Monday, July 29, 2013

Reflections on Second Reality's 20 years

It's easy to say that Second Reality is one of the best known demos ever - that is, creative computer art productions combining software-generated visual effects and electronic music, being the cornerstone of the international demoscene.


Assembly '93

In the evening of Saturday, July 31, 1993, I was in Kerava, Finland, attending Assembly '93 computer party with around 1,500 other male demosceners (and maybe 5 female ones). I had met many new friends, shared some music I'd composed with my Amiga 500 and discussed about what the future of PC demoscene might be - so far, most of the interesting stuff was released on Amiga 500 (and some still on Commodore 64, too). Even though Amiga 500 was already about six years old, new and fantastic demos were being released every month, and Spaceballs' State of the Art was only eight months old at that time.

The gymnastics hall of Nikkari School was packed full and it was difficult to get a good view of the picture which was projected on the wall. I missed most of the PC productions - running on a PC with i486 processor running at 33 MHz - and they looked like uninspired technology demos anyway, avoid of real awesomeness and flowing creativity Amiga demos had. After all, Amiga had been conceived as a multimedia machine with special processors for video and sound, making very impressive effects possible. Indeed, I got bored with Second Reality when it was shown and went to see if any DDG members were around.

I couldn't find my friends, so I went back to the main hall, where I saw the Future Crew logo turn up on the screen and heard the crowd going nuts with cheering and applauding. One of my new friends came to me and said "did you see that? that was an insane demo!". Well, I didn't, and while the Amiga demo competition was a disappointment, I was very impressed with Pygmy Projects' Extension (which won that competition).

Later, when I had already returned home I heard Future Crew won the PC demo competition with its demo Second Reality. Silents' Optic Nerve came second. At that point, I didn't care that much - more attention was brought to the status of Amiga scene, now that the Assembly '93 Amiga demo competition was not on par with the PC demo competition. Only later - actually, at Aggressive Party - I heard rumors that the demo had been something special, or there might actually even be cheating involved.

People told me that Second Reality, made by people who also organized the Assembly '93 event, had been disqualified and Silents won the competition instead. This was due to the fact that the demo contained a picture "Ice Kingdom" by Marvel that entered the PC graphics competition (and won it) and this was against rules. Some also thought it was unfair that the demo used Dolby Surround sound and others didn't, and blamed Future Crew to be some kind of "Microsoft of the demoscene", a bunch of arrogant spoiled kids. I was also told that the demo wasn't even good, because it required such a powerful machine to run. This made sense, because the scrolling scenery at the start looked uglier that it would have on Amiga 500. In any case, I liked Silents' demo better, because it was more traditional and "Amiga-like".

Here's a documentary video of Future Crew making some final touches to their almost complete demo:

Reputation grows

Remember, we (or most of us) didn't have Internet at the time, and information was exchanged on bulletin board systems. Many of them were underground, or "elite", so that they were not listed in public BBS lists, and centered about demoscene and/or warez (cracked games). Sometimes information was unreliable, usually it was just old, unless you knew the right people and had access to the right BBS's.

Sure, Silent's Optic Nerve was a fine demo, but... Second Reality just became more and more popular. The Assembly demoparty grew as well and while it was no longer officially organized by Future Crew (but "Assembly Organizing"), many of its core organizers (Gore and Abyss) were from FC, which helped Second Reality's visibility. At Assembly '94 it was shown on the big screen, and many visitors' own computers. And also at Assembly '95, '96 and '97...

The "vector city" end part which was considered quite a feat back then...
Future Crew itself seemed to implode after Second Reality. There were rumors (which later turned out to be true) tha they were indeed preparing a demo for Assembly '94, but as it wouldn't have been completed in time, it wasn't released. Instead, FC participated in the PC intro competition with their Soppa, an unremarkable production that became the last release from Future Crew, ever.

People kept talking about Second Reality while they also debated the sad state of Amiga. Commodore had declared bankrupcy in 1994 and while the new Amiga models with AGA chipset showed a renewed interest in the platform, it was still very much a hobbyist scene, whereas PC's became more and more powerful with standardized SuperVGA graphics and soon, 16-bit sound, and seemed to be the platform of the future, Windows or not. Second Reality became a showcase item - to be shown to new people interested in demoscene.

What makes Second Reality special

It was (and is?) easy to hate PC's. They were clumsy, expensive business machines. Maybe powerful, but not suitable for games or anything fun. Many early PC demos lacked design and synchronization with the soundtrack. Future Crew had already shown promise with its demos Unreal (which Second Reality was a sequel to) and Panic, but Second Reality was a seamless (yet a bit episodic) combination of sound and visuals. And unlike fancy but boring tech demos, Second Reality had a lot of novel new effects and fresh treatments of traditional effects, and of course stuff that couldn't be done on Amiga, such as the vector city in the end.

Everything (except for the scenery at the start) was smooth, flowing, seamless. The masterful soundtrack by Jonne "Purple Motion" Valtonen and Peter "Skaven" Hajba was a critical part of the demo, combining trendy electronic music and orchestral elements. It was composed using the group's own composer software, ScreamTracker 3 (which was not yet released to the public at that time). The soundtrack used high-quality samples, melodies and rhythms in a creative fashion, which distinguished it from usual "mod techno" soundtracks of many Amiga demos. For me, the credits part's orchestration is a textbook example of how to make other than typical electronic dance music with a tracker software.

Commodore 64 version


Second Reality was a benchmark in many ways. The Commodore 64 demoscene (which will probably never die) was looking for modern inspiration and in 1997, the Smash Designs released a Commodore 64 version of the demo at The Party '97. It won the Commodore 64 demo competition and has often been cited as one of the best demos on the platform, but has also drawn criticism to the fact that it is not a completely original production, but just a C64 version of an existing production.

The C64 version of the classic demo is both a tribute to the PC demo and also an outstanding attempt to replicate the effects on the ancient 8-bit platform. I saw this at the demo showing by Club for Digital Media DOT and was astonished. This "conversion" was so well done yet still stylish and the music was awesome.
Sure, you don't have all the CPU power of an 80486, but this demo makes the best of what it has.

At this point is was evident that Second Reality had left its mark in the computer culture and visual arts. Later, I heard the demo had spread outside the demoscene quite early, with U.S. business people wondering how this production was even possible.

In 1999, Slashdot voted Second Reality as one of the "Slashdot's Top 10 Hacks of All Time", among Mars Pathfinder, AK-47 and Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird.

Legacy

In 2013, Second Reality still matters, whether we like it or not. ;-) It is one of the best known demos ever and often mentioned in the company of Spaceballs' State of the Art, Complex's Mental Hangover and Mature Furk's Lapsuus.

Now that Second Reality's 20th anniversary is approaching, members of the defunct Future Crew are planning to release the source code for the demo. Like many other demosceners, members of Future Crew have ended up as designers, coders and musicians in the Finnish (or international) game industry, with companies like Remedy, Futuremark, Remedy, Bugbear and Recoil having been (co-)founded by them.

While Second Reality has been a good starting point or portal to the demoscene for many, now it may take some explaining to tell people (who might not have been born in 1993!) what makes this demo special, or why producing visual effects on the computers of the 1980's and 1990's was so difficult. Still, people who have no idea how they are made, can (often) still appreciate the "music video" aspect of demos, being fascinating audiovisual experiences even for the uninitiated.

The Amiga demo competition at Assembly '93 was a disappointment, but Amiga did strike back in 1994 and it still hasn't died. The Amiga group The Black Lotus, among others, have shown that production of quality demos on the Amiga did not end in 1993. Aside from being a milestone in PC demoscene, Second Reality is a milestone in creative approach to programming and computing in general, something which is way too much missing in the education, profession and hobby of computing 2013. 

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