Ready Player One is Ernest Cline’s tribute to 1980s popular culture. But it’s also a tribute to the sci-fi/fantasy gaming community that started with Dungeons & Dragons. And to video games, from the 8-bit arcade games up through modern massively multiplayer online game (MMO). And that makes the book a fun read.
The book takes place in the 2040s, but you’d hardly realize except for the fact that most people play a highly immersive, virtual reality MMO called the Oasis. The founder of the Oasis, billionaire James Halliday, passes away and leaves his fortune to whichever player can find an “easter egg” hidden in the game. There’s just one catch: players must master 1980s trivia in order to overcome the various challenges.
In many ways, Ready Player One reads like a mashup of a typical 80s movie and a modern MMO. The structure of the book resembles classic 80s movies, from the down-on-his-luck protagonist Wade Watts to the evil corporate bad guys. However, the book takes full advantage of the storytelling potential of MMOs by throwing in characters and paraphernalia from a variety of franchises. Where else can you find Ultron and Godzilla and wizards and blasters all in one story? Most readers won’t recognize all of the references, but every reader will get some of them.
Fortunately, the book is more than just a nostalgia trip through 80s pop-culture references. Two things impressed me. First, Ready Player One follows the pattern and spirit of the best 80s children’s movies. It doesn’t shy away from socioeconomic inequality the way many modern movies do. Watts even begins as a bit of a loser, much like Alex Rogan from The Last Starfighter or Ferris Bueller. I couldn’t help but love the characters.
Second, Cline comes up with some clever scenarios. Given that the story takes place in a virtual reality setting, the only limit is Cline’s imagination. And does he have one! There were some great ideas for video games and technologies that I’m sure will find a way into our lives in the near future.
In short, if you grew up during the 80s or if you still like geek culture, especially video games, you owe it to yourself to read this book. It’s not great literature, but it is fun.