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Which do you remember more fondly: Adventure or The Adventure of Link? Packed with nerd cultural references from the 80's, Ernest Cline's Ready Player One highlights a more distant and distinct gaming past that feels more historic than nostalgic. Despite the gaming generational gap, I found the novel remarkably fresh and surprisingly meaningful.
Photo credit – Alan Rappa
Set in 2044, the dystopian state of affairs in the real world has led to the creation of a virtual world where humanity finds escape in anonymity and from physical constraint. The creator of this world (OASIS), James Halliday, passes away and leaves clues which upon discovering leads to inheritance of not only his billions of dollars, but perhaps, more importantly, control of the network system. Access to OASIS, for all intents and purposes, is free and open-sourced though with resources, one is able to afford perks, thus enabling incredible income generating potential.
The story follows Wade (handle: Parzival) as he follows clues borne out of Halliday's love of all things nerd culture. The hunt for Halliday's Easter eggs have created a group of egg hunters (or gunters) that devote time to knowing, understanding, and in many ways, re-living and re-loving the 80's. References come quick and steady and span genre and time. From Family Ties to Robotron 2084, Douglas Adams to Monty Python, familiarity with Halliday's interests and past becomes required reading for the competitors (and in many ways, of the novel's readers). The main source of tension comes from the evil corporation that hires flunkies to pursue the prize for the corporation's money-making scheme, complicated further by the fact that its pursuit includes unsavory methods both in OASIS and the real world.
Picture Sony's Home where everyone in the world is connected and the user interface, as one might expect in 2044, has moved beyond the Six Axis to a Virtual Boy visor crossed with a Power Glove full body suit and you get a gamer's mental breakdown of Cline's future. It is futuristic and yet realistic. It exists perhaps as a sign of where one would see gaming go next.
In reading the novel, I found Cline's use of past works fun and familiar. I was born in 1974, two years after the author. Coincidentally, we both grew up in Ohio and would have, more or less, tread upon the same ground. There is a sense of a shared past that hooked me. With a nudge and a wink, the right reader will know that "there's a lot more of us than there are of you." I just needed to cross my fingers and hope that I belonged to the "us."
I will confess. At times, I worry when I read Penny Arcade or watch The Big Bang Theory. I worry I won't "get it," that my geek credibility will be questioned. And herein lies a difficult proposition with Ready Player One's mention of video games: am I on the outside?
Classic gaming plays an integral part of the story in the same way 80's movies are referred to heavily. The vast majority of games mentioned skew heavily towards coin-op classics, ones that most gamers would know and likely even have played. For the newer gamer, experiences may be limited to a William's arcade classic compilation. Pac-Man, Joust, Asteroids. All games that I have dropped a quarter into, but all ones that I was too young to ever truly master.
Somehow, despite the novel's nostalgic look at 80's movies or TV shows, its homage to classic gaming did not carry the same emotional connection oddly enough. I remember a War Games-based Ally Sheedy crush. But an affinity for Defender? I was lucky enough to fly from side to side. As one who fancies himself a casual hardcore gamer, it was a bit worrisome. I have gamed for as long as I can remember. Our family owned an Atari and later an Intellivision. I even had some Kaboom! skills on the paddle controller. And yet, when I look back, I think I became a gamer in the 8-bit generation.
The games that I remember I loved, those that I feel most nostalgic about, and played until I was no longer allowed to play were not Adventure or Sea Battle, but rather Super Mario Bros. and Mega Man 2. I remember thinking I would have never finished The Legend of Zelda without my handy map from Nintendo Power and that R.O.B., while never functionally adequate enough to complete a single level of Gyromite, was still my buddy. Maybe it was because it was the first console that was mine.
Can you guess the number of times the book mentions Mario and Zelda? What if I told you it was a combined search with zero hits? I am not counting the mention of Donkey Kong. Despite this disconnect between gaming generations, I did not feel alienated.
The cleverness and modernity of the book comes not from its look at the past but rather the very real depiction of the not too distant future with a gaming network not too different from our own. The nuances of online, anonymous relationships and bonds are explored with great awareness and resonate strongly with any gamer that has spent time on Xbox Live or playing an MMORPG. Cline employs a common gamer language literally (use of "L337 Sp34k") and figuratively (management of the avatar's inventory).
While there are lessons to be had, truths to be revealed with respect to the novel's plot, now is not the time to explore them. Instead, I highly recommend Ready Player One to gamers for its historic, though not necessarily nostalgic, expression of gaming past.
If you spent more hours in the past posting your three initials on a leaderboard than checking your Xbox Live gamerscore, then maybe my reading experience will not be your own. But there is something for every gamer in the novel. The book establishes an importance of the history and evolution of video games. The early games, though perhaps simplistic in graphics and minimal in terms of story, were fun, addictive, and challenging. Likewise, my NES-based nostalgia must seem downright pre-historic to my nephews growing up in a Wii household. They probably wonder how their crazy uncle ever survived with a mere two buttons and 8-way D-pad. However, Cline's focus on classic titles shows that the game itself ultimately matters less than the act of gaming and that gaming is something Ready Player One celebrates.