The joy of treating demos like a finished game •

The joy of treating demos like a finished game •

There are a lot of worlds in Jay Weston’s Exo One, but I’m not sure I want to let the one you explore the Steam demo of the game. I love rushing towards its swirling horizon so much that I would really hate to cross it. If you haven’t had the fun yet, Exo One is a scifi-me-do of monolithic abstraction and dizzying kinesis, like a pinball table built by aliens from 2001: A Space Odyssey. It puts you in charge of a shiny ship that can fall on planets like a silver orb or crash into a flying disc, generating energy for movement from surface friction.

The demo gives you 10 minutes to revel in it all, and while I’m excited for the planets ahead, I wonder if its timed fade-to-black is a more appropriate ending than all of the end game could provide. Exo One, you see, is a first contact story. One of its planets is named after astronomer Carl Sagan, who has spent his career crafting messages to the stars or making assumptions about living conditions on other planets (the game’s rushed outlook, plunging always to and through a celestial object, also recall the journeys of Sagan’s famous Cosmos TV documentaries). Given the enormity and longevity of the universe, it is extremely unlikely that our species will encounter another starry civilization before being eaten away alive by our sun or our own excesses. A fade to black is, sorry to say, the most likely result.

But maybe I don’t have to be quite this high end. Perhaps the source of the demo’s enchantment is not this accidentally poignant resolution, but a quality that all demos share – the unspoken invitation to get the most out of something incomplete and throwaway. There are many ways to replay the Exo One demo. You can treat it like a time trial, of course, pulling every last inch of airtime out of every climb, throwing you in the pouring rain. Or you can recall your need for speed and turn it into a final act of endlessly recurring wandering and contemplation, comparable to Ko-Op mode. Orchids at dusk. You could slow down to watch the sunlight tan the dunes and listen to the crackle of dirt under the chrome. You can draw patterns in clouds, especially the shapes revealed by lightning bolts, instead of crossing them. And then there are these huge geometric structures that spring out of the sand – the usual alien relics, or something even more obscure? These are things you can fix in the full game, of course, but as always in the demos, your awareness of being deliberately surrounded is a powerful spur.

The video game demo is something of a weird relic itself, steeped in nostalgia. Not so much nostalgia for playing an incomplete game, mind you – between the Steam festivals and Early Access, the free “core” editions, the multiplayer betas, and the countless work in progress on, we’re down to hardly lack of demos or demo-type experiences today. Rather, it’s nostalgia for an age still defined by physical media, when disks were jealously guarded from magical portals rather than the prelude to a downloadable update, and the embryonic internet was a tangle of hidden paths. and shareware caves, rather than a ubiquitous device of recommendation algorithms.

The demos of the 90s, and especially the CD-ROM compilations distributed with video game magazines, had a cult and illicit charm. I used to swap them out in the playground alongside mixed bands from dodgy electronic bands and the Beach Boys. Some demo discs were botched, cynically filled with trailers, and saved files for games I didn’t own. Others were collectibles: as a budding space cowboy, I put special emphasis on the OPM UK 104 disc, with its triple hit of two demos of Colony Wars and WipEout 2097. As kids, we would get together at sleepovers to check out the content of those demos. And we were also trying to break them down, to force a way for them to a final game that we couldn’t afford.

Looking back, I see my experiences with game demos as a process of creative antagonism, almost equivalent to creation of found objects, because a demo is essentially an exercise in hiding things from you. A good demo is the right balance between seduction and abrasiveness. He wants to get you to buy, but in order to do that he has to frustrate you, satiate you just enough, and then whip the rug. So you try to frustrate the demo in turn. You deny the thing its status as a throwaway prelude, a way to earn pre-orders – instead you treat it as something complete and valuable, a junky little pocket of virtual space-time that’s uniquely “yours” because you insist on calling it treasure. You revisit it over and over again, doing all you can with what is in it. You poke your nose into every corner, hoping against all hopes that a door will open and you will step into a bigger world. You polish your parts until enemies and obstacles are just props you use to express yourself, dancers in a routine that you can manipulate at will. You speculate on things the demo doesn’t say, write your own stories; these days, of course, fomenting this kind of intrigue is a standard part of any successful marketing campaign.

By playing and replaying demos, refusing to accept their status as commercial instants, you become part of a community. Before writing this piece I asked people on Twitter about their favorite game demos, and was drowned in responses from developers, gamers, and journalists all celebrating how they pulled more out of these demos than was strictly allowed. You know the sort of thing: replaying a VirtuaCop demo with your own rules, like scoring only knee hits. Hack the stopwatch in the Grand Theft Auto demo, or just focus on its version of the city simulation, which is pretty comprehensive, rather than trying to beat missions against the clock. Some developers have been generous with one-to-one demos: Take the hapless creators of Robocod on the Amiga, who accidentally gave away their entire game after forgetting to deactivate a level select cheat code.

The most coveted of all are the demos that contain development material cut from the end game, like the Director’s Cut demo from Resident Evil 2. These are priceless historical discoveries, but even without such a payload of fossils from an abortive timeline. , a demo is always already a separate creation. To release a part of something as an autonomous experience is to change its meaning. I bought and played eight WipEout matches, but when I think of WipEout, the first thing that comes to mind is Gare D’Europe, runway 2097 offered with OPM 104. This disused, neglected metro station by the passing trains, is for me a game itself – a parallel reality stripped of the famous music of the series. Demos also have a different meaning when mixed together as compilations of magazine covers, together forming a sort of gallery exhibit of complementary or contrasting experiences. The OPM 104 disc is the opportunity to confront different conceptions of outer space, the streaks of particles of the deep seabed of Colony Wars against the cavernous and crawling backdrops of R-Type Delta. The Exo One demo would have gone well.


The ethics of the demo record have been channeled through independent anthologies of the last few days such as Haunted Demo Disc 2020 and the Dread X collections, whose creators were also inspired by Konami’s PT teaser for the unreleased Silent Hills. PT could be the ultimate demo, in my opinion, as it allows a space to be revisited in search of new things to make a matter of life and death. Miss a detail, and these are curtains on your next runway. It’s hard to imagine Silent Hills being as well received as PT was, as Silent Hills was after all the work of Hideo Kojima, whose games are giant, creaking crates of junk, swinging between genius and idiocy. This eccentricity can be obnoxious as you stretch it across a landscape as large as Death Stranding’s America, but wrap it in a hallway with a blind spot and the complexity is mesmerizing. A demo like this reminds you that you don’t need a huge playing area to foster a sense of size; indeed, the literal scale often seems to hamper the imagination of otherwise gifted developers. The larger the game worlds become, the more laborious they are to produce and the more overwhelming and repetitive the interaction options they contain. There’s a lot to be gained from taking a chapter, area, character, item and seeing how it holds up in isolation.


Writing this piece made me realize that most of my childhood games were actually demos and shareware games, with a particular Macintosh floppy disk that belonged to my teenage years: I used to carry it in a sock. It housed a shareware version of Exile: escape the pit, a wonderful party role-playing game from Spiderweb Software. Head west in the unlicensed edition of Exile (recently reinvented as the Avernum series) and you’ll end up hitting a chasm, splitting the map in the middle. A sympathetic Shareware Daemon informs you that if you pay, the chasm will be filled. Instead, I turned the chasm into a landmark, something I defend against on perilous journeys through the wasteland patrolled by lizard bandits. Like a dark age astronomer speculating on life south of the equator, I wrote extravagant stories about the settlements, dungeons, and the people on the other side of the breach. As with the Exo One demo, Exile has become for me a definite fiction and, in a way, reinforced by an impassable horizon. I still haven’t played the full game.

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