Tron as Early Video Game Mythology

2009 February 22
tags: , ,
by Zachary McCune

In this still, one can vividly discern Tron's concern with the world of the video game, as the evil Commander Sark looks over a map of the computer world that includes Pac-man (?)

In this still, one can vividly discern Tron's concern with the world of the video game, as the evil Commander Sark looks over a map of the computer world that includes Pac-man (?)

Tron presents its viewer with early video game mythology. Before The Matrix invited comparisions between its stylized violence and video games, before Mortal Combat was adapted into a film, before Tomb Raider was fleshed out by Angelina Jolie, Tron posited one of the earliest mythological interpretations of the video game ace as hero. In the two years following Tron’s 1982 release, two more films explored this same video game hero narrative, as Matthew Broderick starred in the 1983 classic War Games, and 1984 saw the release of The Last Starfighter.

Like its later reincarnations and reintrepretations, Tron’s narrative is predicated on the virtual world made real. In The Last Starfighter (like Ender’s Game), the video game is training for real combat. The suggestion is that the video game is a site for real-world conditioning and development that cannot be taught in any other way. Hence, the loser who loves video games is shown to actually be an exemplary warrior, athlete, strategist, hero. Even Ronald Reagan channeled this belief when he correlated video games and America’s next generation of skilled military operatives.

“I recently learned something quite interesting about video games. Many young people have developed incredible hand, eye, and brain coordination in playing these games. The air force believes these kids will be our outstanding pilots should they fly our jets.”

It is in this way that we encounter Kevin Flynn, former standout programmer at ENCOM, who has become a video game star and owns his own game parlor where his mastery is celebrated by local teenagers. He is skilled within the video game world is a result of the fact that he wrote the games, thereby making a god within the gameworld because he is intimately aware of its operating logic. This mastery through ownership of a program’s development, is a major theme in the film, as the imagined embodiments of programs take on the look of their “users” (what we might call developers or coders) and actively orient their lives to the will of their users.

Programs as Avatars for User/God

Like Christian ideology, these programs have been made in the shape of their user/god. They reflect the concerns and abilities of their users, but on a micro level. We first encounter this micro level (the iconically stylized neon circuitry and helmets of the film’s ‘datascape’) when commander Sark kills a competitor in a LightCycle competition. We reencounter it when Flynn tries to hack the omnious Master Control, and we first see the visual correlation (reproduction of identity) between Flynn and his program. This correlation is a symptom of the film’s overall depiction of computing as one massive video game world. The visual reproduction of identity between the user and the program in the film seem to reflect a whole “avatar” metaphor, which has become very common in video games, and might even be called its dominant identity metaphor.

From Physicality to Digital Data

picture-2This of course brings up the film’s central plot action, the translation of Kevin Flynn from material existence into data. This action not ironically, takes place in front of a computer, as Flynn attempts to hack the Master Control from outside of the system, and is then brought into the system by the malignant computing system. The idea behind this choice seems to be all about “gamemanship,” as the Master Control challenges our hacker-hero to take computers on within their own world, a world wherein Flynn’s status as a user (and hence outside the system) is overturned towards vulnerability at being as fragile as any other set of data.

There is some creative license being taken with the perception of agency within the world of data and computing in Tron. But whatever departures from ‘the real life of data’ that take place, the viewer is far more interested in the allegorical level of the film’s ‘datascape.’ In this world, unlike Flynn’s primary reality, video games are not entertainment, but gladitorial conflict. The suggestion is that only outside of the video game space can be observed and read as meaningless conflict. Within the game-space on the other hand, a form of death awaits the losing ‘program.’

Death through Video Games

With no small sense of irony, Master Control wants Flynn to die playing the video games that he developed and proved masterful at outside of the system. This charge to let Flynn “die playing the games” haunts Commander Sark, MC’s second in command, who understands the potential consequences of having a skilled (read HUMAN) player within the game-grid. Sark never takes on Flynn, certainly fearful of his prowess, but instead challenges Flynn to fight “one of his own kind” which turns out to not be a computer, but a program. Flynn doesn’t mind the conflation, as he appears to be a program, and is treated by the programs as one of their own. He even refuses to finish off a ‘fellow’ program, as he spites Sark’s instructions.

Program as Heroic Code

As important as Flynn is to the narrative of Tron, it is “Tron-the-program who is the real hero. Bizarrely confirming the conservative need for security and oversight over all computing systems, Tron is computer security as hero. At best, his concern for oversight promises a sort of justice and “freedom” in the world of computing data, and at worse, he represents the ultimate development of a beuacracy government within computing to replace Master Control’s distinctly fascist regime.

Tron is the hero who ultimate “kills” Master Control and Sark, by virtue of his own tenacity and excellence, which the viewer is surely meant to conflate with the character of “Alan” that Tron embodies. With Master Control’s death, Flynn escapes the data world back into a form of physical embodiment and is able to secure proof that Dillinger (ENCOM’s evil Senior Executive) stole his program and therefore inappropriately took credit for Flynn’s own genius. This catapaults Flynn to top brass positioning in the company, and the idea that justice and order have been restored to the company just as the have been restored to the world of computing.

Miscellaneous Thoughts

  • Dillinger is clearly meant to be connected to Master Control, as Dillinger develops Master Control to do his “dirty work” and to support Dillinger’s own fascist, corporate control, as MC establishes that sort of control in the computing world. However, Master Control eventually seems to gain a form of dangerous agency that is beyond Dillinger’s control and thus threatens all of the computer information in the world, which Master Control covets. This suggests that good programs are those that remain in servitude to their human masters, while deviant computers do their own bidding. In this way, we need to read Dillinger, Master Control, and the perverted relationship between the two as the evils threatening the world of Tron.
  • Master Control gives away his budding sentience when he says that he is not sure that Flynn tried to hack him, only that “it felt like Flynn.” This perception of certainty despite a lack of proof, is implied to be a human emotion.
  • Dillinger’s Helicopter arrival reminds me that almost all Cyberpunk employs advanced air travel as proof of status (such as Angie in Mona Lisa Overdrive, or the Agents in the Matrix). The Helicopter not only represents an explicit suggestion of superiority, but also gives the opportunity for the reader and the superior character to survey the sprawl below, which inevitably looks like computer circuitry and suggests that the person being flown has a form of agency unlike the looping circuits below.
  • The older man in the laser lab (who seemingly represents the wisdom of the first programmers) responds to Alan’s quip that “Computers will be thinking soon…” with “Won’t that be grand. Computers and Machines will be thinking, and people won’t.” This seems to be a repetition to Plato’s famed condemnation of the invention of writing.
  • Tron features a character called Walter who apparently founded ENCOM in his garage. This is a nod to all of the famous Silicon Valley start-up stories, like HP’s
  • There are several intentional visual conflations of dataspace and meatspace in the film, most notably the cubicle city of ENCOM as a data center, or the city below ENCOM as a computer system.
  • The programs have a religious like awe and appreciation for their creator/user —> Tron at one point says that “Users created us.”
  • If Flynn is a user, and he enters the system to save it, is this a Christ reference?
  • The belief in users is really an important concept at stake in Master Control’s fascist state. At one point Sark says he will kill (de-rez) anyone who subscribes to that “hysterical belief”
  • Binary decisions and distinctions surrond the film to give a certain computer like feel. Good and evil are differentiated by simple blue/red color binaries, and there is no subtle distinctions within the datascapes logic. Binary logic is even represented as a pet like “yes/no” ball.
  • picture-4

    The Master Control is depicted as a single face like a totem. When he is undone, he is revealed to be an old man within a mask that looks almost Egyptian (like a Pharoah's hood). It also bears considerable resemblance to Stargate's villain.

One Response leave one →
  1. 2009 May 4

    Great post, thank you for the information - I dont really ever add comments in these things but enjoyed the info. Great Stuff, I bookmarked your site!

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