I've been seeing trailers and ads for Ralph Breaks the Internet for months now, so I finally decided to see what all the fuss was about and watch the first movie. Honestly, I didn't have high expectations. After all, it's an animated Disney movie about video games, and I've never owned a single gaming console. But I was very pleasantly surprised by the quality of its worldbuilding. Here's how the movie did according the rules I've thought of for worldbuilding:
***Some spoilers ahead***
1. Establishing the laws of the world: Wreck-It Ralph did this so well! In case you haven't seen the movie, it's about video game characters and how they interact with each other when humans aren't actively playing their games. Characters are allowed to visit other games and exist in some kind of liminal space modeled after Grand Central in New York City. It's there in that space that we, the audience, learn the two most important laws of the Wreck-It Ralph universe.
- First, anyone who dies outside of their own game will fail to regenerate. In other words, they die forever.
- Second, when a game gets canceled or disconnected, the characters become homeless and end up living in the liminal space forever.
And the best part about these laws is that they weren't revealed to the audience using clunky exposition! We were allowed to learn them organically, by experiencing the world as Ralph experiences it in one of the movie's early scenes. That's good worldbuilding and good storytelling. Seriously; few things annoy me more than lazy, clumsy exposition.
I do have one complaint about how the laws of this world were set up, and it's really the only complaint I have about the movie overall. The bad guy in the movie is a character named Turbo who raced cars in his original game, but left to establish himself as the best racer in the universe. And we're expected to believe that Turbo was able to survive years of jumping between racing games without dying a single time?!?! People just aren't that good at playing video games. All it takes is one inexperienced or untalented gamer (like me) to pick Turbo as their avatar and he's dead forever (because when I do play video games, I die a lot).
Now maybe Turbo only picked racing games where the avatars don't technically die when they crash or fall off the track (my friends tell me that such games exist), but if that's the case, then the writers should have made that clear.
2. Follow the laws you've established: Not only were the laws followed; they were used to motivate the characters' actions and provided a way to defeat the story's antagonist.
Setting up the world so that characters can actually capital D "Die" if they're away from their own game raises the stakes and makes the characters act in a rational, self-preserving way that the audience can understand. If it weren't for this law, Ralph would take ridiculous risks in his pursuit of a hero's medal AND his final sacrifice at the end of the movie to save Vanellope wouldn't have been nearly as impressive. So this first law made the characters more relatable to the audience and created an organic way for the movie writers to show Ralph's growth from egotistical medal-seeking villain to verified self-sacrificing hero.
The second law is just as useful. In a world where displeasing human video game players means getting your game shut off and becoming homeless, of course the characters will do everything they can to make sure the game operates normally. This drive motivates different characters at different points in the movie. For example, it drives Fix-It Felix to go searching for Ralph after he disappears; it also introduces time pressure when Ralph has to save Felix from King Candy's Fungeon.
Wreck-It Ralph is a great example of how following the rules of your fictional world can make it easier to organically drive a plot forward.
3. Don't break your audience's trust: The easiest way to break my trust as a consumer of fiction is to include elements that don't actually add anything to the story. "Elements" can mean characters, side plots, notable objects, etc. Wreck-It Ralph didn't do that. Every scene revealed something important for character development or organically drove the plot forward. Even the side characters served to motivate the main characters' actions and reveal important information.
For example, when Vanellope and Ralph escaped pursuit by hiding away in the Diet Cola Mountain, I worried that the mountain and its contents wouldn't be used again, but I was happy to be proven wrong. Inside the mountain is a lake of cola (or "pop" for my fellow Midwesterners) spread beneath stalactites made of Mentos. Any prankster or person who had a fun-loving chemistry teacher can tell you that when the two mix, they create a type of explosion. When they explode, we see that they cause Ralph pain. I was happy to learn this because after seeing Ralph fall from the roofs of buildings and drown in syrupy green slime, I had no idea what would kill him.
Those mini explosions in the mountain escape scene act as some subtle foreshadowing to the climax of the movie, where Turbo is defeated by dumping the entire mountain top into the cola lake and creating a giant foamy eruption.
The mountain was also explained as an unfinished bonus level to the game, which made me wonder what the games look like while software developers are actually in the process of building the code. This brings me to...
4. Leave some mystery: There were so many non-foundational pieces of the world left unexplored that I couldn't stop thinking about the movie for about an hour after I finished it. I wanted to know more about the social hierarchy in the video game universe. I wanted to know how the characters experienced the passing of time. I wanted to know if Fix-It Felix and Sergeant Calhoun's fiancé both called Calhoun a "dynamite gal" because they were written by the same software developer.
And the power of leaving all of those pieces unexplored is that I'm actually pretty excited to watch the sequel and see if any of them are addressed.
So overall, I'm glad I watched Wreck-It Ralph. I think it did a great job of building a world and inviting the audience into it. And I applaud its ability to write a story about video games that even the gaming-illiterate could enjoy.
I'm wary of scores, but I'll try to give the movie one anyway. I currently have four rules of worldbuilding, so I'll assign a score based on how well the movie follows those four rules.
Final score: 3.5/4