Book Review: Ready Player One
‘Three hidden keys open three secret gates. Wherein the errant will be tested for worthy traits.’ This is the first riddle presented to Ready Player One’s protagonist, Wade Watts, and it effectively sums up the immense competition at the heart of Ernest Cline’s novel. The worthy traits referred to is a vast knowledge of 1980s videogame history and pop culture, as in 2044 there’s no better way to spend your time than to study how good everything use to be. Ready Player One has a unique premise, and tells the story of a terrifying future where the real world is so terrible that everyone spends as much time as possible inside a virtual reality simulation known as the OASIS.
The book’s opening is strong, and outlines the world-changing competition detailed in the will of OASIS founder James Halliday, who has left his entire fortune, as well as control of the virtual world, up for grabs. Citing the 1979 game Adventure, Halliday has hidden his own Easter egg inside the OASIS, which can only be located by competing a series of complex tasks. Every stage of this competition has been masterfully designed, and the pace of Cline’s novel is constantly upped every time a new discovery or revelation is made concerning Halliday’s Egg.
Whilst this quest is the heart of the book, the story also partially takes place in the real world, and Cline’s dystopian future is one of the most convincing elements of the novel. Wade lives in a tower of motorhomes known as ‘The Stacks’, and the descriptions of both specific examples of characters living in poverty, as well as the larger problems effecting the entire world, are well thought out. As the story progresses we see just enough of the real world to fill in the blanks, and these dark snapshots of the future leave a chilling impression.
Wade, or ‘Parzival’ inside the OASIS, makes for a fairly strong lead. He is determined and competitive, and possesses the immense knowledge and videogame skill that is essentially necessary to ensure his quest for the Egg is believable. But this also makes him a pretty big nerds, and whilst in some regards Ready Player One is an accessible book that anyone can enjoy, at times it enters a world that will only be relatable to nerds of a similar level. Cline alludes to a lot of material, and depending on how much of it you’re familiar with will probably reflect how much you enjoy the book. Whilst I loved the 1980s videogame references, the infrequent yet awesome nods to anime and Japanese culture, and the talk of John Hughes movies, I wasn’t so crazy about the Dungeons and Dragons content, or the likeness between the OASIS and MMORPG.
In fact here’s where my biggest problem with Ready Player One lies. Whilst I can understand how prevalent a tool such as virtual reality could become in society, the actual mechanics of the OASIS are that of a niche videogame, not than the alternative to real life it is portrayed as. It’s described as being used for business, shopping, and pretty much everything else you can do in the real world, but other than an interesting look at the education system, nothing else is really explained in detail. Instead the focus is on leveling, questing, and the worlds players can visit, that include giant videogame arcades and recreations of the Star Wars and Star Trek universes.
Having said that, there’s a good amount of evidence to suggest that the quest for Halliday’s Egg has turned half the world into 1980s loving nerds, as it’s Halliday’s own love of the culture that has inspired the trials leading to his fortune. The quest itself is well thought out, and never feels formulaic, despite the fact that the premiss of three keys and three gates is established early on. Along the way there are a number of exciting twists, and the unpredictable narrative makes some unexpected and enjoyable turns.
But whilst the setup is superb, some of the characters Parzival meets on his way are less then compelling. His best friend Ache feels uninspired, and their trash talk online-game inspired conversations made for a relationship that didn’t really interest me. Likewise the main love interest, Art3mus, is nothing more than pure geek fantasy, and never exceeds the one dimension of generic and unconvincing female gamer.
The main villain, Nolan Sorrento, also feels a little basic, and although he and Wade have an interesting encounter early on he isn’t expanded upon much after this. But he’s evil in a fun, if fairly typical way. I’m talking Demon Headmaster evil, there’s no room for sympathy, no grey area, he’s just pure evil and must be stopped. On the plus side this does mean that every time Wade encounters him you’re always feeling exactly what Cline wants you to, and this is another of the book’s successes.
But by the end, Ready Payer One starts to feel like a fairly typical battle between good and evil. And whilst the world has been expanded upon, in and outside the OASIS, you’ll start to realise that absolutely everything happened for a reason. There’s no casual descriptions that exist solely to draw you in, everything has its purpose. And it doesn’t really need to, I’d have loved some moments like the scene in Pulp Fiction where the characters talk about the differences in McDonalds. There’s no real meaning to it but it’s world building, it’s character developing, and it’s entertaining. If Ernest Cline had been allowed to write the second half of Pulp Fiction he’d have probably had a scene in a French McDonalds where the information about burger names saved John Travolta’s life. Probably.
It’s still fun though, and Ready Player One is a complete joy to read. It’s compelling from start to finish, and hooks you in right away. I’d definitely recommend it, especially for fans of retro videogames. They’re making movie soon so pick it up now and then you can impress your friends when the film comes out by telling them it wasn’t as good as the book.