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Interview: Tron Legacy screenwriters on gaming and the 'DNA of Tron'

Mike Schramm
Mike Schramm|@mikeschramm|December 17, 2010 6:00 PM
"I think gaming is in the DNA of Tron," says screenwriter Eddy Kitsis. "When the original came out in 1982, it really introduced the concept of a video game and it just blew my mind, because you play video games in the arcade and you're like,'Wow, what would happen behind the screen?'" Jeff Bridges' character Kevin Flynn was a gamer himself, Tron creator Steven Lisberger was inspired by early video games, and the images we remember of the first Tron aren't necessarily of the complicated metaphor of the Master Control Program and ENCOM's intra-company battle. They're of light cycles and disc fighting and the games.

"Gaming is a gateway drug, and I mean that in the best sense," says Kitsis' writing partner Adam Horowitz (the two wrote the screenplay to Tron Legacy, after writing on Lost nearly since the beginning). "That's how I got excited about computers and technology and storytelling." Gaming was intrinsic to the first Tron, but when director Joseph Kosinski was finally given the go-ahead by Disney to make a sequel, he says he "had to evolve the classic games forward."

And so Tron Legacy plays much closer to its characters, and farther away from the game metaphor. The games are there (in new forms), but the real gaming experience to be found in the new world of Tron, almost twenty years after its release, is -- go figure -- in the video game itself.

Don't worry -- light cycles do return in the new movie, and they are indeed evolved, working (and looking) much more like motorcyles than the early CG of 1982. Tron Legacy also features a few other kinds of "light craft," as well as an updated disc battle. Koskinski made sure that the games in the new movie weren't just for fun: "To me, this is life, this is happening," he says. "It's a sport, but it's a sport to the death. So the updates of the disc game and the light cycle had to feel more gladiatorial in nature."

Koskinski clearly has an eye for style -- the film is dripping with it, from the slinky female costumes to the hood over Jeff Bridges' head that illuminates his face. Koskinski had to think of the new games like an architect -- he designed a disc battle arena with moving platforms that line up opponents in sequence as they fight and fall. "We had to work out all of that geometry," he says.

Unfortunately, though, apart from the action scenes, there's not much talk of technology or gaming. Most of the script itself revolves around Kevin Flynn's absence from his son Sam in between the two movies, and as Lisberger readily admits, these characters are in a world that serves more as metaphor for technology than an actual representation. "I see the world of tech as an extension of our egos," says Lisberger. "Technology has become our ego world, where we represent who we are and explore what's possible in a social sense. And just like an ego, they bring a positive and a negative side." Computers and programs in Tron aren't actually made of RAM or code -- they're reflections of the humans who made them.

Producer Justin Springer also says the movie strayed away from the game metaphor on purpose. "We didn't want to make a movie where you were constantly reminded that you were in a video game," he explains. "The concept itself is a little more timeless if you just say that this is a place you can escape to that is a digital universe rather than just saying you got sucked into a game of Halo."

So instead of putting the game in the story, Tron Legacy's creators have decided to put the rest of the story in the game. Instead of just repeating the movie's script, Disney's Tron Evolution will describe a whole swath of the timeline that the movie skims over: a violent revolution and faction battle in the world of Tron. "We had our story for the movie," says producer Sean Bailey, "but because what we had done is build the intervening years of 1982-2010, we said we think there's a lot of interesting stuff that happened in between."

Actress Olivia Wilde's character, Quorra, has a mysterious origin in the movie that's explained out by the player's actions in the game (and she even references the game's player in the movie, as "a sympathetic program" that helps her character). Wilde says she was shocked that the game's complexity lent itself to telling such a huge tale . "I kind of imagined that I would be there and be like, "Press the green button if you would like to shoot your gun." she laughs. "Honestly, the last game I played was Duck Hunt. I had no idea what had happened with video games. And so when they brought me in and they said, 'This is the most emotional scene in the video game,' I was like emotional scene? In the video game? What has happened?"

Tron Evolution doesn't just borrow voice talent (and Wilde's character research) from the movie, either. Kosinski passed off whatever artwork and assets that the game developers needed. He wanted to make sure "that they weren't reinventing anything," he says. "Whatever the platform is, I want it to feel connected to the film."

Players will have to decide just how connected it makes them feel -- Quorra's line, for me, was a little offputting while watching the film, as if there was some bigger story that I was being kept from seeing. But "that line is not because we wanted to sell games," says Kitsis. "As a storyteller, you have story ADD -- I only have one hour and 55 minutes to tell a story, but there's so much going on in this world. There was a thing going on in during this time period -- the video game can answer that."

And for Lisberger, the movie is more about our relationship with technology than games anyway. And while the first Tron dealt with what it meant to be a user, this second movie speaks to what happens when we're all users. "You realize that there's a lot of negatives involved. Anonymity becomes a problem, people who feel that the modern world is too much of an attack on their ego become really obnoxious through this technology." That, of course, is a feeling that gamers on Xbox Live know well. The solution? "We don't start treating each other like information," says Lisberger. "That's the key. If everybody reduces everybody else to data, it's going to change the way we interact. It's going to change what our relationships are. We're not going to really like it."

"There's a line in the movie, 'Our worlds are more connected than anyone realizes,'" says Bailey. And that's what the makers of Tron Legacy are really saying -- that we're closer to our technology, and it's closer to us, than we comprehend. Even as we push into new ways to connect with each other and our phones and computers, "that world is also in our opinion pushing back and melding in really interesting ways," says Bailey. "And that for us, philosophically, was the question we wanted to deal with."

Tron Legacy opens in theaters tonight; Tron Evolution was released last week for PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and Windows PCs.