Just blitzed my way through Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, a slab of late summer fiction sure to be of interest to many here at Play the Past. This is Cline’s debut novel, though he’s also known for the 2009 film Fanboys.
The two titles of the works alone ought to give you some tip off as to what’s in store. Set in the year 2044 amid a dystopic future that’s really only a straight-line extrapolation of today’s headlines (global economic collapse, war, pandemic, privation, and general “knavery,” to take a word that figures in the book), it posits the kind of virtual-world-we’ve-always-dreamed-of—the OASIS—an immersive global refuge from the travails of daily existence. It’s fully embodied sharper than life VR, made possible by the consumer commodification of gear like virtual light goggles, data gloves, and haptic body suits.
While the first 50 pages or so are mainly grinding through levels of exposition, once past that the plot begins to unspool for realz. Our protagonist, Wade, aka “Parzival,” is an egg hunter or “gunter” who spends his days jacked into the OASIS and steeped in the study of eighties pop culture lore, seeking to divine clues to the location of The Egg, the mother of all Easter eggs that holds the key to the future of the OASIS–not to mention the immeasurable personal fortune of its inventor, a Steve Jobsian figure named James Halliday.
Halliday, we’re given to understand, was obsessed with the eighties, and has designed an ingenious set of interlocking quests and puzzles, gates and keys, which any OASIS habitant is free to try and unlock in order to gain the big prize. Parzival and his fellow gunters match wits against each other, trading trash talk and lines from Highlander; but they must also face the faceless minions of the evil IOI corporation, dubbed “Sixers” for their corporate ID numbers. As the book progresses their cold war turns hot and it becomes clear that the Sixers are willing to cross all sorts of lines, virtual and real alike, to claim the Egg. (Remember: there can be only one.)
All of this turns out to be even more fun than it sounds, with the virtual setting giving Cline license to basically take the reader in any direction at any velocity. Planets modeled on D&D campaigns, interactive immersive versions of Wargames and Monty Python and the Holy Grail, giant Japanese robots, and live-action guitar heroics all make their appearances, as does School House Rock, Star Blazers, and Michael J. Fox. Above all, though, Halliday’s favorite decade is defined by its games, and video games most of all: Atari’s Adventure, Dungeons of Daggorath, Joust, Pac-Man, Black Tiger, Zork, and Tempest all have pivotal roles to play and are described in considerable detail. In time the reader comes to realize the not-so-subtle ways in which the book is functioning as its own embodied version of Halliday’s Egg: it’s the kind of book where Googling as you read is irresistible, pulling up the Wikipedia entry for an obscure anime series one moment, or images of the giant robot Leopardon the next.
To a mild degree at least, the reader recapitulates—and plays along with—the questing of the gunters, as they seek to unravel the cryptic clues and riddles which govern the novel’s action. Halliday, if we are to believe the main premise of the book—and yes, at times the conceit creaks and strains, but then so too did much of Lucas and Spielberg—seeks to preserve the culture of the eighties, and he does it by giving the rest of the world the most biggest incentive imaginable to do it. Only by giving themselves completely to the same canon of movies, comics, books, and games that Halliday himself cherished can any gunter even hope to have a shot at finding The Egg.
So while the book is nominally science fiction, Ready Player One is just as much a book about the past, especially our relationship to it through that strange brew of obsession, nostalgia, and possessiveness that characterizes geek/fan culture. The book is rife with descriptions of characters pulling down complete runs of old sitcoms and gorging themselves on marathon viewings of, say, the complete Family Ties. And while it does not quite explore the particulars of game preservation in the loving detail of D. B.Weiss’s Lucky Wander Boy, we are treated to descriptions of museums of vintage computer and console equipment, and vast virtual repositories of ports of every classic game imaginable.
But it’s not finally the archives that are the repository of the sort of cultural memory Cline wants us to celebrate; the vast online data banks are merely the black boxed reservoirs for the raw material. No, this past is kept alive by immersion, a point Cline literalizes repeatedly in the book as characters find themselves taking on games within a game, their avatars playing the role of Matthew Broderick’s David Lightman at his Galaga cabinet or the protagonist of 2112 fretting his first tentative chords on a virtualized electric axe. The message of the book is that you preserve the past by getting the rest of the world to play it right along with you.
But here’s the thing: the type of play that figures most prominently in the book is the speed-run, the fan ideal of the fastest possible perfect game, achieved through muscle memory and ruthless deconstruction of the algorithmic patterns that the game engine runs on. We’re treated to explicit descriptions of speed-runs for several of the classic games mentioned above, as well as a newly minted game/cinema hybrid that puts the player in the position of reenacting the dialog and actions of key characters for the duration of the film. “I didn’t know it at the time, but I’d just become the first person to play an entirely new type of videogame. When GSS got wind of the WarGames simulation . . . the company quickly patented the idea and began to buy up rights to old movies and TV shows and convert them into interactive immersive games that they dubbed Flicksyncs” (112). GSS is Halliday’s company, and they are the good guys here.
Playing the past in Ready Player One thus turns out to be almost exclusively about miming it, mindlessly replaying levels or scenes that you’ve already got down cold in order to get to the top of the scoreboard. Departing from the script is punished with debited points, the same penalty that is also applied later in the book when Wade does an indentured stint on a certain corporate help desk.
Ultimately then the novel seems ambivalent about what the past finally is and what our relationship to it ought to be. The eighties seem like less a living element of the novel’s present than a consensual hallucination (where have I heard that before?), a vast distributed suspended animation held inside the bottomless data banks and simulations of the OASIS. Certainly the eighties culture that is celebrated throughout the book seems to offer little in the way of resources to contend with the non-virtual realities that make our hero Wade’s F2F existence so unenviable. Indeed, the juxtaposition between the tent cities and trailer parks and the gleaming corporate office towers that collectively form the backdrop for most of the non-in-world scenes remind us that the eighties were also the decade of Reaganomics and Wall Street, and there is little if any of that history in these pages.
Have you been reading it too? Put your quarter up and let us know what you think in the comments.