Link to Part 1
The following is an update on my thoughts going through Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, as I reached the half-way mark. I have hit the thrillingly suspenseful part where the lady comes on to say, “This audiobook has been broken into parts to make the download faster.” I have no intention of spoiling the book. At this point, I suggest that anyone with a passing interest in the novel’s touchstones including classic video games, 80s pop culture, science-fiction, escapism, and MMORPGs should give the books a read. That being said, there is an idea about the way the story is delivered that has been floating around my mind. The thought derives from college professors discussing student-written fiction and published fiction, explaining why some guys are on a bookstore shelves and others getting a C+’s.
There is a concept that a piece of fiction should ring true to the audience. It is impossible to know the experiences of everybody in your audience. Nevertheless, the audience should be able to imagine people behaving in the real world as they do in your story. That a story takes place in an imaginary setting far from the known earth and is populated by fish-people makes no difference. Intelligent beings should act in ways that make sense to the audience.
With Ready Player One, the thought that a teenager in the 2040s would be in rapt enjoyment of 1980s console and computer games composed of dots, blocks, lines, and beeps seems far-fetched. It is hard enough for me to play the original Double Dragon, a game that I committed months to playing as kid, on an NES emulator without thinking that there are better ways for me to spend my time. I have played a lot games since the days when I played as Billy or Jimmy Lee jump-kicking through waves of street thugs. Most of them have had a lot more to offer as the resources of game producers increased. I have got no other reason than nostalgia to go back and play the original Galaga. I can play Radiant on my iPhone and get a game that is a mixture of Galaga and Asteroids that includes bosses, a weapon upgrade map, and a funny story. I understand that great games are great games and that their presentation may be irrelevant or even charmingly quaint decades later, but what frame of reference does a 17 year-old in 2044 have to appreciate Pitfall?
Pitfall was one of my top 3 favorite Atari 2600 games, along with Defender and Spider-Man. I fired that game up a few years ago on an emulator. After I had shaken off my rust, I wondered just how long I still had to keep playing it. The game has no real end, just a timer that I could never wear down. There are no bosses in that game, only obstacles for you to hop over. In the world of Ready Player One, 1980s video games are primarily played in a virtual reality that is as immersive as a holodeck. Besides, the classic games, the contemporary games mentioned in the book are deeper than anything a 2012 gamer could play short of LARP’ing with augmented reality goggles. Yet, in this virtual world, the avatars of the primary characters sit down on a virtual sofa and play Joust on a virtual Atari 2600.
The culture of a eighties obsession in Ready Player One accounts for the intensity of the teenage characters’s intetest in the old games. Many of them are devoted to an epic quest where only those who have significantly more than an superficial familiarity with the popular output of the 1980s will succeed. That might explain how loving Adventure or Combat is somewhat similar to enjoying the simple mini-games in Final Fantasy X that provide the secret weapons that help the player defeat the final boss. (Although, I do not think that anyone actually enjoyed the FFX mini-games because they were so damn tedious. A better example would probably be Tetra Master from FFIX which was a fun mini-game; pointless, but fun.) Even so, when I play a really old game, I generally find them more tedious than fun. Anyway, as the story progressed and I saw more of the world, I was able to accept that in the particular set of circumstances that Cline has established for his characters, his lonely, awkward geeks can fall in love with the old games even though the newer games are infinitely deeper by comparison. It kind of suggests to me that when the characters grow up, they may look fondly back at the game they have been playing, but opt not to play it again.
Of course, old games are only part of it. These teens have to discover the value of crappy top 40 eighties pop hits and zeitgeisty, cult-classic movies and know a pageboy haircut from a flock of seagulls 60 years after any of those things were initially popular. Perhaps, it is my own general dislike of much of the 1980s pop culture that causes me to doubt the timelessness of it all. Cline presents the 80s as an era of fun, style, and opportunity through both of the protagonist reliving the era and his idol who both lived through that decade and programmed the virtual reality of it. There is no characters in the book thus far to disagree with that assessment. The impression that I get reading the book is that by the 2040s, in the midst of a 30-year North American recession, culture has came to an end outside of the virtual world and all the people inside the virtual reality have left is the past to idealize.
I find that hard to swallow. There will always be art so long as we do not have to kill each other for food. It is implied in the world of Ready Player One that there are still musicians, artists, writers, and game developers, but none of the characters in the story have any interest in their own contemporary culture. Compared to their hobby, the quest in which they are all engaged, the outside world is largely silent. The main character has at least mentioned that he has played some contemporary games without going into much detail. Another character is a college student interested in creative writing. So there are things going on in there periphery, but this book only focused on their common hobby. Fair enough. I do have geek tendencies and I have gone through phases of obsessions with video games, music, comic books, theology, Dungeons and Dragons, etc, etc, when other aspects of my life have taken a back seat. What is difficult for me to buy into is that no background aspects of the characters’s lives bleed over into their hobby.
My impressions of Ready Player One will develop as I wrap up the second half. Already, events have occurred that are leading the main character to take an objective look at himself and his hobby. He facing the fact that his entire life has been his quest which he thinks of as only a game. In the story, Cline does not give us a character whose life influences his hobbies or interactions. The narrative voice is in first-person, so it makes sense that the character focuses on what is important to him; life outside of the virtual world is not. If Cline had used an objective third-person voice, he might have had to show us a lot more to tell the story. Additionally, the narrative voice also employs the past-tense. Therefore, the narrator has already lived through the experiences, but he still does not have anything more to say about how his real life affects virtual life.
The only thing that I have noticed from the real world that affects the virtual world is money. My experience tells tells me that there should be more to than that, so that one aspect of the story does not have the ring of truth to it. This will not stop me from enjoying the book. It is only a cause for disbelief that I have decided to suspend because I am enjoying the adventure.
A bunch of the Youtube links I used came from the Classic Gaming Room channel. There are lots of gameplay reviews for old school games there. It’s worth a look.