So this is happening.
You may call it low hanging fruit, but I call it expanding my horizons. Sort of. This will be my first entirely (or at least mostly) negative article, and my first about a book. But hey, I write about things that motivate me to write, and this elicited a strong reaction out of me if nothing else. So here we go.
This will obviously contain spoilers for the book Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, but in my opinion they don’t matter THAT much. For the record, I enjoyed the book, and would probably recommend it to any nerd, especially if they love video games, and doubly so if they love the 80’s. It’s the book’s genuine love of its subject matter that kept me going through the writing problems, so in my opinion knowing how the story ends won’t spoil it that much. With that said, I’ll be discussing the ending in detail, so be warned.
With introductions out of the way, let’s start with a short recap.
Ready Player One is a book by Ernest Cline that takes place in a near future where Earth generally sucks. Poverty, pollution, corruption, the whole shebang. The only thing that makes life worth living for most people is OASIS, a sort of VR online game that ended up supplanting the internet and becoming the primary way people interact with the digital world. OASIS is a second layer of reality, on a level that the internet could only dream of.
One day, the reclusive creator of OASIS dies, and leaves his entire fortune as well as control of the game to whoever finds an easter egg that he’s hidden inside it. This creator was well known to be obsessed with 1980’s pop culture, and knowledge of his obsessions would prove to be essential to completing this quest. The main character, Wade Watts, is a young man that’s dedicated his life to finding the easter egg.
The story follows his finding of the first clue, the subsequent challenges, his competition with other egg hunters, a stupid love story, and his pursuit by an evil corporation trying to find the egg for themselves. It’s all, largely, fine. As mentioned before, the genuine geekiness keeps it afloat, and despite all its flaws I was having a good time. But then the ending happened.
I’m going to describe what happens in detail, then go back and attack each event individually.
The evil corporation has found the location of the easter egg but can’t get to it, and they’ve blockaded the whole area. The main characters all meet up to discuss a strategy, but they’re concerned the corporation will find them in the real world. The main character, who’s had a plan for everything for the last third of the book, has no plan for this. At this point, the lifelong friend of the game’s creator shows up (who I will call by his name Og for brevity). He’s been invisible and watching them for quite some time. He admits that he’s been entrusted with safeguarding the integrity of the search for the egg, though he won’t help anyone actually acquire it. He offers to give their real-world bodies a safe place to stay at his mansion.
They main characters all meet up at the mansion, and along the way Wade meets up with his long time internet friend, who ends up not being a young white guy but instead a heavyset black girl. They reconnect anyway, head to the mansion with the other main characters, and proceed with their plan. Wade sends out a message to every egg hunter in OASIS, calling on them to attack the evil corporation’s blockade. He pulls off a secret plan to take out their impenetrable barrier, and a great big fight starts.
It’s immediately stated that the good guys massively outnumber and outgun the bad guys, but the bad guy boss steps out and personally steps into his Mechagodzilla and starts laying waste. The main characters’ only objective is to reach the door of the building the bad guys were guarding, but nonetheless takes and extra moment to put a beat down on the bad guy boss with a trump card item that’s been mentioned a few times before. The main characters open the gate to the end together, only to be immediately blown up by a super-duper bomb that bad guys had been keeping in reserve.
Wade survives because of some “seemingly irrelevant” item he acquired earlier, and through some nonsense gets back to the gate. He completes the puzzles, finds the egg, and gets all the money. A recording of the game’s creator shows up to say “hey, congrats for winning, kid. You’re invincible and all powerful now. Here’s a button that will permanently delete OASIS. Toodles.” Wade goes outside where the remaining bad guys are, wipes them out in one fell swoop, revives his buddies, then logs out. Og congratulates him, they see on the news that the bad guy boss has been arrested, he goes to meet the love interest girl who seems to finally be accepting his feelings, and the book ends.
If that all seems like a lot to take in, especially the last paragraph, then congrats, you’re starting to get the picture. Now let’s back up and take this slow.
The involvement of Og
This one should be obvious. Og has been mentioned pretty sparingly up to this point, though some foreshadowing that only makes sense later shows that he’s been watching the main characters for a very long time. When Wade gathers the main characters together, he already has a plan in place for everything. He knows how to take down the shield, how to take on the evil corporation’s army, and how to enter the gate. But when faced with the question of ensuring his friends’ safety, his answer is a resounding “i’unno”. At this point, Og shows up, and it’s a big reveal that kind of makes it look like Wade’s somehow brought Og into all of this.
He didn’t. He had no solution for this critical flaw in his plan but at the perfect moment Og shows up to solve their problems. I won’t belabor the point beyond pointing out that this is convenient as hell. To the story’s credit, his involvement is minimal beyond this point, though we do find out that he holds a piece of information that’s critical to solving the puzzle. Good thing he took a liking to them!
Meeting in the real world
This isn’t so much a flaw in the story as it is a trope in this genre I saw coming a mile away. Of course one of the boys is really a girl or vice versa.
On a somewhat related note, Wade has been pursuing love interest girl for quite a while, who continuously refuses to tell him what she really looks like and insists he would be disgusted (Wade is convinced that she looks like her avatar). So obviously her face is messed up somehow. Through some hacking later he finds a picture of her, and what do you know, she does look like her avatar, except she has a huge birthmark on one side of her face. Phew! For a moment it looked like the main character in a wish fulfillment novel would have to deal with his love interest not being as attractive as he first thought, but thankfully her disfigurement is the kind of thing that also kinda looks cool and her ugliness is all in her head! The main guy gets the hot girl after all!
The great big battle
The whole scene at the bad guy blockade is mostly fan service, though even at that it could have been better. We’ll let slide the fact that somehow a single email convinced all these MMO players to attack this one location, since everyone hates the evil corporation and the book mentions that a lot of them bug out early. Still, the nature of the fight means that the stakes don’t feel terribly high. Sure, the fortune is at stake, but the actual characters aren’t in any real danger since it’s all in the game. As stated before, it’s made immediately clear that the bad guts are outnumbered and outgunned. The only balancing element is the bad guy boss in his supposedly indestructible Mechagodzilla. With this, it turns into a fight, at least for a while. Until, that is, Wade pulls out his secret weapon and ends the fight without breaking a sweat.
Despite the fight really only being an obstacle on the way to the real goal, a real opportunity was missed here to make something truly special. Innumerable nerd icons were converging on the location, and all we really got was a (admittedly very satisfying) punch up between Mechagodzilla and Ultraman. It could have been so much more, with generic sci-fi clashing against anime mechas, Star Wars, Star Trek, all different brands of magic, and more. Hopefully the upcoming movie adaptation will do it justice.
The saving throw
After attempting to open the door the bad guys set off a last-ditch Chekhov’s Gun bomb that was mentioned in passing way earlier in the story. Unfortunately for them, Wade has a Chekhov’s Gun item whose importance was so obvious from the get-go I doubt it surprised anyone, and he survives. This is kinda similar to the Og situation wherein it’s not necessarily a deal breaker as much as a “GEE ISN’T GREAT THIS COINCIDENTAL THING HAPPENED” moment.
The final puzzle
If my complaints up to this point seemed minor, don’t worry. This is where the meat starts. Wade finally enters the last gate and, like the previous obstacles in the puzzle, has to call upon his knowledge of 80’s pop culture to overcome the challenges inside. Previously he’s had to reference obscure Dungeons & Dragons campaigns, recite the entirety of Wargames, reenact Zork and Black Tiger, and connect the dots in references to a Rush album. So what final challenge awaits him? Getting a high score in Tempest, reenacting Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and recalling a bit of trivia about the game’s creator’s personal life.
Now, in stories about treasure hunts, there’s usually some sort of twist at the end. Maybe the final puzzle is some sort of insurmountable challenge, like you have to sacrifice something dear to you, or team up with your worst enemy. Or maybe the twist is the nature of the treasure, like that the hero decides to not take it, or that it was friendship all along, or whatever. The reason is because the story overall amounts to the main character just following instructions, and that gets boring. You have to mix it up, usually with rivals disrupting the proceedings, but also with twists. Ready Player One has the first one covered. The second… not so much.
This is the point where, as the title indicated, things well and truly fall apart.
The most that this section has over previous sections is some time pressure. The evil corporation is doing the challenge at the same time and for some reason it’s being broadcast for all the world to see. But beyond that, the challenges are just kinda boring. We’ve already done getting a high score in a game and reenacting a movie before. It doesn’t feel very worthy of the final challenge before the ultimate prize.
After that, Wade arrives in a room where all video game consoles in history are arranged in the shape of an egg. He recalls the original poem that started off the hunt, which is something I was hoping would happen, but all it tells him is that the egg must be in that room. He can’t leave the room until he solves the puzzle anyway, so I don’t really see the point. The solution ends up being another Wargames-inspired thing, where the password to the computer is the name of the D&D character of the girl the creator has had unrequited love for his whole life.
Now this unrequited love was only explicitly stated by Og to Wade, and Og has never revealed it to anyone else, though it was implied and speculated before. So I suppose you could call it the final hidden secret where you have to dive deep into his personal history to reach the final answer. But to me, that still seems… kinda lame. I thought the final puzzle would be WAY crazier than remembering a love interest’s name, like you had to remember an obscure detail from way earlier in the hunt or complete a hidden side objective that only the truly passionate would notice (a concept that was played with briefly before). But no, Wade solves this one in about as much time as all the previous puzzles and wins the ultimate prize.
The ultimate prize
Wade gets it all. Craploads of money, invincibility and unique powers within OASIS, and complete ownership of the game itself and its associated company. He’s also shown a button that, should he choose, can delete all of OASIS permanently. More on that later.
It overall feels a bit anticlimactic. Wade finds that he can now teleport. He heads outside, to find the remaining elites of the evil corporation army. He deletes them all in one fell swoop. Despite some extensive set-up early in the book, we never see the evil corporation soldiers up close. They’re always closing in in the distance. As such, it’s hard to get much of a sense of threat out of them, especially since the closest we’ve ever gotten was seeing them getting their asses beat in the previous big battle. There’s not even much indication that these guys are badasses in particular – just the few that were entrusted with the key to the final door. So it doesn’t feel like an especially impressive show of power. Mind you, not much in this game is, due to its setting, so it might be better advised to not mess around with it in the first place.
He similarly uses his newfound powers to revive the avatars of all his friends who were killed in the Chekhov’s bomb explosion. This is something that was established as impossible some time ago, but it still doesn’t feel that impressive. Maybe it’s because real games have resurrection for cheap. Maybe it’s because his friends didn’t actually die and all he saved them from was some grinding. Not that it matters much since he already agreed to share his fortune with them.
Wade logs out to find out that the bad guy boss has just been arrested on account of all the shenanigans he pulled over the course of the book. This is kinda lame for a couple reasons. First of all it’s straight out of all those movies I watched as a kid where the day has already been won but we need one last scene of the villain or rival having a shitty day for no reason other than an extra dash of spitefulness. Second the bad guy boss has had kind of an odd presence in the book up to this point. We only got to see him directly once, where he does shady businessman things and blows up Wade’s house. That was pretty early on, though, and beyond that he’s just a sort of nebulous force in the plot. Every time things start to get relaxed we get news that he’s cleared another obstacle on the path to the prize. If there had been more interaction with him it might have been at least satisfying in a petty sort of way to see him get his comeuppance, but as it was he felt like an irrelevant side character for most of the book when the real enemy was the huge, faceless corporation.
The story ends with the resolution on the love story, which I won’t focus too much on, since more than other things it’s subject to taste and it’s overall not my area of interest. Personally though, I thought the love story started somewhat promising then dropped off shockingly quickly by the second third of the book. The fact that this is what the story ends on indicates to me that the main plot didn’t have any aspects to make for a strong enough “ending note”. I, however, have a very strong ending note, because it’s time to talk about what really bothered me.
What really bothered me
Basically, it all comes down to that damn button. I really, really thought he was going to press it, or at least stare contemplatively at it for a moment. But no. He doesn’t even think about it. Let’s rewind.
A consistent background world building element is the thoroughly grim nature of the real world. On the very first page Wade says, if not for the announcement of the contest, the death of the creator of the game, the richest man in the world and near sole creator of a system exponentially more influential than the internet, wouldn’t have been more than a brief segment on the evening news. They were too busy reporting on a half dozen wars, economic depression, starvation, and all the other horrible things going on in the world. OASIS, for the main characters and innumerable others, is their one escape from this crappy world. But it’s none-too-subtly implied that OASIS is perhaps partly responsible for this crappy world.
It’s stated in one of the exposition dumps that Og eventually came to resent or even despise the OASIS project, despite being very closely involved in its development. He called it a self-imposed prison for humanity, and – would you look at that – a reason for the downfall of the world, primarily due to neglect. Much later in the novel when Wade finally goes outside, he uses that very word, “neglect”, to describe what he sees around him. Everything is dirty. Most people are crowded around free WiFi stations, plugged into OASIS. Even shopkeepers are in the game, using semitransparent visors to interact with customers without having to leave the virtual world.
By all accounts OASIS seems to be something of a blessing and a curse. On one hand Wade repeatedly talks about how, especially for his generation, it’s the only point of light in the world. Not only is it much more interesting, it also has much more opportunity than the thoroughly ruined real world. On the other hand, it seems abundantly obvious that people use it more as an escape than something more positive. Wade himself often reflects on his own obsessions.
So now we get back to that button. The recording from the game’s creator states that it will launch a virus that will shut down the OASIS servers and permanently wipe all backup data, ensuring it could never be recovered. He says that Wade is free to press it or not, but he hopes that if he does then he has a very good reason to.
Every bit of world building up to this point indicates that this could possibly the culmination of one of the book’s strongest themes up to this point. Remember what I said about a treasure hunt needing twists? Maybe this will be the biggest twist of all. Maybe after seeing how cutthroat his fellow man gets over control of the OASIS, after being forced to return to the real world that he’d been trying so hard to avoid, after facing both murder attempts and slave service at the hands of a corporation whose rise can be attributed to everyone being distracted by OASIS… maybe he’ll wonder if it’s all worth it?
He doesn’t. The thought doesn’t even appear to cross his mind. There isn’t so much as a single line of internal dialogue, or an excuse like “we’ll make our own path now.” He just acknowledges that the button exists and goes his merry way.
This book was SO close to elevating itself, if only a little bit, above simple nerd fan service. Give me one moment, please, just one, where the main character’s ideals are changed or at least challenged in some way. Don’t spend an entire book with him lamenting the stagnant state of the world and just forget about it!
Phew. Okay. Deep breaths.
Maybe he changes a little bit. Early on he had an argument with love interest girl about what he would do with the money if he won. Hers is the standard “feed the hungry”, while Wade wants to load as many people as he can into a well-equipped orbital space station and get the hell out of dodge, because Earth is finished. She calls him out on his pessimism, but he doesn’t budge. Does this come up again? No. Well, once. When the two of them meet in the end he says something like “we won, now we’ll feed the hungry, hooray!” So there’s that. You could argue that his experiences are what changed this outlook, but since this is the only time we see any change in his demeanor, it could just as easily be chalked up to his obsession with this girl and, if you’re optimistic, trying to change his view on life since she’s already improved his life so much and this could only make it better. If you’re pessimistic, it could just be another attempt to impress her. Well, if so, it works.
Epilogue (to this post, not the book)
Well that was longer than expected. As I (hopefully) write more things for this site I want to waste less time on disclaimers as I get into more of a groove, but just as a reminder, just because I spouted about 3600 words of hate for this book up above, that doesn’t mean I dislike it. I rather did. But I also found this to be a rather cathartic exercise. This was something of an experiment, as stated before, to broaden my horizons a bit. I want this site to eventually become a writing portfolio of sorts, and I want to experiment with writing on different topics. I have another more essay-like post in the works right now that hopefully won’t take seven months to get out.