Terraforms Explained: ETH's Best Onchain Art?

A beacon of innovation, creativity, and longevity in the modern art scene.
Jun 6, 20248 min read

My two favorite NFT projects are Nouns and Terraforms. Nouns, I intend to join. Terraforms, I intend to keep collecting. 

Full disclosure: I hold a few Terraforms right now! I’d like to have a lot more, and honestly, the driving motivation isn’t financial. I find these digital artifacts mesmerizing and likely to age like fine wine in various senses atop Ethereum.

The magic here is due in no small part to the creator duo, Mathcastles, being new masters who have used Ethereum as an artistic medium, a computational creative engine, to an extent we haven’t seen before. 

That said, I feel confident that in 100 years, the art world will look back on Terraforms as important, a major first mover in runtime art because they will see what I see now: a series that broke new ground in a way that expanded the possibilities of art itself. 

This is high praise, of course, but Terraforms is also hard to explain. It has many nuances and transcends genres. For this post, let’s catch you up on the basics of this unique collection and why, in my humble opinion, it’s one of the best examples of onchain art on Ethereum today! 

First, What Is Runtime Art?

Runtime art is a burgeoning genre within the digital art world that leverages the unique capabilities of blockchain tech, e.g. Ethereum, to create dynamic and evolving artworks. 

Unlike traditional digital art, which is typically static and stored offchain, runtime art is generated and maintained entirely on the blockchain. This means that the artwork is not just a stored image but an active, living entity that evolves over time based on the underlying smart contract code.

At its core, runtime art is about creating art that is dynamically computed at the smart contract level. When I say "runtime," I’m referring to the period during which a program is running. In the context of Ethereum, this means that the art is continuously generated and updated by the smart contract moment by moment, every time it is interacted with. 

The art can change and adapt in response to various inputs, in other words, such as time, blockchain data (like gas prices or block hashes), or user interactions.

While runtime art is still a young genre, several projects have already made significant impacts here. Among these, Terraforms by Mathcastles stands out as one of the prime examples. 

That’s because the Terraforms collection takes full advantage of Ethereum's capabilities to create a series of artworks that are not only visually stunning but also dynamically generated and continuously evolving. This makes Terraforms a trailblazer in the realm of runtime art, pushing the boundaries of what digital art can be and setting a high standard for future projects in this genre.

What Are Terraforms?

Launched on the Ethereum blockchain in December 2021, Terraforms is the brainchild of the anonymous duo known as Mathcastles, comprised of 0x113d and xaltgeist

At its core, Terraforms is a generative art project that utilizes the Ethereum blockchain to create dynamic, interactive, and fully onchain artworks. 

Each NFT in the Terraforms collection represents a "parcel" of land within a conceptual 20-level virtual "Hypercastle." These parcels are not mere static images but are living pieces of art that evolve over time, driven by the underlying smart contract code.

via the Unofficial Terraforms Community FAQ

The Terraforms Hypercastle is a complex, multi-layered virtual structure. Each of the 11,104 parcels within the Hypercastle is a 32x32 grid of Unicode characters, creating a visually striking and symbolically rich piece of art. These parcels are categorized by several traits, including:

  • Zones: 75 distinct color palettes.
  • Biomes: 92 sets of glyphs used for animation.
  • Chroma: The pace of animation akin to a heartbeat.
  • Topography: The heightmap of each parcel, introducing a temporal dimension as the height fluctuates over time.

Additionally, Terraforms offers a unique system of “modes” that enhance the interactivity and dynamism of the series. Each parcel within the Terraforms collection can exist in different modes, each with its own characteristics and functionalities. Here's a brief overview:

  • Terrain Mode
    • Terrain mode is the default state of a Terraforms parcel. In this mode, the parcel displays a pulsing ASCII design that resembles a topographical map.
    • This mode showcases the initial generative art created by the smart contract. It is static in terms of user modification, but the visuals are dynamic and continuously evolving.
  • Daydream Mode
    • When a parcel is switched to Daydream mode, it becomes a blank slate that the owner can use to create custom ASCII art.
    • Owners can activate Daydream mode by entering a command directly into the contract via Etherscan. They can then use community-built tools to draw on their parcel.
    • Once a parcel is switched from Terrain to Daydream mode, this change is irreversible. However, modifications within Daydream mode can be reversed.
  • Terraform Mode
    • Terraform mode is activated when the custom drawings made in Daydream mode are saved back to the blockchain.
    • Parcels can switch between Daydream and Terraform modes indefinitely. This flexibility allows owners to continuously refine and update their designs.
    • In Terraform mode, the custom ASCII art becomes a permanent part of the parcel's blockchain record, viewable by others.
  • Antenna Mode
    • Antenna mode is a new feature introduced with the Terraforms 2.0 upgrade. It allows parcels in Daydream or Terraform modes to receive broadcasts and updates from new artwork programs, i.e., new smart contracts.
    • To activate Antenna mode, owners need to interact with the contract on Etherscan, providing their parcel IDs and enabling the feature.
    • Antenna mode can be turned on or off, offering flexibility and control over the parcel's interaction with new broadcasts.
    • The contract tracks when a parcel enters Antenna mode, with timestamps used for seasonal updates. For instance, parcels activated during "Season 0" can receive special broadcasts and participate in unique events.

5 Reasons Why Terraforms Are Great Onchain Art on Ethereum

via On-Chain Checker

1. Fully Onchain and Immutable

Terraforms is among the minority of NFT projects that are fully onchain. Unlike many NFTs that store images offchain and only use the blockchain for ownership records, Terraforms stores all its data directly on the Ethereum blockchain. This includes the code that generates the art, ensuring it is immutable and will last as long as Ethereum exists.

This full onchain approach guarantees the permanence and integrity of the artwork. It cannot be altered or lost due to external factors, providing an unprecedented level of artistic authenticity and reliability.

2. Dynamic and Runtime Art

Terraforms is a prime example of runtime art, meaning the artwork is dynamically generated at the moment of viewing through the underlying smart contract. The visuals are not static images but are created in real-time based on the code.

This approach introduces a new dimension to digital art, where each interaction with the artwork can be unique. It leverages Ethereum as an "always on" computer, continuously generating art that evolves over time, reflecting the blockchain's state.

3. Composability and Interactivity

Terraforms, thanks to being fully on Ethereum, is highly composable, allowing new artwork programs and features to interact with existing parcels. The introduction of the Antenna mode in Terraforms 2.0 exemplifies this, enabling parcels to receive broadcasts and updates, thereby integrating new artistic elements over time.

Zooming out, composability allows Terraforms to continuously evolve, making it more than just a static collection of NFTs. It fosters a dynamic environment where community members can develop new tools, create derivative works, and build on top of the existing infrastructure, enhancing the project's longevity and relevance.

4. Community-Driven Development

I’ve lurked in the Terraforms Discord for years. I can’t lie, it’s one of the smartest and most sincere online groups I’ve ever seen, filled with onchain builders and creatives par excellence constantly sharing their works and thoughts. These aren’t posers; these are the people art schools will be studying in a century. And I don’t say that lightly, it’s not true for most NFT-centric projects today. In a word, Terraforms via Mathcastles has cultivated a robust community that actively and meaningfully contributes to its development. This includes creating visualizers, tools for interaction, and other enhancements. The community engagement is evident in the rich ecosystem of resources that have emerged around Terraforms, like terrafans.xyz, erraformexplorer.xyz, and jaydenkur.com/terra/.

Community-driven projects tend to have greater resilience and innovation, as they benefit from the collective creativity and effort of their members. This collaborative spirit is a cornerstone of Terraforms' success and sustainability.

5. Designed for Longevity

Along with being fully onchain, which makes it time-resistant, Terraforms includes a built-in decay mechanism that can cause its terrain to collapse over a long period, potentially spanning thousands of years. This decay is a deliberate feature, symbolizing the passage of time and the ephemeral nature of digital art.

However, this collapse is not inevitable. Holders can prevent their parcels from decaying by actively switching between modes. Transitioning a parcel to Daydream or Terraform mode helps prevent the decay process, allowing the wider series to persist in its current state.

Currently, enough parcels have entered Daydream mode to prevent this collapse from ever occurring. With that said, Terraforms is still one of the few projects on Ethereum today that has been hard-coded with instructions designed to span centuries

What to Watch Going Forward?

“[It’s] this notion of a Culture Settlement Layer, which is how I see Ethereum, and one lens of how I've come to see Terraforms and Project 2 as art pieces. The bundle of described patterns / protocols / technologies described above … they treat Ethereum as a way to bootload and sustain new networks.” — 0x113d, Terraforms co-creator

The more you dig into Terraforms, the more you realize that it poses more questions than answers when it comes to art and the role of computers in our lives. 

Even in this article, I know I’ve failed to capture the full magic of this collection as I and others see it. Like I said before, it defies straightforward explanation. Some of the magic is intangible. 

But in some senses, Terraforms is a gateway. It’s enough to learn about it and then explore for yourself from there, and if it resonates, you’ll never not find it interesting. It’s a new kind of artwork that functions as a cultural settlement layer, and toward that end, it’s one of the greatest expressions of onchain art on Ethereum today.

All in all, then, I honestly believe Terraforms stands out as a beacon of innovation, creativity, and longevity in the 21st century art scene. If you’re an art enthusiast, or a tech aficionado, or simply curious about the intersection of these worlds, Terraforms offers a glimpse into the future of onchain creativity. Study it!

Not financial or tax advice. This newsletter is strictly educational and is not investment advice or a solicitation to buy or sell any assets or to make any financial decisions. This newsletter is not tax advice. Talk to your accountant. Do your own research.

Disclosure. From time-to-time I may add links in this newsletter to products I use. I may receive commission if you make a purchase through one of these links. Additionally, the Bankless writers hold crypto assets. See our investment disclosures here.

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