Blizzard is CLU

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.

Comments on Blizzard is CLU:

greglas says:

Interesting thoughts, Tim.

I'm with you about the desirability of more open worlds, and I see how it ties into the Flynn/CLU schism in the T:L plot.

All the same, and at the risk of straying from the topic you've framed out, I just want to say I was sort of underwhelmed by the movie -- the visuals were very nice (esp. in 3D) and I liked the soundtrack. I even liked Jeff Bridges doing what, from time to time, seemed to me like a cartoon of John Perry Barlow or Howard Rheingold -- or maybe even Bruce looking back on the early days of avatars! :-)

But the whole Castor plot twist just convinced me that they didn't know what they were working with -- and that brief Rinzler/Tron redemption thing... sigh.

This is undoubtedly influenced by the fact that I saw T:L right after seeing Harry Potter 7.1, which won hands down. The key difference being that Yates brought cinéma vérité to fantasy. Like Peter Jackson's LOTR (actually, even more so), he cared about the world enough to get it right and then move beyond it. The film takes Harry Potter's fantasy world so seriously that it basically ignores it.

Kosinski doesn't bring anything like that to T:L. He's stuck on the pretty wrappers surrounding standard Disney fare with a dash of the Big Tronbowski thrown in. After seeing T:L, I felt sort of like I did with SW Episode One: Is that all there is? I wish they had hired some writers who actually cared about the story and the characters, or at least had something more to make out of the material.

The soundtrack was awesome though. I even had Journey's Separate Ways going through my head for a couple of days!

Posted Jan 13, 2011 10:08:54 PM | link

Kriss says:

I don't think you fully understand what failchan is.

Posted Jan 13, 2011 10:12:41 PM | link

Troy McLuhan says:

A virtual world full of human imperfections, markets, experiments, and emergent phenomena does exist, but of course it will never work. Everyone knows that a consistent, centrally-managed system is best. WoW is just the latest "proof."

Posted Jan 14, 2011 2:01:53 AM | link

Dean says:

As was mentioned,I felt T.L. was visually stunning and great on the ear. However I felt that it followed the standard anti-climatic plot that must action films do now, and being a big Babylon 5 fan I really wanted to see more of Bruce Boxleitner. The fact that we didn't see more of him suggests that they didn't have the budget to animate his face like Jeff Bridges, which was a real shame. That aside, I like you take on T.L. and how it relates to current virtual worlds

Posted Jan 14, 2011 7:33:50 AM | link

Dean says:


Posted Jan 14, 2011 7:34:19 AM | link

Pattaya Girls says:

the new TRON was pretty good I had watched the old one a week b4 hand for a fair comparison.

Posted Jan 14, 2011 10:06:40 AM | link

Edward Castronova says:

>whether there’s some slender remnant possibility that is neither of these.

There is. It's emergent community, spontaneous order. A MMOG with user governance institutions. Something thicker than EVE's mafia regimes, but not as thick as Blizzard's World of Statecraft. Something between Chieftain and Central Committee.

They say democracy is messy. Yes - messier that rule by Politburo. But not as messy as mob rule.

Imagine worlds with constitutions. Due process, delimited authorities, oversight, reporting. Elections. Yes, Richard, I know it's been done. Maybe that branch needs to be restored.

Posted Jan 14, 2011 10:07:36 AM | link

Kevin MIchael Johnson says:

Here's an interesting Kotaku article about players policing players in League of Legends. I think as designers we can make this problem a fun and interesting one to solve. Keep the worlds open, hold people accountable for their actions and involve your peers.

Posted Jan 14, 2011 10:51:32 AM | link

FlipperPA says:

I thoroughly enjoyed Tron Legacy as well, and thought there were several clever plays between the original and the new. Just for the record, the sidekick character in the original was "BIT", not "BYTE", which was what made the "Yes" or "No" dialog very clever for the time. I also find myself now having a boyish crush on Olivia Wilde as well!

Posted Jan 14, 2011 2:18:30 PM | link

Matt says:

Assuming you were making a reference to Thomas Hobbes I believe you intended to use the word "Hobbesian", rather than "Hobbsean". However, in the case that I am wrong and you were referring to someone with the last name of Hobbs, I ask you to please accept my humblest of apologies as I withdraw my comment.

Posted Jan 14, 2011 9:20:16 PM | link

Timothy Burke says:

Thanks. Both fixed.

Posted Jan 15, 2011 12:45:43 AM | link

Mike Sellers says:

Tim, you've brought up two topics here that I'm having trouble bringing together.

First, on open/imperfect vs. closed/static worlds. Many of us agree that there is a great deal of exploration of open, imperfect worlds where actions have consequences and meaning. The problem being most people don't want this. As Raph quoted (someone) recently, from the POV of many players, "games are easy, worlds are hard." For the most part, people who view virtual worlds as places to play aren't interested in the "hard work" presented by an open world.

And more to the point, these will never happen unless and until someone can get one funded that is successful. The probabilities for that are not good, to put it mildly.


Now, as to the movie, I get the analogy you're making, but it's difficult for me to dig past all the things wrong with Tron:Legacy to get to it.

This movie could have been so much more in virtually every department except possibly CGI -- but then, CGI is like breathing these days (LOTR, Harry Potter, Avatar, Inception, 2012... good movies and bad, but stunning and seamless CGI). And even there, the movie slips over the edge of the Uncanny Valley with the creepily done "young Flynn" doppleganger.

So sure it was an action movie, but still it was clunky: poorly paced, large plot holes and production gaffes (for a lot of the time they're trying to get Flynn's disc, he parades around with it clearly on his back). And worse, seemingly significant plots and characters are left hanging -- for example, what happened to Dillinger's son, played by an uncredited Cillian Murphy, who was forgotten after being introduced so pointedtly?

As narrative it's loopy (and not in a good Inception-like way), with setups for characters and confrontations that don't happen, or happen hapazardly. Flynn apparently has great power in the virtual world, but uses it only twice, and then almost as a "oh hey, right, I have this thing I can do." There are add-on characters and lines the camera and soundtrack dote on, like Michael Sheen's Zuse or Bridge's unintentionally odd Lebowski-like "You're messing with my Zen thing, man" or "I'm gonna knock on the sky"... after which nothing much really happens.

But really, that's just the surface level.

At a deeper level, the movie continues not to work. :)

They were so close to doing a virtual world twist on The Tempest, with a bit of Frankenstein thrown in: Flynn is already Prospero/Frankenstein, and Quorra is very much Ariel/Miranda. Sam is Ferdinand (or if you like, Leslie Nielsen's Commander Adams from "Forbidden Planet"). Clu is Caliban/the Monster, with a nice intertwining with Flynn there too.

In such a story Flynn would remain as the flawed world-creator, but with a much more interesting and comprehensible story to tell.

For me, both as a movie and as commentary on virtual worlds, T:L fails as soon as they make Flynn more Lebowski and less Prospero. Maybe someday we'll see that story told too.

Posted Jan 15, 2011 12:54:34 PM | link

Timothy Burke says:

Games are easy, worlds are hard. Agreed.

Most people don't want it? I couldn't disagree more. I may pull this up for a main post in a few days, but:

I think this is one of the things that one million copies of Minecraft is trying to tell us. I'm dismayed that so many early designers of virtual worlds are hiding behind a flawed reading of the market (or assume that Blizzard's successes as a game designer boil down entirely to having the biggest money hats). Or, to repeat a criticism I've lobbed at Raph now and again, a tendency towards misattributing problems that stem from particular, specific cultural habitus and misfires of technological design to deep, intrinsic psychological structures of play and sociality.

Some simple propositions about worlds, on some of which I think Minecraft is "good to think":

1) Maybe the problem with worlds was not multiplayer, but massively. Maybe people don't want to be in a world with an indiscriminate mashup of everyone who wants to be in a world. Maybe "SMO" (small multiplayer online worlds) would work where massive ones didn't. Especially if the worlds themselves were large. Most of my other social experiences online let me build from the bottom up the size, scale and character of my trusted network with whom I share content or connections. If I'm playing or interacting with the largest possible set of partners, maybe they need to be reduced to the most anonymous, minimalist, almost non-human form, the same way that markets aggregate our individual actions to produce collective and structural results. Maybe when we want worlds, we want the opposite. Other social media succeed at giving us something closer to that desire. MMO designers, on the other hand, have stubbornly continued to insist that Barrens chat is the price we all have to pay, or that it's a good experience to have to dance in cantinas for misogynst teenaged bullies.

2) Maybe the problem with player content-creation has always been the tools, not the intrinsic act of creation. Building content in NWN2, Second Life or Metaplace was hard compared to building text-heavy content in many social media platforms or publication forms, or building digital video for distribution through YouTube, or building animation using XtraNormal, and so on. Minecraft content is by comparison easy: it matches tools with 'worldliness'. Maybe the problem is that worlds where content creation has been a part of the mix have always wanted to start at too intermediate a level of meaning and expression: not at basic tools that scale up to emergent complexities as a result of what human beings do with them, but tools already restricted to building "faux-medieval towns compatible with the D&D ruleset in which NPCs can be placed".

3) Maybe the problem is the narrowness of the imaginative subculture involved in game design. If the Sims had never existed, I'd wager I'd have a hard time getting funding for it now. Maybe the loop of people with money and people who make games is far too tightly closed, and unsurprisingly, people in that loop tend too have way too pessimistic an understanding of what could happen.

4) Maybe the problem is with the players after all, but it's not a problem of not wanting a world-like platform: it's a problem with wanting too much of it.

Posted Jan 15, 2011 3:00:17 PM | link

starralex76 says:

Timothy Burke, thanks for your thoughts. Agree with you in most of moments

Posted Jan 15, 2011 6:25:57 PM | link

thoreau says:

T:L bothered me on two fronts. Why was their blood while they were on the grid and why were they eating roasted pig? I mean if you're digitized then you're digitized. Also, the CGI Clu was real enough for me. See: Uncanny Valley.

I wonder if the Grid would have been more successful if instead of giving Clu all the design power Flynn implemented a meritocracy. See:Ubuntu.

Posted Jan 16, 2011 7:02:58 PM | link

thoreau says:

Typing too fast.

*Why was there blood....

*the CGI CLu was not real enough....

Posted Jan 16, 2011 7:04:08 PM | link

Mike Sellers says:

(Posted without "Preview" because I every time I try that, TypePad decides to reload the page and throw away what I've typed.)

Tim, personally I agree with many of the points you're making about open/undirected worlds (and I typed too fast above too, or edited oddly, as a couple of key phrases seem to have been left out).

But I think we too quickly dismiss the inescapable fact that the large majority of people playing games (from FB games to WoW -- and we're now talking about hundreds of millions of people) clearly want clear paths of progression rather than a field to explore. They want to know how to "win," where to go next, what's the best path. They want meaningful choices too, but only once they've been carefully crafted to be meaningful in a meta-sense, as in "I know that if I choose A, I'll be the hero and that's meaningful; if I choose B I'll be a loser and that's also meaningful but in a bad way." So the choice itself is virtually on rails, but the meta-level meaning is still there.

Now, all that said, I still deeply believe in the potential -- both commercial and "artistic" for lack of a better word -- of open worlds. I'll even throw in "massively," provided that the players have the tools to create their own public/private spaces (as you say: "build from the bottom up the size, scale and character of my trusted network with whom I share content or connections"), just as we do in the real world.

But I have little hope of this happening any time soon. Or if it does, it will be another in the SL vein, like the recently pulled-back Blue Mars. There's a whole lot of game/world space between Second Life and WoW, and we've explored almost none of it. The reason is twofold: it's difficult creatively, and it's highly risky financially. So don't get your hopes up (yes, this is 15+ years of actively trying to push that rock uphill speaking).

To that point, you said, "If the Sims had never existed, I'd wager I'd have a hard time getting funding for it now."

I have news for you: EA tried to kill The Sims multiple times. If it hadn't been backed by Will Wright (whom they needed as brand in addition to his design chops), it would have been killed years before anyone heard of it. If it had never existed you wouldn't have a prayer of getting it made today.

So, the best bet for open world games is that someone magically brings together the design, technical, and funding abilities needed to make it happen without succumbing to the many ways to crash along the way. I still hope for that -- I hope to be in on it -- but I'm not holding my breath.

Posted Jan 17, 2011 9:40:58 AM | link