Condensed Cyberpunk Cinema Classics
What is Cyberspace? The most common definition is Gibson's own:
But before Case met Neuromancer, before Bobby Quine and Automatic Jack burned Chrome, before anyone at all had fleshed out the concept of Cyberspace, there were a couple of hackers named Kevin Flynn and Alan Bradley, and a security program named Tron.
Tron is one of those films you either love or hate, a cult classic that you either embrace as groundbreaking and visually stunning, or pass off as cartoon silliness. In either case, Tron is decidedly a cyberpunk film; while on the surface it seems bright and optimistic, underneath the glowing leotards there lies a veritable mountain of anti-corporate sentiment, hacker mystique and heaps of Black ICE. Tron, you see, is not about video games and colored lights. It's all about Hackers and Netrunners cracking a system; it's just a matter of perspective.
The script lets us know where we stand right from jump street:
We're first introduced to Sark, an evil red program who delights in being brutal and sadistic towards other programs. He's the sycophant to the true man in power, the MCP, or Master Control Program. As we soon learn, Sark and the MCP are not simply little sprites in a video game; Sark is a program being run by Ed Dillinger, CEO of Icom, and the MCP is an AI that Mr. Dillinger has protecting his system... an AI who used to be a chess program, but has now evolved into a true monster with the intention of taking over the world. Move aside, Wintermute--now there's something meatier.
All three are, essentially, the same person, the MCP and Sark being programs run by Ed Dillinger, and thus it's appropriate that all three are played by the same actor--David Warner, best known for his role as "Evil" in Time Bandits.
Enter a series of programs, Crom, Ram and Tron, all representations of other users in the system. Tron, of course, is legendary enough to have an entire movie named after him, and smart enough to have let himself be "captured" in order to infiltrate deeper into the system, at the direction of his user, Alan Bradley. Alan (played by TV's "Scarecrow" from Scarecrow and Mrs. King, Bruce Boxleitner), and his friend Kevin Flynn (played by a very young Jeff Bridges, at that time best known for his roles in 1976's King Kong and 1980's Heaven's Gate), will be familiar to any fan of William Gibson. Compare:
...and our first look at Kevin Flynn...
...with Gibson's glimpse at the hackers who burned Chrome...
Alan and Kevin are doing a bit too much snooping around in the system, using various attack programs like Light Tanks to slide around and find out what's really going on, and almost as soon as we see how they're doing it, Flynn's Clu program is de-rezzed and Flynn's Tron program is taken captive, all as a result of everyone with Group 7 access being shut off as a security precaution.
Alan toddles down to Laser Research and chats with Lora and Dr. Gibbs (better known as Barnard Hughes, TV's "Mr. Merlin"), who are working on way to digitize physical objects to store them in a computer (ie. subplot). After dickering over an ancient relationship Lora had with Flynn, Alan and she decide to head out to make sure Flynn's OK. (And if this all sounds familiar, and you haven't ever seen Tron, try reading Burning Chrome again, and check out Bobby and Jack's relationship with Rikki.)
As Flynn explains, he has, indeed, been hacking into the Icom system... albeit for his own reasons. While Alan is a legitimate Sysop for the company, running security traces, Flynn is an ex-employee, fired after his boss (Dillinger) stole his game ideas and passed them off as his own. Flynn is hacking around the system looking for proof so he can bring legal action against the company. But he can no longer get in from the outside... so Lora lets him and Alan back inside the building, where Flynn proceeds to hack what they cannot (Bobby's software and Jack's hard, after all):
Lora and Alan head up to Alan's office to try to get Tron running. Flynn goes down to the Laser Lab, to use Lora's terminal to run his Clu program. While hacking away, Flynn is confronted by the Master Control Program, and, predictably, zaps Flynn with the laser.
If you go with the intent of the script, what happens is that Flynn gets physically scanned into the computer. But if we pull back a little bit and take a little creative license, all we really have here is a hacker jacking into the system...
Flynn jacks into the Icom system:
Case jacks into Cyberspace:
Flynn's now running in the guise of his Clu program, and the MCP sends Sark to do away with him. Flynn/Clu is trained along with the other programs, first forced to battle Crom to the death in a sort of Jai-Alai game, and then put into a Lightcycle arena with Ram and Tron in combat against several warriors. Already plotting their run against the MCP, the three manage to escape the grid after a dazzling light show. Sark immediately sends a whole armada of Anti-IC programs after the trio, in the guise of Recognizers and Tanks. Combat ensues, with Tron narrowly escaping as Ram and Flynn have their cycles de-rezzed.
Tron heads for the nearest I/O port to communicate with Alan, along the way finding another program, Yori (Lora's demon). They reach the tower, where Dumont (a program run by Dr. Gibbs) helps stall the system's programs while Alan downloads some new subroutines to Tron. As Tron and Yori escape on a Solar Sailor simulation (after a brief scuffle with some guards), Sark breaks through Dumont's code wall with a logic probe.
In the meantime, Flynn has not been de-rezzed, and in fact recovers quickly and acquires a Recognizer program after Ram sacrifices himself in order to give his energy to Flynn. Calling up a Bit subroutine, he cracks the code on the Recognizer and gets it moving. Landing near the I/O tower, he assaults an enemy program and disguises himself by adopting that program's color, allowing him to move about freely within the system (akin to Cyberpunk's Stealth program).
The trio meet again on the Solar Sailor, and head off towards the CPU, helped along by a bit of hacker magic from Flynn as they jump along transmission beams. But it's not going to be that easy for our little programs, because Sark's carrier catches up with them and captures Flynn and Yori. His intent is to de-rez them, but Flynn's smarter and faster than the system, and he manages to escape.
The final showdown between the heroes and the villains wraps up pretty neatly. Tron kills Sark with his disc, then goes up against the MCP, only to discover that the MCP calls up a bigger, stronger version of the Sark program. It's only with a distraction from Flynn, infiltrating the MCP program's data stream, that Tron can hurl his disc program into the beam and truly destroy the system.
We see something materializing in the apex of the energy cones. It is dressed like Dumont was at the I/0 Tower, an old man in the padded altar costume, spinning, slowly, finally stopping. We see the wizened, wrinkled face of the true MCP for just a few seconds, and see that he is furiously TYPING on an old Remington portable. Then he too dissolves into liquid energy, and disappears.
As the system's access is restored to all the programs inside it, Flynn's body is reconstructed by the laser (ie. he jacks out of Cyberspace) and he runs up to Lora and Alan to share the good news: they've successfully retrieved the data they were looking for. In their own way, they've "burned Chrome."
It's blindingly obvious how to incorporate this storyline into your own Cyberpunk campaign. In fact, if you've played with Netrunners, you've been using this storyline already, probably without knowing it. It's really as simple as this: a group of Netrunners decides to hack a corporate computer system to gain access to some hidden data, and in the process they face an evil AI and a bunch of killer counter-intrusion programs.
Here are the key things to remember:
1. Tron is all about Intelligence, about knowing the ins and outs of a computer system, about knowing how the programs work and how to defeat them. 90% of the action takes place inside the computer, all the main characters are hackers and scientists, and there's not a single gun, knife or even fist raised anywhere in the real world. It's all about the power of the mind.
2. The virtual incarnations of the real world humans look like them for a reason: they're nothing more than demon programs (avatars, if you're a Snow Crash fan), the Cyberspace representations of the humans sitting at the keyboards (or jacked into the system more directly). The "demon" designation is key here; there are times when Alan and Flynn lose track of their demons (Tron and Clu), and yet the self-aware programs continue to function on their own inside the system, running the essential subroutines until they can once again communicate with their Users.
3. The real "Bad Guy" here is the most popular Cyberpunk villain of all--the rogue AI, the runaway program bent on world domination. If the Netrunners can't stop the AI while it's still only in control of the Icom system, then they won't be able to stop it once it gets loose in the real world. There's a lot at stake here.
4. Nobody has to die for it to be Cyberpunk! Sure, programs get de-rezzed, but you just reload the program and push on. Even when dealing with Netrunners, there's no need to bring in deck-burning, nerve-frying technology--you can keep it all in Cyberspace and still have a great time with it. And if you've got Solos or Corporates hanging around bored out of their skulls, they can keep busy with the Security guards and Police while the Netrunners do the real dirty work inside the machines.
There's really nothing special about the people in this movie; it's nothing more than a couple of Netrunners battling a Corporate, really. What makes it so special and interesting are the programs they run, and how easily the happenings in the Icom computer adapt to Netrunning in Cyberpunk. While there are a whole slew of ways to interpret what you see on the screen, here's one way of adapting the main "programs" in the movie:
_____________________________________________________________________ Tron 10000eb Class:Demon (carries 4 programs) Strength:5 MU:2 Written by Alan Bradley, Tron is an example of hyperefficient code; the Tron demon is as strong as a Balron, but only takes up a fraction of the memory, leaving much more room for larger, more powerful subroutines inside. ICON: A male figure, wearing glowing blue armor. Various programs he uses materialize out of thin air as he calls on them. The brightness of his armor dims as he uses programs and suffers damage from attacks. _____________________________________________________________________
_____________________________________________________________________ Clu 15000eb Class:Demon (carries 5 programs) Strength:4 MU:2 Written by Kevin Flynn, Clu is a hacked Demon which through a quirk of code allows the Demon to call subroutines at their full strength, rather than being limited to the strength of the Demon (ie. 4). ICON: A male figure, wearing glowing blue armor. Various programs he uses materialize out of thin air as he calls on them. The brightness of his armor dims as he uses programs and suffers damage from attacks. _____________________________________________________________________
_____________________________________________________________________ Sark 12000eb Class:Demon (carries 4 programs) Strength:6 MU:3 Written by Ed Dillinger, Sark is a brute force Demon, boasting more Strength than a Balron stuffed into less space. ICON: A male figure, wearing glowing red armor. Various programs he uses materialize out of thin air as he calls on them. The brightness of his armor dims as he uses programs and suffers damage from attacks. _____________________________________________________________________
_____________________________________________________________________ Bit 1000eb Class:Decryption Strength:See below MU:1 Written by Kevin Flynn, Bit is an evolving Decryption program which grows steadily stronger with each progressive turn it is used in. Used alone, it has a Strength of 1 on the first turn; for each additional turn, it gains 1, with no maximum strength. When called as a subroutine by a Demon, it begins with a Strength equal to 1/2 the Demon's Strength, rounded down, and gains 1 per turn of use until reaching a maximum Strength equal to the Demon's own. ICON: A glowing blue ball, turning green with an audible "Yes" with each "1" it encounters, and turning red with an audible "No" with each "0". As it gains strength, and can decrypt faster and faster, the flickering color changes come faster as well. _____________________________________________________________________
_____________________________________________________________________ Discus 5000eb Class:Intrusion/Protection/Anti-IC Strength:as Demon MU:3 Written by Alan Bradley, Discus is a multi-class program designed to offer multi-function capability while conserving memory space. It is limited in several ways; it can only be run by a Demon program as a subroutine, it can only be used for one function at a time, and if lost or destroyed, all functions are lost simultaneously. Multiple copies can be carried, however. As an Intrusion program, the Discus can be used to break down data walls as a Hammer or Jackhammer, doing damage equal to the Demon's strength per attack. As a Protection program, the Discus can be used as a Shield. And as an Anti-IC program, the Discus can be used as an offensive weapon, destroying other programs like a Killer program does. ICON: A glowing discus of the same color as the Demon using it, proportionally as large as a frisbee when compared to the size of the Demon holding it. It is thrown when wielded as an Intrusion and Anti-IC program, in which case it leaves a slight trail of light behind it as it flies towards a target, returning to the Demon's hand after doing its damage. _____________________________________________________________________
_____________________________________________________________________ Lightcycle 10000eb Class:Evasion/Protection (and one-time Intrusion) Strength:as Demon MU:4 Written by Kevin Flynn, Lightcycle is a multi-class program designed to offer multi-function capability while conserving memory space. It is limited in several ways; it can only be run by a Demon program as a subroutine, and if lost or destroyed, all functions are lost simultaneously. When called, all benefits are gained at the same time, but the Netrunner cannot use any other programs (save for the Demon using the subroutine) while this one is running. Lightcycle does not make the Demon or his user invisible to other programs; in fact, it does quite the opposite, leaving a blazing trail of light behind it that will set off every alert it touches. This trail of light acts as a Data Wall of Strength 1 against all programs except for other incarnations of Lightcycle; due to an undocumented bug in the program, any Lightcycle touching a Light Trail (including its own) will be instantly destroyed, along with the Demon inside. At the same time, however, the Lightcycle makes it much it harder for enemy programs to catch the Demon by allowing the Demon, and his user, to break "The rule" of cyberspace: when using Lightcycle, you can move ten spaces per one second turn, instead of the usual five. While using Lightcycle, the Demon (and, hence, his user) are also protected by a shield otherwise identical in all aspects to the normal Force Shield program. This is in addition to the long and ugly Data Wall the Lightcycle leaves behind it; even though it is weak, it is still an obstacle to be overcome. An undocumented feature of the Lightcycle is its use as a one-time Intrusion program; by crashing into any data wall, the Lightcycle will deal 1 die of damage per unit of Strength of the Demon calling it; thus, if the Demon using Lightcycle has a strength of 5, the Lightcycle will deal 5d6 damage to a data wall. This is decidedly for one-use only; in the process of dealing the damage, the Lightcycle program and the Demon program inside are destroyed. ICON: When called, a glowing rod of the same color as the Demon using it appears in midair before the Demon. If not grasped within 1 turn, it disappears. If grasped, the rod becomes a sheath of energy around the Demon, spouting wheels and an armored carapace and otherwise appearing as a high-tech motorcycle. The cycle leaves behind a trail of energy in the 'Net which only disappears when the Lightcycle program is destroyed or deactivated for any reason (including the Netrunner jacking out). Obviously, this persistent trail of light makes it extremely easy to track down the Netrunner, meaning that this is decidedly a program of last resort. _____________________________________________________________________
_____________________________________________________________________ Recognizer 15000eb Class:Anti-IC (plus Detection/Intrusion/Protection) Strength:6 MU:5 Written by Ed Dillinger, Recognizer is a powerful Anti-IC program with additional multi-function capabilities which can be accessed only if the program is run as a subroutine (although when called by a Demon, the Recognizer's Strength is limited to that of the Demon). A Demon calling a Recognizer gains access to other subroutines buried inside the code, including SeeYa, Hidden Virtue, Armor and NetMap. These sub-subroutines may only be called one at a time. The not-so-friendly rivalry between Dillinger and Flynn has also led to an undocumented feature being added to this and other programs written by Dillinger; any Flynn-written program's Strength is reduced by 1 against a Recognizer (although this is not the case if a Flynn-written demon is calling a Recognizer as a subroutine itself.) ICON: An immense block-like robotic bluish black form, U-shaped, with a small head and a glowing yellow bar for eyes. It hovers above the ground. A glowing static field appears between the two legs of the Recognizer when it destroys other programs. _____________________________________________________________________
The software's obviously expensive, especially if the Netrunners in your little gang do not include the big guns like Alan Bradley and Kevin Flynn and Rache Bartmoss. But perhaps the characters are given the software on load in order to do the job, or perhaps they're tampering with a system one day and stumble across it, or perhaps they simple encounter Tron and Clu inside the system... and are asked by Alan and Flynn to give them a hand. The more Netrunners attacking the system, the better.
Next on the list is 1983, and once again there are a couple of possibilities: Videodrome and Wargames. Since we just got through with a Netrunner-oriented film, I'm inclined to lead towards Videodrome, but I'm certainly open to suggestions from the peanut gallery (that's you). Drop me an email and let me know what you think.
Condensed Cyberpunk Cinema Classics:
The One | Unbreakable | The Matrix | Dark City | The Crow: City of Angels | Escape From LA
City of Lost Children | Strange Days | The Crow | Leon | Nemesis | Sneakers
T2: Judgment Day | La Femme Nikita | Batman | Predator | Robocop | Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome
Max Headroom | The Terminator | Videodrome | Tron | Blade Runner | Escape From NY