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Thursday, February 26, 2015

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline - A Book Review

[caption id="" align="alignright" width="312"]Ready Player One by Ernest Cline Ready Player One by Ernest Cline[/caption]

"Want to play a game?" If you know not only the movie from which that line came, but also the pacing and pitch variations of its delivery, and can say it just that way, this book is absolutely for you. If you love Star Castle and Battlezone, this book is for you. If you remember Hawk the Slayer with fondness, or even at all, this book is for you. I knew I was going to love this book when that movie figured prominently in one of the protagonist's conversations. Here is the publishers synopsis of the story:

It's the year 2044, and the real world is an ugly place.

Like most of humanity, Wade Watts escapes his grim surroundings by spending his waking hours jacked into the OASIS, a sprawling virtual utopia that lets you be anything you want to be, a place where you can live and play and fall in love on any of ten thousand planets.

And like most of humanity, Wade dreams of being the one to discover the ultimate lottery ticket that lies concealed within this virtual world. For somewhere inside this giant networked playground, OASIS creator James Halliday has hidden a series of fiendish puzzles that will yield massive fortune -- and remarkable power -- to whoever can unlock them.

For years, millions have struggled fruitlessly to attain this prize, knowing only that Halliday's riddles are based in the pop culture he loved -- that of the late twentieth century. And for years, millions have found in this quest another means of escape, retreating into happy, obsessive study of Halliday's icons. Like many of his contemporaries, Wade is as comfortable debating the finer points of John Hughes's oeuvre, playing Pac-Man, or reciting Devo lyrics as he is scrounging power to run his OASIS rig.

And then Wade stumbles upon the first puzzle.

Suddenly the whole world is watching, and thousands of competitors join the hunt -- among them certain powerful players who are willing to commit very real murder to beat Wade to this prize. Now the only way for Wade to survive and preserve everything he knows is to win. But to do so, he may have to leave behind his oh-so-perfect virtual existence and face up to life -- and love -- in the real world he's always been so desperate to escape.

This summary doesn't do the book justice. It looks like it was written by a PR wonk, and a non-gamer at that. Here's a gamer oriented summary from me.

In the year 2044, society has become a landscape of the haves, comprising a few small percentage of the population, and the have nots, whose only break from the drudgery of a life without enough energy, food or jobs is the Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation, known simply as the OASIS. It is the one place where they are on equal footing with everyone else, and can succeed or fail based on their own merits. It is the ultimate virtual reality evolution of the social Internet. If World of Warcraft, Second Life and Minecraft are single celled organisms, the OASIS would be the Bengal tiger, blue whale or human being into which they evolve. It is into this world Wade Watts is born in Oklahoma City, orphaned by the time he enters school, and struggles to simply exist. It is a world that cares nothing for the average person. Where human life is the cheapest commodity on the market.

When Wade is about to enter high school the creator of the OASIS, James Halliday, dies. He has no heirs. He has never even had a girl friend. So in his will, a virtual recording played to the entire OASIS via Halliday's avatar Anorak, he promises to bestow all his wealth and power, as well as responsibility for Gregarious Simulations Incorporated, the company he founded to run the OASIS, on the one person who can locate the computer easter egg he has hidden within the OASIS during the last decade of his life. To attain the prize, the winner has to decipher three riddles, find three keys to three different gates, and defeat the challenges within each gate to obtain the next clue - until at last they can obtain the prize. Millions immediately take to the task of finding Halliday's Egg. These egg hunters quickly become known as simply gunters, and their obsession becomes a new way of life around the world, changing the very culture they live in into the jeans and t-shirt wearing geeks of Halliday's teenage years during the 1980s.

But the haves will not have any of it. The largest corporation in America, Innovative Online Industries, or IOI for short, has tried to pwn the OASIS for years. But Halliday and OASIS co-founder and childhood friend Ogden "Og" Morrow made certain the OASIS is free to access and has ironclad privacy protections. If you do not want your real identity revealed, it will not be revealed. You can even register under an assumed identity when you creat your avatar if you wish, and many do to IOI's ire. In IOI's world, the OASIS is too big an asset to be free, and people have no right to privacy. So when the contest is announced by Anorak after Halliday's death, IOI creates its Oology division to obtain the egg at any cost. The ultimate hostile takeover. Those who work for IOI have six digit employee numbers by which they are referred, so the world soon begins referring to them as sixers. Chief of the sixers is Nolan Sorrento, and he commands the sixer army with an iron fist and hobnail boots.

Five years go by without anyone deciphering the first clue, and finding the first key, a key of copper. Then one day, while sitting in class, gunter Wade Watts has an epiphany. This leads him to discover the location of the first key. He conquers the challenges laid before him and obtains the key, which places him at the top of the scoreboard Halliday created on his OASIS account to track the contest. The entire world knows the moment it happens, and from that point on Wade's life will never be the same. To all the gunters of the world he becomes an instant celebrity. To the sixers and Nolan Sorrento he becomes the biggest threat to their plans for OASIS domination.

And thus it begins. With other gunters hot on his tail, and the sixers using hacked immersion rigs and every cheat they can manage with their vast resources, Wade must use his wits, knowledge of 80's culture and understanding of James Halliday's life to decipher the remaining clues and get to Halliday's Egg first. It seems a straightforward quest, but nothing in life is as straightforward as the games he loves, and extra lives don't come with birth. In the biggest game of all, Wade is as clueless as the sixer drones he holds in contempt. But it's never over until the fat lady sings, and Wade didn't get to the first gate by not knowing how to adapt his gameplay to new challenges. With little to lose and everything to gain, he shows everyone what it really means to be l33t.

As a read that summary, I realize that it doesn't do justice to Ready Player One either. But I doubt any summary really can. It's a book you have to read in order to appreciate. The level of detail Ernest Cline uses in order to bring the culture of my youth to life is incredible. What appeals to me most about this book is not the character development or the plot. Those are good, but to be honest I've read better. What really appeals to me is the fact Ernest Cline nails the essence of early gamer-geek culture so well. His characters could be my best gaming friends Terry, Chuck and Brad. Just the way he describes this culture informs me he lived it - just like I did. With younger generations, the Internet and gaming consoles have come to epitomize the essence of gaming. But in the beginning, computer games were only a part of being a gamer geek. The best computer games were arcade games that cost a quarter to play and you had to walk down to the bowling alley to play them. The best free to play games were the weekly Dungeons and Dragons sessions we held in our basements. Our inspiration came from Star Trek, Tolkien and Heavy Metal - the movie, not the music genre. In that age, girl gamers were revered, not sexualized and treated like property. And trolls were monsters you battled for loot. No one ever wanted to become a troll - a fate only handed out as the worst of curses. Ernest Cline knows this intimately. He proved it by writing Ready Player One.

If you are like me and want (crave?) a reminder of what the "good old days" were like, you'll really enjoy Ready Player One. If you are a millennial and want to understand your gamer dad better, you should read this book. Heck, if you're married to an 80s gamer you may want to read this book. It could explain so much. It's fun no matter if you don't get the references, and it might just help you to understand why we are compelled to learn and repeat Princes Bride verbatim. If reading really isn't your thing, you can buy the audiobook or wait for the movie. Warner Brothers bought the film rights in 2010. The screenplay is written and production is under way. I can't wait to see it on the big screen. Perhaps by then Oculus VR will have gotten their act together and I might even be able to watch it Wade Watts style. That would be so cool. What else can I say? Oh yeah. High five!

1 comment:

  1. weird. I bought this book used yesterday! Looking forward to starting it (after I finish Dune, a book I started but never finished in highschool).


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