May the Light Cycle Be Unbroken How Tron Shaped Gaming
Published Nov 27, 2010Arcades were all over '80s cinema, providing youth culture flair from War Games and The Last Starfighter up to Terminator 2. But only one movie dared delve into the games themselves: 1982's once-and-future geek-pop touchstone, Tron. (After all, not just any '80s franchise revival could get Daft Punk to do the score.) Despite, or perhaps due to, its boldness of vision, Tron didn't actually make much money in theatres ― about $30 million, ironically less than the Tron arcade game earned. But the film's future-forward tale ― computer programmer Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) is sucked into a mainframe computer's blue-tinted virtual world known as the Grid, where sentient programs are forced to fight in gladiatorial games ― permeated pop-culture, inspiring everything from The Matrix to modern-day 3D gaming.
"I saw Tron originally in 1982 in the cinema ― went there with my dad ― and it kinda left an indelible print on my psyche," says Propaganda Games' Darren Hedges, director of the movie-pegged game Tron: Evolution. "It was one of the main reasons that I fell into the games industry. Tron kindled that flame and it never died out.
"You can't understate the affect Tron had on both the film and the game industry, to be honest," he adds, noting subsequent computer "people" like The Sims and John Lassiter's famous quote that without Tron there would be no Pixar. "It was pure science fiction at the time, but it explained the future of computers, the future of the internet. Tron had such a prophetic impact."
Indeed, it imagined cyberspace two years before William Gibson coined the term, developed new technologies to realize its ambitions (including the pioneering work of Tron computer animator Ken Perlin, which led to his Oscar-recognized "Perlin Noise" technique ramping up CGI realism) and envisioned today's immersive three-dimensional gaming experience, which was light years beyond what existed at the time.
"The original arcade games were really primitive stuff," Hedges says. "When we started Evolution we were lucky enough to have a look at some of the original Midway arcade machines and the reality was two frames of animation with a very blocky character called Tron moving up the screen, Space Invaders-style, to fight the MCP which was 12 glowy lines with a smiley face on top of it. At the time people were like, 'oh, this is cutting edge' and now we look back at it and even the weakest phone has much better power than that 1982 machine does."
A week before long-awaited sequel Tron: Legacy hits theatres, its interactive counterpart Tron: Evolution arrives, mirroring the franchise's stylized and neon-streaked aesthetic and tracing the time period between the two movies. While the third-person action-RPG features multiplayer modes for its meta-games (light cycle racing, light tank fights and disc battles, natch) its single-player story is about what happened to this virtual world while it sat in the digital primordial soup of a forgotten server in the basement of the abandoned Flynn's Arcade.
Created by Vancouver-based Propaganda, the various games (on Wii, DS and the flagship 360/PS3 title, with the Sony edition boasting 3D and Move support) tell separate story shards of the Grid's, yep, evolution from a virtual utopia after Flynn defeated the original movie's villainous Master Control Program to the dark, digital security state that leads up to Legacy.
"A lot of videogames based on movie franchises suffer because they try to tell the same story," Hedges says, adding they were able to closely collaborate with the filmmakers, also shooting in Vancouver, to realize the vast mythology across numerous pop-cultural platforms. "We all agreed this 'trans-media' experience we wanted to create was really important, that's why we sat down to make something really unique."
That they can even create such a visually stunning and ambitiously plotted game is arguably due to Tron itself. Who knows how gaming might have evolved without it providing a creative and technological inspiration to a generation of developers, designers and coders? Tron might have been a movie, but it dreamed like a game. Now it plays like one, too.