The impact of Ready Player One and the future of virtual reality

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The movie version of Ready Player One is finally happening. A teaser trailer was released at San Diego Comic-Con International, showcasing Stephen Spielberg’s vision of the story. The movie will be vastly different from the book by the look of things. However, that shouldn’t worry fans as the author of the book – Ernest Cline – is actively involved in the adaptation. I’m looking forward to the movie as a version of the story and will not be terribly concerned if it doesn’t match the book exactly. I can only imagine the licensing nightmare the film would run into if it did.

Regardless, Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One is, without a doubt, my favorite book. I’m not sure if it’s the broad appeal of the source material, the relate-able protagonist, the soundtrack (yes, the book has a soundtrack), something else, or any combination thereof. The fact remains I’ve read the book several times, listened to the audio version and made my own RP1 soundtrack over time.

First, however, I must state explicitly that this is not a review of the book. Plenty of those already exist, so why should I add to the pile? Besides, this article wouldn’t exist if didn’t already love the story and everything about it, so there’s no need to get into the detail. It is merely my thoughts on the book, what it means to me and a rumination on the future of virtual reality. I’m fascinated by virtual reality and what it means to the future of the way we consume content. I even intend to study it more in-depth soon.

This is also not a breakdown of the film trailer, a dismissal of the film or a call to action. I am looking forward to seeing the movie and will judge it on its own merits after I watch it.

Now that I’ve dispensed with the pleasantries, I sometimes wonder why I enjoy the book so much, this battered old paperback I found in an ARC Thrift Store for $1.99. I no longer have that copy, by the way. It was loaned out and never returned, so I bought a digital version. I’m guessing I’m not the only fan of this novel out there. Still, I think about what appeals so much to me about this book. Perhaps, it’s that I see so much of myself in Cline’s protagonist, Wade Watts. Let’s consider Wade for a moment.

Wade begins the story by escaping into one type of alternate reality: video games on a laptop. In this case, they’re ROMs being played on the computer traditionally, rather than the virtual reality environment into which the reader is later introduced.

Wade finds himself essentially living in a virtual world of the OASIS. The OASIS is used by basically everyone in the world for work, school, and entertainment. Without spoiling too much of the novel – a recommended read, in my opinion, for anyone in our industry – the world has gone to hell in a handbasket. Almost all discourse, education, commerce, and entertainment occur within this virtual reality, where anything and everything can be created. The novel goes on to be an incredible thrill ride through the virtual world and features some heavy ’80s nostalgia.

Ready Player One by Ernest ClineThe book begins with one of my all-time favorite bands, Oingo Boingo. Seriously, it starts with OINGO BOINGO! My teenage self would be enamored with that appearance and reference of the band. Of course, as a teenager, anything mentioning Oingo Boingo, Devo, “Weird Al” Yankovic, Conan the Barbarian, Monty Python, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension, Frank Zappa, Ghostbusters and Back to the Future would have probably made my head explode. The book mentions most of those things and incorporates them into the story (just for the record, Cline never mentions Zappa, or “Weird Al” in the story — at least to my recollection).

Nostalgia is part of the appeal of the film version. Early in the trailer, Wade tells the viewer he was born in the year 2025, but wishes he had grown up in the ’80s. I was born in the ’80s, but only have a vague recollection of the era. However, growing up in the ’90s, the pop culture of the ’80s was everywhere. Then, it went out of style for a bit among my peer group, became retro and is now, once again, considered cool among the people of my age group. That is, at least the people I know. The story is so relatable to the people of my generation and the one just before it, I’m not surprised it became such a big hit.

That’s why, when I read this book for the first time at the age of 29, I knew it was something special, at least for me. Look, I’m not getting any younger (I am now in my early 30s) and sometimes I just want to enjoy the things that brought me joy over the years. Reading this book captured so many memories of my younger years and built an entire universe around them. While there’s certainly a nostalgia factor here, I liked the story for so much more than that. Besides, Nostalgia is Weird and I’ve written about that plenty of times.

Wade’s journey in RP1 is so much more than the story of an underdog achieving the impossible. It shows the character rise from humble beginnings – a trailer park known as “the stacks,” a massive tower of old RVs and trailers intended to house people in an overcrowded, dystopian world.

Really, the world around him is going to hell – with wars, poverty, an energy crisis and violence running rampant throughout the world – so he (and almost everyone else) takes refuge in the virtual world of the OASIS.

The reader learns about the OASIS through Wade’s first-person narration. All education, recreation, etc. is done through the OASIS, where players are represented by virtual avatars and exist in what is essentially an open-world MMORPG with limitless possibilities. The OASIS stands for Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation and was programmed by James Halliday, who goes by “Anorak” in the OASIS itself. “Anorak’s Invitation,” Halliday’s Video Will, sets forth the narrative. Here’s the short version:

Anorak invites all users of the OASIS to find the Easter egg he’s hidden in the program. The winner will gain control of the OASIS itself, along with Halliday’s fortune. The members of the OASIS begin searching for the Easter egg and form a loose knit community of “gunters” – people dedicated to solving Halliday’s puzzle and finding the treasure.

There’s also an evil corporation, Innovative Online Industries (IOI), with a team led by story villain Nolan Sorrento. Things get a bit … intense throughout his interaction with Wade. Wade has a best friend of sorts in the character, Aech, and a love interest in the character of Art3mis (pronounced “Artemis”). They meet up with two other gunters, Shoto and Daito, to look for the egg.

Dungeons & Dragons Tomb of Annihilation

If you’d like a visual aid to help your mind’s eye imagine Acererak in the story, just take a look at the cover of the fifth edition Dungeon Master’s Guide or the upcoming D&D adventure, Tomb of Annihilation.

In the story, part of the trial for acquiring the first key is playing through a realistic, virtual reality version of the original Dungeons & Dragons module Tomb of Horrors, including an encounter with the lich-king Acererak and an old arcade game.

The story inspired me to take up playing D&D, after a nearly 15-year hiatus. I hadn’t played since that abysmal Dungeons & Dragons film came out in the year 2000. Thanks to RP1, I was reintroduced to D&D at the beginning of the 5th Edition of the game.

Now, I own Tales from the Yawning Portal, which contains a 5e version of Tomb of Horrors. Guess what my players are going to go through sometime around Halloween? Yep, Ravenloft. Tomb of Horrors is far too difficult for the party in their present state. Anyhow, reading the book rekindled something in me and now I not only actively play D&D, but I also learned to paint miniatures and picked up scale modeling as hobbies.

Speaking of scale modeling, one of my favorite aspects of the story is Wade’s car, the Ecto-88 … which exists in real life. Cline made one himself, which he drives around to book signings, speaking engagements, etc.

I figured I would build my own Ecto-88 as a scale model. For the project, I’ve selected a DeLorean Mark I kit from Back to the Future to kit bash with a Ghostbusters Ecto 1-A and some decals I intend to make myself on Testor’s decal paper. So, stay tuned for that.

There are other parts of the story that, for my tastes, make it an engaging thrill ride. For instance, the battle between the Gunters and the IOI in the OASIS itself makes for some great imagery: giant robots, epic space battles and more. What’s not to love? The book also tries to predict new types of content and dives quite deeply into many older computer, arcade and console games. Remember Zork and Dungeons of Daggorath?

Then, there is the musical component. As previously mentioned, Oingo Boingo is one of my favorite bands. Another one of my favorites pops up as a major plot point: Canadian prog-rock band, RUSH. 2112 is featured as part of a key quest and we learn that Halliday listened almost exclusively to the band while he programmed the OASIS.

I am a big fan of RUSH. Both 2112 and Moving Pictures occupy a special place in my heart, not to mention later albums like Vapor Trails & Clockwork Angels. Come to think of it, I don’t believe they’ve ever made a bad album, and each era has its own charm. The RUSH connection was pretty cool and I presume many other fans of the band were able to live out their fantasy of discovering the guitar and playing it before the priests of the temple vicariously through Cline’s narrative.

On his website, Cline lists several links to the Ready Player One Soundtrack, simple playlists of each song referenced in the story. Some fans have curated their own playlists, which are well worth checking out and go much further than just the songs in the book.

Ready Player One soundtrack mixtape

Finally, the TV and film aspect of the big is quite thorough, touching on many of the major movie releases like Ghostbusters and Raiders of the Lost Ark while also giving a nod lesser films like The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension. Incorporating War Games, Monty Python & the Holy Grail and Blade Runner into the gate challenges not only made me laugh, but helped me make the decision to revisit those films today.

And how can anyone resist the Schoolhouse Rock bit at gate three? Bob Dorough would be proud of the legacy of his creation. Three is, indeed, a magic number.

Cline is clearly as much of a fan of the source material as the denizens of the world in his story. His follow-up, Armada, isn’t as compelling, but I did enjoy it. Cline also managed to make his story much more interactive by having an Easter egg hunt of his own: one lucky winner would receive a DeLorean as the prize. That’s right; Cline gave away a freaking DeLorean to a fan of the book.

Since the book came out in 2011 (I first read it in 2014), it has achieved a massive fan following. Cline knows what fans want and caters to that.  He also has a firm grasp on how to turn nostalgia from a mere trip down memory lane into a unique and engaging plot.

Armada by Ernest ClineSome readers will dismiss RP1 as trite, having too many references or whatever it is they want to say about it; and that’s fine. The thing to remember about the story is that it isn’t just about the references. There is so much going on in the story that it’s difficult to realize that at first. But, let’s forget about the references, the music, the characters and the conflict for a moment and shift our focus to what the book is truly about: a future with virtual reality and how the world will change because of it.

For me, the book and story opened my mind to the possibility of virtual reality and what it’s going to mean to the world as we progress further into a technology-driven future. I think that virtual reality will become the future of entertainment and education.

While I do not believe the world of VR will get to the level of Ready Player One, but I do see it changing the way we interact. The fact is VR has the potential to radically change the way in which human beings interact with each other, much more so than anything we’ve seen with the advent, evolution, and proliferation of the smart phone.

Let’s look around a typical classroom (high school or college, maybe even middle school) for example: most students seem to be disengaged, on their phones constantly.

Walk through the library: ditto. Look around you as you walk down the street and take in how disengaged with each other most people seem, staring into their tiny, glowing box.

Drive around a bit and marvel at the tremendously poor decision-making process which led the person in the car next to you to check Facebook or Twitter while they’re driving.

Oh, and you don’t want to even think about those poor, misguided individuals who come to see a movie, but can’t put the damned phone away for 90 minutes …

But I digress. As we can see, at least through the lens of my own experience, smart phones, and the internet (which I no longer must capitalize thanks to updated AP standards; the world is a truly different place). So, if we consider for a moment people walking around with VR headsets or living in an augmented reality constantly, how disengaged with each other will we be then?

VR on the overall seems to be less of an “interact-with-each-other” technology and more of an “interact-with-the-environment” technology. While companies like VRSE and CEO Chris Milk believe in the power of virtual reality to create the “Ultimate Empathy Machine,” there are others, like the fine folks over at Polygon, who believe otherwise. It seems to be a hot issue that will unlikely be resolved soon.

The article above highlights the dangers of VR – gaslighting for instance – that could lead to a fundamental change in the way we interact. The article also calls for regulation of the technology, though not through government.

Ready Player One film

Will technology completely shut out discourse and interaction? Will we find a way to escape the dystopian reality of RP1? Will Speed Racer ever find out that Racer X is his long-lost brother (spoiler: he does)?

I believe we will achieve something like the OASIS at some point. Companies like Oculus Rift – the book is supposedly required reading if you’re an employee there -are paving the way for the future of virtual reality, and I’m certain Elon Musk will be involved soon. I suppose we’ll find out in the next few years. Until then, I’m going to keep reading/writing cyberpunk and science fiction and eagerly await the day I put on my headset and see those glorious three words emblazoned upon my line of vision:


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About the author

David Buck

David Buck is an author, musician, copywriter, and voice over artist based in Colorado. His work has appeared on Nerdvana Media, The Nintendo Times, Star, EN World, SyFy Wire and across the web. In his spare time, he composes music, writes science fiction, and paints miniatures.