Wrecking Wreck-It Ralph and How NOT to Glorify Videogame Culture

Before you read, just a heads up: This post is a no-holds barred, spoiler-laced discussion about the film. If you haven’t watched the movie yet and you think that spoilers will affect your opinion for it, don’t read this. Otherwise, go right ahead.

wreck-it-ralph-title

I finally got the chance to see Wreck-It Ralph. For those who aren’t in the know, it’s Disney’s not-so-recent movie about the uncanny quest of the titular videogame character to redeem himself, with a (big) handful of destruction as a side dish. The thing is, I watched it under the pretense that it was a videogame geek’s wet dream, that it had a good cast, a good plethora of advertising schemes, and most importantly, a good story that pays homage to the videogame industry.

Boy, I never thought I’d be utterly mistaken.

The Disney Syndrome

As someone who has watched Disney films since childhood, I know this by heart: Disney likes to make adaptations with little to no back story, explanation, or story flow to justify some of the scenes in their animated family films. I’ve seen a lot of such movies; Toy Story, A Goofy Movie, and A Bug’s Life, just to name a few that I could still remember. The point is, you are directly and suddenly immersed in a world where things aren’t usually what they seem to be, and you are left to your own resources trying to understand what’s going on, or how it came to be that way. Any adult would find a decent explanation that would suffice the curiosity, but would you expect that on kids, who would nag their parents to watch cartoons mostly because they think it’s cool, fun, and awesome? Would you even expect parents to answer their children’s questions and not dismiss them by telling their kids to just watch the movie and leave it to their imagination?

The Game is a Workplace

Let’s take on Wreck-It Ralph‘s case using this mindset. We are, creatively speaking, spirited away into the inner workings of Litwak’s Arcade, where videogame characters are actual people. Really, electronic bits of code and information gaining sentience. There can explanations to that, aside from having them just magically come to life at night and make the story progress as planned. Maybe they have gaps of code derived from their programming that formed into their consciousness, or that they developed it after repeating the same program over and over for more than, say, thirty years or so. Plausible to a point, yes?

But then we see the environment that they live in, where videogames are seen not only as worlds, but also as workplaces. As a videogame character, you need to earn your keep in the arcade by doing your “job” in your corresponding game, or risk getting the arcade box that you call home unplugged, which results with you either being homeless, or deleted forever.

Um, okay, give me a minute. I need that part to sink in. Basically, you wake up, finding you’re doomed to do a job that only you can do, be it eating blinking dots to munch on ghosts, or living in a dump and wrecking 8-bit era crap, and that you need to do it for, like, forever, with no compensation other than your reputation and your supposed home? That just stinks.

Going Turbo

So our little anti-hero of sorts, Ralph, finally decides that he’s fed up from being treated like total shit. He jumps into another game in order to find a medal, seeing as it’s the only way to convince the folks in his game that he deserves better. This, known as the act of “going turbo”, it wasn’t well-received by the rest of his game’s cast, mainly because he’s needed as the bad guy in their game, that they’ll be considered out of order if he doesn’t come back to do his job, and that they instinctively need a guy they can bully because of his occupation, despite his colossal size.

Let’s highlight the words job and occupation on that last sentence. You have someone who “works” as the villain in your virtual workplace, and he only does it “professionally” because he needs to. End of the movie right there, for me. Why? Because it was emphasized, for more than once, that what Ralph is doing is a job, not an evil whim to pulverize things to itty bitty bits. It should’ve been understandable to most that anything that happens after that revelation is irrelevant. But no, the film goes through the trouble of making him go independently ballistic so he can prove to people his worth and making a big mess out of it, only for everyone to finally realize that the guy they’re scared from is just like anybody else if they took the “Bad Guy” label off.

Gameplay Mechanics

This beef, I had with the scene about Double Stripes. Double Stripes were introduced when our characters dove into the gameworld of Sugar Rush. A Double Stripe is a striped candy branch/tree/trunk/whathaveyou, only that it has two stripes and vanishes if you touch it. The film has two scenes that have Double Stripes on them. Plenty enough exposure for a plot device to be used and abused on story-relevant scene, yet you watch the rest of the film without seeing it again. Is it even used on the races? It would’ve been relevant if the game’s racers rode on a giant Double Stripe candy cane that suddenly goes poof into a giant pool of chocolate milkshake-ish quicksand, where they would sink, melt, and explode into sugar cubes and cheaply wrapped hard candy. Plain and simple, can work like awesome, totally unnecessary.

Code Safety

Another thing that had me stupefied is how the so-called “safety” of the characters are explained. If you look at the games from Ye Olde Golden Era of gaming such as Ralph’s game, there is little to no room for uncontrolled activity, and videogame characters’ actions are at their own discretion, thanks to their obsolete and strictly limited programming. But then you see Hero’s Duty, who have these monsters they call Cy-Bugs that even the program can’t control. It seemed that the more advanced the game is, the more volatile and exploitable the environment and nature of the characters were. By way of code safety, the Golden Era one-ups the advanced games of today by another point, but that’s a story for another time.

Reference Dropping

Too much of this. Way too much. You have characters from Street Fighter popping in and out like they have a lot more relevance and character population than any other game, to which in actual realization given their roster of playables, can actually be true. You have Sonic’s face plastered almost everywhere because Ralph stars on the former’s real world kart game. See Metal Gear Solid‘s infamous ! sign, see the growth mushroom from Super Mario, see Zangief’s briefs. Stahp, Disney, reference dropping stahp. Throwing references and putting notable characters on your posters to get film viewership is fine, but you used that card just too much.

In conclusion, this isn’t how you glorify videogaming, people. Wait, what? They’re planning part two, where they plan to explore the world of MMOGs, console games, and portables?

Seriously?

Leave a comment

27 Comments

  1. I posted this review on my FB and people didn’t take too kindly to it. I agree with you on your statements, though.

    Reply
    • I know well enough that most people wouldn’t like it. People need to know that I watched it as both a hardcore gamer and an educated person, which means this is NOT a casual review of the film, instead it’s a very, VERY opinionated one of it. If people who read it felt bad because they liked it for whatever reason aside from mine, then it’s fine. That’s their part of the story to tell.

      Reply
  2. ougon

     /  7 April 2013

    You are, of course, entitled to your own opinion, but I find your critiques bizarre.

    1. Disney movies do often rely on a ‘what-if’ conceit. For Toy Story, it’s “what if toys were alive?” For Wreck-it Ralph, it’s “what if video game characters were self-aware?” The narrative then plays around with some of the implications and limitations of those conceits. Is this a syndrome? I hesitate to call it that. Better to take chances in creativity than limiting yourself to a few well-worn fairy-tale conceits. Besides, you underestimate the power of children to fill in the gaps.

    2. Ralph’s predicament, as the ‘villain’ in a game, is actually a wonderful commentary on the stigma that we place on certain occupations in the real world. People aren’t so rational as to be able to disassociate what you do from what you are, and Ralph is a great example of this, especially because his stigmatization stems from his propensity to destroy everything he touches. Ralph’s quest to find self-absolution in what he does is also a character-building one. In the beginning of the film he is rightly resentful that people don’t see past the job that he does, so he tries to rectify that in a way that only reinforces people’s perceptions of him. But it is in the righting of the wrong that he did in Candyland that gives him the self-actualization and moral legitimacy he so craves.

    3. Your beef with double stripes is that because they have certain abilities, they should’ve been used elsewhere in the film, and this is a failing? Not every aspect in a film has to refer to something else.

    4. Code safety: So, is the logic: a. The movie depicts advanced games as more prone to bugs. b. therefore, the movie glorifies classic games over advanced games? That’s a pretty bizarre connection to make.

    5. Name-dropping: are you seriously going to critique one of the best parts about the movie? I wish they’d featured more classic game characters.

    Bring on the sequel!

    Reply
    • Taka

       /  7 April 2013

      Just wanted to say I love this comment and to add a little more to point one:

      Disney films (in particular Pixar films) are typically less focused on exploring the world in which they are set as they are on the emotional journeys of the characters within.

      And yeah I don’t understand the double stripe comment at all. It’s just used to introduce Ralph and Vanellope.

      My one complaint would be that they introduced the villain far too late in the film. Even though they alluded to the fact that it was the dude who had last gone Turbo it still felt kind of hamfisted.

      Reply
    • I’ll just answer both your comments on this one. Let me take a deep breath…

      Okay.

      1. Like I said on my first reply, I watched this as a hardcore gamer-slash-academic-person. I understand the possibilities of a what-if scenario, but I’m NOT talking about that aspect since it goes around stuff in a very casual manner for someone such as myself.

      2. That’s the thing here. Why would you demonize the videogame world by transforming it into a workplace? There are other ways to explore how elements of videogames work, not just this one. Why stick to this? It sounded as if the main point of the game is to make any family film story work, but only with a videogame theme. If this was the case, then they shouldn’t have gone way too far to advertise it in a way that it would appeal to the hardcore gamers.

      3. I’m talking as a programmer here; object reference is logical. If I was a game developer, and I saw no absolute interest or purpose in a game’s object or element, I wouldn’t code it; even if I did, I would stash it away in a secret folder or part in the game that can be only accessed via Developer Mode. This part was touched by the Glitch and the secret of Diet Cola Mountain, and I’m fine on how they they did those parts. The Double Stripe part? I dunno, some randomly thrown game element that works for like, what, twice?

      4. Totally wrong, re: modern games and your understanding of “bugs”. My point is, the games of today crave variety and replayability compared to classic games, which means they have a lot of ambiguous elements involved. I’m telling people that the way they did the environment of Hero’s Duty was very poorly thought, if not outright dangerous, to any and every element in the story. I’d like to emphasize: They are NOT programming bugs. They are game objects based on ACTUAL bugs that don’t have any programming limitation and have a viral instinct to invade and destroy any game. Put a box of Hero’s Duty in your little piece of magical paradise and watch it burn the place to the ground. On Ralph’s case, it didn’t. It was close enough, but it didn’t, but that doesn’t change the fact I pointed out.

      5. It wasn’t, for me. If they had a little more relevance to the plot other than getting noticed by gamers, maybe it was. But it wasn’t.

      So no, no sequel. Please, save me the agony of reviewing another family cartoon-slash-advertised-as-for-videogame-geeks film.

      Reply
  3. Um, the reason why Ralph went on his medal quest was that he was feared and treated unkindly for his villain role. The real-life equivalent of this is a movie actor who always gets villain roles, and is treated as if he is really a bad guy in the movies he played.

    I disagree with your condemnation of the video game references. True, there are a lot of them, but they aren’t extraneous. They provide instant visual humor without demanding recognition from the audience. It is okay if the viewer has never played Metal Gear to know that the ! is shorthand for an alerted state. The Pac-man ghost turning blue conveys fear in an unambiguous way. Compare, say, a line in Scott Pilgrim where Scott talks about the original name of Pac-man, which serves to highlight his geekiness but you have to unpack the sentence first, and it becomes less meaningful if you aren’t familiar with Pac-man. Read R042′s review about this.

    Reply
    • Re: Scott Pilgrim’s way of thinking, that’s actually my mindset when I watched the film. Label me a geek, but I really like a videogame movie to be mostly about how you make elements of the videogame world work their wonders. Sure, I can understand the impression that since it’s a world for videogame characters and hence they are wholly populated by the ones we commonly know, but the film doesn’t go beyond that.

      Reply
  4. I think Wreck-It Ralph is a wonderful film and have to echo what ougon and Taka said in regards to the things you discussed on this post. Even when I saw movies like Toy Story as a kid, I never felt the need to question how the worlds work. They basically just take place in the real world but from a different perspective, like if toys were alive, if monsters lived in a world on the other side of your closet, or if video game characters had sentience. To me at least, the movies explain enough for kids and adults to not constantly be scratching their heads but still use their imagination.

    But although I think Wreck-It Ralph is really good, I think it’s a less universal film than is usual for Disney. Unless you have some familiarity or interest in video games, it will probably be hard to follow and all the allusions that make it so visually enjoyable will go over your head. Unlike other Disney movies, I can’t imagine my mom, who’s 67 and never touched a video game, being able to follow it and “get” what makes it good. Even though I’m only a casual fan of video games, I think playing “spot the reference” in a film like this is a lot fun ;)

    Reply
  5. For me, the problem with Wreck-It Ralph was that it didn’t really feel like it needed to be a videogame movie at all. Videogaming is the set-up, but then it essentially turns into a racing movie, with completely typical animated archetypes. And I do agree that the video game name-dropping grew stale almost immediately. There were a few aspects where the references added to the visual design of the movie, but as jokes they just felt thrown in, and none of them really reached past “heh, I get that reference.” Relying on mere recognition is an incredibly weak comedic style, imo. Overall, I thought it was a pretty bland movie that gained some good momentum toward the very end.

    Reply
    • Finally, someone who understands where I’m coming from. I visited your blog, saw your stuff mostly being about videogames, and, understanding that you’re as hardcore as most of the members of SF (if not more), I think it’s safe to say you also expected more from Wreck-It Ralph only for it to fall short, yes?

      Reply
      • Well, I think it’s important to note that just because somebody doesn’t have a videogame blog doesn’t mean they’re any less interested in videogames – I’m constantly reading, but I don’t have a blog devoted to literature.

        But yeah, I felt like Wreck-It-Ralph was disappointing both from the standpoint of a videogamer and also from somebody who enjoys a great children’s narrative. If we take something like Toy Story, there’s a clear grounding in the world. It’s completely intuitive and sensible, and plays out much like you’d expect from the premise.

        With Wreck-It-Ralph, though, there’s this visual videogame theme that really doesn’t play itself out in the action of the story. We have this videogame bad guy who’s dissatisfied with his role, which is fine, but there’s also all this weird fluff like some kind of communal videogame hub? Then Ralph goes on a quest to become a hero, and he does this with full knowledge that he could essentially kill everyone in the Wreck-It-Ralph game? And what’s this about the game resetting itself to an ideal state if a hidden asset wins the race? It all just feels so manipulated, like they really wanted to make a videogame Toy Story but couldn’t accomplish it without fudging the entire idea.

        I have a lot of misgivings with the movie, but it wasn’t actually bad, just disappointing. It couldn’t have helped that I watched Wreck-It-Ralph after Paranorman, but I at least enjoyed the ending. It seemed to find the heart that it was searching for in the first 3/4 of the film. A little late, but it’s worth something.

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  1. Wrecking Wreck-It Ralph and How NOT to Glorify Videogame Culture (On Super Fanicom) « Rainbowsphere

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