readyplayerAssuming of course that for some reason high school curriculum shifts dramatically to include the importance of all things related to 80s pop-culture. Ready Player One could easily be at the top of the summer reading list for future students of classes like “80s Geek Culture 101,” “Introduction to Video Games: Arkanoid to Zaxxon,” or  “Understanding Your Parents Nostalgia”. However, nobody who’s a teenager actually cares about the 80s and if they do, it’s in an ironic way that actually has little to no reverence or appreciation for the decade that spawned (or at the very least nursed to life) video games, electronic music, personal computers and the internet. A man with a great deal of reverence and appreciate for that decade, however, is Ernest Cline.

(I know that in last week’s episode of 9ES I said I was going to talk about Roger Corman’s Gas-s-s-s, however it seems like that eventual column is going to take a lot more research and investigation that I thought, so we’ll deal with that later).

If you haven’t heard or heard of Ernest Cline yet, you should probably do that now (I am particularly fond of his spoken word on Airwolf, it’s a good place to start if you’re trying to decide whether or not you’ll enjoy a book like Ready Player One). If you couldn’t tell from his website, Cline is obsessed (or at the very least extremely “into”) the 80s. It should not be a surprise that his first book is largely about his favorite things from that time period. 

What’s it all about?

It’s pretty simple, the year is 2044 and the world is more or less in ruins. Everyone spends all their time in a VR system called OASIS where they can basically play any video game they want (full virtual reality versions of Everquest and World of Warcraft are mentioned), go to virtual reality school, have VR sex, the list is endless. Since the world has gone to shit, it makes sense that most people spend as much time as they can afford in this ultra-realistic fantasy world. The creator and owner of this world, James Halliday dies with nobody to leave his multi-billion dollar fortune to. What does he do? He creates an elaborate Easter Egg hunt in the world of OASIS that is all deeply rooted in his favorite things which are all from the decade where he was a teenager: the 80s. Rush, Dungeons and Dragons, Atari 2600, old school coin-ops like Joust and Pacman, classic TV shows and movies all play prominently in finding Halliday’s Easter Egg. The story follows Wade Watts, a teenage “gunter” (the name of someone who devotes his life to Easter Egg hunting) who is the first person in history to find the first key to the first gate (the hunt itself is made up of finding three keys to open three gates).

Is it any good?

It would be impossible to recommend this to someone who didn’t have at least some love for geek culture, specifically some love of where a lot of geek culture came from. From anime to Monty Python to John Hughes’ films, you need to at least be somewhat into this stuff to get a kick out of a book like Ready Player One. The story is almost purely fan-service. As a reader, a good part of what keeps you reading is that you want to see what the next 80s-centric test for the gunters will be. Will it be an obscure video game or a popular movie? Will you have heard of it or will you need to look it up to see what all the fuss is about? For me, it was the references more than the story that kept me reading. Don’t get me wrong, it was an extremely fun book and I plowed through its 380 pages in a few days, however the actual plot of the book is a pretty straight forward three act narrative.

Full disclosure, I was born in 1983 so I was only 7 years old at the very end of the 80s, but I’ve gone back to a lot of the material that Cline references out of some sort of sense of duty or historical interest in the building blocks of the things that I enjoy so much today (music, roleplaying games, video games, comics, etc). In that way, I felt a bit of a personal link to the characters of Ready Player One because they live in 2044, they aren’t from the 1980s but they still love everything about the period. It doesn’t hurt that when I was in high school I wrote the first chapter of book recasting all of my friends in a 1980s hacker/phone phreaker high school espionage thriller. I should really get around to revisiting that story, it sounds fucking awesome.

All that being said, my original statement stands: if everything I’ve been talking about so far touches you in the emotional geek-spot deep inside of you; you’ll enjoy this book. The writing is solid, the characters are fun and there aren’t any gaping plot holes or nonsensical character choices that take you out of the fun nostalgia trip. It might be straight forward and somewhat simple storytelling, but it’s effective and gets you from one geek out moment to the next. To be clear, it’s those geek out moments that you’re really reading this book for.

Extra Layers of Awesome:

So, I think we can all agree (I’m assuming that most readers of 9to5 dot cc share a lot of our geeky interests) that the concept behind the book is cool (if a little indulgent). However, Cline kicked up the cool (and the indulgence) by a factor of 10 when the paperback edition of Ready Player One came out. How? He announced that there was a real-world Easter Egg hunt inside the book already. You’ve got to assume that he was secretly hoping people would figure it out on their own from within the hardcover since from what I’ve read there wasn’t anything added to the paperback edition. Sadly, Cline has said that the Easter Egg is not found in the e-book version which was the version I was reading, so I never even had a chance to find it (even though the contest is now over).

Basically, readers could piece together a URL for a website inside of the book where they would then be able to play a game that was coded using original Atari 2600 specs (called “The Stacks”). If they managed to beat the game they could then play a special Facebook game and if they could beat that they would then be eligible to tackle the third and final “Gate” which was, wait for it: to get a world record high score on one of a selection of classic coin-op arcade games. The guy who did it (Craig Queen) won a fucking Delorean!

So What Now?

As I said, I missed out on the actual Easter Egg hunt because a) it was done by the time I started reading the book and b) I was reading a digital copy so never even had a chance anyways. However, I was oddly inspired by the nature of the book. So, I decided that to the best of my abilities I was going to re-visit the various albums, games and movies of the book to see what they were like.

In the book, the main character has to complete a series of challenges and even though I am probably unable to actually complete those challenges (I’m not quite able to get to a kill screen in Pacman) I am at least going to try to experience them. What was the first challenge?

[spoiler title=”The First Key”]Was located in a digital recreation of Gary Gygax’s “Tomb of Horrors”, I’m going to try and get someone to run the dungeon for me, but I really doubt that’s about to happen. So, at the very least I’ll read the module.[/spoiler]

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