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The Art of Demoscene

A demoscene is an art form combining complex graphical renderings with algorithmically generated audio. The graphics are generated live, right in front of the viewer's eyes, performing complex and highly optimized calculations to project an incredible 3D scene onto the viewer's screen.

A colorful example of demoscene simulating millions of particles
A shot from "Blunderbuss" by demomaker Fairlight, which simulates millions of particles

Demoscenes, or "demos" as they are often called, showcase their author's talent and often push the boundaries of what was thought possible, often having to overcome the limitations of hardware, be it in power, space, or time, while producing a result that tantalizes the viewer.

Demoscene originally rose out of computer piracy. People who cracked protections on licensed software previously inserted a splash or animation as a calling card and a way to flex their chops. This led to the prevalence of underground "demoparties" which often featured showcases and competitions in the late 80s and early 90s. The art still thrives today, although mostly separated from its underground beginnings; major parties still take place, mainly in northern Europe.

A richly textured, procedurally generated forest
A 24kib demo by Inigo Quilezles, which walks through a richly textured, procedurally generated forest

Demos are usually divided into a few categories, of which one of the most revered is "intros." Intros are demos that fit into certain size constraints—a daunting task given the complexity of demo programs—which both render rich 3D worlds while also creating atmospheric music from sine waves, often taking elements from EDM and vaporwave. One of the earliest intro sizes was 512 bytes, which fits into the boot sector of a hard drive, and 64 KiB, which was the maximum size of a DOS COM executable. For reference, each letter in this article is encoded as one byte, and the text before this sentence is more than 3 times the size of a boot sector program.

Blue and green spherical shapes
A shot from a 257b boot sector demo written by the author in x86 assembly, displaying in 320x200 VGA mode

Because of their live nature, demos have always been testaments to a programmer’s ability and a celebration of prowess and ingenuity, of clever tricks and optimization. They draw from the same artistic spirit we have come to love in artists such as Da Vinci. He spent countless hours studying how our eyes can perceive the world around them and projecting a 3D world onto a 2D surface. Demoscene applies a mix of ancient geometry and modern innovation, the modern mathematical evolution of our traditional arts of ancient geometry and modern innovation.