Modern Retrogaming in Tron’s “Flynn Lives” ARG
by Aaron Smith — Middlebury College
May 13, 2010 – 00:07
The 1982 film Tron, known for its spectacular special effects at the time, transported audiences inside the then foreign and unfamiliar realm of computer technology. Director Steven Lisberger has described the original Tron as portraying a certain “naïve idealism,” since he was freely able to imagine the vast, glorious potential of the digital world. However, Disney’s Tron: Legacy promises to reflect a more nuanced, modern view of technology and its impact on our civilization. In an effort to hype the sequel’s December release and fill in narrative gaps between the two films, 42 Entertainment launched an ARG marketing campaign entitled "Flynn Lives". One of the chief strategies of this paratext is to revive the nostalgic sense of wonderment emanating from the Tron era of early computing, but then re-contextualize its aesthetics, content, and style into a more evolved and sophisticated gaming culture.
The premise of Flynn Lives is that Kevin Flynn, the famous game developer, has gone missing and Encom International, the fictional mega-corporation profiting from Flynn’s games, appears to be withholding key information about his disappearance. Participants decipher clues, hack into the Encom website, and attend live events as they begin to piece together the mystery. The ARG has already incorporated puzzles with pixelated graphics and simplistic color palettes reminiscent of the early 80s arcade games. But so far, we can see the most interesting interplay between the modern and the retro happening around Encom’s newly released Space Paranoids Online (SPO).
For many casual players, SPO serves as nothing more than a throwback to the original Tron. The in-browser game does a terrific job of maintaining the ‘feel’ of Space Paranoids, which had previously never existed outside the film. SPO maintains the same visual style, from the glowing neon labyrinth to the green targeting box, yet revamps the graphics to be slicker and smoother. The Recognizers (flying staple-shaped vehicles) not only look remarkably similar to the originals, but their escalating rumble as they hover towards your position remains consistent as well. SPO also makes explicit allusions to the original Tron. The leader board features Flynn’s untouchable high scores from 1982. And on some levels, we see a white particle-flowing square resembling the memory stream traveled through by Flynn’s hack program, Clu. More importantly however, Space Paranoids provides a framework for the Tronverse logic. As we can see in the opening scene of Tron, recognizers and tanks are not just part of an arcade game; they are an integral part of how the Tron computer system functions as a whole. Thus, at its core, the gameplay of SPO reinforce the rules and physics of the Tron world, providing a better sense of what’s at stake when we meet these vehicles again in Tron: Legacy.
At the same time, SPO works on a much deeper level. Within hours of the game’s release, ARG players began noticing secret walls with bar codes on them. They worked together to map out the game space and offer strategies for completing the levels. Utilizing a barcode reader to extract the corresponding numerical sequences, players posted the full codes on Unfiction.com. Entering these codes into Encom’s virtual server ultimately yielded new Tron: Legacy photos and concept art. Clearly, SPO functions not just as a vintage emulator for reliving fond memories, but also as a data mine for uncovering secret messages. Casual players might view Flynn’s high scores as playful allusions; ARG players approached them as potential codes. Thus, whereas traditional arcade games promote social interaction through competition and spectatorship, SPO encourages collaboration and collective intelligence by embedding new insights or “rabbit holes” within the underlying structure. The trailer for SPO claims to be “classic gameplay for the 21st century,” indicating an appeal to generations both before and after the original Tron. Indeed, participants of Flynn Lives can take pleasure not just from revisiting arcade culture, but from seeing how those nostalgic elements are remediated and repurposed to fit contemporary gaming ambitions.