What the Hell Is Tron?

Tron is really weird, and doesn't make much sense. And strange as it seems, it makes even less sense as a video game.

I'm excited for the Tron: Legacy movie tomorrow, and in my fervor I convinced myself it was a good idea to go buy and play the Tron: Evolution game since it acts as a bridging story between the first and second movies. At the checkout counter in Best Buy, the young man at the register aksed me, "Cool, is this about riding around on motorcycles and shooting people?" He'd never seen the original Tron and knew nothing about it. I didn't know where to begin, so I just left it at, "It's more complicated than that . . ." and paid for my game. On my way to dinner with a friend later that night, I was telling the story and he (who's my age) asked, "Where does Tron happen? In a computer or a bunch of them?" I had no idea. We talked through it some, combining our memories of the movie with my couple of hours spent with the new game. The end result was just another question. What the hell is Tron anyway?

Having now played much more of the game Tron: Evolution, my confusion only begins to deepen. I really don't know or understand what the Tron universe is supposed to be. On the surface, which is to say, what you see on screen, it's a bunch of people in unitards with glowsticks sewn into them who wander around a futuristic city and live what seem to be pretty recognizably human lives. They chat and spread rumors. They communicate through giant television screens in public squares. When something scary happens, they run around and scream and panic. They have bars and buy drinks and listen to music. There's gravity, and falling will kill (or derezz) you. Functionally, as you play the game or watch the movie (the first one anyway), there's not a thing about them that seems "computery". They travel in vehicles and run and jump and climb and plot and scheme and worry and buildings can collapse and bury them.

But they're programs, not people. In the new game, Tron: Evolution, we find two types of programs: basics, which are made by human users, and ISOs, which have spontaneously evolved in the comupter. As far as I can tell, Tron City and all the rest of Tron-land are still inside the mainframe computer at ENCOM, the kind of evil corporation from the original movie. So I'll assume that these are all programs inside this one, giant supercomputer, which is fine. But why are they like people? Were they programmed to be that way? Why is a former actuarial program turned bartender (one of the side characters in the game) even possible? Presumably since Flynn, the Jeff Bridges character and original programmer, makes regular visits to Tron City to work with his clone-like creation Clu is doing so to preserve this digital world as some kind of miracle of technology. Maybe, like Superman's Bottle City of Kandor?

When I watched the original movie, I always made this kind of logical leap that the programs weren't really like people. That this was all some sort of strange approximation so that we could watch the digital drama and understand it with our feeble human minds. But of course that doesn't hold up to any kind of logical examination. Are the programs supposed to be simulated people? It's the only thing that makes sense, but they talk about being programs that do actual things that programs are better at than people, like accounting. So what the hell are they then? I don't know.

Watching a movie, at least the first one, I let all of these questions slip away and immersed myself in the spectacle and the wild imagery. I plan to do the same thing when I go see the movie this weekend. But for some strange reason, the cognitive dissonance in the world of the game really nettles me. This is probably in large part because the platforming that makes up half the gameplay is not very good or much fun (thanks to some camera issues and lots of "learn by dying" moments), and so I'm derezzing a lot. That in turn makes me wonder what the hell is the point of having great heights to fall from in a computer world. Why would that hurt a program anyway? Likewise, why can buildings be destroyed and why do they hurt when the pieces fall on programs? Why would you write an accounting program that could be killed by a falling building?

Of course all this talk of programs and users is pure ornamentation for what amounts to a pretty standard sci-fi setting. There's this thin veneer of computer terminology spread over everything, but it doesn't have very much impact on the world or even the story. It would be interesting to deal with a world where traveling from place to place happens at the speed of light and bandwidth rather than one in which moving platforms floating in mid-air are your limiting factors. I don't even know what that game would look like, but if it could be made fun to play, it might be awesome. Instead we get a universe full of very human-acting characters who operate under mostly real-world-like limitations and come together to tell a pretty typical story. When it was all new and strange, it was awesome, and maybe the new movie will be too. But when it's wrapped around a mediocre third-person action game, it's more befuddling than anything.

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