Review: Read-em: Ready Player One

“Being human totally sucks most of the time.
Videogames are the only thing that make life bearable.”
– Anorak’s Almanac, Chapter 91, Verses 1 – 2

Ernest Cline sums up his own book best, as authors tend to do:

Ready Player One is a thriller-slash-coming-of-age story that takes place partly in a virtual world, with a plot that involves ’80s pop culture nostalgia, giant robot battles, and an enormous amount of geeking out. Sort of a cross between Snow Crash and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, with a little bit of Kurt Vonnegut and Douglas Adams thrown in.”

The unexpected parts involve non-virtual-world explosions, death, intrigue, weight-loss and the infamous Pac-Man level 256 split-screen ghost-trapping trick.

If you did not experience the 80s first-hand, then Ready Player One might pose a challenge. Second-hand exposure to the Greatest Decade Ever may suffice, if you’ve spent enough (too much) time watching Family Guy, Star Wars, War Games and Robot Chicken. The point being, that Ready Player One attempts a rather cute narrative trick. Instead of saying, for example, “space ship” and then making a detailed description of the size, shape, color and warp-speed , it says “Millennium Falcon” and leaves it at that. Because it’s talking about the Millennium Falcon. If you don’t know what a M. Falcon looks like, the sentence will carry no weight.

The book attempts to invoke very specific images, sensations and emotions by using the literal versions of things. If you’ve never played or seen Dungeons of Daggorath, then the part in the book where the lead character has to play it, won’t have quite the same impact. Thankfully, YouTube can provide some assistance, but not everyone is going to feel comfortable doing research while reading a book. The reason for all the 80s references and nostalgia isn’t just geekery on behalf of the author (okay, so it is, but for a good cause).

The Alliterative Anti-Hero

The main premise behind Ready Player One is that of one Wade Watts, a 17-year-old kid growing up in a world gone to shit thanks to abject poverty, a Global Energy Crisis and our insufferable tendency to go to war with each other. Wade has little hope left for his future, having lost his parents, forced to live with a caustic whoring aunt in the “stacks” – a favela-esq slum of stacked RV campers. Channeling some Ender’s Game, Wade is wise beyond his years (but not immune to being immature). The only good thing in his life is the OASIS, a detailed virtual-reality developed by GSS – Gregarious Systems Simulations. Using goggles and haptic gloves, users interact with the OASIS to shop, play games, talk to each other and even go to school.

But even  in OASIS things cost money, which Wade does not have. So while he’s limited to the virtual planet containing multiple copies of the virtual public schooling system which he attends, his classmates and friends fly off to other planets themed around games (like Planet World of Warcraft, shows, anything one can imagine. Wade’s expression of his situation resonates with poor kids who grew up near arcades: “I felt like a kid standing in the world’s greatest video arcade without any quarters, unable to do anything but walk around and watch the other kids play.”

Three hidden keys open three secret gates
Wherein the errant will be tested for Worthy traits
And those with the skill to survive these traits
Will reach The End where the prize awaits.

OASIS was created by James Halliday (OASIS gamertag: Anorak), an eccentric old-school programmer and game designer who grew up in the 80s. Reclusive and shy, Halliday avoided the media most of his life until the day he died without a heir to his vast fortune. His death triggers the release of a video, which is  watched around the world. In it he kicks off the greatest Easter Egg Hunt ever known. The prize: his entire fortune, and control of GSS (and thus, OASIS). All someone has to do is find three keys and unlock three gates to find the Egg. Hunters for the Egg become known as Gunters (egg-hunters). Wade dedicates himself to becoming a gunter and finding the keys that will unlock his future. Along the way, there’s an evil corporation using every underhanded well-funded means possible to find the keys first, so they can monetize OASIS in ways that would make kids like Wade unable to afford entry.

Truly, Truly, Truly Outrageous

Wade’s quest takes him through all the best the 80s ever had to offer, since Halliday wanted people to appreciate his Favorite Decade like he did. So all the clues, all the puzzles and all the challenges are encoded in, hidden by or take place inside various 80s references to movies, music (like Rush’s 1976 concept album “2112”) and classic games. There is a scene where Wade has to face off against a Lich King inside a popular Dungeons and Dragons module’s Crypt of Doom, by playing him at an authentic Joust arcade machine. While it may seem obnoxiously blatant at times, there is a lot of subtly to how Cline handles his 80s memorabilia. Such as Wade realizing that the reason he’s losing to the Lich King, is because he’s playing on the wrong side of the arcade machine. Anyone who’s spent time in arcades on VS. games like Joust or Street Fighter II, can appreciate the nod in their direction and the concept of having a “preferred side”.

[pullquote]”I was reminiscing about old video game contests, that the Swordquest competition that Atari ran when I was a kid, where you could win a gold crown and scepter by solving these video games puzzles. Then I started thinking about video game easter eggs, and that leg to the idea of a Wonka-esque video game designer who turns his Last Will and Testament into the greatest video game contest of all time. Everything grew out of that idea.” – Ernest Cline[/pullquote]

The entire Easter Egg Hunt in Ready Player One was actually inspired by a real competition Atari held in the 1980s for their Swordquest game series. Each of the games came with a comic book that explained the plot, and held part of the puzzle that had to be solved to win the prize. Swordquest is one of the earliest attempts to put actual narrative and puzzle elements alongside ‘twitch’ arcade action, making them the first ‘action-adventure’ games. The real-world prizes included a Talisman made of 18K solid gold, with 12 diamonds and the birthstones of the twelve Zodiac signs embedded in it, and a “Chalice of Light” made of gold and platinum adorned with citrines, diamonds, green jade, pearls, rubies, and sapphires. Both were valued at $25,000. Sadly, only the first two games out of a planned four were made, due to Atari’s financial troubles of the time.

With Respects To Warren Robinett

The heart of Ready Player One is shared by seminal movies like The Last Starfighter, War Games, and the Photon novels by Peter David. While the book follows the monomyth template with only slight variation (much like the works that inspired it) the flavour is as always, in the telling. Cline writes a comfortable, easy-to-read script that would function as the perfect foundation for a theatrical adaptation. His prose, while lacking the canter of an experienced writer, is nonetheless easily absorbed and enjoyed. Provided you’re not the type to get annoyed with stumbling over references you don’t personally know or understand. While the book may start light and fluffy with only slight darkness at the edges due to the poverty Wade exists in, there is a specific point where all pretense is dropped and the true seriousness of the situation becomes highlighted. And appropriately, it’s punctuated by an explosion.