Wreck-It Ralph is Disney's animated CG film about the secret lives of videogame characters. Like Toy Story, it explores what our playthings do when we're not around: in this case, travel down the power cables of their arcade cabinets to meet up and visit each other's games.
When I saw it last year, I was surprised by how well it represented games: not just the many real ones it references, but the fictional ones its plot explores. They're not derisive parodies or clumsy caricatures, they seem like they'd actually be fun.
Wreck-It Ralph is now in cinemas in the UK, and is out today as a digital download on iTunes and Amazon in the US . I had the chance to talk to director Rich Moore about what on Earth possessed him to present videogames as something better than a corrupting plague on our youth.
If you haven't seen it yet, this interview is spoiler-free.
PC Gamer: I remember when we first heard that Disney was making a film about games, there was a certain amount of trepidation. They don't get represented all that well in films and TV. So I was relieved when I saw it, because it's very respectful of games and what's exciting about them. Did you set out to change gaming's bad rep?
Rich Moore: I didn't form it in my mind as you've said it right now, that whole idea. I just approached it as: this was my chance to make a movie about something that was very dear to me, and a subject matter that I loved as a kid, and as an adult. And I wanted to portray games in the way that I saw them, and with the tone and the sense of humour that I had towards them. And represent them culturally the way that they've always felt to me.
And if the byproduct is a film that feels as if, finally, they've been treated with respect, then I'm hugely honoured to be that director, that finally got it to that point. So that's a huge compliment to me, thank you.
PC Gamer: So you still play games today?
Rich Moore: I do. Not as much as when I was a kid, and mostly on my iPhone. In fact I was just playing Dice with Buddies, just before we called you, which has been my addiction for... I thought it would last for about two months, and I've been playing Dice with Buddies since it's come out, so like nine months ago? I cannot get through this one. It's absolutely got its hooks deep in me now and I can't stop playing it.
PC Gamer: Do games still have the same significance for you that they had when you were a kid?
Rich Moore: Very much. I think that human beings, we like playing games. I think that we like puzzles, we like games, we like to make our minds active, and entertained. And for me personally, they do feel like a magical type of thing. I loved the original arcade games when I was a kid, like Pac-Man, and Donkey Kong, and Dig Dug.
I loved the games that were based around characters, because they reminded me of little cartoons. And I loved just imagining what the scenario is that I'm watching here. Why is Pac-Man running through a maze followed by ghosts? What is it about? (Laughs) What is the story here?
Why is Dig Dug underground, you know... digging? With dragons and... he pumps them up like balloons, the bad guys. So I just always found them intriguing. Not only were they fun, but some of them seemed so obtuse. But they made sense in a weird way, and I just loved that about them. I just found them so appealing. And so unique. They felt familiar but very, very unique.
PC Gamer: Was there ever a time when you wanted to do a movie about videogames, but it was too soon for that to be something with a broad enough appeal?
Rich Moore: No. I think just the opposite. We approached it from a point of view that it felt like everyone knows what this is. That we're at a point in the history of games that there is a history behind them. There is a traceable, trackable beginning, and middle, and present day of games that you can follow that says to just about everyone that this is not a fad, this is not a fluke, these things are here to stay.
And even people that never played a game know what videogames are, and has had some sort of exposure to them in some way, shape or form.
There's been no-one in the audience, that I've spoken to, that could not relate at all to the movie. Even people who had not seen games or played games would say, "Oh yeah, I recognise some of them. I recognise Pac-Man, and Sonic, but I didn't know all of them, but it didn't stop me from enjoying the film. And that to me was a huge victory. That we were able to not only appeal to the most die hard game fans but also the people who had never even played a game. That they found the story trackable and enjoyable.
PC Gamer: Yeah, that's awesome. I was going to ask, actually - it's set in an arcade, which is probably not how most kids play games today. Did you worry that kids would have trouble relating to it?
Rich Moore: Very much. As we were developing the story, we would go back and forth a lot between setting it in an arcade, or setting it say, within the hard drive of a home console. We really work and rework these things over and over again. No decisions are just made overnight, on an animated feature. We really try to look at the challenges of the films from all angles before we move on with a decision.
And we would definitely say: if it's in an arcade, each of these cabinets are like a planet, that are tethered by their ports to this hub, and they can travel through he cords to this hub, and then go, using other cords, to other games. OK, that makes real sense. Visually, I can see what that would look like, and I can make sense of that in my mind.
And then we would say, OK, if this is taking place in a hard drive, what does that look like? Each one kind of exists somewhere on a grid? How are they kind of linked together? Where do they co-mingle? And as we would try to visualise it with images, it was starting to feel a little bit like TRON. And other people I would pitch the ideas to and show the images to, just to get their opinions, would keep saying, "I know it's not as contemporary as everyone living in an Xbox, but this idea of the arcade visually just makes a lot of sense."
PC Gamer: Yeah, it's a neat metaphor.
Rich Moore: So I went to the source: I went to my son, who was 14 or 15 at the time, and explained the whole thing to him. And he said, "Oh, the thing with the arcades sounds cool." And I asked him, "So you know what an arcade is?" He said "Yeah, it's like Chuck-E-Cheese, or Dave & Busters." He'd never been to arcades like I went to at his age, but he understood the concept of it, and there were comparable types of places he could relate to.
So I said, "So you know Pac-Man, and Dig Dug, and all those old characters?" And he said "Oh yeah, I grew up knowing those characters. They're part of my childhood." Which really kind of blew me away.
I'm like, oh, OK. Just because they were created when I was a kid, doesn't mean that kids today and teens don't know them. And it reminded me, when I was a kid, I never went to a movie and saw Charlie Chaplin, or Laurel and Hardy, but I knew who they were. I could relate to them. I knew that they were early comedians, and what they meant to the history of film comedy. It's not like I had absolutely no understanding of them.
So it was at that moment it was pretty solid in my mind. I said "OK, I think it's cool to go with the whole setting in an arcade." And as the trailers started coming out, and images from the movie were released to the public, there was this huge outpouring of support, where people said "Oh cool, it's in an arcade! I love Pac-Man, and I love Q-Bert."
And I'm so glad we went that way. It has such a nostalgia factor to it that the people just so embraced. And I'm just so glad that I really went with my heart on the setting of the film, rather than worrying about, "Will people relate?" People really did.
PC Gamer: Yeah. I guess it shows you how deeply games have been embedded in our culture, that kids who were born long after these games were made recognise all the iconic characters, just because it's so seeded throughout everything they're exposed to.
Rich Moore: Right, and even the characters that some people didn't know - a lot of my son's friends would say 'Who is that one guy?' - they knew it was somebody, but if they didn't know they would ask or look it up. Because we have access to all information today, so it's not like you can't find out. A lot of consulting of uncle Google was employed.
PC Gamer: Do you think games are good for kids?
Rich Moore: I think so. I think games, any kind of games, videogames, playing games on a playground, it's part of who we are as human beings. I think that it's a way to be competitive in an arena that's safe. And I think that's vitally important to us as human beings.
PC Gamer: How did you guys come up with the three fictional games that the story takes place in? They struck me as very convincing, in all of them I could see how they would play - I was wondering if any game developers were involved.
Rich Moore: We definitely did go to some different small studios near us in Los Angeles, to talk to the people who really know this stuff the best, about how they would go about creating games in this genre. And historians, to talk about the old 8-bit games. We even had people working on the staff who came from game backgrounds.
We have one designer, Cory Loftis, that had a lot of experience in his past working on videogames (most recently at WildStar developers Carbine -PCG). And what's ironic is that he came to Disney hoping to design for classic, traditional, fairytale films, so his first assignment was, "Oh, we're making this movie about videogames, you're perfect." But he was great, and really brought a wealth of knowledge and experience to the project that was invaluable.
And we chose those ones because they were so iconic, and were three genres that we thought people would really be able to recognise and have a lot of affection for. And they were three that those of us working on the staff enjoy. And I think they really complemented and contrasted one another. They really gave a surprising twist to the storytelling - to go from a very simple 8-bit game to a very lush and overly produced contemporary shooter game, and to go from that hostile world to this very sweet, playful cart racer. It felt like it had a nice rhythm to it within the storytelling.
PC Gamer: Was Hero's Duty making fun of violent games, or just trying to be authentic to them?
Rich Moore: It was more trying to be authentic to them. I would say that as the film-maker, the intent was never to make fun of one genre over another. It was to represent them as affectionately as we could. Never to judge them. And that was one thing that was in the forefront of my mind, never to play one against the other and say "Well this game is better than that". It was always to say "This is what we love about each of these genres of games."