To the less informed in our society, a love letter is a sappy message filled with cliched rhetoric shared between two supposedly star-crossed lovers. But love letters can mean something entirely different– pieces of media filled with references to some other form of popular, or niche, entertainment and is thus almost completely devoted to that fan base. Plenty of games are, in fact, love letters; No More Heroes is rooted deeply in anime and anime fandom, House of the Dead: Overkill could seamlessly be transformed into a classic, 70s grind-house film, and Brutal Legend loses almost all of its context when viewed outside the perspective of a metal head.
Tragically, there aren’t too many love letters to those entrenched in the wonderful world of gaming, but of the limited options, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is about as good as it gets. As fans will gladly point out, the movie is based off a series of graphic novels by Bryan Lee O’Malley, and yes, the books are better than the movie (something the movie actually jokes about), but that doesn’t stop it from being my favorite movie ever. That isn’t some simple claim either; I came to this realization after having seen the movie a dozen times, listened to all the audio commentary, and then came to to conclusion that I could never grow tired of it.
To those unfamiliar with the books and film, here is a quick and all too abrupt breakdown. Scott Pilgrim is a 22 year old loser who falls for the coolest hipster chick in Toronto but the only way to be with her is to defeat her seven evil exes in duels to the death. But what makes it so great for gamers? Well, for one thing, Scott is dangerously close to being me: he is in his twenties, plays bass, is pretty much a slacker, desperately needs a hair cut, and makes frequent references to the games and other media he consumed growing up in the 90s. Considering the fact that this sort of person is effectively the target audience for the film, and a very narrow one at that, it is easy to see why the film tanked at the box office. Monetary success is irrelevant though, because if you are a self respecting gamer you need to see this film!
This is Scott and his 1970s Rickenbcaker 4001… did I mention I’m a bass geek, too?
Let’s begin with some of the simpler things that make Scott Pilgrim such a gift to gamers– the frequent gaming references. The film begins with the Universal logo, only this time it is portrayed in pixel art and the theme has been digitized like the classic tunes that came out of your SNES and then it jumps straight into the first of many classic Zelda songs and sound effects, which includes a great rendition of the fairy fountain theme. And then there is Young Neil, an ancillary character frequently seen toting a DS and when asked what he plays, as in musical instrument, says “Wow… Zelda, Tetris… that’s kind of a big question.” Scott happens to be in a band called Sex Bob-Omb, sports a t-shirt with the bass logo from Rock Band at one point, and knows the bass line to the battle them from Final Fantasy IV. Scott’s ex-girlfriend is in a band call The Clash at Demonhead, which also happens to be the title of a rather obscure NES game. And for the Earthbound fans out there, the final confrontation takes place at the Chaos Theater, a name that should sound familiar.
Apart from the random, and awesome, one off references spread throughout the film, there are also general themes and ideas constantly popping up that will resonate with gamers. The entire structure of the movie is quite game-like; each of the evil exes would make for great boss fights and the varied nature of each fight would allow for some awesome variety, ranging from straight up one on one battles to rhythm game-like duels. What makes the fights all the better is the fact that enemies burst into coins when defeated. And of course there is the pixelation, every thing from random pixel art to health meters pop up at just the right moments to further entrench the idea that the whole thing would make an awesome game– which it did, but it is only on 360 and PS3, so I won’t talk about it too much here aside from saying that it is awesome and well worth playing for fans of old school beat-em-ups.
Nope, no video game references here.
Scott Pilgrim isn’t all about gaming though, and that is yet another factor contributing to its greatness. Plenty of gamers are also into comics, anime, and music, all of which are very well represented here. All things considered, the film is as much a love letter to a way of life rather than just gaming. The over-the-top battles, hilariously overly dramatic dialogue, and the fact that being vegan apparently makes people go Super Sayian will make anime and manga lovers ecstatic. As for the music, fans of 90s indie rock bands will probably love the movie more than just about anybody else as there are perhaps even more musical references than anything else. Personally, I had to look up most of these references (ever heard of Plumtree? Me neither), but that never negatively impacted my love for the film.
All of these random, and totally awesome references can’t totally make a movie by themselves. Sure, it is plenty cool with these elements alone, but backing them up is a legitimately amazing film. First I have to give a nod to the amazing cast which includes both well established names, like Michael Cera in the title role and Jason Schwartzman as the final baddie, and a host of folks who are pretty much unknown who all turn in incredibly hilarious perfromances. But at the core of it all is writer/director Edgar Wright, a British director whom you might know for his work on Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. If you have seen those two films then you know how good this guy is at mixing great action sequences with the sharpest, funniest writing in recent memory. Topping it all off is his knack for perfectly paced edits that never waste a moment. All things considered, Edgar Wright has a near perfect track record and I would dare say that he is one of the funniest, and all around best filmmakers active in the industry today. Scott Pilgrim is just another example of his brilliance.
In some strange way, the whole Scott Pilgrim franchise, both the comics and the movie, are affirming of not just gaming but this whole weird culture that gaming is part of. As new forms of art and genres emerge they are bound to eventually cross paths with other artistic endeavors as each form ultimately influences all that came before it and will play a role in shaping new ideas as well. Gaming was once an activity primarily meant for children, but those kids have grown up and are now in a position to exhibit the influence the games have had on them. Scott Pilgrim is the vanguard, a sign of popular media to come. People like you and me are taking over the steering wheel of popular culture and our status as gamer is inescapable and the place it holds in our minds will be evident in everything we create. So, if you want a glimpse of the future or are just in the mood for something to tickle all those video game loving bones in your body, you simply must watch Scott Pilgrim vs. The World.
But remember, the comics are still better.