Inspiration for our games surrounds us in many forms and traditional media is particularly rich in ideas. These also serve as test beds for what one ought to do or not do in narrative storytelling. In this case, Tron: Legacy has more than a few nuggets we can learn from.
Fair warning: Spoilers ahead!
Retro is Chic
Over the past decade retros, retreads, and reboots have been all the rage. From entire franchises (James Bond, Batman) to scratch-your-head “what were they thinking” movies (The A-Team, Dukes of Hazzard), RPGs can also cash in on the nostalgia.
Gamma World  is the Game That Refuses to Die while Paranoia , GURPS , and HERO  (bless you, Steve Long!) all chug along. That which was old is new again, or, in other words, as the members of our aging hobby become older and older it becomes more attractive to cash in on those fond memories and taking Living Steel  out for a test drive one more time. Hell, I’m about to kick off a Birthright  campaign using the Reign  rules, a game that’s been out of print for over 15 years!
Retro is the new gamer-geek cred currency of choice, Chummer.
So it should come to no surprise to have Tron: Legacy  stir up some of those wonderful memories of back “in the day” when you saw the original Tron and played the video game too many times in-between prepping your Rolemaster  game and TSR’s Gangbusters .
Without further ado, the top seven things you can learn from Tron: Legacy for your own games.
Don’t Overdo It
Kevin Flynn breaks into the ENCOM computer to dig up dirt on Ed Dillinger, eventually taking over ENCOM and creating a Tron video game based on his digital experiences. In Tron and Tron: Legacy a series of gladiatorial fights take place for dominance (and, presumably, entertainment purposes). A major set piece is Flynn’s now-defunct video game arcade and secret laboratory. Sam Flynn lives his life as a game, not taking much seriously at all. His last memory with his father is a deal to go play a game together. The tagline of the movie is “The game has changed.” Need I go into the dialog? “Your move, Flynn!” “The only way to win the game is not to play.” And I’m pretty sure “Game over” gets used at least once.
The point being is that it’s great to find a metaphor to hang your hat on, but at the same time don’t overdo it. It’ll lose its punch and leave your audience groaning.
We’re Not That Dumb
Apologies to the readers, but if you didn’t figure out that Rinzler was Tron from pretty much his first appearance (gee, why wear a mask?) then I have to say I’m surprised. We were pretty much kicked in the teeth when, during a flashback, Tron is shown dual-wielding identity discs…just like Rinzler.
Yet, after all this, we have to be explicitly told that Rinzler is Tron about 80 minutes in to the film. Really? Do you have that little faith in your viewers that you specifically have dialog tell us?
Give your player’s some credit. It’s more meaningful if they have to work for it. Sure, the final reveal may be “ah, just like we thought” but that’s a hell of a lot better than puffing your chest and trying to show how clever you are.
Show, Don’t Tell
The old adage still rings true today. Sure, sometimes you can’t show everything for monetary purposes in film or television, but we do not have that constraint at the gaming table! Specifically, you have storytelling tools to describe and paint a picture of events, not just saying “the villain is your father.” Show us. Describe the pain, the betrayal, the motivation. With imagination as the canvas there are very few restrictions.
Tron: Legacy really botches this in the “reveal” of Rinzler. That being, there is none. Aside from the dialog above, we (the audience) never get the emotional payoff of seeing Rinzler revealed as Tron. We also don’t get to see the emotion of the reversal of his decision to fight for the Users again. It’s a voiceover of a CGI character.
If nothing else, his name is in the title of the movie! Adding insult to injury is that the actor (Bruce Boxleitner) who played Tron in the original movie is in Tron: Legacy, does the voice of Tron in the movie, and also takes part in the Tron flashbacks! Couple that with a digital Jeff Bridges as CLU and we’re left with no clue as to why we weren’t shown Tron’s reveal as Rinzler as opposed to being told about it.
Huge missed opportunity.
We’re a little past halfway in the article and your interest might be waning a bit. Thus, I now provide a picture of Quorra.
Know your audience and cater to it. It’s always interesting to see people try so hard to play against type. Games are, ultimately, meant to be fun. Why we tend to spend time denying those things that provide enjoyment is a real head-scratcher. Maybe it’s the pressure of society to be more politically correct or just general malaise at being emotionally honest with ourselves.
Play characters and NPCs that you find interesting and fun — and that your players will enjoy — and screw continuity, historical accuracy, or some silly male-to-female character ratio. If you want to play the chain mail bikini fighter then I say go for it. By the same token, that femme fatale redhead that we all know is going to betray us is a perfectly acceptable NPC to practice our double entendres on. Embrace it.
Frankly, we need more women in skintight rubber bodysuits in our movies, not less.
Don’t Overdo It, Redux
The flashback is a great storytelling tool. In general I support it but many, many times lazy screenwriters will go to that well too often. Tron: Legacy is one such victim. But, I hear you saying, what about “show, don’t tell?” This is where there is a fine line in the craft of storytelling. Some information is best disseminated via telling. We don’t need papa Flynn to show us (via flashback) how he created CLU or its purpose; we’re on the Grid, we’ve met CLU, and we already understand the situation. This exposition doesn’t particularly require showing us. However, CLU’s eventual betrayal — and the setup as Tron is “killed” by CLU? Yes, show us that. Then you can feel CLU’s motivation and conflict, we’re moved by Tron’s “death” and, ultimately, his reveal (were it done right) becomes more meaningful.
There’s an episode of Battlestar Galactica (the latest iteration) that is a flashback episode within a dream within a flashback in it. Are you fucking serious?
Use your toolset equally and resist the urge to fallback to your greatest hits repeatedly.
During the setup of the movie quite a bit of time is spent with the current CEO of ENCOM, the release of their latest OS and the portrayal of a greedy, money-hungry company. It’s borderline slapstick and doesn’t set up anything for later in the movie. In fact, unless you’re paying close attention, you probably missed that the cocky programmer at the table is Edward Dillinger, presumably the son of the original Tron villain. That’s great! Whoo hoo! So the new Dillinger enters the Grid as the new-and-improved Master Control Program and dukes it out with Sam Flynn and papa? Right?
Dillinger has no function in the film and appears only as a brief fan service or the potential for a future Tron movie appearance. It’s really a waste, actually.
Martin had some great advice in an early article  on leading with the cool stuff. Don’t spend a lot of time on Trojan horses or deeply-crafted plots that the players may never see. Spend your time on things that directly impact the players and move past the fluff; go straight to the good stuff.
Watch Your Pets
It’s a cardinal sin of running a game and we’re all guilty of it at some point: the pet NPC. Tron: Legacy is a good example of this to extreme. Kevin Flynn was the protagonist of the original Tron and the reins are handed off to Sam Flynn (Garrett Hedlund) for this movie and any eventual sequels. Except Sam can’t seem to take the center stage in Tron: Legacy. Jeff Bridges has three roles in this film and overwhelms the lesser Garrett on screen. Whereas finding dear old dad is the goal of the film, and then escaping with him, dad also has this prophet-like status, mentor, and all-around hip dude. Bridges plays not only younger Kevin Flynn in flashbacks aplenty, but older, trapped Flynn (who ages in the computer? What?), and digital Bridges as CLU.
It’s like your PCs entering the castle to save the princess except the princess is the best fighter in the group, the story is told entirely through her eyes, and the dragon is actually the princess (because she’s a powerful mage to boot) polymorphed into a dragon. At some point the PCs have to shrug and wonder, “why are we even here?”
Having papa Flynn “pull a Neo” at the end pretty much sealed the deal that this was a pet NPC. You can’t even escape the Grid without the prophet making it possible. (Let’s not forget that papa Flynn’s identity disc is also the MacGuffin for CLU to invade the real world.)
While I may have languished on the negatives, Tron: Legacy also has a lot going for it, not the least of which is an impressive visual style. Also, I can highly recommend the soundtrack (MP3 album ; CD ) for your gaming table. Anyone running a cyberpunk-type game would be well-advised to give Tron: Legacy a good look for inspiration. As a storytelling example, Tron: Legacy stumbles and leaves us wanting.
What did you learn and apply to your games from watching Tron: Legacy?