Virtual Reality experiences are becoming more common, more complex, and more immersive, thanks to companies like The VOID that launch partnerships with filmmakers and movie studios to bring together their properties and the audiences that love them. But for Walt Disney Animation Studios, working in partnership with The VOID and ILMxLAB on its new Ralph Breaks VR project, there are some thresholds that simply will not be crossed — because they make that virtual world just a little bit too real.
"One of the hot topics was, 'Well, should we let people smell Ralph?'" Jose Perez III, ILMxLAB Lead Experience Designer, told SYFY WIRE. "And then it was, 'What does he smell like?' The consensus was ham, and we decided we didn't want to put a ham smell whipping through the internet."
The savory aroma of lunch meat notwithstanding, food plays a big part in Disney's VR spin-off of Ralph Breaks the Internet, which comes to VOID locations on November 21. Working with the film's co-writer Pamela Ribon, the three companies developed a VR experience similar to The VOID's two previous attractions, Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire and Ghostbusters Dimension, where you can join Ralph and his BFF Vanellope as they fend off various opponents with launchers that propel pancakes and milkshakes. Inspired by a throwaway gag from the film in which Ralph feeds a cuddly bunny flapjacks until it literally explodes, the creative team conceived a story in which his fuzzy foe got an opportunity to take revenge on the genial 8-bit video game villain.
"We saw an early cut of the movie and the Pancake-Milkshake scene gets this huge laugh, and it was like, it's going in," Perez says. "And then we were hearing it might get cut, or it's in the credits, and we were like, 'Pancake-Milkshake will be a thing!' So we kept pushing for it, and I think it paid off."
Like the film itself, Ralph Wrecks VR takes players inside "the internet," a mega-city where they first get to test their skills in "the Dunder Dome" ("Four players enter. Four players leave") with a life-size game of Space Invaders. It's played against a backdrop inspired by TRON, as vector-graphic X-wing fighters from the original Star Wars arcade game pass overhead. Afterward, players are directed into a sweet shop overrun by bunnies and kitties, in which they use pancake and milkshake-propelling rifles to pick off as many of them as possible — all to save Ralph, of course.
Curtis Hickman, VOID Chief Creative Officer & Co-Founder, explained that it was important to evoke the feeling of both Wreck-It Ralph films, hence their tribute to the early days of gaming in the first segment. "It was very important to us that we bring the nostalgia and the heart of the first film into it - that retro vibe you get from those old video games," Hickman says. "So from very early on we pushed to make that part of the experience."
Ribon, who pulled double duties as scribe for the film and the VR experience, said that there was a time when they considered avoiding a big part of the sequel when the time came to let fans explore Ralph and Vanellope's world. "We even talked about whether or not they would go into the internet," she says. "We thought, maybe they'll just be in Litwak's arcade, and then I remember being like, but the internet's going to look so pretty!"
Perez explained that the process of creating a successful VR attraction is multi-tiered, involving the original conception of an idea, finding a way to make it fun and functional, and tinkering with it to ensure that it both lives up to expectations set by the films and stands alone as a thrilling, immersive experience.
"It's a huge collaboration where we all talk about the story and Pam would write the script, and then we'd sit down and go through the experience and Tracy [Hickman, Director of Story] would come in," he says. "So it's one of those things where you write that first pass of a script and you have an idea for what the story is, but once you get in there and you see how people go through the experience, you have to move things a little bit to make sure they get the story experience they are expecting."
"It's its own story that feels like it lives in this world, but you don't necessarily have to have seen Ralph Breaks the Internet to do the experience," Ribon continues. "But friendship is at the heart of them — that's really what they're discussing no matter what they're doing, and so that was what we wanted to have the story feel like - you get to be part of this friendship and hang out with them."
According to Perez, who comes from a gaming background, Ralph Breaks VR offers a unique way for groups to work together in virtual environments, which was something he hadn't expected.
"You come into here and you have this whole new thing, which is the family dynamics which you never really had to deal with [in gaming] because normally you don't have your mom and dad and the kids going through an experience together," he says. "It was funny because you're used to getting tutorialization and making sure people know what they're doing, and with this, the group goes in and the mom is like, 'Johnny! You stand in the circle. Tommy! You hit that thing.' They sort of self-manage, which is fantastic."
One of the major locations from the movie, the Mad Max-like Slaughter Race, is not among the challenges that players get to experience — a byproduct, Hickman said, of both the tone and logistics of creating a family-friendly game for individuals to walk instead of drive through. "Racing becomes a stage issue," he explains. "Now we've got to bring in a simulator device, which is doable, but that didn't quite fit with the tone of the rest of what we were working on."
Even though their odyssey through the internet is not explicitly competitive, players can still rack up individual points during the experience picking off cuddly adversaries and compare scores afterward. Hickman hinted that there are little tricks and additional ways to boost scores, but says that finding them would require, or at least encourage, players to come back and scour the VR landscape more than once — an element of visual and narrative design inspired by no less than Walt Disney himself, whose theme park attractions routinely bring back millions of people every year.
"One thing we really focused on is the 'cocktail party effect' that Walt Disney used to talk about," Hickman says. "His Imagineers used to say, 'There's too much going on in this ride,' and he's like, 'No, that's the point.' It's like you're going to a cocktail party and you hear pieces of this conversation and that one and then you come back and hear different ones. So the experience changes even though the main storyline is the same, and we love that."
For fans and future players, those Easter eggs, tips, and tricks offer a sense of specificity and personalization that gives them greater ownership of the characters and films they like. But for storytellers like Ribon and the rest of the Ralph Breaks VR team, it gives their work exponentially greater opportunities to be seen, heard, and truly experienced.
"You know they're not going to hear all of your jokes," Ribon says with a laugh. "It's like that in the movie too. You're sort of like, well, that's what repeated viewings are for, hopefully."