“’TRON’ began life as a story created by director Steven Lisberger and writer Bonnie MacBird. The main conceit of the 1982 movie is that disgraced video-game designer Kevin Flynn is pulled into the hidden electronic world of computers by an evil entity called the MCP, the Master Control Program. Flynn must use his skills as a video game player and maker to survive this electronic world of The Grid, save the system from malevolent villains, and find a way to return home to the real world. Designer, author, curator, niche historian and self-proclaimed professional geek, Tim Lapetino, gives us a brief overview of “TRON” and its history—from a cult-favorite action film to a world-famous franchise to a cultural phenomenon, in light of the ongoing exhibition at Chicago Gamespace.
“The film was high-concept, and a huge step into greater relevance for the Walt Disney Company, which had found itself on the outside looking in at more successful fantasy films like ‘Star Wars’ and ‘The Empire Strikes Back,'” Lapetino says. ”TRON’ was its attempt to capture this new generation of science-fiction and special-effects fans. It was created using a mix of film techniques, including cutting-edge computer graphics, conventional film photography and backlit animation–which all came together to create a stunning visual world of the film. However, all of this innovation didn’t lead to box-office gold, and ‘TRON’ severely underperformed in a year (1982) that some call the greatest year for science fiction and fantasy ever–with films like ‘Blade Runner,’ ‘E.T.,’ ‘Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan’ and ‘The Thing’ all released that same year.”
“While the film didn’t set the box office on fire, it did yield two things. First, its unique visual style and themes were incredibly memorable, influencing many artists, programmers, and designers–promising a little bit of what the future of computers might look like. Also, the movie yielded a ‘TRON’ arcade video-game version, created by Chicago-based Bally-Midway, which went on to be one of the most successful arcade games of that year. Its beautiful cabinet design, glowing black-light graphics, and iconic gameplay have made it a very sought-after game even today.”
“LIGHT CYCLES: Forty Years of TRON in Games and Film,” is an ode to that legacy. “In the exhibit, we have tried to feature the original ‘TRON’ arcade game, as well as its noteworthy sequel, ‘Discs of TRON.’ That game built on the visual themes of the disc-fighting scenes that play a prominent role in the film. The arcade cabinet of that game is also memorable for being a huge, immersive design that allows players to step inside it and play,” says Lapetino. “We also feature several games from across the evolution of console games that utilize the Nintendo Wii, the Atari 2600 and the Microsoft Xbox. Each game captures a different bit of the ‘TRON’ world, and also highlights what the state of gameplay and technology could do in that moment.”
“The light-cycle scene from the first film is seared on the public consciousness and is the image that leaps to mind when people think about ‘TRON,'” adds Jonathan Kinkley of Chicago Gamepace, who co-curated the exhibition. “It illustrated what it’s like to play a game within the computer with streaks of primary colors driving through a black-grid cyberspace. White-knuckle excitement within the novel mise en scène of cyberspace that no one had visualized before. It’s why we chose ‘Light Cycles’ for the title of the exhibition so it was critical that this moment be represented both in slides from the film and in games themselves.”
Lapetino agrees. “Even with limited time and space for a physical exhibit, we wanted to capture a little bit of the ‘TRON’ zeitgeist, unfurling a bit of what the movie meant to Hollywood and the culture of the moment in 1982. But our first thought in this video-game environment is to let the history be playable, which is why we chose different ‘TRON’ video games from across the decades to illuminate not only the lasting relevance of ‘TRON’ as a property, but also the evolution of video-game styles and technology.”
When it comes to looking into the ways “TRON” shaped sci-fi and predicted the future of technology, Lapetino’s approach is refreshing. “I think ‘TRON’ has always been positive and optimistic about a future world dominated by technology, and while that kind of idea about tomorrow has often given way to more apocalyptic visions, I think that positivity has influenced people,” he says. “Computers that can think and interact, virtual reality, the duality of machines and their human creators—those are all themes and ideas that have persisted through the last forty years. ‘TRON’ has also become a visual staple of science fiction, and helped give people a snapshot of what a fully digital world might look like, even though the future we have is pretty different.”
More than an exhibition, “LIGHT CYCLES: Forty Years of TRON” provides essential cultural education. “Like Gamespace’s mission in general, our exhibitions must be smart, illuminating and entertaining. Shows must work on multiple levels and meet audiences at different levels of engagement whether they’re just here to have a good time or learn something or ideally both,” says Kinkley, who’s been developing exhibitions at the intersection of video-game history, design and art with Lapetino for years, including “Nom Nom: Forty Years of Pac-Man Design and History.”
“I’m continually amazed at the creativity of the original ‘TRON’ filmmakers and the programmers who brought the first video game to life,” says Lapetino. “The tools and methods they used to create what we know as ‘TRON’ were incredibly simple and almost archaic compared to the tiny computers each of us carry around in our pockets every day. But the results are still stunning and almost otherworldly, and I gain a deeper appreciation for all the hard work that went into making them.”
Looking at “TRON”’s legacy today, Kinkley’s fascination lies on the aesthetics side. “With headlines brimming with reactions to ChatGPT, the anthropomorphism of computer programs can’t help but be called to mind as we reconcile with our future that will increasingly come into contact with AI and robots,” he says. “For me, its most enduring legacy is aesthetic. It took the blackness of the computer screen and video-game backgrounds of the time and superimposed lines of light. It’s a unique blend of live action film and animation, and early CGI created a unique art style that both allures and boggles the eye even today.”
“LIGHT CYCLES: Forty Years of TRON in Games and Film” is on view at Chicago Gamespace through May 7.
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