Referential Humour in “Scott Pilgrim” and “Wreck-it Ralph”

Before seeing Wreck-it Ralph I was concerned it would be a film that would alienate most audiences like ultimately Scott Pilgrim did. The latter film was heavily steeped in “geek culture,” lavishing in referential humour that was not always specifically referencing an original work, but required significant knowledge of a niche of popular culture to understand. However, it proved otherwise; it began with a series of visual jokes referencing highly recognisable video games, and cameos from other fictional characters, but used that as a quick setting shorthand to establish its premise, which was then used to tell its own story.

Scott Pilgrim was insular in its reliance on not specific references but its use of the visual and narrative language of other media; it was a film that to properly understand its flow and apparent narrative shortcomings for the intentional decisions they were required an understanding of computer games, anime and comic books as media. A film whose premise is based around ideas of “boss fights” described as such, with the thematic arenas, weaknesses to be found and exploited and so on that define video games relies on the audience being au fait with not just the basic structures of video games but their technicalities and idiosyncrasies; it builds on what outsiders may view as the flaws in game logic and turns them into its defining features. Similarly the use of HUD and GUI elements on screen to break the fourth wall appeared to be actively over-explaining jokes, when in fact their presence (to a viewer familiar with the sorts of things they would normally appear in) knew that they were the real joke.

When specific references featured, such as a band playing a piece of music from Final Fantasy, the tone was very much that the presence of such a thing was the reward. Recognising a reference, or understanding what aspect of video game logic was being highlighted in a scene, was as far as it went. As a result to someone not possessed of the knowledge that something might be a reference – not familiar with the specific pop-cultural touchstones which the film is built around – they become contextless and meaningless. A “health bar” of heart symbols may be universally understandable in some way but to someone for whom it is not a frequently-used piece of visual shorthand it is simply over-explaining a joke with a less subtle one. The overall effect is thus a film of reference-recognition – of demonstrating your familiarity with a new pop cultural language. It could be called countercultural in this way, actively rejecting outsiders unfamiliar with its lexicon of references, but at the same time it could equally be called insular.

Thus Wreck-it Ralph, described before launch as a film heavily steeped in the visual culture of video games, was a film I was sceptical about. It contained apparently a number of specific pop-cultural references, its core plot was based on a pastiche of Donkey Kong. Even its soundtrack was “geek-friendly,” with a song by Japanese idol supergroup AKB48 and chiptune influences. Yet the film itself could not have been more different in its use of this basis. Scott Pilgrim wallowed in its referentiality. By around halfway through Wreck-it Ralph the specific pastiches and cameos are gone and it is a film not specifically about video games but the sort of character-drama Disney are renowned for. I would say the extent of specific gaming knowledge needed to properly understand Wreck-it Ralph is “old games were simplistic and blocky, new games are visually stunning and overwhelming.”

Beyond that, there are no specifics of the medium intrinsic to the film that are not explained adequately within as part of the plot. Scott Pilgrim framed its plot in the level-structure of a game, translating that accurately to the screen in a way which only seemed anything but a flawed and too well-segmented narrative to someone aware of its roots as a comic and the pop-cultural cues that comic was built on. Wreck-it Ralph tells a traditionally structured story with character archetypes that are universal, merely setting it in a computer-game world. Indeed, many of its jokes poke fun at the idiosyncrasies of games – not merely as reference-spotting and laughing at how only an outsider would find such things unusual, but highlighting them from an outsider’s perspective. A joke about disappearing platforms in games becomes an excuse for pratfalls and simple physical humour in a cute character-driven scene, for example. A sequence parodying extreme and overwrought first-person shooters is as much a parody of the action tropes they are based on than any specific game mechanics.

It is therefore a film which rewards familiarity with video games – understanding why a Q-Bert might speak in small text bubbles of punctuation, or why a Pac-Man ghost turns blue when afraid, provides an additional layer of humour to a joke that itself is universal (a joke about not understanding a foreigner, or a typical reaction shot to a shocking revelation). Rather that relying on the presence of a reference to be inherently interesting, Wreck-it Ralph profits from the indeed generic nature of computer game characters – that they are archetypes all – and makes jokes about archtypes doing unexpected things. This is ultimately the simplest of all kinds of parody, a kind of humour which does not rely on significant familiarity. One does not have to know Zangief is a character from Street Fighter but instead that he is a burly Russian wrestler giving sincere self-help advice. Furthermore, the best jokes in the film are not specific references – or even video-game based – at all. They are the puns, the visual jokes, the pratfalls and the one-liners – universal staples of humour which in this case are themed around games but not defined by them.

What is more, the specific references are of those games – specific games and archetypes both – which are right at the forefront of the public eye. Characters from Mario, Pac-Man, and Sonic the Hedgehog mix with obvious pastiches of other iconic games like Halo, Mario Kart and Donkey Kong – made obvious both in narrative terms but in use of fonts and more subtle visual cues. Even someone who does not play video games may be aware of something like Donkey Kong, or the popularity of first-person shooters. Compare this with the most explicit specific reference in Scott Pilgrim – the use of the Final Fantasy soundtrack in diegetic music. Firstly the Final Fantasy games are not pop-cultural touchstones in the way Mario is. They still have a reputation of being niche, forbidding prospects. Secondly the reference is not a simple visual one like Bowser or an orange ghost – it is a snatch of a piece of game music. As it stands even iconic game music like the Mario theme tune or the Doom first level music is not widely in the general public mindset in the way that, say, the Star Wars or Dr Who theme might be. A bassline from the battle music of Final Fantasy is only significant to someone who has played the game, otherwise it may as well be any bassline. That is an example of a reference, ultimately, which relishes merely in its existence and anticipated recognition by an “in-crowd”.



  1. moomin

    You know, now that I think about it, Skullgirls is the Scott Pilgrim of video games, because it was also a cesspool of self-indulgence-stuff that its creator was interested in: memes, video game shoutouts, instead of original content. Even Joystiq said so in its review. It also failed for the same reasons that Scott Pilgrim was reported to have failed: its audience and content is insular, and its not for anybody (who doesn’t know about certain games or aren’t into Arcana Hearts-esque anime fan service).

    • r042

      Insularity of any kind is something to be entered into with caution – it’s seen I think as the natural opposite of compromising on complexity (avoiding losing what makes something appealing in the first place) but that is ultimately misguided; overreliance on exclusivity and being already knowledgeable does nothing to attract new blood.

  2. moomin

    Skullgirls relied heavily on its players’ knowledge of niche anime games like Guily Gear and Blazblue, Reverge Labs’ whiteboard wednesdays were dedicated entirely to obscure videogame and anime references. Heck, the creator behind the game, Alex Ahad, was quoted to have said that he did not mind if anyone was alienated by his game or his fauxime, fanservice art style, and dedicated an entire webpage on his official skullgirls website saying. “This is my game, These are all of my inspirations and favorite anime.” It’s pretty much one guy’s interests: the game. It’s not for anybody but him, and that’s why it failed to get any mass appeal.

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