Wreck-It Ralph is a movie that simply couldn’t have existed five years ago. Well, maybe it could have, but it wouldn’t have been successful. There’s been a culture shift, related to both gamers and more broadly to the internet age, that allows movies like this to exist and succeed. The film is filled to the brim with references to a ton of famous games, some as a parody (“Hero’s Duty”) and some directly, like Q-Bert. The tale isn’t terribly unique, nor is it one with a lot of surprises. The fun is in the references.
A friend of mine described the film as “Toy Story for those of us who grew up on video games.” That seems accurate to me, and this is probably the first time such a film could have actually been made. There have been video game movies for years now, but most have been terrible. The “best” of these video game movies are usually dubbed “good for a video game movie,” but would never be considered worthwhile on their own merit. A few years back, Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World showed that movies based in a video game influenced world could succeed; not only did it score reasonably well with critics, but it seemed that the fan-base was more enthusiastic than most. Television shows, from Futurama and The Simpsons to Community, have done video game themed episodes. We’ve even seen episodes themed around tabletop pen-and-paper games like Dungeons and Dragons, from which video games take many cues.
How did we go from the days of Pac-Man and Space Invaders to an entire film, filled with references to years and years of rich video game history? The video game industry started to take itself seriously, and as the craft grew, its fundamental question shifted from “How can we entertain someone for a few hours?” to one more like film: “How can we tell an entertaining story?” Some studios still lean towards the former, and are far more concerned with game mechanics than they are with a compelling story. Others will lean so heavily on the side of story that the gameplay won’t be engaging, and the entire experience will feel like a movie with buttons. For every Marvel vs. Capcom there exists a Heavy Rain.
It makes sense, then, for the video game world, which already sometimes encroaches on the sort of entertainment you get from a movie, would find itself invaded by film. The biggest issue, I suspected, would have been licensing agreements, but that doesn’t appear to have been an issue here: in Wreck-It Ralph, we see famous characters from many major franchises: Q-Bert, Pac-Man, Sonic, Bowser, M. Bison, and many more. I suspect that on one viewing no one could be expected to catch every reference. Some of the broader, sweeping scenes felt like a Where’s Waldo? of video game history: can you spot the Yoshi in that crowd?
Wreck-It Ralph has a rich history to draw on, and reminds many of the days they spent in an arcade, putting quarters on machines to reserve a place in line. What’s odd, though, is that at this point in the development of the industry, I’m no convinced the film had to do much to succeed. Get the licenses, and refer to a ton of video games throughout, and so long as you don’t make a terrible movie, you’ll get your demographic to support you. I don’t mean that the film is bad, by any means (in fact, a friend I saw it with remarked that this was a movie he would likely need to buy), I simply mean that it doesn’t have much competition. Even if it did, though, I think this would be a success.
Since I think video games can be an effective medium for encouraging thought, I’m glad to see the film industry joining the discussion, since most people already recognize film as an art form. You can take classes on film critique, and you can study it the way you might study other literature. It is only a matter of time before video games are studied in a similar way. There is a deeper barrier for entry; skill is required to complete a video game, as opposed to the passive viewing of a film. But with it comes, at least potentially, greater reward.
Image via Spinoff Online.