“Going outside is highly overrated”
I’ve decided to do something different for this post. Normally I talk about games but I’ve decided now to write about a book. Of course, I’ll not be talking about just any old book. I’ve chosen to write about Ernest Cline’s highly acclaimed novel Ready Player One. I’ll try to avoid spoilers as much as possible but I will have to discuss at least some of the plot. I’ll not reveal anything major. Anyway, I’ve read a lot about this book online and I’ve always wanted to read it. I’ve wondered what a novel about video games would be like. How would a novelist capture the experience of playing a game on paper? Would it be exciting to read? Or would reading about someone else playing games merely make you want to stop reading and play yourself? I had a lot of questions and high expectations when I started reading Ready Player One. How did the novel turn out? Well, let me tell you.
Let’s start by looking at the novel’s setting and the skeleton of its plot. The year is 2044 and the world is in a bad way. War, famine and climate change ravage the globe. Most people find solace in OASIS, an immersive form of the Internet that also functions as an MMORPG. The eccentric creator of OASIS, James Halliday, hid an Easter Egg in OASIS which will bestow his legal inheritance on anyone who finds it. To unlock Easter Egg, the player has to find three keys, open three gates and undergo a series of challenges related to the pop culture of the 1980s. The novel follows Wade Watts, a poor teenager living in a shantytown of old RVs, as he hunts for the legendary Egg. Along the way, he befriends a few other hunters: Aech, Daito, Shoto and Artemis. An evil corporation called the IOI is dead set on getting the Egg in order to take over OASIS and turn it into a cash-printing machine by imposing fines for its use. Wade and his friends work together to hunt for the Egg before the IOI turns their digital paradise into a nightmare.
As soon as I started the book, I felt that something was wrong. The premise didn’t make much sense to me. If the world is the on brink of collapse and if resources are so scarce, how could people power a system as complex as OASIS? A fully 3-D immersive MMORPG that features thousands of worlds and millions of accounts? Shouldn’t people be using electricity for something other than a giant video game? What about using the world’s limited supply of energy on food storage or some other essential service? If the world is in the midst of an energy crisis, shouldn’t people be careful about electricity? The premise isn’t well thought-out at all. Many questions essential to fleshing out the world of the novel go unanswered. This is because the vast majority of the novel takes place in OASIS. I’ll return to that when we discuss the plot proper but suffice it to say that the focus on OASIS doesn’t allow Cline enough time to give proper detail to the world.
Let’s move on to the most important aspect of any novel: the writing. There are so many problems with Cline’s style that it’s hard to know where to begin. The first and most egregious problem with Cline’s writing is his tendency to tell rather than show. That’s one of the first things they teach you in creative writing class: show, don’t tell! For example, (minor spoilers here) Cline writes out a chat log between Wade and Artemis to show that they’re slowing falling for each other. They banter and playfully tease each other, showing every indication that they’re gradually warming to each other. In the very next part of the chapter, Cline skips a few weeks, telling the reader that Artemis and Wade had become much closer and had fallen in love. The romance isn’t believable because it moves too quickly. Write out more chat logs. Show the two of them doing things together. Something! Just don’t tell me that they fell for each other: show me! Cline also tends to tell rather than show in the sections of the novel in which he describes Wade trying to pass the challenges in the three gates. For example, (minor spoilers) one gate has Wade play through the video game Black Tiger. Cline only describes the very first room of the game and then basically says, “Well, Wade got through the rest. It was hard but he made it.” I wanted some details of the game!
Another major problem with Cline’s style is harder to pin down but is equally annoying: it’s totally artless. Cline has zero flair at all when he writes, simply narrating events with few devices. Cline uses only a few metaphors or similes. The book has little memorable imagery, use of antithesis or strategic repetition. Instead of building his style with these literary devices, Cline establishes Wade’s voice with references to the 1980s. While Wade’s obsession is justified (weakly) by the plot since Halliday was obsessed with the 80s and built his challenges around that time period, that doesn’t give Cline license to put at least two references to the 80s on every single page of the book. Every single thing, place or person Wade encounters reminds him of something from the 80s. The places he haunts in the OASIS are littered with fantasy novels, magazines and movies from the 80s. 80s, 80s, 80s. You’ll come to hate the 80s after reading this book even if you grew up in the 80s. I found the innumerable references disorienting since I was born in the 90s. Thank goodness I play video games or else most of the novel would have been completely lost to me. Cline’s supplementing actual literary craft with the 1980s is an unacceptably poor choice since it allows only those who happen to share his specific interests to understand a large portion of the novel.
Let’s examine the characters. Wade is the stereotypical, anti-social, overweight “nice-guy” nerd. I wish there were more to say about his character but that’s it. Wade spends most of the book dropping 80s references, pining over Artemis, describing his in-game gear and character or expositing. Cline makes Wade even more unlikeable in some utterly ridiculous scenes. For example, Wade spends a few pages lovingly describing his fancy computer, in another he discusses how he bought virtual sex dolls to alleviate his loneliness (what was Cline thinking when he wrote that one?!). I couldn’t identify with Wade and I didn’t root for him either. I disliked his shallow obsessions, his self-pitying and lack of redeeming qualities. The other characters fare no better. Artemis is a stereotypical nerd girl (Wade even describes her as “Rubenesque “) and Shoto and Daito act like samurai straight out of the old movies. Aech is the only character with any actual depth but his entire character arc acts as nothing more than lip-service to liberal ideals (I won’t discuss this point any further to avoid spoilers). IOI and the Sixers, the novel’s antagonists, are equally shallow although they are effective. Cline gives them one motivation for their evil actions (which include enslavement, murder, stealing and cheating): greed. Corporations in real life do similar things for the sake of greed so I can accept how Cline paints the IOI. They could use a little more detail and coloring, though.
Let’s move on to the plot. I won’t spoil much but there are some serious pacing and plotting issues in this book. One major problem occurs early on (it’s always a bad sign when plotting issues begin to appear so close to the start of a novel!). When Wade begins telling his story, his avatar is weak and he has almost no money. Then, overnight, he becomes powerful and earns a steady income. Wade’s transformation from underdog to celebrity happens much too quickly and Wade settles into his new role with shocking ease. In fact, Wade gets through every major challenge quite easily. He overcomes each one in one of three ways: he throws money at it, he outplays it in a video game or he makes an 80s reference at it. That’s it. Cline doesn’t advance his plot in a compelling way at all. The other major issue with the plot is its sense of scope. Cline tells us that the world is in dire straits. Why then should his audience care so much about a video game contest, even if a lot of money is involved? Why should the audience care about this cast of characters so stuck in the past, whose struggles won’t necessarily fix the world? The problems Cline describes (war, famine, climate change) aren’t the sort that you can throw money at. I found myself unable to care too much for the contest with the doomed world looming in the background. The final major plot issue is the ham-fisted moral with which Cline ends Ready Player One. He ultimately argues (spoilers here too I guess) that it is foolish to hide from reality by burying yourself in virtual games and other escapist media. Yet it is only by burying himself in virtual games and other escapist media that Wade is able to resolve the book’s plot. The message runs strongly counter to the action of the novel.
Ready Player One fails as a novel. I came into it excited at the prospect of seeing video games and books (two things I like a lot) coming together. Unfortunately, Cline fails to put the two together. I think that writing a novel that engages another medium is a lot like translating: you have to be well-versed in both the language you translate into and the language you translate from. So it is with novels like Ready Player One: you need to be well-versed in playing video games and in writing literature. Cline is good at only one of those things.