“Being human totally sucks most of the time. Videogames are the only thing that make life bearable.” – Anorak’s Almanac, Chapter 91, Verses 1-2
The year is 2044 and the real world is an awful place to live. The overuse of natural resources in previous decades led to the Global Energy Crisis, which led to environmental devastation, which led to food shortages. People are starving in the streets and homelessness is the norm. Fortunately, the people who have to survive in these awful, dystopian conditions don’t have to actually live in them. They live instead in a virtual reality simulation called OASIS.
OASIS was originally designed to be an immersive video game, but it grew into a virtual universe used by people all over the world to conduct business, go to work, and hang out with friends. When OASIS- creator James Halliday dies, he leaves behind a quest called the Egg Hunt. Whoever can find the three keys that unlock three gates will receive the ultimate reward: complete control over OASIS. The novel follows Wade Watts, one of the many people who have dedicated their lives to completing the Egg Hunt, known as an Egg Hunter or “Gunter”, as he solves the first riddle and becomes wrapped up in the adventure of a lifetime.
It’s impossible to discuss Ready Player One without talking about the 1980s. The novel comes across as a love letter to the era the author grew up in, and this passion comes across in every page of the book. “But wait,” you exclaim, “I thought the book was set in the future! How is it connected to the 1980s?” Great question. The happiest days of Halliday’s life were spent as a geeky teenager during the 80s, so the one book he left behind to guide players through the Egg Hunt, Anorak’s Almanac, and all of the clues and challenges related to it are based on the pop culture of that period.
Gunters like Wade devote all of their free time to studying movies such as Wargames, Revenge of the Nerds, and Footloose almost religiously in their search for clues. They hone their skills on classic video games like Joust and Adventure while listening to Billy Idol and New Order. It’s impossible to overstate how saturated Ready Player One is with these references. Take this scene for example, where Wade meets up with Gunter rival/love interest Art3mis at a club (online, of course):
At the center of it all was the opening DJ, R2-D2, hard at work using his various robotic arms to work the turntables. I recognized the tune he was playing: the ’88 remix of New Order’s “Blue Monday,” with a lot of Star Wars droid sound samples mixed in.
When I reached the bar, I ordered a Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster from the female Klingon bartender and downed half of it. Then I grinned as R2 cued up another classic ’80s tune. “Union of the Snake,” I recited, mostly out of habit. “Duran Duran. Nineteen eighty-three.”
Of course, you can’t have an epic quest for the fate of the (virtual) universe without a villain. Innovative Online Industries is a corporation formed to utilize the resources and policies of big business to complete the Egg Hunt. All of their employees wear the same virtual face and have numbers instead of names. If they get their hands on the egg, they intend to turn OASIS into a money-making machine. IOI is willing to kill people, online and in real life, to achieve their goals. They’re looked down upon by regular Gunters, who think IOI is violating the spirit of the Egg Hunt. Their presence gives the book an anti-corporate bend, which fits the novel’s Generation X point-of-view.
While it might seem like Ready Player One is just nostalgic fluff, there’s a message beneath the neon-lit pages. Wade Watts tells readers that even though he’s only seen his friends in the online world, they’re as real as any friends could be. As someone who has a lot of online friends, that’s a statement I certainly agree with. But it’s James Halliday who delivers the novel’s final lesson; in a recorded message left for the winner of the Egg Hunt, he says,
I created the OASIS because I never felt at home in the real world. I didn’t know how to connect with the people there. I was afraid, for all of my life. Right up until I knew it was ending. That was when I realized, as terrifying and painful as reality can be, it’s also the only place where you can find true happiness. Because reality is real.
Readers who grew up during the 1980s will have a hard time not falling in love with Ready Player One, and the novel will definitely resonate best with people who were nerdy, socially awkward teenagers in high school. But the brisk writing and entertaining characters make this novel enjoyable even for people who never fell in love with Molly Ringwald or spent a Friday night playing Dungeons and Dragons in a dank, stuffy basement.