I don’t understand why Tron: Legacy has come in for so much critical abuse. I like it as much as my colleague Bob Rehak does. Just taken as an action film, it’s considerably more entertaining and skillful than your usual Michael Bay explosion fest, with set-pieces a good deal more exciting than its predecessor. However, like the original Tron, the film also has some interesting ways of imagining digital culture and digital spaces, and more potently, some subtle commentary about some of the imaginative failures of the first generation of digital designers.
Some critics seemed disappointed that the film takes place in a closed system, the Grid, created by Jeff Bridges’ Kevin Flynn, expecting it to ape the original film’s many correspondences between its virtual world and the technology of mainframe computing and early connectivity. In the original Tron, once Kevin Flynn finds himself inside the world of software and information, he finds himself meeting embodied programs that correspond to actual software being used in the real world, he has a companion bit who can only communicate in binary, he has to make it to an I/O tower so that the program Tron can communicate to his user and so on. Critics seemed to expect that Kevin Flynn’s son would be transported inside a world built on the contemporary Internet, that he would venture from Ye Olde Land of Facebook on a Googlemobile past the some pron-jpg spiders scrambling around the landscape of Tumblr and then catch a glimpse of the deserted wasteland of Second Life.
The director wisely avoided that concept, but I nevertheless think the film is in fact addressing at least one “real” aspect of contemporary digital culture. Kevin Flynn, trapped inside the Grid for more than a decade, discovers that his basic aspirations in creating a virtual world of his own were fundamentally misdirected. He sets out to build a private, perfect world populated by programs of his own design. The complexity of the underlying environment that he creates turns out to be a “silicon second nature” that spontaneously generates a form of a-life that uses some of what he’s put into the environment but that also supercedes his designs and his intentions. Too late, he realizes that the unpredictability of this a-life’s future evolution trumps any aspiration he might have had in mind for his world. Too late because his majordomo, a program of his own creation, modeled on himself, called Clu, stages a coup d’etat and continues Flynn’s project to perfect the world by eliminating contingency, unpredictability, organicism, redundancy. In exile, Flynn realizes that the most perfect thing he’s ever seen is imperfect, unpredictable life itself: the son he left behind, the life of family and community, and the life he accidentally engendered within a computer-generated world.
Whether the analogy was intended or not, that narrative strikes me as a near-perfect retelling of the history of virtual world design from its beginnings to its current stagnant state. The first attempts to make graphically-based persistent virtual worlds as commercial products, all of them built upon earlier MUD designs, sometimes made a deliberate effort to have a dynamic, organic environment that changed in response to player actions (Ultima Online’s early model for resource and mob spawning). But even products like Everquest and Asheron’s Call offered environments which could almost be said to be shaped by virtual overdetermination: underutilized features, half-fleshed mechanics, sprawling environments, stable bugs and exploits that gave rise to entire subcultures of play, all contributing to worlds where the tangle of plausible causalities made it difficult or impossible for either players or developers to fully understand why things happened within the gameworld’s culture or what players might choose to do next.
Some of the next generation of virtual worlds, such as Star Wars: Galaxies, ran into these dynamics even more acutely. Blizzard, on the other hand, launched World of Warcraft with a clear intent to make a persistent-world MMO that was more tractable and predictable as well as one that had a more consistent aesthetic vision and a richer, more expertly authored supply of content.
That they succeeded in this goal is now obvious, as are the consequences of their success: other worlds have withered, faded or failed, unable to match either the managerial smoothness or content supply offered by Blizzard. Those that remain are either desperately trying to reproduce the basic structure of WoW or have moved towards cheap, fast development cycles and minimal after-launch support with the intent to make a profit from box sales alone, in the model of Cryptic’s recent products.
With the one major exception, as always the lone exception, of Eve Online. In terms of Tron: Legacy, Eve is the version of the Grid where the a-life survived. Though in the film, the a-life, the isomorphic algorithms, that appears are said to be innocent, creative, imaginative; the moral nature of Eve’s organic, undesigned world is infamously rather the opposite.
But what Eve proves has also been proven by open-world single player games like Red Dead Redemption or the single-player version of Minecraft: many players crave unpredictable or contingent interactions of environment, mechanics and action. In RDR, if you take a dislike to Herbert Moon, the annoyingly anti-semitic poker player, you can go ahead and kill him, in all sorts of ways. He’ll be back, but more than a few players found some pleasure in doing their best to get rid of him in the widest range of creative ways. You can solve quests in ways that I'm fairly sure the designers didn't anticipate, using the environment and the mechanics to novel ends. You can do nothing at all if you choose, and the world is full of things to do nothing with.
Open-world single-player games allow a range of interactions that Blizzard long since banished from the World of Warcraft. In the current expansion of WoW, I spent a few minutes trying to stab a goblin version of Adolf Hitler in the face rather than run quests on his behalf, even knowing, inevitably, that I would eventually end up opposing his Indiana-Jones-derived pseudo-Nazis and witnessing his death. I’d have settled for the temporary resolution that RDR allows with Herbert Moon, but WoW is multiplayer and Blizzard has decided that the players aren’t allowed to do anything that inconveniences, confuses or complicates the play of other players.
I don’t know that this is Blizzard’s fault, exactly: the imperfections of virtual worlds are precisely what so many of us have spent so much time discussing, worrying about, and trying to critically engage. Trolls, Barrens chat, griefers: you name it, we (players, scholars, developers) have fretted about it, complained about it, and tried to fix it.
The problem is that the fix has become the same fix CLU applied to the Grid: perfection by elimination, perfection by managerialism. What now strikes me as apparent is that this leaves virtual worlds as barren and intimidated as the Grid has become in the movie, and as bereft of the energetic imperfections of life. That way lies Zynga, eventually: the reduction of human agency in play to the repetitions of code, to binary choices, to clicks made when clicks are meant to be made.
Where the spirit of open worlds survives, it survives either because the worlds are open but the hell of other players has been banished and the game stays safely single-player or minimally multiplayer or because the world has surrendered to a Hobbesian state of nature, to a kind of 4chan zeitgeist.
I can’t help but wonder, as Flynn does, whether there’s some slender remnant possibility that is neither of these.