I really feel like a grouch when I reflect on Ready Player One. So many people love this book, and it really is quite fun. Yet I couldn’t help but feel frustrated and disappointed as I reached the end. Despite Ernest Cline’s great vision and immersive world (really, two immersive worlds), I walk away with some real gripes. But let’s start with the things I liked first, so there is some good context for my criticisms.
The “Real World”
I was really absorbed into Ernest Clines world. In near-future society seems to be on the cusp of devolving into a full dystopia, our protagonist Wade seems to be near the bottom of the social ladder. We get a clear picture for the desperation of this society through the initial setting, “the stacks,” a sort of stacked and crowded trailer park that seems to be an increasingly common type of living community. Unfortunately, we only get a brief glimpse of this interesting neighborhood before Wade dons his virtual identity, Parzival, within the shared virtual reality simulation called the OASIS. There are other brief descriptions of what the “real world” is like throughout the book—we glimpse the lawless lands in between major cities, widespread poverty, complete environmental degradation, and extreme corporate imposition on everyday life. Unfortunately, we don’t spend much time learning about this world, how we got here, or where it’s headed. Instead, much like most people in this society, we spend much of our time within the world of the OASIS. This is one of my primary gripes, but let’s come back to that.
I found the OASIS itself to be equally compelling, though I suspect that my affinity for video games (particularly massively-multiplayer online games) helped me connect with this incredible digital world. Clines’s vision for an immersive and pervasive online world is both eerie and exciting. The OASIS is apparently so immersive that these residents of the future have basically checked out of society and live their lives online. A concept ripe for relevant social commentary, right? Well, if it was there, I missed it.
Either way, I found myself reliving some of my own fond gaming memories through Parzival. In the past, I made some deep and meaningful friendships through online gaming and found a digital community when I couldn’t find one in the real world. It’s difficult to convey the significance of such online relationships to people who have never experienced them. I imagine hearing someone say that some of their fondest memories are while playing multiplayer games with friends they’d never met in person and thinking, Wow, that’s sad. But I think it’s disrespectful (and frankly, ignorant) to tell someone that their personal experiences, even if they’re in an online game, are less relevant than anyone else’s experiences.
I appreciated this a lot. The community and friendships that Wade/Parzival has within the OASIS tapped a deep sense of nostalgia in me, making me smile as I recalled my own similar friendships. I did groan a bit at Clines’s use of some outdated jargon that was never really that cool, even online. And my nostalgia was tinged with a bit of sadness knowing that online gaming has changed significantly since I was really involved. The reason I’m really not an active online gamer any more is because online gaming is by and large a toxic wasteland of negativity. But I because of the nostalgia, I completely give Ready Player One a pass in that regard. Besides, perhaps an experience as immersive as the OASIS could help bring online gaming back to place that allows for more wholesome communities.
In the same way that Cline captured the feeling of an immersive world of online gaming, he also perfectly captured the feeling of being obsessively nerdy. Which is a good thing, considering the entire story is built around conflicts solved purely with the power of nerdy obsession. The architect of the OASIS, Halliday, imprinted his own nerdiness onto every inch of this online world, with a heavy focus on 80s pop culture (though there are plenty of more recent references, too).
The story revolves around a contest designed by Halliday to determine the heir to his massive fortune and his complete control over the OASIS. Every challenge presented in this contest requires complete and utter obsession with the same nerd culture that Halliday was obsessed with. It’s stated that he just wanted other people to like the same things he liked, and in one glorious act of social manipulation, he succeeded in bringing the whole world into his personal world of nerd culture. Because of his contest, the 80s makes a glorious return to the mainstream, 60 years later.
Obviously, this level of nerdiness is all-encompassing in the story, acting as an exaggerated insight into what it’s like to be a regular nerd today. My most relatable obsession would be the Song of Ice and Fire world. I related with Ready Player One’s characters obsessing over the creator of this world, looking for hints in every corner for clues and hidden secrets. I was reminded of browsing ASOIAF forums, reading fan theories and connecting dots with other fans, re-reading the books and highlighting minor references that could be hints to some larger aspect of the world. Ernest Cline is obviously a nerd himself, and his characters’ obsession with Halliday and his affinity for nerd culture felt familiar. He succeeded in capturing the nerd spirit.
The immersive online world and the feeling of familiarity in gaming and nerd culture made for a story that was just plain fun. Cline created a journey of discovery within this world and did his best to simply fill each page with familiar references along the way. I was rarely bored while reading, though there was an inordinate number of infodumps. A lot of the setting and backstory probably could have been conveyed through story elements rather than straight exposition.
But despite how much fun it was, I thought there were some glaring oversights and missed opportunities.
One of the things that frustrated me was just how straightforward the story was. It was basically all spelled out in the Prologue with the description of the contest. There is a certain number of tasks that need to be completed to inherit Halliday’s fortune, and the entire book is basically just checking off each of those boxes with some minor struggle between each checkpoint.
Even that struggle failed to really engage me. Wade/Parzival’s plans basically never fail. Sometimes we aren’t privy to his strategy, but you can be sure that he will succeed with only minor inconvenience. I thought that the stakes would be raised once the evil IOI corporation—bent on putting all of their resources into winning the contest so that they can take control of the OASIS (and, of course, fully monetize it)—showed early on that they were willing to kill people in the real world in order to come out on top. But this hardly plays a role for most of the story, as Wade simply holes up in an ultra-secure apartment and secures himself a false identity (in an incredibly convenient way, too).
In fact, the most interesting challenge for me was when Wade abandoned his secure apartment near the end of the book to infiltrate IOI headquarters as an indentured slave to gain access to their secure network and get a hand over them. It gave another great glimpse of this world that is crumbling around everyone as they waste away inside the OASIS. We saw that this evil corporation was legally allowed to arrest and abduct citizens with outstanding debt, essentially enslaving them in order to pay off their debts—an impossible task once one found themselves in that situation.
But, of course, his plan goes off without a hitch. I kept waiting for some failure or consequence throughout the entire book, but it never came.
While the constant references to pop culture—from video games, to music, to movies, to TV, to comics, to breakfast cereal, to…everything—were great fun, it seemed like they were just haphazardly thrown on top of the plot. It was as if Cline had a sheet of notes with two columns: In column A, a list of basic plot points. In column B, a list of references he really wanted to include. Then he drew some random lines between the two and began to write. And the references were so pervasive and constant that, after a while, they kind of became background noise. The novelty began to wear thin rather quickly.
Adding to my frustration was the romantic relationship between Parzival and his online crush, Art3mis. I suppose it shouldn’t be a surprise that the entire romance seemed to go through all of the motions of nerd fantasy fulfillment. Nerdboy begins the story with an intense infatuation with the fabled Nerdgirl, projecting all of his desires onto her. His infatuation continues throughout basically the entire story as she remains stand-offish until in the end, he wins her heart through his passionate persistence (i.e., kind-of-creepy, whiney, stalkery obsession). The dynamic strayed a bit too far into the Manic Pixie Dream Girl territory.
Perhaps I am letting prejudice against this type of romance taint my perception and it wasn’t quite that bad. But at best, the romance was standard cut-and-paste nerd romance ending with a fabled (real, physical) kiss.
Disconnect with Reality
Which brings me to my ultimate gripe with this book. In the very end of the book, after Parzival wins the contest (because of course he does), and he also wins the girl and gets the kiss, we end with him musing, “It occurred to me then that for the first time in as long as I could remember, I had absolutely no desire to log back into the OASIS.”
Throughout this entire story, there is the constant theme that Wade/Parzival (and the rest of the world, it seems) prefers life inside the OASIS far more than life outside of the OASIS. And who can blame them? The world has turned into an absolute shit show. There is basically nothing for people to live for outside of the OASIS, so escapism is the norm.
Like I said, this is seemingly relevant commentary. I started off this book thinking, Yeah, this is great. I can’t wait until he tackles this theme and shows the double-edged sword of escapism. This real world is in dire need of some attention and these people are in dire need of a revolution. How will he bring some self-awareness into this story?
Well, he never did. I became increasingly frustrated at how the complete neglect of these people towards the real world seemed to be just a part of the setting rather than a plot point. I was hoping that Cline would point out how the escapism allowed by the OASIS only reinforced the horror of the real world.
But eventually I realized that this escapism seemed to just be romanticized. There were constant references to how much Wade really hated life outside of the OASIS, but the relief the virtual world brought him seemed to just be a given part of the character than would never be addressed. For me, the richest opportunity in this book would be an exploration of escapism. And I don’t mean to paint it in a completely negative light. He set up a world where there could have been some real and nuanced discussion about the thriving heart and spirit of “fake worlds” versus the deteriorating heart and spirit of the “real world.” I believe there is a real significant connection between the unbridled imagination of things such as the virtual world of the OASIS and the “mundane” real world. These things can be explored and addressed together, without writing either off completely.
The potential, in my eyes, was almost completely wasted. The most succinct example, I think, is the fact that the OASIS relies on the real world to exist. This fact seemed to go completely unaddressed. Even though there were constant references to an “energy crisis,” rolling blackouts, and corporate monopolies surrounding the internet and connections to the OASIS, none of this played a role in the Wade’s relationship with the OASIS. What would Wade and all of the gunters do if the energy crisis caused them to no longer have stable access to the OASIS? I certainly don’t know, since it was not even hinted at in the story.
Okay, so maybe there was a quiet nod towards this in the intentions of the contestants, particularly Wade and Art3mis. Wade, with the massive fortune he would inherit, would literally try to escape from Earth. Art3mis, with a bit more compassion towards her fellow humans, would use the fortune to “feed the world.” (Quite a vague notion.) But Wade never arcs here. By the end, he concedes to using the fortune he won to help Art3mis in her goal, but only because he…is obsessed with her. He frames it as something he would do simply because that’s what she wanted to do. If she wanted to fly away in his spaceship, he’d abandon the world in a heartbeat it seems.
Art3mis’s own goals, as half-assed as they are, raise more questions for me. If this is the only hint of anyone’s consciousness towards the real world, then what do we conclude about Halliday from that? He is made out to be sort of a mythic character who gave a great gift to the world by creating the OASIS. But if his massive fortune is enough to conceivably help save the world, why would he take no step in that direction? What if, say, starvation and blackouts became so rampant that no one ever won the prolonged contest? His massive fortune that has the potential to help bring the world out of its dire situation would remain unused. And did he never even think that the person who won the contest would be bent towards exploitation of this suffering world, like IOI was?
It makes sense to me that Wade would idolize Halliday; they both seem to be completely self-absorbed in their obsession with nerd culture to the extreme negligence of everything else around them. The story made me feel as though Cline was completely unaware of this, creating this massive blind spot in the story that caused me to come away from Ready Player One frustrated and unfulfilled despite all of the fun I had.