Tech Column: The Video Game-to-Movie Transition

Movies about video games are just weird. Really, think about it—the concept of taking a medium whose chief selling point is its interactivity, stripping it of said interactivity and selling it to a mass market for profit is just a strange, backward idea. Perhaps that’s why most attempts to make movies about games fail miserably, as director Uwe Boll demonstrates regularly.

However, every so often, a legitimate attempt is made to do video games the justice they deserve through the medium of the cinema. The last notable example was Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. The current one, and topic du-jour, is Wreck-It Ralph.

To be honest, I did not expect to like Wreck-It Ralph. The concept just seemed—and still does seem, in some ways—inherently flawed.

Quick, spoiler-free plot synopsis: the titular Wreck-It Ralph is the antagonist of a 1980s arcade game called Fix-It Felix Jr. and is fed-up with his life as a villain, as he never gets recognition for doing his job well. Thus, he goes on a journey of self-discovery through the worlds of various real and made-up arcades to acquire a medal and prove that he is worthy of the recognition befitting a hero.

Fairly standard plot, all told. Safe and marketable; what could go wrong, right?

Here’s the thing: Our suspension of disbelief, as viewers, is predicated on our acceptance of the fact that Ralph, Felix and the other made-up characters exist in the same world as Pac-Man, Mario, Sonic, Q-Bert and other real arcade characters. Well … they don’t.

That’s my major complaint with the movie’s premise—given the fact that a good portion of this movie’s intended audience grew up playing many of the arcade games referenced during the veritable onslaught of cameos in Wreck-It Ralph, they will know, beyond the shadow of a reasonable doubt, that Ralph and company aren’t from a real video game. Ralph has to be as accepted as a character as real as everyone else in his world, however, or the entire movie falls apart.

Ralph did not need to be an original character for the movie to work as intended. Just as the core audience for this movie knows that Ralph isn’t real, the core audience also knows that the fictitious arcade game Fix-It Felix Jr. is a stand-in for the classic arcade game Donkey Kong.

Ralph, in every real sense, is Donkey Kong, Felix is Mario, and easy parallels can be drawn between the rest of the movie’s original characters and their real-world counterparts.

I have no problem with this narrative tool as a concept—having each original character correspond to a real game character lends an undertone of humorous reference to the piece, and would really strengthen the work as a whole were it not for one thing: the obvious stand-in characters are shown interacting with real characters!

It’s like the movie couldn’t decide whether it wanted to be its own work with no real-world references outside of the occasional inside joke, or whether it wanted to be a story about real arcade characters that expanded an existing universe that everyone already knew and loved. So they tried to strike a happy medium, and everybody suffered for it.

Honestly, despite all of my bashing, the movie is still very good. It’s possibly the first movie to tell a story entirely contained in the context of a video game world, present that story to a mainstream audience and be financially successful in the process. This is a very good thing—a sign that games are becoming more accepted in mainstream culture, and an affirmation for kids and parents alike that there are more people out there who appreciate those old-timey arcade games than just the occasional fringe nerd.

I’m just a little disappointed that it didn’t realize its full potential. Scott Pilgrim vs. The World succeeded as a movie in large part because it made effective use of elements of video games, video game culture and video game mechanics without making specific reference to any particular game or gaming franchise.

Video games definitely existed in Scott Pilgrim’s world, but Scott was undeniably his own character—not a stand-in for a real-world video game character, nor a ripoff of the visual style of any one game. Wreck-It Ralph, by comparison, had the chance to do the exact opposite—to be a film entirely about real-world video games, and to use the expansive universe of pre-existing characters to tell a new and compelling story while glorying in the colorful clash of art styles and characters that inevitably occurs when well-developed worlds collide and intermingle.

Just think about it—instead of having to make us care about a character that we don’t know anything about, wouldn’t the better story have been to chronicle the adventure of Donkey Kong? Sick of throwing barrels and getting trounced by Mario, Donkey Kong gets fed-up and leaves to go on a journey of self-discovery, traveling through arcade after arcade until he finally finds the recognition he seeks, and is rewarded with his very own game, Donkey Kong Country. Seems like the obvious choice to me.

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