In terms of file size, 64K isn’t much. It’s a Word document, maybe, or a relatively low-resolution JPEG. But every year, coders compete to create the most stunning, self-running programs possible within these tiny confines of code, all for message-board glory.
And Fermi Paradox, created by the studio Mercury and recently highlighted by Prosthetic Knowledge, may be the most awesome 64K demo ever created. It’s a journey through space with art direction that calls to mind directors like Stanley Kubrick and Christopher Nolan, featuring craggy moons, swirling gas giants, endless stars, rocky shores, and dark seas that glisten to the laser-like burst of a hungry black hole–all set to an irresistibly electric 1980s soundtrack. The environments aren’t just rendered videos, they’re produced in real time through procedural generation–code that creates planets.
Just a few years ago, these 64K demos plateaued with the look of late ’90s computer games. But those bounds have since been broken, and there are moments of this video that you’ll swear could be real. So we asked the team what’s getting better. Is everyone more skilled? Or has something changed within computers to make this leap possible?
The answer is a combination of a few factors. Yes, the community is always learning new visual tricks. Yes, as OpenGL improves–that’s a shared graphics library, filled with all sorts of rendering logic–it has opened the doors for the specific breakthrough of programmable shaders, which allow coders to create more realistic light and shadow even within the confines of 64K. And yes, as the hardware gets faster, it allows creators to push visual bounds while actually coding their demo less efficiently–but still get the framerate they need.
“It’s no coincidence that 64Ks … tend to run just barely on the hardware that is the most modern at the time they are released,” writes Mercury member Johann Korndoerfer.
“In the past, computer graphics in general, and the demoscene in particular, was about ‘faking’ graphics–making things look realistic in as cheap a way as possible. But now, computing power has advanced to a point where it is actually no longer necessary to fake, but to simulate,” team member Urs Ganse adds. “We are using actual material parameters…and a pretty physical model of our camera. And the resulting images seem very realistic. While physically based rendering has now been around for some years, this mindset, ‘don’t fake it, do it correctly’ is only slowly beginning to take foot. I think we will be in for more surprises in the future.”
In other words, even though the 64K file constraint isn’t getting any bigger, the worlds that can be squeezed inside will only grow.