(Warning: This post contains light spoilers for the novel Ready Player One.)
There’s something cozy about staying indoors on a cold winter day, curled up in bed with a good book.
At least, that’s how I’ve always imagined it. The weather may be getting colder and I’ve found myself shut indoors like usual, but I’ve been way too attached to the internet and the couple of games on my phone to properly replicate that image in my head.
I did have plans to read over the holidays and well into the new year, so I found myself a happy solution: while I grinded my tedious games with the sound muted, I’d have an audiobook playing. All I needed now was a good book.
I know it’s not always a good idea to choose a book (or really any sort of media) based on its popularity. Hype can easily generate high expectations, and that in turn could hurt someone’s perception of a book if it doesn’t reach those expectations. Nevertheless, that did not stop me from starting off my audiobook binge session with Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline.
After I finished reading, I had a lot of things to say about it. Here are my thoughts on the book.
The Good Old 1980s
One of the first things anyone would’ve heard about this book is that there’s a lot of ’80s pop culture references. Well, it does. It’s completely filled with them.
In-universe, it makes sense. The setting and plot revolve around the OASIS, a vast multiplayer virtual reality world that has become an integral part of humanity’s lives. The creator of the OASIS is James Halliday, a known ’80s fanatic. When he passed away, there was an announcement that his entire fortune is up for grabs through a competition in the OASIS. Players had to hunt for three keys to lead them to a hidden Easter egg. This required knowledge of ’80s pop culture (or at least whatever Halliday liked). ’80s media and trends regained popularity as a result.
I wonder if I would’ve enjoyed the novel more had I understood most of those references. Among the countless number of references made, I only knew the more universally known media like Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Pac-Man. (And the one time it mentioned the mecha anime series Mazinger Z in brief passing.)
If it’s a reference that was important to any of the tests the characters had to complete for the contest (the Hunt), then the book would go into heavy detail about it — the year of creation, any notable people who had a hand in the production, even full out gameplay instructions.
Otherwise, you’d probably see just a namedrop (or rather a long list of namedropped titles) and some bits of trivia. Oh, and if it’s a Halliday favorite, expect the main character to brag about how much he studied and played/watched it to the point of perfection.
It’s one thing when so many of these references just fly over your head, but there are times when they are used to describe the setting, characters, and objects. It just makes it hard to picture what’s going on when I’m not familiar with the original source.
Could I have just searched up every reference so that I’m filled in on the details? Sure, but that would’ve taken way too long. If anything, it would only annoy me. Besides, I’m not going to be searching for an egg anytime soon.
A World That Refused to Admit It’s Dystopia
I’m going to have to be completely honest here — the OASIS initially came off as a really cool concept to me. A fully immersive VR game where you could explore thousands of worlds, some even paying homage to popular franchises. You could essentially live a second life with access to education and information on anything (and not worry about anything be taken down by copyright strikes because Halliday had more than enough money to hire a team of the best lawyers in the world…. if that makes any sense).
No need for surfing on regular internet browsers or downloading individual desktop games — you’d have them all compiled on the OASIS!
Despite this, this VR game is far from a complete utopia, like how it usually is with Dystopian sci-fi stories. A monopolizing organization, the Innovative Online Industries (IOI), is seeking the egg and will do anything to get their hands on it, including eliminating regular egg hunting players (“gunters,” short for “egg hunters”) who pose as threats. And by eliminating, I mean locating where they live in the real world and killing them.
But even before IOI and its team of employed players (“Sixers”) were introduced into the story, the OASIS already came off as problematic. This was through the main character’s own narration in Chapter 1. Disillusioned with the real world, Wade turns to the OASIS as a form of escapism, thus becoming extremely addicted to the game and everything about it and its creator. He goes through three straight pages proudly listing off his extensive research on Halliday and ’80s pop culture. At one point, he straight up says, “I was obsessed. I wouldn’t quit. My grades suffered. I didn’t care.”
That’s a complete understatement there, Wade.
Despite how destructive the OASIS is — even without the antagonists doing anything — the book completely refuses to think of it as anything other than a utopia. If anything is wrong in the OASIS, it’s solely due to IOI’s existence.
Sure, you can argue that it’s because the story is told through Wade, an addicted player who practically worships Halliday and the OASIS. This could just be a case of an unreliable narrator.
While we do have an unreliable narrator in the sense that he is very biased and boastful, this still doesn’t change the utopian portrayal the OASIS has. The negative effects it has on Wade are perceived positively by other people (read: general society) in-universe. With the Hunt being an international spectacle with an incredibly inviting prize, Wade is awarded and praised for his obsessive research. His complete apathy towards the real world and its “declining state” is never dealt with… because why should he? He’s getting funded by sponsors, making new friends, and smugly showing off his extensive ’80s knowledge. Even though his habits in any other scenario should be concerning, it’s seen as praiseworthy in his world.
Since I’ve been talking a lot about Wade, I might as well carry onto my third train of thought.
Your Hero is an 3pic g4m3r
One of the most common complaints I’ve seen is that the main character, Wade Watts aka “Parzival” (his username in the OASIS), is unlikeable.
If it hasn’t been clear already, I agree. However, as unlikeable most of his characteristics are, most of them are justified in-universe.
As I’ve touched on plenty of times in previous sections, he acts like a know-it-all when it comes to anything regarding his research. And since most of the book — and his life — is centered around the OASIS, a game that celebrates the ’80s, he’s always showing off.
In Chapter 3, Wade one-ups a poser in a bout of trivia just to make the other gunter feel ashamed and stupid for not knowing nearly as much as he does. In Chapter 5, he mentions always trying to correct his Advanced OASIS Studies teacher on anything and everything regarding Halliday:
I spent most of my time in Advanced OASIS Studies class annoying our teacher, Mr. Ciders, by pointing out errors in our textbook and raising my hand to interject some relevant bit of Halliday trivia that I (and I alone) thought was interesting. After the first few weeks of class, Mr. Ciders had stopped calling on me unless no one else knew the answer to his question.
I’ve known people in real life who acted exactly like Wade — the smart aleck who, at every chance they could get, insist on proving that they knew more than their peers. They were indeed smart, but they annoyed many people with their persistent “um, actually, you’re wrong” interjections. One major reason they retained that attitude was that they couldn’t read the room. They simply didn’t notice or realize how fed up others were. The other reason was that they didn’t care what others think. They had similarly-behaved friends and could regularly hang out with them, so why should they care about people outside of their friend circle?
Wade falls under the latter category. He makes friends with other gunters who are as well-versed in Halliday and his interests. And as a gunter himself, having that sort of attitude makes him a formidable and admirable competitor in the Hunt.
Does that make Wade a realistic character? Sure. Does that make him likeable? I personally wouldn’t say so, but maybe someone who’s cut from the same cloth would beg to differ.
Another notable trait Wade has is his immaturity. I have no idea if this is supposed to be reinforcing the idea of toxic players in popular multiplayer games, but it’s consistent throughout the book. When he responds to a cheap insult from a classmate with essentially a “your mom” comeback, he actually acknowledges to the readers that it’s childish, but he was in high school (at the time) and “the more childish an insult, the more effective it was.”
That’s a pretty weak justification in my opinion, but that’s the only time he acknowledges his immaturity. For the rest of the book, he wallows in toxic immaturity: accepting an invitation to IOI’s virtual headquarters just to act bratty to their leader; calling the “Sixers” by the demeaning (but kind of lame) “Sux0rs” nickname other gunters call them; throwing a tantrum when his crush “Art3mis” (pronounced “Artemis”) wanted to break off communication so they could both focus on the Hunt, then proceeding to mope and stalk — I mean, keep a tab on her activities after they separated.
(Yes, I’m very much not on board with the romance in this novel. This probably was what really soured Wade’s character for me, even more than his snobby attitude.)
So, how did I think of the book overall? Did it fulfill the “good book” criteria for my dream scenario that I had in my intro?
Well…. it’s okay.
I wasn’t able to completely click with the novel, but I feel like I’m just not its target audience. Maybe if I was more into ’80s movies and games, then I would’ve found more enjoyment from reading. I suspect that the flaws in the book would be easily pardoned by those who consider themselves geeks.
(Also, is it just me, or is the “gamer slang” in the book kind of outdated? I don’t think people unironically use “epic” nowadays. If Ernest Cline is going to write another book like this, I think it would be hilarious if he incorporated Twitch slang. I know it’ll age really badly in a few years, but at least I would get a good laugh out of a character saying “poggers” out of the blue.)
As I was listening to the entire audiobook, I wondered how ironic it was for me to listen while playing a game myself. I didn’t like the main character, who was addicted to the OASIS and the Hunt; yet, here I was — grinding one game to complete an event.
(I suppose the comparison is pretty shallow. I’m not being targeted by a shady organization, for one.)
Well, I finished the book, grew tired of grinding the same game for 16 hours, and now that this post is fully written out, I think I’ll shut off my laptop and take a nice, long walk outside.