1978 to 1983 was the golden era in video game history. It began with Space Invaders becoming so popular it actually caused a nationwide shortage of the 100-yen coin in Japan, and it ended with the great video game crash of 1983, in which the industry tanked thanks to market oversaturation and the arrival of affordable home computers. But those years between were magical ones, when the very concept of a video game, let alone an arcade filled with them, was this crazy, new thing not everybody could understand. For a lot of folks, they were a kind of sorcery that entranced people of a certain age, and created an entire indecipherable culture around it. As a young kid, it was a wonder. It was pretty awesome to be there at the start of it.
In 1982, at the height of early video game mania, Disney released Tron, an adventure-fantasy that channels the widespread bemusement/befuddlement over video games and why people are into them, and created an imaginary world in which computer programs are living things. When we play Space Invaders, we’re not just blasting pixels, we’re blasting the actual critters that live in the parallel universe the game is channeling. Put another way, Tron is kind of like how adults who never really played video games might have imagined what must go on inside of a video game to make it work. There is a patent silliness to it borne from the newness of video gaming and a society that had yet to assimilate computers into its daily routine.
Tron’s protagonist is Flynn, a Steve Jobs-type who created some wickedly popular games, was screwed out of his portion of the company, and relegated to running a video game arcade. Meanwhile, his treacherous partner Dillinger runs ENCOM, an ersatz Atari/Microsoft built on the fruits of Fllynn’s stolen genius. All Flynn want to do is break into ENCOM headquarters and hack the system to prove that Dillinger ripped him off. What Flynn doesn’t know is that ENCOM has this weird new laser that can convert living tissue into data, and that a rogue AI called the Master Control Program (MCP) is secretly running the company and plotting to take down the world’s military mainframes. As Flynn hacks into ENCOM, the MCP zaps Flynn into the computer world, where he finds himself in a strange universe where programs look like the human users who control them, and a stalwart security program/ally/hero called Tron is Flynn’s only hope of finding the MCP and destroying it before it destroys the world.
The plot is kind of wonky, to be honest with you. Tron isn’t great so much for its story, though its fanciful imagining of a neon, abstract computer world is one of the boldest cinema visuals of the day. What gets this movie on my list of immortals, however, are its great action scenes which employ early CGI and channel the frantic energy people felt when they played video games at the time. Flynn and Tron fight in arenas with flying laser discs that carom off of walls, ceilings and floors, like if you were playing ultimate Frisbee with a ball of plasma. Digital tanks rumble across an infinite landscape blasting each other into chunks of corrupted data. And light cycles race side by side while trailing impenetrable walls of light in a desperate effort to block off each other and force them to crash. No games could do these things at that time. But anybody who played them knew that one day, they could. And they were willing to share this fever dream until that time arrived.
The movie’s moment of truth is that light cycle scene. It’s only a few minutes long, but it was utterly exhilarating. I think of this scene not just as the highlight of this particular movie, but as an avatar for all of the experiences video gaming delivers to its audience. For viewers of a certain age, all you have to do is mention “light cycles,” and they are instantly transported to that CGI flatland of yellow and blue superbikes cutting each other off at right angles, a concept so incredible you had to invent a new technology just to show it. Even now, the light cycle battle holds up as this weird vision of how it feels when you’re on your last life, and your margin of error is razor-thin and you’ve got people screaming all around you and you’re totally focused on the screen and everything is moving too fast to follow and you’re playing on muscle memory and…
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