Ready Player One by Ernest Cline is a bildungsroman (coming of age story) set in the near future, which feels much more Mad Max’s Australia than Bill & Ted’s San Dimas. The title itself is a reference to old arcade style games where you would insert a quarter to commence game play. Any gamer who grew up in that era has instant nostalgia for that phrase. The title is apt given the nature of the book and its reliance on gaming culture to propel the action forward.
The entire world of Ready Player One is over crowded and much of the population lives in high rises made from cars and mobile homes called The Stacks. The only escape from this harsh reality is an online virtual world, The OASIS. Everything a person could ever want to do can be achieved in the OASIS which plays much like an MMORPG with quests and PVP. Avatars can gain experience, collect items, and level-up. The OASIS is a fully immersive environment, requiring players to have specialized gear to interact with the world. The creator of this world, James Halliday has passed away and sent the entire world on an Easter Egg hunt to earn the right to inherent his fortune. The first clue proves to be impossible to decipher and the hype over the hunt has died down by the time the novel begins. Only the most devoted to the quest, dubbing themselves "gunters" (a combination of egg hunters) still try to decipher the meaning of that first clue.
Our protagonist is one Wade Watts aka Parzival, a low level gunter who dreams of finding Halliday’s Easter Egg. He has devoted his life to learning everything about the man and his interests. The plot unfolds as Parzival becomes the first person in The OASIS to decipher the first clue and earn his name on the scoreboard by finding the Copper Key and closing the Copper Gate. After closing the gate, it becomes a race against time to figure out the next clues before an evil cooperation with unlimited resources, Innovative Online Industries, becomes the first to discover The Egg and use the inheritance to ruin The OASIS.
Ready Player One is an enjoyable story. Despite starring a young protagonist, Watts starts as a senior in high school, doesn’t fall into the traps and tropes of a YA novel. This was clearly written for an adult audience. The novel’s strengths lie in the world building of not only The OASIS, but society as it has evolved in 2044. Global Warming has taken its toll on the environment and all natural resources have been depleted in the real world. It’s a vast wasteland and even populated areas are lawless and unsafe. It’s easy to see how society would turn to the virtual world when the real one is beyond repair. The OASIS can expand infinitely, but the moment it was conceptualized a virtual economy sprung up to sell virtual real estate and in game items.
The weak points in the novel revolve around the endless barrage of 1980s pop culture references. Cline doesn’t just settle for a series of three items to make a point, sometimes listing up to 20 examples to show the depth of Parzival’s knowledge of Halliday’s obsessions. These moments can be a bit cumbersome to read through. Another weak point in the novel is the lull in action after the Copper Gate is closed. It was frustrating to see Parzival squander and live off his endorsement deals instead of actively pursuing the quest.
Overall, Ready Player One is a fun read if you are a gamer or versed in the culture of the 1980s. It might be harder for some younger readers to relate to the technology and more obscure pop culture references, but the characters and themes are highly relate-able no matter your background.