I often note that I realized I was a writer after I finished Stephen King’s Needful Things, and while that’s not untrue, it neglects all the other elements and stories and media that played a role and influenced me as a storyteller. Stuff like Where the Wild Things Are and The Hardy Boys. Don’t forget Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back and Quantum Leap, and that’s not even mentioning Infocom games.
And that’s what Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One is all about, and it’s brilliant.
I finished the book ages ago but haven’t been able to write about it yet, mostly because I realized my review of the book was about more than the book itself. My review of the book is filtered by a lens of childhood nostalgia and identification with the elements of not just the story but characters’ emotional responses to those elements.
To wit: the book, plot-wise, is about . . . I must sheepishly admit I’ve forgotten the lead character’s name. Then again, I’m not sure it matters. That’s part of the point here: I identified that strongly with the character.
But back to plot: there’s a videogame–actually, sorry, a simulation–people play on the Internet, called OASIS, but it’s become more than just a videogame or the Internet. If you imagine Facebook crossed with The Sims crossed with World of War Craft, it’s sort of like that. It’s technically what we right now call a Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game (MMORPG, or MMO for short), but in the context of Ready Player One it’s the next evolution thereof. People spend all their time logged in to OASIS (which stands for something I can’t recall), and it’s got commerce and politics and even school built into the system.
So that’s the setting. And the novel opens depicting the death of the co-creator of the game. Turns out, the developer hid, within the context of the game, Easter Eggs, which are unlisted bonuses in games.
And whoever finds the three Easter eggs, based solely on an esoteric riddle, wins the game.
And in the context of the novel, “wins the game” is literal. Whoever finds the Easter eggs basically wins Facebook. And everything Facebook is worth. Not just the money, but the platform. Ownership.
So our narrator. Who’s pretty much a kid, in high school. Except, playing OASIS, that kind of thing doesn’t matter. He might be a high school senior by day, but in the game (and school occurs within the game) and when school’s not in session, he’s an elite player. He knows a lot, and has close friends, but is mostly devoted to the game.
And he’s on a quest to find the keys.
And that’s about it. It’s about people finding keys in a videogame, basically.
But it’s really not. Of course it’s not.
To find the keys, the narrator has to explore all the things that the developer grew up loving. Old computer systems and games. Obscure Japanese cartoons. Old comic books and movies.
And most of those pieces of pop culture ephemera are media I grew up on, and that’s why this novel jacked directly into my geekstem and mainlined directly to my pleasure centers a ridiculous dose of awesome.
I can’t say everyone will have the same experience of this novel. But I think you’ll like this novel a lot if you:
Know what Infocom is.
Have ever seen “READY PLAYER ONE” blink on an arcade screen.
Paid for strawberry shoestring at the local arcade.
Have a crush.
Had a crush.
Know what anime is.
Know how to prevent “geo thermal nuclear war” and understand the connection I’m alluding to when I hint: “Play chess.”
Know what a TRS something something is. Though it might not matter, because I didn’t.
Structurally, the story hangs together well, escalates with tension, and resolves satisfactorily.
In other words, this novel fires on every cylinder imaginable. It’s awesome.
In the years since I was a child, videogames have evolved. What I used to affectionately call “Typing games” have become instead “interactive fiction,” and are largely niche. Nowadays games’ success is most often measured in how many polygons the system can push and how successfully it executes a multi-player option, and people play their games online, with friends.
Right now, as I write this, I’m itching to pick up a copy of Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception, because Gamestop wasn’t able to access their pre-order system. My girl has Skyrim on pre-order. It was okay Gamestop couldn’t sell it to me; not only have I still not yet finished the first, but I’ve also been knee-deep in Batman: Arkham City, anyway.
My copy of Uncharted 3 comes with a replica of the videogame characters belt buckle and ring. That’s how cool the game, and the character are.
I can think of no higher compliment than to say I’d have bought this book’s belt buckle, and worn it with full-on geek pride.
Which is why, on a scale of discounted bargain bin to waiting-in-midnight-release line, I’m giving the book a Game of the Year Edition that comes with a statue of a mech, a haptic glove, and a visor.