In new video game Tron: Identity, the story of Tron and Tron: Legacy continues in a whole new Grid of Kevin Flynn’s making.
io9 interviewed Bithell Games creative director Mike Bithell and game producer Heidy Vargas at Walt Disney World’s recent media event for Tron: Lightcycle/Run at the Magic Kingdom. The game developers behind Subsurface Circular walked us through their new game, which is more of a visual narrative to unfold a new Tron mystery. You play Query, a detective brought in to investigate an explosion and theft of vital information to this second Grid world that Flynn left behind. Through interactions with characters who believe their creator Flynn will return, there’s a big revelation to uncover that will vary depending on your choices, as the narrative is personalized to suit how you navigate your character. Not every player will reach the same ending.
Sabina Graves, io9: Let’s talk about the game and how it ties into the extended Tron universe.
Mike Bithell: Our game is based on the idea of Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) created an opportunity for ISOs to get out, a second Grid. He’s told them, “I’m coming back, I’m coming back.” And then, as you see in Tron: Legacy, he’s then trapped. So what this game does is it picks up in 2023. This Grid has been sitting there with these programs and time moves much faster in the Grid. For them, it’s been millennia that they’ve been waiting for Flynn to come back. So this is a society that’s evolved entirely without users. And what’s that world turned into? What are the politics of the world? The philosophy of the world? You’re entering as a detective program who’s been called in because there’s been an explosion and no one knows what they did or how it happened. And you’re about to investigate.
io9: That’s awesome. I’m curious, since this is not a conventional video game. What’s the gameplay like and how does it function as a storytelling vehicle?
Bithell: It’s such a visual novel, you can be reading through and then you’re going to be choosing hundreds of options as you play. Almost every word that comes out of your character’s mouth is going to be you choosing and you’re going to be working your way through that story. Right? So there’s all these choices you’re making. And as the outcome of those choices, your relationships with the characters are going to change—characters who you can be worst enemies with or become real allies with and everything in between. You’re going to deal with the consequences if you make a choice early on to do this, that’s going to mean something bad can happen over here or something different can happen over there, and you’ll just have a very different outcome to your story.
Over the course of about six hours, you’ll explore that story or solve the mystery, hopefully, and work your way through, and then you’ll go and talk to friends who play the game and they’ll have had completely different stories play out. They’ll have had characters who you encountered for two minutes who were main characters in their story. These characters are experiencing memory loss, so you’re kind of solving their memories by fixing their discs and doing these kind of puzzles, kind of like solitaire game—matching numbers and tiles. So it’s a cool puzzle game as well on top of all the story stuff. It all kind of comes together in a cool kind of film noir, edgy Tron detective game, which is hopefully an interesting take.
Heidy Vargas: It’s an entirely new take on the games that we’ve worked on with Tron before; we’re just excited to be able to expand that that universe and introduce new characters and work with some really great teams. It connects with the source material, the films and the truth there. And what Mike was really great at doing was creating larger moments from these little tiny details from the films.
Bithell: But what’s cool is, because that time dilation happens on the bridge in [Tron: Legacy], it means that thousands of years passed from that perspective. So all the things you’ve seen in movies, those are legends. Those are the stories that are told between these programs. For example, you’re playing Query, he’s a DOT—a “disciple of Tron,” which is this order of programmers who dedicated themselves to finding out the truth of situations and solving mysteries inspired by this legendary figure, Tron, that they’ve never met because he’s off doing things he’s doing in Legacy, so there’s that kind of impact. There’s characters who idolize Flynn and the users and characters who don’t even believe in the users anymore because it’s been so long since they saw one.
io9: I’ve done some like ARG gaming—for example, on Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser in person. Is this format similar to that?
Bithell: You’re going to like this game. This is Starcruiser that you can take home with you. You’re kind of making those choices about where you want to put your alliances. What were you on Starcruiser?
io9: I was with the Han Solo type of characters, somewhere in the middle. A reluctant hero.
Bithell: Awesome. That’s one of the things I love about those kind of experiences. I’m a big Starcruiser fan for that reason—there’s a lot of video game storytelling ideas at play with what they did with that experience. This is similar in a sense, but instead of interacting with cast members, you’re interacting with computer game characters. But they are also tracking a lot of the kinds of stuff that those performers would have been thinking about. So there are characters who will become annoyed by you if you’re being rude to them, or they’ll actually be annoyed at you if you’re too nice; there’s all those kind of interactions. It’s just lots of stuff like that where we’re trying to create a story with you at the center of it.
io9: What is it about the storytelling here that really sets it apart from any other Tron games, and what was your process to put this together?
Bithell: That’s been the most fun part for me. I’m the writer as well as the director on this one. And for me, that was honestly hands-down the main reason, beyond just being a fan of the franchise, to work with Disney. I’m a lifelong Disney Parks fan and I just wanted to work with those storytellers. I’ve got people who are writing the stuff for the parks, who are writing stuff elsewhere in Disney to kind of throw in their thoughts and being able to kind of bridge that gap: “Here’s my games knowledge, here’s your storytelling knowledge. How do we weave that together?”
The great thing about something like Starcruiser is you’re relying on the cast members to improvise and respond to you on the fly. I have to guess everything you might want to do here and then write that down. That’s a really rewarding and interesting process to write. It becomes more about working out the rules of a world, working out the way a story is going to play out in a bigger sense. But then in the minutia, working out how how a player might explore those stories, like: What are the things in this moment, in this situation? What might you want to say? Do you want to you know, what would be your will be your reaction? I think Tron is specifically a franchise that I want to immerse myself in. It’s one of those worlds I want to go to. As someone who’s been working on Tron now for a while, like on the computer, to actually, literally be physically immersed, that’s just so powerful to me.
I want to step into the world of Tron and there’s obviously the way that the ride does it, which is literally physical, which is great. I’m hoping that the game kind of acts as a cool kind of supplementary thing to that. There’s a bunch of characters. It’s giving a bunch of stuff the ride doesn’t get [to do]. So I think they’re supplemental to each other. I think both scratch the itch that you’re talking about.
Vargas: Yeah, and I think what’s really cool about this game is that you don’t have to be an expert and know all of the history of Tron, right? You can enter this game and you can this can be your first introduction to the Tron franchise, to the brand. And it can be something uniquely, you know, honorable to you, right? Like your first experience with the stories, with new characters, and hopefully we can bring people from the ride, people from the films, all kinds of fans, new fans into this world, and introduce them in this new unique way.
io9: Yeah, I can totally picture people line with their Switches.
Bithell: I’d say I really want that to be the case. I think it’s going to be a lot people’s entry point because it has been 10 years since the last film. We’re very aware of—just like, from my social media I’m seeing people message me saying, this is going to be my first time in the Tron world and what should I watch and be prepared for it? And it’s like, this is an on-ramp. We want you to genuinely use this. We’re hoping this game kind of invites a new audience in who then goes to Disney+ and checks out all the rest of it.
Tron: Identity is now out on Steam and Nintendo Switch.
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