Game technology dissolves distance between ‘Tron’ and world reflected in sequel

[From The New York Daily News]

Playing for real: Game technology dissolves distance between ‘Tron’ and world reflected in sequel

BY Michael Sheridan
Sunday, December 12th 2010

“Tron: Legacy,” opening Friday, is a case of past and present colliding with a future vision that has come true.

Nearly 30 years ago, Disney’s original “Tron” hit the big screen with a mixture of computer-generated effects and wacky science fiction concepts unseen before. Its man-inside-of-a-video-game concept was perfect for the newborn Pac-Man era, and the standup Tron video game was like an instant companion piece to the film: Leave the multiplex, hit the arcade.

Except the movie wasn’t a blockbuster in the summer of 1982, and audiences didn’t quite know what to make of it. Little did they suspect that the alien ideas in that Disney feature would foreshadow the future of the video game industry.

“‘Tron’s’ impact was probably more upon those of us who were young in careers or in college, looking toward computer entertainment as a career path,” says Joseph Olin, former president of the Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences, who has been working in the video game industry for nearly a quarter-century.

“Users” and “programs” were bizarre terms to the general population at the time. Today? The idea of having versions of yourself that exist in a virtual reality is nearly commonplace through games such as World of Warcraft and Second Life. Meanwhile, a quarter-century of official and unofficial video game-related movies — from “The Last Starfighter” and “Super Mario Bros.” to “The Matrix,” “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider” and “Prince of Persia” — has lent credence to the notion of these two worlds colliding.

And, as technology and games become more advanced, the barrier between player and program grows thinner and thinner.

“A lot of the things that were at the core of the ‘Tron’ story line really are true today,” Olin says.

In 1982, video games were light-years away from being everyday household items.

“The gaming experience for consumers was quite limited,” Olin says, “so everything that was shown in the conceit of ‘Tron’ was overwhelming.”

There were a fortunate few who perhaps had Pong or the popular Atari 2600. According to estimates, only a half million homes nationwide had a personal computer.

The video-game industry was instead dominated by arcades, where pinball wizards and arcade kings became virtual celebrities as they racked up points with Pac-Man, Frogger and Zaxxon.

Video gamers didn’t identify with the characters like they do today, Olin says. That didn’t really start until Nintendo’s Zelda in 1986, although “some of my colleagues
would probably say that it began with text-based PC games, such as Zork.”

Those games were far more immersive, and treated the characters like real, relatable people, as opposed to traffic-dodging frogs or dot-hungry yellow circles.

This new approach to gaming capitalized on the idea of role-playing adventures made popular by the dice-governed Dungeons & Dragons.

Leaps in technology eventually led to a new generation of video game consoles that left behind the antiquated Atari and ColecoVision. This more advanced breed from Nintendo and Sega kick-started a new age of home entertainment, allowing gamers to keep their quarters and stay inside to take on ninjas and aliens in their pajamas while snacking on Coca-Cola and Cheez Doodles.

However, the biggest “Tron”-like leap would come not from the NES or Genesis, but from a little thing called the Internet.

At the heart of “Tron” is the notion that there exists somewhere another reality, constructed of pixels and programs. The new movie’s hero, Sam Flynn (Garrett Hedlund), merges with a gaming program to search for his father, Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges), who himself was asborbed in the 1982 movie.

This idea started to become true for video games during the 1990s with the advent of the massively multiplayer online games (MMO). Programs such as Neverwinter Nights and EverQuest allowed players to transport themselves into this digital realm in the form of elves and warriors.

“With avatars in MMOs, you are part of the game,” Olin says — something that is at the core of “Tron,” and one of its most forward-thinking notions.

Interaction radically altered the relationship between video game players and the characters they embody. “It’s really easy to put on the skin of some of these characters,” Olin says, and MMOs offer a more “human experience.”

“Your quests are predicated on interacting with other players,” he notes, so you need to relate to them as individuals and not just computerized automatons.

As a result, online relationships take on a life of their own, mimicking those in the real world.

The ability to mold a character’s image has also grown more advanced. Star Trek Online and the PlayStation 3’s Home, for example, offer the ability to manipulate nearly every aspect of your digital self’s characteristics, from the color of his or her skin to the shape of their head.

Today, much of “Tron’s” reality is in the hands of the player. You may have noticed that there is no “Star Trek”-like holodeck or other device that can transport people into a video-game world.

But that hasn’t stopped developers from trying.

The latest breed of controllers aims to bring together the player and the game in ways never seen before. The Xbox 360’s Kinect and PlayStation 3’s Move uses cameras to allow gamers to interact with characters directly on screen. The devices build off the Wii’s motion controllers to immerse players into the game environment.

The advent of 3-D gaming will further enhance this new kind of game play. Future devices could include gloves and gadgets that go over a person’s eyes, isolating them from the real world to allow them to escape into the virtual one.

Olin believes advances in video games won’t come from technology, but in the games themselves.

“This first round of Kinect and Move games, and in some ways the Wii games, allow you to interact with games like never before,” he says. But “I don’t think [these gadgets alone] allow you to crash the fourth wall and enter the action.”

That kind of “emotional involvement” comes from a game’s story and characters, as well as the action and challenges it offers.

Games like Heavy Rain introduced a new control style, but also gave players a unique storytelling experience. The gritty murder mystery had up to 60 possible endings, letting each player enjoy a unique adventure.

Thanks to the innovations of the games themselves, “Tron” — that magical, mythical story conceived nearly three decades ago — has come true.

“Today we don’t need magical lasers to put us inside the screen,” Olin says. “Our very talented game creators, animators and engineers have been able to render on screen something so lifelike that it seems almost seamless.”

ISPR Presence News

Search ISPR Presence News: