Friday, January 18, 2013

A Cyberpunk Tour De Force Through The 1980s: Ready Player One

Thank you, Adam Miller, for sharing your review of Ready Player One with Fantasy Matters.  I’m a regular at this site for the express reason of learning about books like this one.  Anyone who ever enjoyed playing a 1980s arcade game must read Ready Player One.  Do it, do it now. 

The novel encapsulates the gamer ethos of individual triumph over titanic forces.  You, the reader, will experience the playing of games, because chances are you have played the arcade titles mentioned throughout the book.  You are transported to 2044, a time of climate change, energy crisis, and mass poverty.  This isn’t just a dystopian future, it is our possible future.  Most of us will still be alive to see if something like this happens.  With humanity eradicating Earth’s assets through unchecked consumption of every natural resource, I can totally envision humankind retreating into simulated reality, which in this book is the OASIS - a worldwide virtual reality monopoly.  

Author Ernest Cline takes you on an adventure without graphics, joy stick, or game console.  He, in fact, does a greater miracle.  The novel is a time machine, with the technology of the OASIS to transport the reader into the spirit, ethos, and mentality of the 1980s.  I am convinced Cline adapted his own experiences from that decade into the plot, because they were my experiences too.  For example, I’d bet money Cline owned an Atari 2600 in 1979,  just like billionaire programmer James Halliday did in the book.  And it would not surprise me in the slightest if Atari’s Adventure was one of the first games Cline played on that platform.  Since Cline was born in 1972, which makes him only two years my junior, I think this assumption is realistic.

Adventure, in fact, is the “key” to Ready Player One.  Halliday - co-creator of the OASIS - is one of the wealthiest individuals on the planet and, lacking any heirs, he wants to give his fortune away in the greatest global game ever played.  As Halliday explains in a video shown after his death, while playing Adventure he finds a key to enter a secret room wherein he finds a name, Warren Robinett.  Since Atari did not give programmers credit for creating their games, Robinett left his name without Atari’s blessing, and this additional code for the key and the secret room comes to be known as an Easter Egg.  Kids all over the world discover that Easter Egg, and now Halliday wants to recreate that Adventure experience.  A player must find three different keys to open three successive gates in the OASIS.  But to do so, you need to have a vast knowledge of the 1980s, since clues to Halliday’s Easter Egg correspond to his formative teenage years, which are actually Cline’s formative years, and mine.

[note: this review contains spoilers about the novel]
I didn’t think I would find the use of Adventure credible.   It had what I believe to this day to be some of the worst graphics in the Atari pantheon.  You moved as a tiny solid box through the irregularly spaced maze with long wanderings wherein nothing happens.  Worst of all, as I recall, the box was hard to navigate up and down and sideways.  When Cline describes the graphical dragons as looking like ducks, I think that’s rather kind.  It’s a game I did not play much because it frustrated me.  Yet Cline managed to suck me in with this masterful plot device.  Had I known back then that there was a secret room and all I had to do was find the secret key, that would’ve been motivation enough to play.  To find an Easter Egg that the general populace doesn’t know about?  Now that’s a game worth playing.  But a real fortune worth hundreds of billions of dollars?  Now that’s a game worth killing to win.  Literally.  And that’s the addictive part of the plot of Ready Player One.   

After five years of searching, an OASIS avatar - Parzival - finds the first key in the year 2045, and then chaos ensues.  A big, nasty corporation is out to cheat the game so it can do its own version of a hostile takeover, and it will do anything to win ownership of the OASIS - including real life murder.  I could not put this novel down.  What a set up!

Egg Hunters, shortened to “gunters,” dedicate their lives to 1980s pop culture in order to win Halliday’s treasure hunt.  Parzival is a solo gunter who refuses to join one of the gunter clans even though he is poor.  He lives in the stacks, mobile homes that are stacked on top of each other.  He fixes inferior equipment to sell for food, as well as to access the OASIS.  Thus he has inferior equipment and limited online funds.  Without credits, Parzival cannot teleport from one world to the next.  This disadvantage inhibits him from completing quests to level up and buy more stuff.  And although his friend Aech is rich from climbing to ever higher levels, he never asks to borrow money.  It’s not the gunter way.  But Aech could give aid in other ways, such as dropping off Parzival on a world for lower level players while on his way to more advanced quests.  

I can relate to this aspect of Parzival - being at the bottom of the gaming barrel.  I had a paper-route for the Idaho State Journal as a young teenager which paid me around $20 to $25 a month.  I saved diligently in the hope of one day buying better equipment.  I’d outgrown my Atari in the early 1980s, but my parents could not afford a home computer.  My desire for something better was only exacerbated by seeing War Games.  Its portrayal of using a computer as the ultimate gaming system motivated me to dedicate every waking hour of my thirteen year old life to get one.  I wanted a home computer.  I wanted one bad.  I recalled that desperation after Cline reminded me of War Games, OASIS style.

I did farm work the summer before and after eighth grade to earn extra money for my future Commodore 64.  A big farm truck would drive around town collecting a small army of kids in the morning and we’d spend all day pulling rye.  The area’s early settlers had planted it, and wild strains still mixed in with the modern wheat crop.  It stood taller and darker, so it was easy to spot.  We’d uproot it, bend it in half, and throw it into a pile.  Back breaking work, but worth it for the promise of my own home computer.  When I finally had enough money, I hooked my new Commodore 64 to my black and white Zenith TV.  I only had a tape drive and not a great selection of games, but this isn’t what deflated me.  Cline refers to those early tape drives, and mentions the depressing reality not portrayed in War Games: the game cassettes also took forever to load.  Nonetheless, I felt special.  No one in the eighth grade, that I knew of, owned a Commodore 64.   Then it happened.  I struck up a friendship with a guy who just got one.  We bonded.

I think Parzival’s relationship with his best friend, Aech, is based on the same kind of bond.  They are both solo gunters.  Aech hosts gunters in his private room - the Basement.  It’s a place decorated with 1980s nostalgia and games.  This reminded me of my hangout, my “Basement” back in the day known as the Little Bargain Barn.  This convenience store and gas station was actually shaped like a red barn and had the greatest selection of games in town, from Donkey Kong to the later classics such as Mortal Kombat.  I’d walk all the way across town, past the golf course, just to have a weekend gaming outing there with my buddy.  He told me about this text game on his Commodore 64 - Zork.  I didn’t have it since it only sold as a floppy disk.  And because game graphics were made worse by my black and white TV, I remained jealous of my friend’s setup - color TV, computer desk, and a floppy disk drive.  Since both Parzival and I had friends with more of everything, we had to up our games.

I dreaded another summer of pulling rye, much like Parzival who dreads his tech support job later in the novel.  Cline, too, must have felt this dread since he writes about it so convincingly.  Eventually, I had a system as good as my friend and I bought a box of blank floppy disks, the big 5 1/4” ones.  Together we pirated a ton of games.  The first was obviously Zork. When we met at the Little Bargain Barn, I’d tell him how I was stuck, but he had already advanced to the Zork sequels.  He’d give me clues, continuing to be Aech to my Parzival.  Cline transformed Zork into a “three-dimensional immersive simulation all located on the planet Frobozz.”  Genius.  I found myself dreaming about a whole planet based on Zork inspired by what I read rather than what I have seen.  Cline recreated my long forgotten excitement for Zork.  He took a text based game and converted it into a new three dimensional world...but there is no three dimensional world!  It’s like using text within a text.  Brilliant!

Cline’s other game that took me back in time was Joust.  I love how he used it in the book, and his description about tapping the button to get the ostrich to fly was fantastic.  I think my my buddy and I pounded that arcade game into submission.  We’d would race across the street at lunchtime from William Thomas Middle School to Taco Time.  We’d be the first to play Joust.  Since my mom worked there I could get free lunches and bum quarters from her purse.  I allotted myself only $5 per month from my paper-route for gaming.  That’s just 20 quarters.  I had to make every game count.  My friend crucified me every time since his quarters seemed unlimited.  He always had more experience.  And when the cafeteria crowd crossed the street, it can only be described as a gunter clan descending on the fast food joint that had room for only two arcade games.  When the only Joust in town is across the street from your school, the quarters will line up.  Cline captures the essence of that experience with his own version of a quarter and Pac Man.  My competitive fire demanded that I be able to enter my three initials, MAS for Mark Alan Schelske, as the high score.  My friend and I had that “I own this game” mentality.  And so did Parzival.  After finding the first key, his high score appears in the number one slot of top ten OASIS Scoreboard.  Another brilliant part of the book.

And more brilliant yet, is that in the OASIS you can be anybody: orc, wizard, or even a mirror image of yourself.  But anonymity is essential.  And that’s the essence of this novel.  The reader’s imagination, alone and uninhibited, is led on Parzival’s quest.  And what a convergence of possibility.  You can use a lightsaber to fight a wizard or an orc!  Almost every conceivable science fiction or fantasy character and world is part of the OASIS.  An absolute gamer’s paradise.  The 3D goggles and haptic gloves simulate sound, sight and touch.  Extra accessories can give the sense of taste and smell.  In a way, it turns The Matrix on its head.  There are no plug-ins that debase the human body.  You have augmented accessories.  You can even go to school, explore worlds never seen, and just simply go where no one has gone before.  Cline’s triumph is making imagination effortless.  He even surprises you with Aech, who is not what he seems.  That’s triple dog brilliant.  So be ready player one, Cline’s book will blow your mind.

My one disagreement with Adam Miller’s review regards the ending.  He didn’t like it, but I did.  Adam believes it to be a tidy cliche where everything is righted and the good guy prevails over the bad.  And, most obviously, the hero gets the girl.  Yet from my viewpoint everything was NOT righted.  The dystopian world Cline so brilliantly describes still remains.  A corporate bad guy got arrested, but that did not, in any way, change the system.  And though getting the girl is an overused cliche, I argue that the novel’s portrayal of teenage angst mirrored any number of 1980s John Hughes movies (i.e. Sixteen Candles where the girl gets the guy).  From this viewpoint, the novel’s ending is a perfect fit with the rest of the book.  Had it not gone down that way, it’d be like Leonard not getting Penny in the series finale of The Big Bang Theory.  You can’t just build up a budding romance and leave the reader hanging ...

As this review has made clear, I channeled so much of Cline’s novel, including his version of a John Hughes movie plot.  Like Wade Owen Watts (aka Parzival), I had the same social awkwardness, the same experience of never being given any notice by a potential love interest, but also the same resolve to do something about it.  I got rid of the baby fat and broke out of my gaming cocoon.  Though I didn’t hack into a global corporation, I did meet someone in a Fantasy and Science Fiction literature class in my sophomore year of high school.  I was paired with an attractive junior for a big project:  write a fantasy.  Long story short, my writing partner laughed at my imagination.  I came up with a water-world whose civilization is fueled by whale dung.  The story received an A, and I got my first date and kiss.  The ending of Ready Player One so easily extracted this memory.  Like the book, getting my first date did not solve the world’s problems, but it did serve as the entry point into another stage of life.  And to be real, Wade’s triumph could not have changed the energy crisis or mass poverty, but it did give hope that he could make a difference.

So in sum, have some fun.  Read Ready Player One.

By Mark Schelske