Book Review: Ready Player One (Ernest Cline, 2011)

Swordquest was a famous series of video games in the 1980’s, promoted by an unusual gimmick: Atari hid numerous clues, “Easter eggs”, in the games, and the first player to uncover them all and reply to Atari would receive a prize of significant monetary value ($25,000-$50,000 depending on the game). Ernest Cline’s novel Ready Player One takes this concept and ups the stakes; the premise is that in the year 2044, eccentric billionaire James Halliday offers to will complete control of his fortune, company, and OASIS (a VR network that’s supplanted the internet as humanity’s source of education, finance, and recreation) to whoever finds and completes a series of tasks hidden in the MMO. The thing is, Halliday is obsessed with 1980’s pop culture, so the tasks could be anything from reenacting a famous D&D campaign to reciting a John Hughes movie to getting a Donkey Kong kill screen, so a worldwide revival of retro-geek tradition kicks off as millions of Easter egg hunters (shortened to “gunters”) uncover every nook and cranny of the massive online simulation.

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The OASIS is set up so that there are thousands of different planets, with different rules, so some can use magic, some have advanced tech that doesn’t work on others, some have strict no-player-vs-player regulations. Many of the worlds are based on pre-existing properties, so characters could get on a ship and hop from a Buffy planet to a Star Wars planet to a Discworld and so forth. The beauty of this is that Cline has set up a universe where these things can coexist without completely breaking each other, and tokusatsu references get some particular love; he arguably spends more time in the novel talking about Space Giants and Kikaider than about Star Trek, and one side quest involves the main character looking for an artifact called the Beta Capsule (allows player to transform into Ultraman for three minutes a day)!  While the shout-outs come fast and frequently, Cline does a good job of explaining just enough to keep an uninitiated reader out of the dark, making the novel depthlessly trivia-laden while still generally accessible (or, at least comprehensible).

The book’s hero, teenage Wade, is a poor social outcast living in the story’s dystopian ghetto of the future, so he completely immerses himself in OASIS and 80’s  media, and eventually winds up unlocking the first of three keys hidden by Halliday. Wade’s avatar becomes an instant celebrity, makes some cash, and even finds romance, but an evil corporation now has both the avatar and Wade himself in their sights, ’cause they’ll stop at nothing to gain control of yada yada yada… It’s around 400 pages, but a breezy pleasure to read, so I’d highly recommend it.

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Much like the enigmatic Halliday, Cline himself hid a secret code in the hardcover and paperback versions of the novel (sadly not included in the e-book edition, and I’m assuming not in the read-by-Wil Wheaton audiobook), providing a url where players could go to play a minigame and unlock a series of tasks. Don’t get your hopes up: the prize (a DeLorean complete with mock flux capacitor) has already gone to the first gunter to complete the hunt as of August 2012, but the quest remains online to peruse for kicks.

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Movie rights to the novel were sold to Warner Bros a year before publication, which in my mind is the only way that such rights could be sold. As it stands, the book is completely unfilmable, for several reasons:

-Most of the exposition is given by the narrator, who spends a great deal of his scenes not interacting with anyone else.

-Heavy references and allusions, by nature, would lead to a licensing minefield. For example, in the climax, avatars piloting robots from Mazinger, Gundam, Raideen, and even Toei’s Spider-man face off against avatars piloting robots from Robotech, Voltron, Evangelion, and Mechagodzilla (well, Kiryu, but that’s getting into über-nitpicky semantics. Kudos to Cline for knowing the difference). The number of legal battles surrounding the use of images for any one of those properties is astounding, and with the days of Who Framed Roger Rabbit behind us…. well, let’s just say that we’ll sooner see all of the Super Robot Wars games released here than that scene brought to film. Granted, they could just use generic robots as stand-ins for the battle, but the efficacy of the scene would take a huge hit – the fan service shout-out is what it’s all about.

-Simulations of the main characters re-enacting their favorite films as the original actors is still crazy tough. Sure the original footage can be altered to add stuff seamlessly (that tech is nearly 20 years old), but digital recreations of the actors themselves just isn’t there yet.

-As popular as it is to point out that Marvel and Tolkien rule at the box office, nerd culture still isn’t actually that mainstream. This movie would require the budget of The Matrix or Blade Runner (heck, there’s a scene in the novel that takes place in Blade Runner), but would have an audience roughly the same size as The Guild. After getting burned on geek shoe-ins like Green Lantern and Watchmen, I don’t see how Warner could see this as a financially viable decision.

Cline himself has done the initial draft of the script, so there’s hope, but only time will tell if it comes out as something recognizable, gets stuck in development limbo forever, or turns into a mediocre Lawnmower Man 2-style cyber thriller/Big Bang Theory-style nerdsploitation comedy. In a best-case scenario, the movie version has its own hidden Easter-egg puzzle for obsessive audiences to unravel over time. Alternatively, we’ll be waiting on it as long as we have for the final Swordquest game.

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