for a while now. Based on my findings it was especially visible around the boom of ca. 2007–2009 era of many noteworthy well regarded productions. Around those years multiple people—often the creators of those particular productions—could be seen voicing their concerns over the application and definition of term Direction. Since then we seem to have essentially reverted back to accepting the usage of the term without questioning its meaning, which was not the direction of development we should've went with. My thesis is that the way we treat these less material, less quantifiable traits of a Demo Production, essentially trivializing them by not pouring any effort into comprehending our words, the maturity of the Demoscene could stagnate.