Back to Digital

TRON was a revolutionary film for its time. One of the first films to use CGI, and it was actually the theme of the film. Which was pretty daring back in 1982.

A science fiction film through and through it managed to scare off some people. Something I don’t fully understand.

TRON was a box office bomb which I find wholly disappointing, and so did many others.

The late Roger Ebert raved about the original, giving it a rare perfect score, despite, and possibly because of, its lack of human characters. He also thought of it as a highly underrated film, featuring it on his show, Siskel and Ebert and the Movies, a decade later; And closing his first ever Overlooked Film Festival with a screening of it in 1999.

And if Roger Ebert loved TRON, who the fuck are you to argue!?

But over the next several years it went on to earn back double its initial budget. Eventually justifying the release of a sequel. Several sequels as a matter of fact. And how do they stack up?

Sigh… Where to begin?

Why not start with the first attempt? In 2003, twenty-one years after the release of the first film, the first sequel to TRON saw the light of day. And it was appropriately titled: TRON 2.0.

It was a fantastic follow-up to the first film, primarily because it wasn’t a film, but a game.

I know what you’re thinking. How does that make sense? Well let’s be honest, how do you make a follow-up to a film about a human entering the world inside the computer? The best way I can see is by pulling the audience in themselves.

You play as Jet Bradley, game programmer at ENCOM, and son of Alan Bradley, whom you may remember as Tron’s creator and user in the first film.

Bruce Boxleitner, who played Tron and Alan in the first film, reprises his role as Alan here. But he plays a minor role in the overall plot, getting kidnapped in the opening scene.

The story goes as follows. ENCOM is undergoing a hostile takeover by rival company, fCon. Meanwhile, a computer virus has just broken through ENCOM’s firewalls, and is ravaging the local network. Jet, our hero, is on a phone call with his father when the man is kidnapped in his own lab by a group of mysterious and silent antagonists.

When Jet goes to investigate, one of his father’s programs, Ma3a (mah-THREE-ah) activates the digitization laser, pulling our hero into the digital realm, and kicking off the main plot.

The overall game maintains the look and feel of the original film, which I like. It’s beautifully surreal and the high contrast and bright colours just add to the previously established ambiance.

And just like last time, everything is made out of simple geometric shapes. We also see several items making a return, including Light Cycles, Recognisers, Tanks, bits, and even the signature disk.

It’s the first weapon you get in the game and its base form is the one you’ll probably use most often, since it doesn’t drain your energy. The disk has a few upgrades however, but you probably won’t need them.

TRON 2.0 is your classic first person shooter, and as such, some familiar weapons from classic FPSs make their contractual appearance.

We see a sniper rifle called the LOL, a shotgun called the Suffusion, a standard grenade, a rocket launcher, a stun gun, a basic sub-machine gun, and a BFG.

There are a few unique weapons, such as the energy claw, a melee weapon which’ll drain your opponent’s energy and give it to you. Then there’s the disk weapon, which is mostly self-explanatory.

Throughout the game, you get upgrades to your stats, and new abilities, armor, and weapons in the form of ‘subroutines,’ which you have to equip to use.

This is one of the coolest elements of the game. Each subroutine comes in one of three flavours, alpha, beta or gold. Each increase in version equals an increase in efficacy and a decrease in size, which is limited. You only have so much memory to hold subroutines, and every time you move to a new system, the memory requirements change. In some parts of the game you have a lot of room to store abilities, but in other parts you might be able to only have a max of five abilities at your disposal. Which is a good way to simulate the changing system environments you find yourself in. After all, different systems might be running different operating systems, requiring different program configurations.

Oh, yes, I didn’t mention that did I? This is also one of the coolest things about the game. You don’t spend it all on one server, unlike the first film.

You see, while TRON 2.0 does retain the feel of the original film, it’s appropriately updated for the internet age, as you actually spend some time there, when you aren’t traveling throughout the local ENCOM network.

The first few levels take place on Alan’s lab server and involve fighting off infected programs; and security programs that don’t recognise you and assume you’re the virus. It sort of breaks my heart that you have to fight off characters that are essentially good guys, all because of a case of mistaken identity.

You jump to another server, being run by the lead virus scanner, and are forced to compete on the light cycle grid before staging an escape, and eventually you’re forced to outrun a system format.

That’s right, you have to outrun a format. This game truly is awesome.

Eventually, you end up on an old server from the 80s. It’s so old, it can barely handle your presence. So you’re forced to overclock it and basically break the damn thing, nice going.

You then spend some time on a major internet router; before hitting up a heavily infected server; a PDA; a firewall; and finally, the enemy stronghold, fCon’s main server.

All this jumping around is kinda fun, and reminds you exactly how big the digital realm is. For every computer in existence, there’s a new world to explore. The possibilities are infinite. It’s fantastic.

But how does it fit into the rest of the franchise? Well, Kevin Flynn is notably absent in the game, and various in-game emails explain the man disappeared years ago. It raises a huge mystery. What happened to the original hero?

We also learn the reason behind the twenty year time jump. Turns out when Micky was defeated in the first film, a crucial component to the digitization process went with him. For the past twenty years, Alan and his wife, Lora, have been trying to rebuild it.

It’s also revealed that Lora died years ago, but was likely partially digitized, and her remains were integrated into Ma3a, an artificial intelligence system Alan designed.

It took years for Alan to rebuild the technology, and eventually, he did it.

The correction algorithms serve as a major plot device and standard MacGuffin. Its absence is responsible for the creation of Thorne, a former ENCOM security chief who digitized himself, becoming an unstable computer virus and our first antagonist.

When the bad guys at fCon manage to get their hands on the algorithms, they begin digitizing people en masse. The plan is for these ‘DataWraiths’ to infiltrate every computer system on the internet, stealing all sorts of data. They’re the ultimate computer hackers. This is actually the game’s final threat, which you have to stop.

Anyway, the correction algorithms, as the name implies, are designed to correct for errors inherent in the digitization process. Kinda like the Heisenberg compensator in Star Trek.

It’s a pretty cool idea, and it does a good job of explaining why people didn’t start getting digitized back in the 80s as an alternative to air travel.

But, one of the biggest problems with TRON 2.0 is how it handles time.

The plot flows simultaneously within the computer, and without. As Jet spends time inside the computer, events still happen in the outside world. So, for the most part, time flows at a one-to-one ratio in the digital and physical worlds.

Now, TRON never precisely established how time flows. But the entire segment of the plot from when Flynn gets digitized, to the point where Micky is defeated, we stay within the computer. Our point of view doesn’t shift. So, while an hour (actually, probably a few hours) passes for our hero, its possible that only a few seconds passed in reality.

And that would make sense, since data travels pretty fast. Plus, if things did work at a one-to-one ratio, all programs within the computer would be running at a snail’s pace, and you might as well have a human do it.

But, then the plot wouldn’t have worked as well. The writers wanted to have events in both realms run concurrently, and you can’t do that if time flows faster in one world by a factor of a thousand.

That is, unless Jet spent days, or even years, waiting around during level loads.

But that’s a minor quibble. I don’t really care. I can handle the soft science. But what I can’t handle, is shit acting.

There’s one scene in this game that stands out to me as being complete ass, where we see Alan being interrogated by our comically evil villains. It goes a little something like this:

Crown: Good afternoon, Mr. Bradley.
Alan: Who are you? What is the meaning of all this?
Crown: We’re interested in your work concerning.
Baza: Primarily the correction algorithms that are needed to eliminate errors during transfer.

Now, why the line is split between two characters is beyond me, but I digress.

Alan: Yes, well, I’m sorry to disappoint you, but I’m still working on that problem. Calculating algorithms is a complicated…………
Popoff: Spare us the charade, Mr. Bradley. We know where you are in your research.

I know I’m nitpicking here, but this scene has always bugged me. Alan isn’t interrupted. He literally stops talking in the middle of a sentence, and then, half a second later, Popoff starts talking. That’s some immersion-breaking bullshit right there.

Of course I’m not even mentioning the visuals. The scenes that take place in the computer all look perfectly fine. But the scenes taking place in the physical realm are a different story. They look like ass.

This is because they’re rendered using the game engine, which seems unnecessary. None of the gameplay takes place in reality, so why not film the cutscenes in live action? That would have been awesome!

But no, instead we get shit visuals permanently stuck in the uncanny valley.

I’ll blame the budget.

Then there’s the final boss, where I give a minor spoiler warning. You see the final boss is our three primary antagonists, Crown, Baza and Popoff, digitized. But it’s never really explained why. Why are they digitized? Oh, to go up against Jet? Okay, let me rephrase. Why would they be more effective than any other DataWraith? What makes them special? If anything, I would think they’d be less effective against Jet. We don’t see them go through any training whatsoever. So how in the hell would they be more effective in combatting a digitized user!?

Okay, true, they do operate as the final boss, but the reasons for that are a bit unforeseen, which I can’t explain without spoiling. But I do love the fact that they are the final boss. Given everything that’s happened to that point, it’s a bit poetic.

The game ends with more loose ends than a sweater in a wood chipper, and because of this, we get absolutely no closure, which bugs the hell out of me.

Obviously, they were setting things up for Tron 3.0, but that never came, and never will.

Because despite the fact that this game was fantastic, highly entertaining, and definitely worth a play through. It didn’t sell well enough to warrant a follow-up.

Even worse, the entire game, and everything that ties into it, has been effectively rendered non-canon by the next sequel: TRON: Legacy. Which is sad, because I’m not sure that was exactly necessary. In fact I’m certain it was unnecessary.

But I’m gonna talk about this some other time. Because the constriction of the digital realm from the boundless infinite established here, to the PC in some guy’s basement follow-up, deserves its own entry.

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