Review: Ready Player One

January 13th, 2015 by jkastronis

Rarely have I seen a book as widely praised and recommended to me as Ready Player One by Ernest Cline was. Friends reported great things, game developers I know have raved about it, and it has gotten great ratings on Goodreads, Amazon, and other places. I’ve been interested in reading it for quite a long time, but I only finally picked it up this past December.

Whenever something is hyped as much as Ready Player One was to me, the risk is that the reality will not live up to the expectation. But even knowing this, I was incredibly disappointed in it. In fact, I would go as far to say that it’s perhaps the most overrated novel I’ve ever read.

Ready Player One is a novel set in the near future, where Earth has run low on natural resources, wars have ravaged the world, and poverty is rife. The only refuge for people is a globe-spanning, free-to-play virtual reality called the Oasis. Using VR goggles and haptic gloves, users are fully immersed in it. Nearly everyone in the world utilizes the Oasis, so much that its currency is the Earth’s de facto currency, people attend school inside it, and famous players are huge celebrities.

At the start of the novel, James Halliday the eccentric founder of the Oasis passes away, revealing that he has hidden an Easter egg inside the game. The first person to uncover the egg will inherit his fortune and controlling interest in the company that administers the Oasis. This causes a mad rush to discover the egg and, as Halliday was a major 80s culture geek, the entire world becomes obsessed with the 80s.

But years pass and no one ever even uncovers the first part of the Easter egg. Most of the world gives up on finding it, but dedicated individuals called gunters continue to search for it by fully submerging themselves in 80s culture by listening to music, watching movies, and playing games from the era. Opposing them is a megacorporation IOI, which utilizes an army of faceless contractors to search for the egg, so they can gain control of the Oasis and turn it into a subscription-based service.

Wade Watts, known in the Oasis as Parzival, is a teenager who has dedicated his life to uncovering the Easter egg. When he uncovers the Easter egg’s first key and passes its first gate, the hunt for the egg is reignited and he gets thrust into a dangerous world.

The ideas for the novel are interesting and sound. If you handed me a rough outline for the novel, I would immediately be intrigued by what was being presented to me. A fully immersive video game with a massive puzzle that people are struggling to figure out? This sounds like a dream come true to me, something that has immense promise.

Unfortunately, the actual execution of the novel falls incredibly short.

The largest fault of the novel is the way in which it utilizes the 80s culture. Instead of having it actually be important, either requiring a reader to be familiar with it to anticipate solutions or figure out things ahead of (or along with) the narrator, it merely drops a load of references in the reader’s lap and leaves it at that. A typical sentence in the novel goes like this, “Aech and I had wasted countless hours on two-player classics like Contra, Golden Axe, Heavy Barrel, Smash TV, and Ikari Warriors.”

At one point a list of movies on a shelf are noted, another time the names of several 80s rock bands are stated. In none of these cases are these details important or pertinent. They are simply stated and dropped. Replace the above games with Mega Man, Final Fantasy, RBI Baseball, M.U.L.E., and Super Mario Bros and you get an identical scene.

Later in the novel, Parzival comes into possession of an in-game replica DeLorean from Back to the Future which he soups up with multiple other 80s references (such as giving it a computer system named KITT). Several paragraphs are spent describing it, how he came into possession of it, and why it’s so amazing and awesome. It’s never mentioned again.

Perhaps the most egregious examples of this are the challenges Parzival has to overcome to make his way through the gates and win the Easter egg. He has to defeat a nearly-perfect computer at Joust, run through the old Dungeons of Daggorath adventure game, perfectly recite the lines from WarGames, and many other similar tasks. None of these are connected to each other except for having been made in the 80s. None have any deeper meaning or message to them.

They are utterly replaceable and completely shallow.

In a way, when I was reading, I was reminded of the Date/Epic/Disaster Movie/Meet the Spartans franchise of films, which are so often denigrated as utterly unwatchable by many of the same people who had recommended this book to me. In those films, which are ostensibly parodies of popular movies, much of the humor is supposed to be found through the references they make to pop culture. Unfortunately, the jokes rarely have any sort of punchline or payoff. In one scene, Britney Spears will be there, doing something that Britney Spears did the year before the movie was released. In another, a character from a big block buster that year pops up and says aline then gets knocked unconscious and never appears again.

These movies are universally panned and rightly so. They’re utterly terrible.

Yet those references are so often what I found being praised in Ready Player One. The only difference is those movies referenced current pop culture, while the novel references pop culture from 20-30 years ago. Not coincidentally, this is the era that most of the people who recommended the book were kids in (as was I myself).

But the vapidness of the references is not the only flaw of the book. The characters themselves are flat, uninteresting, and unappealing.

Parzival, the hero of the story, has few qualities about him that make him heroic. He is merely driven by a desire to win the prize. He has few redeeming qualities, being so tied up in his quest for the egg that he neglects nearly everything else; a social life, education, bettering himself. All he does is study the 80s, play its video games, and watch its movies.

The challenges he faces are never overcome through hardship, but rather through coincidence or luck. He has a stroke of insight that leads him to the first key (though he pieces together a couple of fairly obvious clues, which apparently no one before him was smart enough to figure out for years despite it being plainly obvious to readers when first presented), then happens to win it because he just happened to have played the game he was challenged at extensively before. When he later has to recite lines from movies perfectly, they just happen to be some he absolutely loves. When he faces a game that he doesn’t know, he just happens to be told a cheat code so he can beat it. When everyone else gets killed in the game, he just happens to have picked up an extra life.

The few bad things that happen to him are glossed over. Near the beginning of the story, his home is blown up by IOI after he won’t tell them how to get the 1st key. Of course, he lived with an abusive relative in a slum; after it’s destroyed he is able to move to a high priced apartment sanctuary right near the Oasis servers. He gets beaten to the 2nd gate by his ex-girlfriend and former best friend, but they tell him how to get there anyway so he can catch up.

The sole bit of character growth Parzival gets is in relationship to Art3mis, a famous female gunter who is almost as good at the game as he is. The two of them solve the first gate at nearly the same time and Parzival, who has long admired her from afar, falls in love with her and they start dating. When they begin to neglect the hunt because of each other, she breaks things off with him.

Of course, Art3mis, as the only real female character in the story (Parzival’s other friend, Aech, is revealed to be a girl masquerading as a male near the end of the novel, though it’s of such little consequence that Parzival goes right back to using male pronouns to refer to her soon after) is presented little more as another prize for Parzival to chase after. She is the typical fantasy girl, someone who happens to be into the same stuff he is but always plays second fiddle, gives in to his desires for her, and ultimately has no existence outside of how she relates to him.

Even the antagonist, the evil megacorporation IOI and the head of its search for the egg, Nolan Sorrento, are flat. IOI wants to win simply so it can take over and “monetize” the Oasis… Ignoring that the Oasis is already the most used product in the world aside from oxygen. It forces its employees to be faceless drones for no reason (it sets them apart in the game and makes them easy targets for those who oppose them). It puts people into indentured servitude in the real world when they’re in debt. It’s basically evil for the sake of being evil, nothing more.

Of course, much of what Parzival objects to about IOI is hypocritical. He frequently complains that IOI wants to make people pay a fee to access the Oasis, taking away its “free” nature. This conveniently ignores that, early on in the novel, Parzival is stuck on one section of the Oasis because he cannot afford to pay the fee to travel to others. The Oasis is basically a giant “freemium” product where players can pay real money to buy in-game currency, better equipment, and travel much quicker than without.

Many of the most despised games in existence today follow similar business models. Yet the owners of the Oasis are presented as pristine champions of freedom, while IOI are brutal oppressors. Were there any subversive elements of the novel, I might believe this dichotomy was purposeful.

The novel, on the whole, has virtually no redeeming features other than a potentially interesting rough idea that was utterly wasted. So why does it currently have a 4.1 out of 5 star rating on Goodreads? I suspect for the same reason that Twilight is so popular despite being one of the worst pieces of literature ever.

It throws a bunch of things the target audience likes (video games, D&D, a socially inept nerd who utilizes his obsession to triumph, obscure references, etc) together and goes “Here you go!” They see it and go “Hey, I like those things!” and are blinded to the actual lack of quality of the material. It’s like when people see Monty Python’s The Holy Grail for the first time then spend the next several weeks shouting random lines from it and laughing uproariously. Even though the line has no comedic worth out of context, their minds remember how hilarious the line was when they first saw it and it fills in the humor for them.

But really it’s just empty and ultimately pointless.

Posted in Book reviews | Comments Off on Review: Ready Player One

Comments are closed.