Wreck-It Ralph: Vanellope

Some parts of this interview contain spoilers for the film Wreck-It Ralph.

Litwak’s Arcade is a special place. But you wouldn’t be able to tell by its aging ceramic tiles or by the missing letters in the dilapidated birthday sign posted outside. Despite all odds, the “family fun center” manages to stay profitable in a time where most standalone arcades have failed.

Strangely, it’s also a hard place to find. The TV commercials only mention that its location is off the nebulous “Route 83.” And Google results won’t return a website — much less a phone number. So how do you get there?

Unfortunately, you can’t. Litwak’s Arcade doesn’t actually exist.

It’s merely the setting for Disney’s Wreck-It Ralph, an animated film about video games that opened nationwide in theaters last week. Packed with characters from real electronic entertainment titles — along with a slew of other references that’ll have you freeze-framing every second when it’s out on DVD — the movie tells a charming and surprisingly emotional adventure about its titular villain who “jumps” from one arcade game to the next to solve his mid-life crisis.

Perhaps more interesting than Wreck-It Ralph, though, is the story behind the making of the film. GamesBeat spoke with producer Clark Spencer and later to screenwriter Phil Johnston and director Rich Moore to reveal the challenges, the delightful accidents, and the insane ideas they had during the three-year-long project.

GamesBeat: Why make Ralph a video game villain as opposed to, say, a bad guy in a fairy tale?

Clark Spencer: Since Rich Moore first came to Disney, he had this idea telling the story about a guy who wakes up one day after 30 years of doing the same thing and thinks, “Isn’t there something more to life?” But he didn’t know what world he was going to set that story in, and John Lasseter, who’s our chief creative officer, said we should think about the world of video games.

But it wasn’t as much thinking of you should tell a video game story because no one’s done it. It was more that the right story and the right world came together at the right moment because … this story could be told in a lot of different worlds or universes. Video games is just one of them.

Wreck-It Ralph poster with M. BisonGamesBeat: What’s the role of the video game cameos? Are they just there to contextualize the film’s world?

Spencer: [Phil and Rich] wanted to make sure that, as much as possible, [the cameos] were organic and integral to the storytelling. We screen our movies a lot before we do the final version. In the first two times we screened the movie, we didn’t have that Bad Guys Anonymous scene. We had a different way of getting into it.

But it was taking us a long time to set up who Ralph was and what his problem was through a lot of dialogue. And someone came up with the idea of “What if we put him into a Bad Anon group?” Now we can actually bring video game characters in and it’s integral to the story — they’re telling us who Ralph is, and Ralph is telling us what his problem is in that world.

[And] when you see Sonic, it feels like Sonic is telling us the stakes of the world by saying if you die outside your game, you don’t ever regenerate. As much as possible, we tried to make sure we’re doing the right match up of storytelling, information that helps propel the story forward, with the right characters.

GamesBeat: Did you have a worst-case scenario plan in place if none of your requests for these characters went through?

Spencer: It was probably the thing I was the most angst-ridden about because every day, somebody would come up with some other great idea. And you think it’s going to make the movie so funny or emotional … but are we really gonna be able to pull all of this off? So what we said was, “What are the four most important characters to be in this movie?”

We decided it was Bowser, Q*bert, Clyde the ghost, and Sonic. We felt like if we can get those four, we can figure out the rest. And there was one more from Phil … he’s a huge Street Fighter fan, so Zangief was majorly important to him. [Laughs] We started out with those companies first. And [companies] were actually entertaining this idea. They weren’t saying no to us right away. They were actually listening and getting interested.

And that’s when we got a lot bigger in terms of the number of characters we were going to put into the film. But you still wonder if there’s going to be that day where someone says, “You can’t have this.” And we’ve built everything around it. We built so much around the idea that Q*bert is homeless. What happens if Sony doesn’t say yes?

[The films] Toy Story and Roger Rabbit kind of broke a lot of the ground for us. So companies were more open to it. They saw [their characters] all the way through the process.