WALL-E – a brilliant non-interactive videogame protagonist

By Neil Merrett

Just as videogames have evolved to allow for more experimental, ‘emergent’ forms of gameplay and interactive storytelling, animation powerhouse Pixar used a similar approach to narrative in its critically acclaimed 2008 animated sci-fi movie WALL-E.

When it was released 13 years ago, the Pixar movie WALL-E garnered widespread acclaim for creating a thoughtful, redemptive parable about mass consumption and the role collective humanity will have in its own downfall and potential salvation. That this was done through a movie with cute, often monosyllabic robots and an almost dialogue free first act – save for some old show tunes – is perhaps even more incredible.

A triple threat movie

The late film critic Roger Ebert saw WALL-E as a film that excelled as enthralling entertainment, a piece of visual art and ultimately a compelling science-fiction story about humanity and its complicated place both among the stars and rooted to a fragile planet. 

He said back in 2008 that the film was in the tradition of a number of Pixar movies of the era that were as visually and emotionally stimulating for adults as they are for children that often adore cartoons as habit.

Ebert added, “That it works largely without spoken dialogue is all the more astonishing; it can easily cross language barriers, which is all the better, considering that it tells a planetary story.”

He particularly praised writer and director Andrew Stanton for the more thoughtful approach to storytelling in the film.

“It involves ideas, not simply mindless scenarios involving characters karate-kicking each other into high-angle shots. It involves a little work on the part of the audience, and a little thought, and might be especially stimulating to younger viewers. This story told in a different style and with a realistic look could have been a great science-fiction film. For that matter, maybe it is.”

An excellent videogame character

What is fascinating about WALL-E as a movie over a decade after its initial release is that it seems to use the emerging storytelling tools of modern videogames to convey plot in place of upfront text of third or first person narration.  This is not itself a comment on the movie’s tie-in videogame, developed by Heavy Iron Studios and published by THQ, that was also released in 2008 and used on-screen instructions and more linear mission objectives as is often important to help players understand the gameplay mechanics.

But WALL-E is a movie that was very bold in how it used visual cues and world design to try and set out its themes and overall story.

Particularly in the film’s first act, Wall-E makes a brilliant video game protagonist. Even though the player is not in control of the robot itself, he is our surrogate and the emotional core of the story, regardless of whether he has emotions of his own. 

That he is also a machine specifically designed to collect and convert our waste and detritus into ordered cubes is irrelevant – he is our hero.

His discoveries, successes and failures are all shared with the audience as a means to humanise and understand a machine that can barely speak or show emotions.  His feelings and fears and ambitions are understood though his actions and reactions to the world around him and not through the traditional approaches of dialogue. 

We are asked to piece together the world through his eyes and via an attachment to the 1969 Technicolor musical ‘Hello Dolly’ starring Barbera Streisand and Michael Crawford.  The tape of the movie is the thing he returns constantly to for solace throughout the movie. It was presumably junk that was abandoned with the rest of earth’s trash a long time ago – lying unloved and unappreciated until a machine determines it holds some sort of value. 

The film doesn’t delve into whether a machine can love or feel like a human can. But Hello Dolly clearly means something in giving purpose and comfort amongst the seemingly endless day to day cycle of this machine’s existence in a way that a sentient being will understand on some fundamental level.

The audience also does not find out about the fate of the human race that has seemingly wrecked and abandoned his world until Wall-E does.

Through extraneous information and news clips littered across his dusty post-apocalyptic world – we as viewers can determine that there has been a cataclysm that has left the world’s city-sized superstores derelict and empty – but the movie that is unfolding is the tale of a plucky robot. At least initially, this is not the story of humanity.

Much like the interactive storytelling of a game such as Horizon Zero Dawn, WALL-E’s world is faintly recognisable to our own – although the viewer is as much a stranger to this land as the main character is. We must learn what has happened with him, as well as the rules of this new land.

Mission and purpose

Like any good videogame character, the robot has a mission. In WALL-E’s case, it is to try and compress the wasteland into ordered blocks that can be stacked neatly to try and comfort a species that will seemingly never return to this world.

In between, WALL-E takes solace in collecting trinkets and collectibles to brighten up his existence and make each new day of his existence or playthrough a little more colourful and bearable.

His greater need for repurpose is fulfilled through finding meaning in abandoned and largely unloved treasures. This can be a jewellery case or musical that teaches him the mechanics of companionship, solidarity and perhaps even love for another species or a machine.

Likewise, the character’s slapstick experimentation with discarded junk such as an old fire extinguisher leads him to discover its potential use as a means of propulsion. It later becomes one of several vital tools needed in an emerging quest to help humanity reshape its destiny and future.  WALL-E, like the humans watching him, just doesn’t realise this at the time.  These are the sort of mechanics that anyone who has played through games such as Stardew Valley, Spiritfarer or Graveyard Keeper will understand.

Emergent gaming

It’s a form of storytelling that touches upon the appeal of ‘emergent gaming’. This is a school of game design built on the idea that character development or actions come directly as a result of the player’s, actions as opposed to pre-designed events or actions.

Emergent gaming is less about scripted storytelling and more facilitating a game world that players can play around in and find meaning within.

A perfect example of good game design, certainly form a narrative standpoint is to build digital worlds that can educate a player on how to navigate and progress in them without ever seemingly telling a protagonist they are being taught.  It is the concept of immersion through world building popularised by legendary designers such as Shigeru Miyamoto – notably via the first level of Super Mario Brothers.

Mr Miyamoto explained to Eurogamer back in 2015 how the first level of the legendary 1980s platformer was devised to explain many of the game’s core mechanics without any on-screen text or instruction, but rather through gameplay.  In the end, Mario’s discovery of his powers and limitations are also the player’s own discoveries. 

As a movie, Wall-E explains much of its own story and world in the same way.

This approach extends to many of the film’s main characters, whether they are artificial or organic. They are all in a way learning the world’s mechanics as the audience makes its own conclusions about what is happening. 

In one of the film’s arguably more mesmerising scenes. A human protagonist that has never known the earth and its culture, in a pique of curiosity and wonder, seems to Wikipedia the central tenants of a world that is his – yet he has never known. What starts as an interest in the nature of the earth below us, leads to the pleasure of uncovering the concept of dancing that has been forgotten by a species that has evolved to no longer even need their feet.  

His discovery of dance comes at the exact moment two robots joyously hurl themselves through the eternal void of space in movement synchronised to music.  

Whether these characters are falling in love, malfunctioning or expressing some hitherto freedom of movement or joy at having escaped seemingly inevitable annihilation, the whole scene has a mostly unspoken magic.  The audience is free to bring their own meaning to the scene – emergent storytelling as it were. 

Imagine what an emerging generation of technically and narratively sophisticated games might do with the same storytelling approach.

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