Whenever the Big Media tries to touch gaming culture, I tend to do my best to look the other way. Scott Pilgrim Vs The World made me especially wary of any attempts to highlight gaming and geek culture. With ironic retro as its strongest weapon, it didn’t do much to justify the weak gaming references scattered all around the movie. The story itself didn’t really call for the video game stuff either, making it feel like an escapist trait of the slacker main character. It doesn’t come across as a celebration of gaming culture, but more of a passive aggressive jab at the weakness of a two-dimensional side of pop culture.
Then again, Scott Pilgrim’s aimed at teens. So naturally we need something more mature to get it right. Right?
And I’m not talking of King of Kong here.
Sometimes it really feels as if the most mature and morally justified writing is in kid’s movies these days. Wreck-It Ralph is one of those movies that understood gaming culture and got it right.
Instead of ironically throwing in video game elements into a basic coming of age story by the course of identifying yourself through a relationship, Wreck-It Ralph gives us a bad guy inside of a video game who is uneasy in his role. He wants to be a hero, even if it’s not part of his game. He decides that he’ll have to go and become a hero in some other game. It plays all of its cards absolutely straight with not a hint of irony.
With charm and heart just in the right place, Wreck-It Ralph gives us an amazing fantasy setting in which, not unlike Toy Story, the games come to life after the arcade closes. Game characters move from arcade cabinet to arcade cabinet to hang out together. Quite a large chunk of familiar gaming characters make their appearance in the movie, especially early on.
What really got to me is how deep-rooted a lot of the references in Wreck-It Ralph really are.
For instance, the game that Ralph chooses to become a hero in, Hero’s Duty, is an obvious parody of a whole variety of games. The title is obviously a jab at Call of Duty. The setting that the game takes place in looks a lot more like an over-the-top version of Alien Swarm. But it’s an arcade shooter played with a light-gun. To top it all off, the player character, as seen by the NPCs, is a LCD screen on wheels holding rifle in his hands.
What bothered me about Scott Pilgrim was how, most of what was actually happening on the screen, wasn’t really important to the story at all. The story was very disconnected from all the over-the-top video game bullshit that was going on, and the references to gaming would rarely ever go any deeper than something you’d find on the title screen or the first stage of a game.
Wreck-It Ralph features a Pac-Man Kill Screen at the end. The screen you get if you beat the last level in the arcade game. The screen was caused by the limitations of the system being able to generate any more levels up to a certain point. If you’d reached that point, the arcade game would just abruptly end by killing you repeatedly on a glitched screen. Not everyone knows this. Most probably will never get that far with an original arcade cabinet. But Wreck-It Ralph dares to put it in a kid’s movie. A movie where the target audience is too young to even get it.
I could also compare the main characters to one another between Wreck-It Ralph and Scott Pilgrim, but that would seem unfair. Wreck-It Ralph doesn’t have the black hole of charisma that is Michael Cera’s natural aura.
Still, I want to talk characters for a bit. Because despite them just being bits of code inside of a virtual memory of an arcade cabinet, they’re still really well put together.
Ralph might be the main star of the movie, but the character who really stole it for me was Vanellope. The glitch girl in the cutesy moeblob Diddy Kong Racing clone. An annoying girl with an annoying voice who starts growing on you as you get to learn more about her. I’m not going to say any more, because I really don’t want to spoil it, but damn. I am happy with how they handled her character.
I also appreciated that the strong tough-man type character of the movie was a woman. Calhoun , the leading NPC of Hero’s Duty. Game culture still needs more strong leading female characters. Maybe a movie celebrating all that’s good in gaming can make developers and publishers more comfortable with releasing games starring these.
Wreck-It Ralph makes me hopeful. I stepped into it expecting another Scott Pilgrim, a movie to make me feel ashamed of having anything to do with geekdom. If Disney can pull this off, maybe they can do more with geek culture icons. They are making Star Wars sequels now. And let’s be honest, they can’t fuck it up any worse than Lucas already did when he made the Holiday Special.