Despite its origins as a 1982 film about a video game-inspired world inside a computer, Disney’s Tron franchise doesn’t have the best track record when it comes to game adaptations in the post-arcade era. Bithell Games, the studio behind minimalist indie darlings like Thomas Was Alone and Volume, aims to change that with the release of its first collaboration with the house of mouse, Tron: Identity. Part visual novel, part hard-boiled detective story, Tron: Identity is a gorgeous new take on life on the Grid — even if its plot raises more questions than it answers.
For the uninitiated, Tron: Identity takes place in the Grid, a self-sustaining world inside of computers, where human-like “programs” fulfill their functions and serve the “user” (the person actually using the computer in the real world). The Grid was created by a programmer named Flynn, who’s been missing since the events of 2009’s Tron: Legacy. Flynn is referred to among programs as either an omnipotent, godlike being due to return any minute now or a myth, but he doesn’t appear in any way, nor do any other characters from the Tron movies. Tron: Identity is an entirely new story that builds on the franchise’s foundation and reveals yet another facet of life on the Grid.
Tron: Identity is a gorgeous new take on life on the Grid.
Advances in technology since 1982 (the year the first film was released) have made that life more complicated, and Bithell Games’ vision reflects that. Some programs have begun to challenge their original programming, going outside the scope of what their users intended. Protagonist Query, a detective on a new case, is at such a crossroads in Tron: Identity. As a member of the Disciples of Tron, Query’s job is to go where he’s told and seek the truth without interfering, but this philosophy is repeatedly tested as the mystery unfolds.
It Happened One Night
The story begins when Query arrives at the Repository, a secure building in the center of the Grid. As Query, you’re sent to investigate an explosion in the Repository’s vault, though the details of the crime are shrouded in mystery. The entire story takes place throughout a few set locations within the building, and the cast consists of just six characters in addition to Query. Throughout the night, Query interacts with these denizens of the Repository, and how much information he extracts depends largely on whether or not your dialogue choices and actions earn their trust and respect. By the end of the night, you’ll have solved at least one mystery — and potentially opened up several more.
Tron Identity Screens
This unfolds in a visual novel packed with branching conversations and critical decisions that affect how the rest of the programs at the Repository respond to your, well, queries. Programs can be cooperative or hostile based on your actions, and you never know when one bad choice will come back to haunt you. The weight of these decisions is reminiscent of Telltale’s episodic adventure series like The Walking Dead, only instead of fighting off zombies, you’re fighting for the truth — even if that truth threatens life on the Grid.
Tron: Identity is short, but its length doesn’t detract from the experience.
Tron: Identity is short, with each playthrough coming in at around two hours, but its length doesn’t detract from the experience. Because of the branching paths your choices can unravel, Identity encourages multiple playthroughs to get the whole story. While the overall themes of Tron: Identity won’t change from playthrough to playthrough, the way you get to the end can be remarkably different. The choices you need to make in order to proceed typically aren’t easy ones; there’s no obvious right or wrong answer, and not taking a side has consequences of its own. Without spoiling the story, let’s just say that making bad decisions can leave you with very few allies.
While the bulk of the gameplay mostly concerns conversations with other programs and Query’s own internal monologue, these portions are occasionally punctuated by short puzzles that appear any time you need to help a program recover their memories. These mini-games, which involve matching colors and shapes in an attempt to defrag a program’s malfunctioning disc, come in several iterations of the same basic concept. The puzzles are fun at first, but on subsequent runs, they begin to feel repetitive and a bit mindless. I would have appreciated more variety and depth in these puzzles, giving you a nice break in between text-heavy sections instead of a tedious roadblock before getting back to the story.
Fighting for the User
Bithell Games has done a remarkable job of bringing the Grid to life. From the first moments of Identity, it’s clear that it was developed with reverence for the source material. The art direction is absolutely stunning in its minimalism, with dark backgrounds lit up by the franchise’s trademark neon lights. The animations are subtle but meaningful, from the data trees swaying in the breeze and drops of icy blue rain cutting through the pitch-black sky to the questioning stares and nods from the NPCs you’re interrogating.
Then there’s the music, which is almost as beautifully mesmerizing in its ambiance as Daft Punk’s Tron: Legacy soundtrack. It adds tension in all the right spots while being remarkably soothing. Overall, the presentation makes you feel firmly ensconced in the Grid, which can be both comforting and unsettling.
Tron: Identity fills a void that’s been empty since the Tron world debuted in Kingdom Hearts II almost 20 years ago. After multiple playthroughs, however, it’s still not clear what the story means for the greater Tron canon. Identity feels more like a first chapter than a standalone story, which may very well be the case, but you might find yourself yearning for more of a resolution in the short term. Identity may be more about the journey than the destination, but Query’s night at the Repository is still well worth playing.