Somewhere between the description of a stacked trailer park looking like a scene from the arcade classic Burger Time and a sincerely written ode to the sanctity and purity of twin-stick actioner Robotron, it struck me that I’ve never read another novel so perfectly suited to someone of my age and interests as Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One (Crown Publishing Group).
Cline, whose geek cred was assured when he wrote 2009’s Fanboys, a film about a cadre of Star Wars super-fans questing for a sneak peek of Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace, has packed his first book to near bursting with 1980s pop culture references. Movies like Ladyhawke and WarGames feature significantly in the narrative, as does classic music, television, and comic books.
But the novel’s soul is retro video games.
Set a few decades hence, the world is a dangerous, overpopulated, energy-deprived hell. The primary escape for most of the population is the OASIS, a virtual reality that’s all but indistinguishable from the real world. An amalgam of Facebook, World of Warcraft, and Second Life, many people now spend most of their lives in this digital galaxy composed of tens of thousands of intricately detailed planets. It was originally created to be a kind of online role-playing game, complete with armour, magic, and character levels, but it became much more. It’s where adults find jobs (it has the world’s largest, most stable economy), where kids go to learn (imagine attending a high school where you can mute bullies and rid yourself of acne at the touch of a button), and where people meet up and hang out with each other in lifelike chat rooms.
However, the future of the OASIS is put in jeopardy when its creator—a hermit named James Halliday—dies, leaving his fortune worth hundreds of billions and a controlling stake in the simulation to the first person to beat his final game, a maddeningly inscrutable set of riddles leading to hidden challenges scattered throughout the OASIS, all of which seem to be based on Halliday’s childhood pop culture obsessions. This creates a global resurgence of interest in classic movies, games, and shows. Millions of people—including our Burger Time-trailer-park-dwelling protagonist, a teenager named Wade Watts—suddenly become experts on everything from The Last Starfighter to Galaga, all in hopes of stumbling across clues that will help them solve Halliday’s conundrums.
Cline, himself a child of the 80s, has come up with a way to tacitly validate all of the knowledge that his readers’ brains sopped up when they were kids in front of the the television watching Beastmaster and playing Space Panic by putting forth the wonderfully appealing notion that this information could one day be put to use to make them rich. What a lovely thought. He then goes on to provide a plausible scenario in which our kids and our kids’ kids become fascinated with these same games and movies. Who doesn’t want to believe that the stories and games so central to our youth are somehow special and important, that instead of simply fading away they’ll continue to be so for generations to come?
Just as important as his expert manipulation of nostalgia, Cline weaves a compelling yarn that makes the reader feel as though he or she is in the OASIS along with Watts, playing the most important video game within a video game within a video game (the book is nothing if not meta) ever to have been made. When our young hero enters a secret recreation of a classic pen-and-paper Dungeons & Dragons module inside the OASIS only to meet a powerful lich who, instead of instantly trouncing him, challenges him to a game of the coin-op classic Joust, it’s not just a big fat slice of juicy nerdvana but also an unquestionably suspenseful moment on par with Indiana Jones working his way through the traps and masters of an ancient tomb.
Cline’s writing may not win a Booker prize—there are a few too many predictable similes and metaphors (at one point our lovelorn hero laments that girls “were like some exotic alien species, both beautiful and terrifying”)—but his passion for the material upon which he’s based his tale is pure and undeniable. Plus, he has a gamesmith’s gift for crafting compelling quests, and making the journey just as entertaining as the resolution. We're basically reading about someone else's wondrous, dangerous experience of the best game ever made.
I realize most of this blog’s readers are likely hip deep in Eidos’ excellent Deus Ex: Human Revolution right about now, and that the coming weeks and months are packed with dozens of highly playable games, but Ready Player One is well worth a little time in your leisure calendar. If nothing else, listen to the audio book (it’s narrated nearly to perfection by perhaps the perfect man for such a proudly geeky piece of prose: Will Wheaton). And who knows: With a little luck and some good word of mouth, Cline's novel may well become a significant part of the pop culture to which it so lovingly pays homage.