Inspiration for our games surrounds us in many forms and traditional media is particularly rich in ideas. These also serve as test beds for what one ought to do or not do in narrative storytelling. In this case, Tron: Legacy has more than a few nuggets we can learn from.
Fair warning: Spoilers ahead!
Retro is Chic
Over the past decade retros, retreads, and reboots have been all the rage. From entire franchises (James Bond, Batman) to scratch-your-head “what were they thinking” movies (The A-Team, Dukes of Hazzard), RPGs can also cash in on the nostalgia.
Gamma World is the Game That Refuses to Die while Paranoia, GURPS, and HERO (bless you, Steve Long!) all chug along. That which was old is new again, or, in other words, as the members of our aging hobby become older and older it becomes more attractive to cash in on those fond memories and taking Living Steel out for a test drive one more time. Hell, I’m about to kick off a Birthright campaign using the Reign rules, a game that’s been out of print for over 15 years!
Retro is the new gamer-geek cred currency of choice, Chummer.
So it should come to no surprise to have Tron: Legacy stir up some of those wonderful memories of back “in the day” when you saw the original Tron and played the video game too many times in-between prepping your Rolemaster game and TSR’s Gangbusters.
Without further ado, the top seven things you can learn from Tron: Legacy for your own games.
Don’t Overdo It
Kevin Flynn breaks into the ENCOM computer to dig up dirt on Ed Dillinger, eventually taking over ENCOM and creating a Tron video game based on his digital experiences. In Tron and Tron: Legacy a series of gladiatorial fights take place for dominance (and, presumably, entertainment purposes). A major set piece is Flynn’s now-defunct video game arcade and secret laboratory. Sam Flynn lives his life as a game, not taking much seriously at all. His last memory with his father is a deal to go play a game together. The tagline of the movie is “The game has changed.” Need I go into the dialog? “Your move, Flynn!” “The only way to win the game is not to play.” And I’m pretty sure “Game over” gets used at least once.
The point being is that it’s great to find a metaphor to hang your hat on, but at the same time don’t overdo it. It’ll lose its punch and leave your audience groaning.
We’re Not That Dumb
Apologies to the readers, but if you didn’t figure out that Rinzler was Tron from pretty much his first appearance (gee, why wear a mask?) then I have to say I’m surprised. We were pretty much kicked in the teeth when, during a flashback, Tron is shown dual-wielding identity discs…just like Rinzler.
Yet, after all this, we have to be explicitly told that Rinzler is Tron about 80 minutes in to the film. Really? Do you have that little faith in your viewers that you specifically have dialog tell us?
Give your player’s some credit. It’s more meaningful if they have to work for it. Sure, the final reveal may be “ah, just like we thought” but that’s a hell of a lot better than puffing your chest and trying to show how clever you are.
Show, Don’t Tell
The old adage still rings true today. Sure, sometimes you can’t show everything for monetary purposes in film or television, but we do not have that constraint at the gaming table! Specifically, you have storytelling tools to describe and paint a picture of events, not just saying “the villain is your father.” Show us. Describe the pain, the betrayal, the motivation. With imagination as the canvas there are very few restrictions.
Tron: Legacy really botches this in the “reveal” of Rinzler. That being, there is none. Aside from the dialog above, we (the audience) never get the emotional payoff of seeing Rinzler revealed as Tron. We also don’t get to see the emotion of the reversal of his decision to fight for the Users again. It’s a voiceover of a CGI character.
If nothing else, his name is in the title of the movie! Adding insult to injury is that the actor (Bruce Boxleitner) who played Tron in the original movie is in Tron: Legacy, does the voice of Tron in the movie, and also takes part in the Tron flashbacks! Couple that with a digital Jeff Bridges as CLU and we’re left with no clue as to why we weren’t shown Tron’s reveal as Rinzler as opposed to being told about it.
Huge missed opportunity.
We’re a little past halfway in the article and your interest might be waning a bit. Thus, I now provide a picture of Quorra.
Know your audience and cater to it. It’s always interesting to see people try so hard to play against type. Games are, ultimately, meant to be fun. Why we tend to spend time denying those things that provide enjoyment is a real head-scratcher. Maybe it’s the pressure of society to be more politically correct or just general malaise at being emotionally honest with ourselves.
Play characters and NPCs that you find interesting and fun – and that your players will enjoy – and screw continuity, historical accuracy, or some silly male-to-female character ratio. If you want to play the chain mail bikini fighter then I say go for it. By the same token, that femme fatale redhead that we all know is going to betray us is a perfectly acceptable NPC to practice our double entendres on. Embrace it.
Frankly, we need more women in skintight rubber bodysuits in our movies, not less.
Don’t Overdo It, Redux
The flashback is a great storytelling tool. In general I support it but many, many times lazy screenwriters will go to that well too often. Tron: Legacy is one such victim. But, I hear you saying, what about “show, don’t tell?” This is where there is a fine line in the craft of storytelling. Some information is best disseminated via telling. We don’t need papa Flynn to show us (via flashback) how he created CLU or its purpose; we’re on the Grid, we’ve met CLU, and we already understand the situation. This exposition doesn’t particularly require showing us. However, CLU’s eventual betrayal – and the setup as Tron is “killed” by CLU? Yes, show us that. Then you can feel CLU’s motivation and conflict, we’re moved by Tron’s “death” and, ultimately, his reveal (were it done right) becomes more meaningful.
There’s an episode of Battlestar Galactica (the latest iteration) that is a flashback episode within a dream within a flashback in it. Are you fucking serious?
Use your toolset equally and resist the urge to fallback to your greatest hits repeatedly.
During the setup of the movie quite a bit of time is spent with the current CEO of ENCOM, the release of their latest OS and the portrayal of a greedy, money-hungry company. It’s borderline slapstick and doesn’t set up anything for later in the movie. In fact, unless you’re paying close attention, you probably missed that the cocky programmer at the table is Edward Dillinger, presumably the son of the original Tron villain. That’s great! Whoo hoo! So the new Dillinger enters the Grid as the new-and-improved Master Control Program and dukes it out with Sam Flynn and papa? Right?
Dillinger has no function in the film and appears only as a brief fan service or the potential for a future Tron movie appearance. It’s really a waste, actually.
Martin had some great advice in an early article on leading with the cool stuff. Don’t spend a lot of time on Trojan horses or deeply-crafted plots that the players may never see. Spend your time on things that directly impact the players and move past the fluff; go straight to the good stuff.
Watch Your Pets
It’s a cardinal sin of running a game and we’re all guilty of it at some point: the pet NPC. Tron: Legacy is a good example of this to extreme. Kevin Flynn was the protagonist of the original Tron and the reins are handed off to Sam Flynn (Garrett Hedlund) for this movie and any eventual sequels. Except Sam can’t seem to take the center stage in Tron: Legacy. Jeff Bridges has three roles in this film and overwhelms the lesser Garrett on screen. Whereas finding dear old dad is the goal of the film, and then escaping with him, dad also has this prophet-like status, mentor, and all-around hip dude. Bridges plays not only younger Kevin Flynn in flashbacks aplenty, but older, trapped Flynn (who ages in the computer? What?), and digital Bridges as CLU.
It’s like your PCs entering the castle to save the princess except the princess is the best fighter in the group, the story is told entirely through her eyes, and the dragon is actually the princess (because she’s a powerful mage to boot) polymorphed into a dragon. At some point the PCs have to shrug and wonder, “why are we even here?”
Having papa Flynn “pull a Neo” at the end pretty much sealed the deal that this was a pet NPC. You can’t even escape the Grid without the prophet making it possible. (Let’s not forget that papa Flynn’s identity disc is also the MacGuffin for CLU to invade the real world.)
While I may have languished on the negatives, Tron: Legacy also has a lot going for it, not the least of which is an impressive visual style. Also, I can highly recommend the soundtrack (MP3 album; CD) for your gaming table. Anyone running a cyberpunk-type game would be well-advised to give Tron: Legacy a good look for inspiration. As a storytelling example, Tron: Legacy stumbles and leaves us wanting.
What did you learn and apply to your games from watching Tron: Legacy?
I think the major thing I took away from Tron:Legacy was the background. The crew did a very nice job of making the backgrounds consistent and believable. By that, I mean there are three different areas in the movie, and each has a very distinct feel while each area seems like it could connect to the next (the wastes could touch up against the slums, the slums could be directly under the lavish clubs, etc.).
Also, and this was touched on above: If you’re going to set up, then pay off. There were about fifteen times in the movie where something really cool was put forward or sitting in the background and nothing happened to it (remember the fastest bike on the grid?).
I did not bother to see the film, because of two things that you pointed out in your article.
Retro is Chic – But overdone. I’m tired of re-treads. As a kid I was amazed by Tron. Maybe if Tron: Legacy was something that I could take my own kids to see I would have been intrigued. Big Hollywood formula driven CGI blockbuster hoping to cash in on my nostalgia? No thanks.
Sex Sells – Yeah, to some people. I am cool with material that is erotic when done well, but throwing an attractive woman into a skin tight outfit is not going to disconnect my brain from my decision making process. If your story/film/game/whatever relies on using sex to make me interested then forget it. When sales people try to use sex to influence my decisions (“Come check out our booth babes!” or “We’ll take you out for steak and lobster, then we are hitting the strip club!”) it tells me that they do not understand what I want as a customer. Same thing when I see an RPG with a scantily clad woman portrayed on the cover just so that there is a scantily clad woman on the cover.
And when I saw pics and previews with Quorra in them for Tron: Legacy I thought “Must be a shitty story because they are trying to entice me with sex to go and see it.”
Whoever uses these tactics may think that they are winning my favor, but they are actually risking the deal with me. You sell your product with sex? Well since I’m no longer 13 years old that tactic has lost its appeal. Got anything worth my time to show me?
I do agree with your point about using common archetypes in your game. That is good storytelling when you need to move the plot along.
Well, to answer your question, I didn’t learn much from T:L. Rather, I agree with you in that it was a piece of shoddy storytelling. Despite the onslaught of eye-candy, I found that the best moment of the entire film was when it ended. I did find the hippie-Jedi-ninja-wizard, a.k.a. daddy Flynn, highly amusing though.
Thanks for a very well written article. This was a good and interesting read.
man, you’re harshing on my zen thing. forget the story.
stuck in a luxury suite for 20 years with quorra?
where do i sign up?
Well, with all due respect to Partrick (whom I do respect), this is America and sex is used to sell *everything* from cars to the evening news.
I, however, was dragged up in the UK in the years when the newspapers had naked ladies in them every day (and lots of naked ladies in them on Sunday – the Sunday Mirror’s serialization of Desmond Morris’s seminal anthropological study The Human Zoo was particularly well-illustrated with photographs that had nothing to do with the content as I recall, so much so that as a 15 year-old I clipped and saved the artwork for further study in my room – I was a serious student of such works), and I was born and raised in Coventry, the city around which Lady Godiva supposedly did her ride and which as a result has numerous statues of naked ladies on horseback scattered around the place; Sex in the city don’t faze me, mate. (grinning big).
And let’s face it: Without the freeze-frames of the girl in the skintight vinyl clothing, The Matrix was just a worn-out SF story (threadbare by the late 1940s) with Keanu Reeves in it. Compelling: not.
However, I’ve just pictured some stereotypical RPG GMs cramming themselves into skintight vinyl in order to up the ante in their games, and now I feel ill.
@Roxysteve – But that is a different issue. Your points are all about whether or not a person is comfortable with sex, and I am. A page three girl isn’t going to offend me. Hell, I’m way beyond a dirty picture offending me.
Expecting me to buy your paper because it has a page three girl is what I probably won’t do.
Seriously, I’ve lived. I’ve been out in the big bad world and have had plenty of great experiences and been in plenty of trouble as well. You want me to buy a ticket just because there is an attractive woman on the screen? That’s nice.
Not enough, but that’s nice.
@Patrick Benson – My point was more that in this country sex is worked into anything to the point it is almost subliminal. A car commercial doesn’t tell you about the car, it alludes to how “manly” you’ll feel doing three-sixties in it (while exhorting you not to try in small letters). The Mac was a sleek guy in tight pants, the PC was a fat guy in a badly fitting suit.
And let’s not go into the world of computer gaming. :o)
My point wasn’t about the comfort level, it was about the insidious nature of the message and the popular fashion of denying the salacious nature of the content in question.
I obviously didn’t phrase it well enough to be understood. Apologies.
And Apologies to Don for what I can see now as a hijack. I didn’t intend it that way. Sorry.
@Roxysteve – Thanks for the clarification. I still disagree though, because having to do business in Europe and Asia the use of sex to sell products is at the same level as it is here in the U.S. from what I can tell.
I didn’t intend to hi-jack Don’s article either though, and my original point is that I think Don is correct in pointing out that a lot of what Tron: Legacy has to offer in terms of storytelling is a list beginning with “don’t” and not “do”. All of the special effects in the world may create a blockbuster for a moment (like Avatar), but if you want something that will be memorable you really need to tell a great story. Special effects just aren’t enough, and with an RPG big epic battles and lots of dice hurling aren’t going to be enough either.
Get people hooked into the story, and then all of those special effects will support and enhance the final product.
IMO, there’s no doubt that sex sells. It may not be what lures everyone into buying a given product, but it still sells. As for T:L, I don’t think it is a particulary good example of sex as a marketing tool, at least not more so than pretty much any film intended for the same market segment.
Still, there were certainly a few right spectacular women-folk in the film. In my book, T:L was just not that good, and who knows, maybe more chicks in latex would have made it better. The problem, as I see it, was that the script-writers, or the director, didn’t have the balls to focus their storytelling. As it ended up, there were just too much thrown in to the mix. “Kill your babies” springs to mind.
I don’t get how sex sells. We have the internet. Seriously.
I’m with Patrick. Once I saw the trailer had some chick in a skin-tight suit, I zoned out and no longer cared. They sunk as low as you can go… minus including a laugh track. I couldn’t care at all.
Let’s be honest: If we want to see sensual or sexual images/videos, we can hit pretty much any search string in Google, turn off moderation or whatever it’s called and there we go. Whatever we want to see, whenever.
When I see silly crap like that, all I can think is some guy trying to sell beepers to a civilization of cellphone users (yeah, 30 Rock reference). Yes, sex still sells but it sure as hell shouldn’t.
Don, great points all around. I love that you made this a poignant GM’ing article while at the same time kicking Tron: Legacy in the gonads.
Seconding: the movie was meh, but the soundtrack is a) awesome, b) great gaming background music, and c) AWESOME. I can listen to it continuously for the whole day while writing, and I have. Ignore the film if it’s not your cup of tea, but don’t ignore the soundtrack!
A few points if I may:
1) Re: sex selling, my point was that you can use this in your games as well, if you (and your players) so desire. It’s pervasive in life and can be included at the gaming table if that’s your cup of tea. Heck, RPG books have been catering to our male-dominated player base for years with their chainmail bikini covers (Avalanche Press, anyone?). If things are a little “meh” in your game, sex is an easy way to inject some excitement/titilation/interest/discussion (inappropriate!) into your game.
2) Second point: It didn’t work in Tron: Legacy. Sex was overused. Doesn’t mean that the movie wasn’t fun but Tron: Legacy and the sexualization of it may have sold movie tickets but didn’t improve the story. At All. There are, essentially, only two female characters in the entire movie and they are nothing but sex objects (well, Quorra slightly less so). Jem existed for no other reason to be blistering hot. In fact, aside from the bar scene, you don’t see another female in the Grid the entire movie. Make of that what you will.
My point 2.5? Everything in moderation, my friends. Tron: Legacy is more an example of how not to do it (sex) but there are ways to pull it off and still have an enjoyable experience.
3) Finally, to further bolster Patrick’s point and the hijack, the picture above of Quorra was during a rather pivotal dialog scene between baby and papa Flynn. While they talk the camera switches to sexy Quorra on the couch for no good reason. The scene continues. The camera goes back to Quorra. Um, okay. Distracting. Scene continues. Guess what they do a third time?
Visually interesting? Sure. Did it add anything to the scene? No, in fact it distracted from it. Looks great in the trailer, however (and on Gnome Stew). 🙂
@Don Mappin – And yet…The Matrix.