Its Disney week here at Bit Cultures and for a lot of games enthusiasts there is one Disney movie that is inspirational, and that movie is the original 1982 film Tron. While Tron was a financially and critically successful in addition to being acknowledged as a groundbreaking achievement in visual effects, something a lot of reviewers missed about the film is the strength of the characters and how strongly they resonate with the gaming community.
Before we dig into the way these characters reflect aspects of gaming culture, some background is needed for those unfamiliar with the film. Tron is the story of Kevin Flynn a computer programmer, game designer, and victim of what today we would call intellectual property theft. In an attempt to regain credit for the design of five successful video games, Flynn logs on to his former employer’s computer network from a terminal in an experimental lab and is digitized into said network. Once inside the computer Flynn is forced to compete in gladiatorial video games by agents of the Master Control Program, or MCP. A grand adventure ensues and Flynn is ultimately successful in proving his authorship of the games and in unseating Ed Dillinger, the executive who initially stole the designs.
Along the way Flynn receives help in both the real and digital world. Most of the movie takes place in the digital world so the real life characters tend to get a bit of a short shrift in favor of the computer programs involved in resisting the MCP. This is a bit of a shame considering that all of the real world characters can be seen as representative of some aspect of current gaming culture.
So let’s start with the hero of the story: Flynn played by Jeff Bridges. Flynn is a talented programmer and game developer who also happens to be a bit naive when it comes to the business that could financially support those activities. In this way Flynn is a good stand in for a lot of indie game devs today who are immensely talented when it comes to making games but who struggle when it comes to accurately and effectively marketing the games they make. The recent debacle surrounding the marketing of No Man’s Sky is an excellent example of this type of Indie naivete.
For those unfamiliar with the criticism surrounding the marketing of No Man’s Sky: Early in the game’s development there were statements from the game’s developer, Hello Games, which made it seem like certain features would be present in the final game that ended up not being there. In addition to this Sony included No Man’s Sky in a lot of the marketing for the PS4 exacerbating a lot of the hype surrounding the game. Flynn’s failure to fully protect his work and Hello Games’ over exuberance in the early development of their game are the result of the same naivete about the business of game development.
Another aspect of Flynn’s character that is reflected in current gaming culture is that of being a charismatic arcade cabinet cowboy. For those who didn’t live through the arcade boom of the 1980’s it was a common occurrence for arcade patrons to gather around a cabinet and watch when some particularly impressive feat of gaming skill was on display. Early on in Tron we see Flynn at the center of one of these events, and throughout the film in general we see Flynn being impressively charismatic under some fairly intense circumstances. The place we see this reflected in modern gaming culture is in the rise of gaming content on platforms like YouTube and Twitch. Many Youtubers and Streamers may be too young to recognise this connection to the early days of gaming and a lot of them rely on a bit of the formula of Mystery Science Theater: 3000 more than displays of raw gaming skill like the old days, but the community spirit and celebration of games is definitely still there. Also If Jeff Bridges wanted to just print money sometime he could start a Twitch channel and do basically anything with it.
Speaking of charisma or lack thereof; we have Alan Bradley played by Bruce Boxleitner. In addition to writing the program that gives the film its name Alan is a bit of a square. Alan is portrayed as being almost as talented a programer as Flynn but with less of an anti-authoritarian streak and less desire for the limelight. Alan represents the rank and file of game development. While the Hideo Kojimas, Ken Levines and Tod Howards of the world do most of the talking about games, most games wouldn’t get made without the hard work of hundreds, thousands in some cases, of programmers, artists and designers. All Alan wants to do is work on his projects without the kind of unnecessary interference that often occurs in modern game development.
Next, we have Lora, played by Cindy Morgan, who apparently doesn’t get a last name. Lora is an interesting character in that she is a bit of a contradiction. On the one hand she is an accomplished scientist and on the other she is the center of a fairly pointless love triangle and her main contribution to the plot is to get the men in the story to stop acting like children long enough to work together in their shared interests. That last aspect of Lora’s character is the way she is reflected in the growing advocacy for better representation and characterisation of minorities in games. It is in the best interests of both game makers and their audience for games to not just include various types of people in their games but to include respectful representations of that variety. Devs get a wider audience for their games and the audience gets more variety in the games they play. And yet people who advocate on behalf of this issue face resistance from both sides in much the same way that Lora endures jealous comments from Alan, her current boyfriend, and snide remarks from Flynn, her ex, all while getting them to see that they should be cooperating.
Dr. Walter Gibbs is played by Barnard Hughes is basically standing in for the Steve Wozniaks and John Carmacks of the gaming and tech work. True innovators who are more interested in actually developing new technology and games than in taking credit for that innovation. The impression that the film gives is that Dr. Gibbs was one of the founders of Encom who instead of taking a leading business role in the company chose to focus on research and development. Ultimately his research suffers for his desire to ignore business responsibilities.
Finally we have Ed Dillinger played by David Warner. Dillinger represents an altogether too common personality in the community of game development. Dillinger is the kind of person who makes clones of popular mobile games. The kind of person that makes steam games out of stolen development assets. The kind of person who develops hardware using shared tech from another company and funds from Kickstarter and claims to be a self-made success. You know, the typical business dirtbag.
Over thirty years since it’s debut the human characters of Tron still resonate with the gaming community. It’s kind of a shame that the sequel wasn’t released until 2010 and focused on spectacle over character development. It’s almost as if Disney uninvested in appealing to the gaming community. An impression supported by the fact that Disney has done away with all in house game development focusing on selling licences for games of their many properties. On the other hand Disney made the original Tron in the first place and that was not without risk. So thanks Disney, for inspiring a generation of games enthusiasts, even if it was on accident.