Mag! - In conversation with Excellence in Art.
Straight after the release of XiA's latest productions for the Atari STe at Sommerhack 2013. We thought that some kind of interview with him might be a cool idea. The response I got from Per was very positive, so off I went with some suitably tuned questions.
We decided to do this one a little differently, with further questions following on from the first responses to give a more natural and chatty appearance. Per was (hopefully still is by publication date!) an interviewer's dream guest. It turned out he had quite a lot to say, covering his past, the present and some of his future intentions. We really hope he continues his long and distinguished presence on the Atari demo scene.
Anyway, it's time we started this not so little chat.
Questions, questions... Dammit, now you're making me think, you sadist!
You already know me so well 8-)
To start with, why not tell us a little bit about your real life self, real name, military service rank and number, your life so far, your loves, favourite household pets, and that thing with the tinned fish that has to be opened underwater! (The military service bits are a joke and optional, by the way!)
I'm Per Almered, I'm 42 years old, I live with my wife and two cats in a tiny town in the middle of DHS country (or "Dalecarlia" as the region is called), close-ish to the geographical center of Sweden.
I never did my military service. Shocker, I know! I was assigned to a group of musicians to traipse around old peoples' homes, hospitals and the like, to entertain and I'm guessing distract those poor souls. But a little while before I was set to enter that service, the whole project was dropped, and so the nation decided my time was better spent carrying on with whatever I was doing at the time.
In general, I'm fascinated by quality, particularly combined with hard work. I guess it all started with playing the piano at age 4; I'm completely self-taught, and I think that's shaped me a lot. For relaxation, I love to browse YouTube channels on woodworking, there's something almost hypnotic about loud machinery coercing organic matter into unnatural/geometric shapes.
What got you into mis-spending your youth on computers of an Atari persuasion?
I suspect my answer here might get me thrown out of a moving vehicle, but my first passion was actually Spectravideo computers; my parents didn't want me to just play games, so they managed to find a computer for which very few games were made (this was pre-MSX), but one that had a (for the time) quite advanced BASIC. And indeed, my dad and I programmed a LOT, he went in for more advanced stuff, like a tennis game in 80% assembly, but I soon found myself spending most of my time making music using the "play [string]" command.
I was a decent piano player at that age (at least FOR that age), and being able to make tiny three-channel arrangements was enormously satisfying. Coincidentally, the Spectravideos had the same sound chip as the ST.
But like anyone into music in the early-to-mid 1980s, synthesisers were the hottest thing I could imagine, and the first time I heard about Steinberg's Pro-24 I was hooked, and just HAD to own that thingie, whatever it was. Turned out you had to have an "Atari ST" computer to be able to run it, so that's how I came to own my first 16-bit machine.
And for several years, I didn't program at all, it was all just music.
Spectravideo, that was the 'almost MSX' precursor to MSX, as I recall? Was there anything that got you specifically into Atari STE as opposed to the STFM, or was it just a fortunate accident of purchasing?
Exactly, the Spectravideo line was the basis for the MSX series. In terms of components, they're identical to the best of my knowledge, but some hardware addresses were changed, and the BASIC was given a big overhaul. A friend of mine started converting 32K MSX games for the "old" Spectravideos, by simply installing the MSX BIOS into the top 32K of RAM, practically an MSX emulator. 8-) Actually, when I bought my first Atari, the STE was still a number of years away. I did my first demos on the ST, and got an STE around '90 or '91. Once I'd heard about the STE, it was obvious I had to get one; at this time I was doing tons and tons of .MOD music, and the STE offered stereo sound and better sound quality at lower CPU cost. How could you go wrong? 8-)
You were part of a one-off team called Unique Developments early on. Holy cow, you were helping to make proper games like Obsession and such! Could you tell us a bit more about those days and about some of the other people involved?
Well, technically, "Unique Entertainment" had released a couple of games as freeware/shareware, they were just two Atari friends who enjoyed making games, very much like an indie team today, no money (neither in nor out) changing hands. Then suddenly they had this idea to step it up and make a pinball game, maybe even a commercial-quality one, like Pinball Dreams on the Amiga!
So, they got hold of an extra programmer to handle the physics bit (PQ Lear/Zeal), and then they decided they wanted to be able to use "real" music (which at this time meant .MOD music as opposed to YM bleeps), so they got in touch with Blade/New Core, and he phoned me up to ask if I would be interested in doing music and sound effects for them. And boy, did I ever!
And as the project progressed, more people got involved, and as far as I can recall the only non-demo people involved in those days were the two founders!
Obsession was eventually released by Unique Development Sweden (UDS), and soon after came SubStation, a Wolf3D-like shooter, and Obsession was ported to the PC and released by 21st Century as "Absolute Pinball", and about this time I was working less and less with them, not least because of the physical distance (they all lived in the same city, I was 4-5 hours away).
Just to linger on this one a bit longer, back in the day we heard stories about further developments for Obsession, an add-on disk for more tables, even a Falcon enhanced version in the works. Was there any substance to these stories as far as you were aware? Whilst we are on the subject, were there any other projects suggested or started after Obsession and Sub Station?
I know the original Obsession game had a little hook-thingie to allow for more "table disks" without having to rerelease the entire game, but to the best of my knowledge, no additional tables ever got past the "idea" stage.
The Falcon version is something we discussed off and on, but by the time we finally managed to release the STE version, not even the most adamant Falcon fanboys among us felt a Falcon version was a risk worth taking. I know someone (and I can't even remember if it was a commercial company, or just a bunch of guys) licensed the rights to making a Falcon version, and they got the full source code, but nothing ever made it to market.
So UDS hired a PC programmer to help us make Absolute Pinball (which is more or less what the Falcon version would have been; multi-ball, 256-colour tables, improved physics etc), and at the same time the whole company were migrating to the PC.
I'm pretty sure other Atari projects were discussed, but I don't think anything ever got beyond brainstorming status. Well, with the exception of the Jaguar version of Obsession - one of the tables (Aquatic Adventure?) was ported 100% (minus audio) in a couple of days (!), but if my memory serves me correctly, Atari didn't want to publish it.
The SubStation team went on to make Ignition, a really nice racing game, that might have done better if all the advertising hadn't been pulled at the last minute; Virgin had taken out large ads with a juicy car crash with the copy "Drive like a nutter" (it was a different age) ...and then the Princess Diana car crash happened. So the whole marketing effort stumbled and fell.
The 'bunch of guys' you described could well have been Merlin PDL, who distributed the original STE and Amiga versions of Obsession in the UK. I recall they were very keen to do a Falcon version, but also that the source code was sent to them and apparently lost in the post! Maybe someone should have reworked the Amiga or PC graphics in a speculative Falcon version?
Lost in the post, eh? Wouldn't "the dog ate our SCART cables" be a better excuse? Actually, now that you mention reworked graphics, I seem to remember Mic/Dune sending us one of the tables retouched and up-coloured" to 256 colours completely out of the blue, I think he was offering to do Falcon-updated graphics. I don't know how the conversation actually went, I just remember seeing the image and being blown away by it. If it *was* unsolicited, he must've spent a bit of time ripping the graphics out of the game, since it's not in a standard format (336x600 pixels and raster splits replacing most of the palette every 50 scan lines as I recall it).
I'm *pretty* sure the Amiga version has its graphics updated from 16 to 32 colours (5 bit-planes instead of 4). Fun fact about the Amiga version: while the graphics are improved, the audio is arguably worse; on the STE the sound system uses 6 channels; 4 channels for music and 2 for sound effects - on the Amiga (which "only" has 4 channels in hardware) the sound effects are "stolen" from the music, so if you listen carefully, you can hear the drums dropping when a sound effect plays. Some poor bastard spent a day documenting all the in-game music detailing which hardware channel to be dropped at all times in the music - the names have been withheld to protect the no-longer-innocent.
And while I'm on the subject, one of the really clever bits Blade/New Core added to the Obsession sound engine is the ability to jump into a jingle and the come back into the background music at the exact point it was when the jingle triggered. It's technically nothing very advanced, but for me personally it made a big difference, and it's another thing the STE version does better than the Amiga one (to the best of my knowledge this would be close-to-impossible on the Amiga, short of doing all audio mixing in software).
At the same time, you tried your hand at making demos. Where did the Excellence in Art come from?
Actually, the demo making started in about 1990, I think my first demo, "Excellence In Art - An Introduction", was released in 1991. I didn't get in touch with UDS until late 1993, and the reason they wanted to work with me was "TalkTalk", which I sent them as an example of the stuff I made.
"Excellence In Art" is not so much a "this is what I do: excellent art" thingie as it is a "this is what I strive for". It's a very provocative name, and not one I'd choose today, but I guess that's how it is with 19-year-olds, their balls write checks their brains and hands can't cash. 8-)
A boring question, but one which tends to crop up in these sort of interviews. Is there an interesting or even fairly dull back story regarding the origin of your scene nick 'XiA'?
Sadly, no. I just didn't want a nick like it seemed everyone else had back in those days:
1) "Pantera" - because I love that band.
2)"Steel sword" - because it sounds so cool.
(3)"Annihilatorition" - because a long "advanced" word makes me sound smart.
I always treated "Excellence In Art" as a brand, it was never really intended to represent just me; in fact, "Excellence In Art" has had a number of members over the years. But whether it's because I suck at cooperating with people, or because no-one else wanted to do the things I wanted to do, everything that's been released has been just me.
You were big in the (mid)nineties. All of a sudden it stopped. Then you reappeared in 2009 in a cloud of triumphant vindication and glitter. What happened to stop you in the first place, and why were you so long away?
Well, I didn't really stop making demos, but as UDS was moving towards the PC, so did I, and I did do a bunch of DOS intros for local BBS's, and wrote enough code to potentially make a full demo, but DOS was a horrible beast (just playing music was incredibly difficult compared to even an ST), and then suddenly I got a GameBoy Color and started coding on IT, and... I guess in short, real life started making demands; I met my wife, we moved around the country for her job, and I got "real jobs" (albeit mainly in fantasy places like games companies and advertising).
Then out of the blue, Evil/DHS contacted me under the presumable false pretence of congratulating me for a cover of one of the Obsession songs I made for a german CD, and hinted that YM trackers had come a long way since I last used them. And this came just as I was grieving for a friend who'd passed away in cancer, so I spent a day looking into these trackers (I think mainly MusicMon and maxYMiser), and maxYMiser just blew me away, at LAST someone had made a tracker that limited the musician as little as possible, and that gave a programmer lots of interesting possibilities, and I just couldn't resist diving back into DevPac.
Demo making is weird for me in that way; just like songwriting, the creation process is very very private and personal, and it's been really hard for me to let other people in to be a part of it, but at the end of the day, I *do* do it because I want it to be seen/heard/experienced (and in some examples which shall be left unnamed, smelled) by as many people as possible. And as exhausting as it is, it ends up charging my batteries in the end.
'Talk Talk', any relation to the low cost telephone and internet service provider of the same name here in the UK whom I used to work for until last year? (This is a feeble joke topic on my part!)
I'm a little ashamed to admit this, but probably the original idea came from just watching MTV while coding, like I always did in those days (when MTV played music), and "Life's what you make it" ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mXsmyLtpxlA ) was a good track, I thought.
That sounds like a fair explanation and a good job it wasn't anything to do with the 'other' Talk Talk either! They, as in the UK telecom group were 'interesting' to work for. We mainly cleaned up the messes left by an overeager sales team ;-) I won't share any more!
Moving on from there, your work bears an uncanny resemblance to a lot of 'scene poetry' found on other platforms, in other words, a genre generally light on code and heavy on nice fonts and preachy badly written text. Yet you manage to avoid falling into the pit of pretentiousness. Is it all down to your excellent (english) language skills and winning sense of humour, or is there something else?
Well, the other reason I decided on "TalkTalk" as a project is a love for the use and misuse of language. For me, demos were always about communicating, very similar to songwriting. As much as I appreciate purely technical demos (there's a crappy programmer living inside me, after all), the demos that really make my heart go faster all TALK to me. That doesn't necessarily mean verbally, but to really grab me, a demo has to evoke feelings, like Derealization/DHS that I watched only yesterday.
I think the best work I've done so far in that respect is "Blackbird", which I made during the horrendously difficult time of my father's death and the months following that. Altho I have to admit, I'm still not in a place where I can step away from it far enough to see it somewhat objectively, and I probably never will be.
You've covered that nicely. Incidentally, 'Blackbird' is probably one of the finest of the genre, extremely personal and accessible, painfully so if the viewer has lost a close and cherished family member themselves. Certainly it's not one to fire up for frequent viewings.
There is a move towards a new 'ideal system' for some demos at the 16-bit end of things as started off by Dead Hackers last summer. A 4 MB STE with an UltraSatan or similar fast hard drive. How did this help you in the making of your latest opus, 'US Policy'?
US Policy really is a filler demo, to be honest. I couldn't be happier that people seem to like it, but more than anything else I just needed to have something to bring to the party, and since I'd just bought my UltraSatan, what a great excuse to play around with it! 8-)
In contrast with your other Sommerhack 2013 release, 'STePs', there's no readme text. There's a hell of a lot of data, but nothing about the 'making of'! Maybe it's time to spit out some confessions about how and where the UltraSatan and data streaming techniques helped towards the realisation of this demo. Also I get the impression that elements of the traditional funny 'Party Report' crept in here!
At some point it was becoming obvious that there wasn't going to be enough time/energy to make a "real" demo for Sommarhack 2013, but you've got to support your favourite party somehow, so the effort went into making this year's party report into a demo.
The original plan was for GGN/KUA to come up north and help me make the party report (like in 2012) but when that didn't pan out I did a fresh start. I think the starting point was the crappy "Let's make an UltraSatan demo called 'US Policy', oh what fun" joke, and from there it grew, with the help of Oliver Stone's TV series on the history of the United States of etc etc.
The start of the demo is a crappy "dissonance joke"; the classic PS1 "piracy screen" with the startup sound from Sonic The Hedgehog on the Sega Megadrive/Genesis.
After loading couple of megabytes of data, the music starts (the music was originally written for RNO's "Protein" demo for Assembly, but BriteLite felt it wasn't working out, so I shelved it), and from this point on it's basically just a combination of:
1) Blender animations, most made as early as 2011
2) Documentary photos with heads replaced by Sommarhack visitors
3) Silly texts, just like a Sommarhack party report should have 8-)
As most demoscene enthusiasts have pointed out, there's not a whole lot of "real code" in there, but the animation packer/player is the most advanced one I've written so far.
The end part (with the sampled music) wasn't originally meant to be a part of the demo; the music is a test song I made while learning Ableton Live, and the code was originally just a test to see how fast the UltraSatan actually loaded in a "real-life" scenario, when the computer was doing other stuff too.
Technically, the demo doesn't *actually* require an UltraSatan; in fact, up to the point where the sampled music starts the demo will work fine even on a hard-disk slower than a floppy drive (if such a beast can be found), you'll just get longer waits while loading. And from the feedback I've received, it seems even the ending works on many physical hard-disks too, which feels good.
All in all, the whole production is pretty rushed, but at least it's not just the same old pictures of fat 40-somethings bbq:ing and IRC:ing. 8-)
So it looks like there is a lot still to explore when considering heavy data from an UltraSatan or other fast hard disk with an STE, Video streaming as well as audio, combined with other real-time effects simultaneously, probably other stuff I can't think off the top of my head?
The big thing for me, and the reason I bought an UltraSatan, is the ability to stream high-quality audio. As DHS proved at Sommarhack 2012, with some careful planning it's quite possible to do really advanced code alongside streaming audio, and that's something I'm really looking forward to exploring further.
But as for "things we can do now that we couldn't before", there's really not a whole lot, except that external data access is incredibly fast, so you can get rid of "waiting screens".
Well, there's one thing... And I know I won't be able to keep my filthy fingers out of this jar, but I'm going to take SUCH a beating over this: There is one BIG no-no in the demoscene, and that's having a demo WRITE stuff to physical media during execution. I'll leave the rest as an exercise for the reader. *moahaha*
As 'US Policy' has now been thoroughly dissected at Sommerhack 2013, where to next for Excellence in Art?
I'd really like to take a deeper dive into the younger siblings of the STE, but I also have some unfinished stuff that could still look good on the old E. It's all about the inspiration, when I get an idea that seems worth following. Thats how it all happens.
I've also got a bit of code for the 8-bit Ataris lying about, so who knows?
Woah! Sky's the limit then! I guess you're mostly eyeing up the Falcon, but I seem to recall that something was being contemplated for the TT at one time as well? i agree on the random brain-farts, it's how a lot of my non-computing articles start life. I hope the gap until the next one will be shorter than from the last time. As a further consideration, it seems to me like the 'crappy programmer living inside of you' has made considerable strides since those early days. How do you feel about that?
Yes, if there's a difference between the '90s XiA and today, it's that the code is a lot better (and the music worse, interestingly).
I think there are two reasons the code has improved so dramatically:
1) I've been coding a lot more, both professionally and recreationally...
2) ...but most importantly, I've been coding in a lot of languages, on a lot of platforms, and for a variety of purposes. It might seem obvious that writing demo code for Windows and DirectX would be relevant for Atari coding, but even PHP coding for the web has "opened up" my brain to new methods, new possibilities and a more productive way of working.
What's the old quote? "A brain is like a parachute, it doesn't work if it's not open", something like that.
In terms of Atari specifics, the "scene" has matured a LOT since the early 90's too. These days, the discussions are a lot more open, there is a lot less secrecy, and I think it shows in the quality of productions. Perhaps the open source movement has influenced us, perhaps we're genuinely better people, more willing to share these days? Or maybe it's a subconscious survival technique - the community can only survive by helping each other out? Or... (god, I'm babbling) another interesting theory I've heard put forward is that as the scene shrunk, we mainly lost the assholes who were in it for selfish reasons, the people who remain are the pure, good-hearted self-sacrificing heroic, white-dove demo makers? Yeah, that must be it. 8-)
You could be right. The scene has grown up. Of course the growth of the internet, social networking and encouragement of openness and people moving away from a mental state of jealous secrecy over their preciouss! all helped too.
One potential Occam:ish answer could be that we're just older and wiser. 8-)
It's been great talking to you, we could go on for hours more, but the time to wind up is fast approaching. Is there any final piece of advice or stunning catchphrase you'd like to give to the rest of the Atari scene?
Let love rule. Always.
There's nothing more important than love, whether it be the love of a significant other, the love of hand-crafted 6502 code, the love of lolcats, or the love of sweaty men in a crowded room lit only by 1084 monitors.
We may DO other things with our time, like work or pick up kids from daycare, but in the end, you've got to do it for love, or you might not last, and that would be a terrible waste.
While we may stray from our paths occasionally (and sometimes for the better!), I think it's crucial to recognise what's the MOST important. After all, it's what separates us from the germans. No wait!
Too late! But I can't help but agree. I'd personally add in my favourite motif about 'Never say never again!' Otherwise you're labouring under a self-imposed blindness and unwillingness to learn from important parts of your life history. Obvious exceptions to that maxim would involve traumatic things like partial or whole limb amputations!
Anyway, thanks for spending some time talking to us, Per Almered, aka XiA, you've been awesome!
Interview conducted with XiA in July 2013 for Mag! by CiH.