Real-life TRON

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Tomorrow sees the release of TRON Legacy, the sequel to one of my all-time favorite films. TRON, released in 1982, is a film that has pervaded all aspects of my professional and personal lives: I’ve written about it extensively, including for Juiced.GS; I included it in the curriculum for a film-studies course I taught; I even interviewed the creator of Photoshop, now of Industrial Light & Magic, on the impact the film had on Hollywood special effects.

TRON tank

A classic drawing of a classic film.

Why has this film captivated me so? Maybe because it took a silly concept — being digitized to play computer games — and treated it seriously. Flynn’s journey to defeat the MCP has all the elements of a great tale: action, oppression, character development, heroism. When computers were new and often seen as nothing more than toys, TRON dared to show the power that programmers and their creations could wield.

One of my favorite scenes is one that demonstrates both intensity and teamwork: the light cycle duel. The high-speed game in which Flynn is sentenced to compete ends when he and his friends escape from the sanctioned playing area, proceeding to roam free where no program is allowed to tread.

As it turns out, such instances are not just the stuff of Hollywood. Software developer Daniel Wellman had a similar experience many decades ago.

On his blog, where more common topics of discussion are Java and Ruby programming, Wellman relates a youthful endeavor to create an Apple IIGS version of the light-cycle battle:

One day, when Marco and I were playing against two computer opponents, we forced one of the AI cycles to trap itself between its own walls and the bottom game border. Sensing an impending crash, it fired a missile, just like it always did whenever it was trapped. But this time was different —instead of firing at another trail, it fired at the game border, which looked like any other light cycle trail as far as the computer was concerned. The missile impacted with the border, leaving a cycle-sized hole, and the computer promptly took the exit and left the main playing field. Puzzled, we watched as the cycle drove through the scoring display at the bottom of the screen. It easily avoided the score digits and then drove off the screen altogether.

Shortly after, the system crashed.

Our minds reeled as we tried to understand what we had just seen. The computer had found a way to get out of the game. When a cycle left the game screen, it escaped into computer memory — just like in the movie.

Wellman goes on to explain the technical cause for this glitch and the advancements in computing technology that would make it unrepeatable today. It’s a great tale that harkens back to the age of discovery, when computers were new and still somewhat mysterious.

Although Wellman’s Apple II version of the game is not available for download, Eric Shepherd’s adaptation, Trailblazers!, is. For a more modern take, TRON Evolution, the video-game tie-in to TRON Legacy, is available for most computer and game console platforms. And for something less virtual and more physical, you can buy a remote-controlled light cycle — or take a ride on a real light cycle.

With so much infiltration of TRON into pop culture, one can’t help but wonder if perhaps these digital avatars did indeed escape the game grid — into our own world.