Supanova writers Gabby Marcelline and A E Hilton debate whether Ernest Cline’s bestseller was a rollercoaster ride of feel-good nostalgia or a jumbled mess of references vying for your attention.
Ready Player One comprises all the geek media you know and love into a treasure hunt-style adventure novel with enthralling twists and turns. It’s a novel made for those of us who have fallen in love with the intricacies of our favourite games and relish retro-induced nostalgia. Ernest Cline reflects every passionate video game lover in his characters, igniting our hearts with the same desperation the novel’s main character feels. Wade Watts is a nobody, but his plethora of inane information on video games becomes extremely useful in the race to find James Halliday’s Easter Eggs.
Ready Player One exploits geek media for its trivial components and references in an attempt to stitch together a plot that relates to the audience without going to the effort of actually creating relatable characters. It’s a novel made for Ernest Cline’s view of “the masses”, but is it really? Cline embodies every asinine one-upping conversation you had with your friends about how well you can memorise a movie script, behind-the-scenes factoids, and dates, without gaining any real insight or fun from it… and he does this inanely via “The Egg Hunt”.
The Egg Hunt is the strong foundation of the fast-paced plot Ready Player One boasts. We can all root for someone like Wade Watts, a teenager stuck at the bottom of society who has an unruly passion for hunting Halliday’s Easter Eggs. Once he finds the first key, he is plunged into a race to be the best. The fear that Wade’s life of remembering throwaway references and trivia will amount to nothing propels the novel forward. Wade can’t lose because he has invested endless time into this. We are compelled to believe that he has earned his victory. That’s why he was the first to find the Copper Key, because of his unruly commitment.
The Egg Hunt is fast-paced. But it’s weak, because it’s hard to care about it – like a poorly-edited parkour video where the jumps are twenty centimetres wide. Yeah, Wade can’t lose. There are no stakes. The only characters that Cline imbues with the ’80s pop culture knowledge to complete the tests are on Wade’s side. When all the heroes are forced to like the same thing that James Halliday likes, we end up with a treasure hunt that could be fun, but isn’t, because the good guys so completely outstrip the bad guys in “skills” developed entirely to play into Cline’s idea of important pop culture.
Pop culture forms the basis of what drives the Egg Hunt in Ready Player One. Wade needs to agonise over remembering every line spoken by Mathew Broderick from 1980s WarGames to clear the First Gate. The ’80s are often remembered fondly by those who have now grown sour to the modern-day. The role that ’80s relics play in the novel is significant because to many readers, the fuzzy feeling of nostalgia that comes with old-school gaming will always be significant. What’s cooler than a novel where you can immerse yourself in history you adore? It may be common nostalgia baiting, but we’re all suckers for it in one way or another.
It is common nostalgia baiting. And I mean it when I say “common” – showing a lack of taste, as The British Dictionary defines it. Cline’s references to popular ’80s media are tasteless; they strip their source material of all judgement or flavour. WarGames is a movie accepted into the pop culture canon largely because of its then timely depiction of military technology. Does Wade’s re-enactment represent similar societal fears and discussions? No. It just proves that Wade Watts knows the script, and Ernest Cline can Google it. By dropping the depth of the subject matter that Ready Player One references, and defining the characters by it (I mean, that’s how Wade wins – by knowing ’80s stuff), it reduces the depth of the characters themselves.
Cline creates flawed, real characters. Wade himself demonstrates the selfish intent many would succumb to in his position. That’s why many readers like him; he behaves the way you expect a teenage gamer who gains unlimited riches to behave – erratically. He struggles with his newfound fame, pushes away his best friend Aech, and manifests an obsession with his fellow gunter Art3mis. Art3mis herself is a refreshing heroine. Throughout the novel, she is described as having a ‘rubenesque’ physique with a port-wine stain down the side of her face. She’s logical, cunning, and reluctant to return Wade’s feelings. Her self-reliance and desperation to retain freedom are invigorating personality traits which make her a fantastic and loveable start to strong female leads.
Apart from the questionable believability of Ready Player One’s characters liking ’80s pop culture that much (look, when there’s a valuable reward for it, how could you not fake it, just a little?), Cline does create a believably flawed main character: Wade. The problem is Cline begs us to like Wade’s flaws. Cline uses the rags-to-riches storyline to bait us into sympathising with Wade’s traumatic childhood, to the point that it blinds us to his more problematic attributes. For me, Ernest Cline’s fatal flaw is simply not going deep enough – he washes over fundamental issues with simplified writing tools as distractions. But that’s just me, right?
If you’ve ever wanted to escape into a video game or relish the nostalgia of sublime ’80s media, this is the book for you. Ready Player One’s main characters will pull you into their chaotic, competitive race to be the best Egg hunter with twists and turns galore, and you’ll love every moment of it. If you look for hidden meanings, enlightening social commentary, well-matched “good guys” and “bad guys”, and clear character motivations above all else, Ready Player One might not be for you.
If you’ve read the book, let us know if you think we missed anything! Is A E Hilton too cynical to see Ernest Cline’s nuggets of brilliance? Is Gabby Marcelline just a sucker for nostalgia?
Tell us your thoughts on Ready Player One.