Creating good video games – fresh, provocative games – can’t be easy. And good movies, the kind that you remember long after leaving the theater, aren’t made overnight. So filmmakers at Walt Disney Animation Studios had their work cut out for them when they decided to make a movie set in the world of video games.
Starring a video game bad guy who maybe isn’t such a bad guy after all, Wreck-It Ralph explores what happens behind the screens of arcade games when the games aren’t being played. The film’s nod to the gaming industry didn’t start with inside jokes and clever cameos – though there are plenty of those in the film – it began with respect, says director Rich Moore. “We really wanted to treat games with respect, and celebrate what makes them funny and what gamers love about them, while also making a movie with characters who have real depth, and to deliver heart and comedy along the way.”
The idea of making a video game movie is one that had been kicking around Disney for years. “Before I started working at Disney in November of 2008, the idea about a movie about a video game character was one that no one had been able to crack, and John Lasseter [Chief Creative Officer for both Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios] wanted me to take a stab at it,” Moore explains. “And I thought, ‘Well, okay, I like video games, let me think about it.’ So without looking at what was created by the other directors that had explored the project, I just ruminated on what a movie about a video game might be like.
“But after thinking about it for two days, I came to the conclusion that it would be a horrible movie because video game characters are programmed to do one thing over and over again, and have no choice in the matter. Then I realised, ‘No, actually that’s a great problem for a main character to have.’”
In the film, Ralph is the antagonist in Fix-It Felix Jr., an early 80s arcade game that’s still sucking down quarters in a local arcade. But after three decades of doing the same job every day, and with his fellow game denizens thinking he’s not just the bad guy but a bad person as well, Ralph decides to prove his worth by earning a gold medal, something he can only do by jumping into another game. Travelling via Game Central Station (i.e., the power strip into which all the games are plugged), Ralph hops into a sci-fi shooter game called Hero’s Duty, and then into Sugar Rush, a cart-racing game in the spirit of Mario Kart, Crash Team Racing, and Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing (the sequel of which, Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing Transformed, features Ralph as a playable character).
“We actually debated the idea of Ralph trying to do Felix’s job within Fix-It Felix Jr.,” says screenwriter Phil Johnston. “But we also liked the idea that if he goes elsewhere and comes back with a medal, it’s like a small town guy who goes off to the big city and comes back with a million dollars or with a Mercedes, saying, ‘Look what I have now.’”
To figure out how the games in the film should look, sound, and work, Moore and his crew played real ones for research. “Once we realised what the different worlds Ralph visits were going to be, we then went to some arcades around Los Angeles to get reacquainted with 8-bit games,” Moore says. “We also have a guy on staff who owns a lot of arcade cabinets, so we turned the entrance to our office area into a mini arcade with Q*Bert, Asteroids and Space Invaders.
“Similarly, once we knew that Hero’s Duty was a kind of first-person shooter/military game, we played lots of Halo, Gears of War and Mass Effect.”
“We’d also have days when someone would present a game, saying, ‘Here’s the game, here’s the point of it, and here’s how it works’,” adds producer Clark Spencer
“A lot of time and effort was put in to studying the games to figure out what makes them unique,” Moore says. “What, for example, makes Halo look like Halo, Gears of War look like Gears of War and Mass Effect look like Mass Effect, and how can we then create one that feels something like it?”
But the idea, explains visual development artist Cory Loftis, was not to make the armor in Hero’s Duty look like a cross between Master Chief’s armor in Halo, Marcus Fenix’s armor in Gears of War and Commander Sheppard’s armor in Mass Effect, but to make something original that evoked the same feeling. “I went into each one of those games to find what’s similar about them,” Loftis explains. “Do they use the same type of fasteners? Do they have the same look of grit on the metal? Do they have LED lights?”
Loftis was especially suited (no pun intended) to working on Ralph because, prior to working at Disney, he worked at Carbide Studios, a division of NCsoft currently developing an MMO called WildStar. “In fact there were several of us who worked at game companies or were big gamers – a little brain trust of gaming people who went to meetings, even with departments we didn’t work in, so we could kick around ideas,” says Loftis.
There was, however, one aspect of the film where modeling things after real games didn’t work: how Ralph would move once he goes from his 8-bit game, where his movements were jerky, into something more sophisticated. “That was a major challenge when I first started,” says animator Wayne Unten. “I did some early animation tests in which he was really staccato, like in an 8-bit game.”
But after seeing that this wouldn’t work when Ralph was in Hero’s Duty, Sugar Rush or Game Central Station, Unten and the animation team worked to find a sweet spot between static and smooth, which fits the narrative as well. “Ralph is kind of done with playing his role in Fix-It Felix Jr. and that carries into his movement,” Unten says.
It was important to Moore and his team to get the real essence of video games in the film – ensuring authenticity while remaining true to the story. The idea was to be as respectful and reverent to games as gamers have always hoped game-inspired movies would be. From the 8-bit version of the WDAS logo at the beginning through the numerous cameos, references and jokes both inside and universal, it’s clear real gamers made the film.
A great example of this is when we see Ralph pouring out his heart to the members of a support group called Bad-Anon. He isn’t just opening up to a group of generic bad guys, he’s sharing feelings with Bowser from the Super Mario Bros. games, Neff from Altered Beast, both Zangief and M. Bison from the Street Fighter games, Doctor Eggman from Sonic The Hedgehog and the group leader, Clyde the ghost from Pac-man.
Similarly, when Ralph goes into Game Central Station, he crosses paths with the kid from Paperboy, Dig Dug and Fygar from Dig Dug, Frogger from, well, Frogger and Burger Time’s Peter Pepper. Though the best may be when he comes across the cast of Q*Bert and they have an empty tin cup and signs that say, “Game Unplugged, Please Help!” and “Will npc in fps 4 food.”
“As a group we asked each other what we thought would be cool to see, what would be funny,” Moore explains. “In the beginning, we wanted to show that when the arcade closes, the characters are off the clock and have their own lives. And we went through many, many ideas before we came up with the idea of Ken and Ryu from Street Fighter heading to Root Beer Tapper for a drink.”
Of course, getting Ken and Ryu to agree to appear in Ralph wasn’t as easy as just plying them with a stack of quarters. But it wasn’t that hard, either, says Spencer. “It was relatively smooth, but it did take some time. Rich [Moore] and I went to E3 a few years ago, and met with a lot of game companies. Rich pitched the movie, and we had some early storyboards that included characters from real games. And because the movie was fairly get-able to them, they all showed interest.
“We built those relationships over the course of about a year. We showed them script pages and as they got more interested, we showed them what their characters would look like in our worlds. And I think because we formed relationships, people were more open to be included. These companies are protective—and rightfully so—but because there was so much back and forth, they knew we were going to be true to their characters.”
Though it isn’t just iconic video game characters that appear in Wreck-It Ralph. The film also includes nods to Metal Gear Solid, Super Mario Bros., the Konami code, the NES controller and even Leeroy Jenkins. “There are a lot of easter eggs and freeze frame moments in the film,” Moore says.
Further adding to the authenticity, many of the iconic game characters who appear in the film are voiced by the same actors who do them in the games. The voices of Ken, Ryu, and M. Bison from the Street Fighter games are done by Reuben Langdon, Kyle Hebert and Gerald C. Rivers, who’ve done them in the real games Super Street Fighter IV and Street Fighter X Tekken, while Roger Craig Smith, who’s been the voice of Sonic in the Sonic The Hedgehog games since 2010, does his voice in Wreck-It Ralph as well. “As a gamer, if I was watching a movie with these characters, I would think it’s cool if they got the real people to do their voices,” says Moore.
In the end, however, Moore says that the film is the story of a guy who sets out to change his life and makes some great discoveries along the way. “While gamers should get a real kick out of the details that pay homage to the industry, I hope they get lost in the story, too.”
And if the filmmakers accomplish what they set out to do, Wreck-It Ralph will be one of those stories that’ll be remembered long after leaving the theater.
Wreck-It Ralph is in cinemas December 26 – click here for a chance to win a Wreck-It Ralph giveaway pack.