Wreck-It Ralph is a love letter to gamers everywhere. The story explores the secret world -- worlds, really -- behind the screens at the sort of local game room that anyone who grew up in the '80s and '90s would be familiar with. The characters "work" all day long in their respective cabinets, but when the lights go down and the CLOSED sign goes up; they all mingle together via the coin-op-powering surge protector that doubles as Game Central Station.
It's exactly the sort of "pulling back the curtain" setting that Pixar and Walt Disney Animation specialize in. The sense of authenticity that gamers will feel stems largely from director Rich Moore, whose background in gaming was crucial to the story's development. He grew up with a joystick in his hand and saw in Ralph an opportunity to tell the sort of story that most lifelong gamers have daydreamed about at one point or another.
"I've seen a lot of video game movies where they take a game world and [turn it into] the real world. [But they] pay no respect to the fact that this is actually a game," Moore told us, citing Disney's Tron as one of the lone examples. "I thought it would be novel or unique to celebrate the fact that... these people are living in games, and their jobs are game-related, and they're aware that they are characters in video games."
The big difference between Wreck-It Ralph and Tron is the newer movie's focus on exploring a wider swath of genres. The arcade parlor setting afforded Moore the luxury of painting a larger world than a single-game focus could ever allow for, even if the concept of such a thing is increasingly foreign to a global community equipped with home consoles and Internet.
"That was something that we wrestled with at the beginning, the question of where is this going to take place," Moore explained. "There was something so 'get'-able about the arcade, even for the young people that I brought in and pitched the idea to. Everyone really got that, even my son who was 13 at the time."
"We really went with our hearts on this one and the feedback has been tremendous from the majority of our audience. Folks are really nostalgic for that era of gaming. It means something to them, I think, a little bit more to them than it would have if the whole story had taken place on the hard drive of an Xbox. To me, I feel like it's a jumping off point that would be great to explore down the line."
Moore isn't ready to talk about what the future holds for Ralph and his friends, but he's clear that there is a future. Pretty much every age group can relate to the idea of an arcade parlor, even if today's youngsters are only seeing it in places like Dave & Buster's or Chuck E. Cheese, but any G4 reader knows that there's a much wider world of games being played.
"When we started out making [Wreck-It Ralph] we all secretly knew that down the line we would be able to expand it more," Moore said, adding that he would like to eventually explore the world of gaming consoles, social and mobile experiences, massively multiplayer gaming, and the rest of it. Some of that stuff nearly made it into Ralph, even. "We had so much we wanted to put into the movie... nods to more contemporary things that were very, very difficult and felt kind of shoehorned into the universe we were creating," Moore explained, revealing one such abandoned concept that was meant to nod to the console crowd.
"It was called Extreme Easy Living 2; it was this game that was kind of a cross between The Sims and Grand Theft Auto. It represented Ralph's low point in the story, but it had no business being in an arcade. At one point it was on the arcade owner's computer in his office. It was very convoluted. We started trying to tell that story of going to the Internet and stuff like that."
Extreme Easy Living 2 didn't make the cut, but Moore and his team managed to make plenty of room for references to the formative days of video games. Nods to the likes of everything from Street Fighter to Q-Bert to Metal Gear Solid to Tapper are evident early on in the story as the world is being introduced. As it turns out, publishers and game creators were pretty excited about getting involved after the pitch was laid out.
"Once the game companies were very clear about what it was we were trying to make, they were super open to having their IP used in the movie," Moore revealed. "We created a really good relationship with these places [as we] made sure their titles and characters were represented correctly. We did a lot of back and forth with design and animation tests to make sure we were nailing their characters. It was fun. I really liked working with them."
All of this works because of Moore. Talking to him, you immediately get the sense that you're chatting with someone who is steeped in the language and culture of video games. He grew up a gamer and a gamer he continues to be, even if his playing time has been cut short in recent years due to the demands of making a feature-length film.
"Over the past year and a half I had to stop gaming because I was making the movie. When I start playing something, I just can't stop. It gets under my skin and I think about it constantly," he said, a sentiment that is all-too-familiar among serious gamers. "When Skyrim came out, my son was playing it and I had to just watch, thinking 'When the movie is done, I'll play Skyrim.' I have been putting it off for so long and I'm so excited to try it, that is first on my list."
Moore still found time to spend three months playing and replaying Saint's Row: The Third during Ralph's production. He's clearly someone who feels the same lure that we all do whenever the latest blockbuster game is released. Even in Ralph's console-free arcade parlor, that background is evident. Take Hero's Duty, the movie's space marine FPS bearing a title that was no doubt meant as a riff on Activision's popular Call of Duty series.
Ralph plays it low-brow, zeroing in on one thing that serious Call of Duty gamers have a tendency to overlook when they talk about the game: the hilarity of its title. There's a lot of toilet humor written into the movie around the Hero's Duty title, a source of comedy that hardcore gamers often miss when the latest epic from Infinity Ward/Treyarch arrives each year.
"I think it's just something that's always existed... but nobody wants to say anything," Moore said as we laughed about the "duty" potty humor. "I'm proud that we're the ones who pulled the curtain away from the word 'duty.' It's skated by for a long time."