Saturday, December 17, 2011

Take a Gamer's Holiday: Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One

Author/filmmaker Ernest Cline

Whether you recall the 1980s with a laugh, a cringe, or a roll of the eyes, it’s hard to help smiling at the joyful nostalgia that permeates Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One. Written by the director of the 2008 film Fanboys, the novel speaks to that demographic in its native tongue, presenting a vision that will appeal to those with a taste for cyberpunk, oddball grail quests, flying DeLoreans, or old school gamer lore.

The premise seems simple: in the near future, a billionaire game developer leaves his entire fortune to whomever can solve a series of puzzles within his massively multiplayer virtual reality game, known appropriately as the OASIS. Since the challenge is open to all, everyone from basement dwellers to multimedia conglomerates clamor for a chance to control this digital universe, which has become the preferred platform for socializing, schooling, and marketing for much of the first world.

Enter Wade Watts, named in the alliterative tradition of such nerdy heroes as Clark Kent and Peter Parker. A teenager gamer living atop a stack of RVs, his family life and aspirations were decimated by the socio-economic collapse of the United States. To escape, he dreams of finding success and glory in the OASIS. Seeing the contest as his opportunity, he begins his hunt through the series of clues left by the game developer who, it turns out, obsessed over 1980s popular culture. In this way Ready Player One takes a paradoxical approach to speculative fiction: in a bleak future, advanced technology seems unable to stop humanity’s steady decay, yet provides refuge in the form of retro gaming and classic movies.

While the plot contains enough twists to keep the reader engaged, it sticks to the classic quest arc pretty consistently: our heroes solve riddles, complete challenges, and gather magical objects before a final confrontation worthy of any video game boss battle. Cline’s real originality appears in his depiction of the future, and the possibilities he presents (or avoids) through it. Part of the success of Ready Player One emerges in its startling grasp of the ‘almost now’. With its alternative timeline deviating around the 1970s, the technology and the stark social landscape of Wade’s world feel alternatively like an almost-waking dream and a barely-dodged bullet.

Even in our world it’s been a while since the 80s, so Cline needs to strike a balance with his audience between those who remember them fondly, and those in need of a refresher in pop culture history. While some readers may find themselves occasionally adrift in nerdy cyberjargon, Cline’s narrator keeps his world accessible, explaining his ‘history research’ in instances where the old mingles with the new. At times this drags the pacing a bit, but I was too often geeking out over a reference to a much-beloved film or band to really notice.

Despite my love of many science-fiction film tropes, it often strains credulity to hear the youths of some far-flung future talking more or less as we do today. Yet in a world where what’s old is cool again, Cline conjures enough new gamer jargon that his world feels comfortably plausible. Wade’s narrative voice flows with the believable simplicity of a technologically literate teen, with language that tends less toward the literary, and more toward the lexicon of the enthusiastically dorky.

The characters in Ready Player One can take on any shape and size in the OASIS, and then build, explore, meet friends, and stage fantastic battles and contests. Children without access to normal schools even take classes in this virtual world; they attend class from home via a laptop, a visor, and a pair of ‘haptic gloves', which provide the illusion of tactile feedback. Although this remains (just barely) in the realm of science fiction, the setting of a massively multiplayer online game seems extremely timely. Virtual realities have given science-fiction stories homes for decades: from Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash to William Gibson's Neuromancer, from The Matrix to WarGames (the latter appropriately referenced numerous times in Ready Player One). Cline distinguishes the OASIS from these through his depiction of the gamer mentality, creating the appearance of an authentic culture around his virtual world. Anyone who has ever visited an immersive online world or seen someone disappear into one will recognize that the engrossing nature of these games comes not only from the technology itself, but from passionate commitment of all the players to this other reality. In these worlds, players engage in ‘identity play’, and can appear as any size, shape, gender, race, even species and other players will accept this ‘new you’. While the more realistic graphics in Wade’s world make this suspension of disbelief easier, the millions of subscribers to real life games such as World of Warcraft, Second Life and Minecraft show a true thirst for this kind of escapism.

Even in our time, a future where billions don headsets and step into another life seems not only likely, but inevitable. Ready Player One suggests a hopeful, balanced alternative, where technology facilitates real life rather than ruling it, and lessons from the past can be brought often tongue in cheek back to the future.

Catharine Charlesworth is an avid lover of books, the web, and other inventive outlets for the written word. She has studied communication at the University of Toronto while working as a bookseller, and is currently interning in online advertising in downtown Toronto.


  1. Nice to read your thoughts on this! My book group has this as an upcoming selection, so I'll be reading it soon (and I'm looking forward to both reading it, and hearing what other people have to say about it).

  2. If you grew up in the 80s, you love video games, you like suspense novels, you have a penchant for obscure trivia or if you enjoy a great romance novel - this is the book for you. ENJOY!