Monday, June 8, 2015

Ready Player One

Not too long ago, I decided I needed to get more books into my pop culture diet, be them the standard "ink on wood pulp" style, the "1s and 0s on an electronic device" method, or the "someone reads it to you" method.  After all, the way you become a better writer is to see how other people effectively use their own words and sentence structure to get across their own ideas.

In the spirit of getting deeper into more modern works, I decided to start with Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, a game about nostalgia, video games, and a massive hunt for a lost treasure.

Here's a statement that might be controversial to fans of this book: I really think the book picked up in storytelling, emotional impact, and draw during a segment of the book where there's little to no pop culture references or interaction with the main "world" of the story.

Taking place in a somewhat dystopian future Earth where pretty much everybody spends their time online (what a strange and unfamiliar concept), the creator of a massive virtual world that seems to be a combination of World of Warcraft meets The Matrix.  Many people spend most of their time either playing the massive game or creating their own worlds within the game, all based off of pop culture from the 70s, 80s, and 90s.  Children and teenagers go to school in the virtual world.  People perform their job duties from the virtual world.  Players and their "avatars" have taken over for massive celebrities.

The creator of the massive game dies and decides to leave his massive wealth, as well as controlling stock in the company he made, to whoever can solve a series of riddles he created, the answers of which all can be found within the game.  This leads to a massive hunt over years as people try to pick apart everything in a digital universe the size of our own galaxy to find the treasure first.  Guilds of hunters team up to search, and rival companies start forming digital armies to not only find the treasure themselves, but kill the "avatars" of the players who might be getting closer than them.

This doesn't really affect the players themselves when their "avatar" dies, but it does mean they need to start over.

One young man stumbles upon the first "key" in the puzzle, igniting an intense chase where not only is the fate of a massive digital world at state, but the lives of him and his friends as an evil corporate "administrator" will do whatever it takes to find the treasure before them, even if it involves murder.

So that's the synopsis, and in order to determine if I liked this book, I need to say that there's very little about that pitch that doesn't grab my attention.  A futuristic world entirely focused on pop culture references that I, a person born in 1980, can get?  Sword and sorcery mixed with science fiction?  Massive nods to such pop culture icons as Blade Runner, Atari, Back to the Future, and that really weird Japanese Spider-Man series I once referenced?  I'm sold.

But much like a child learns what happens when they eat an entire box of candy bars, there is such a thing as too much.  Ready Player One at times feels like pop culture masturbation, where the writer is showing off all the stuff he remembers instead of being genuinely nostalgic for it.   Lists of references are rattled off with little to no context about why people might have enjoyed them.  An obscure movie, video game, or television series might be alluded to, being a nice little reference for people who get it, but then the writer feels the need to explain what the reference was and where it was from, without really explaining why anybody would make that reference.

It also really leaves an interesting possibility abandoned early on.  The story takes place in the year 2044, a time as far from now as we would be from 1986.  The world was a very different place in the 80s, and pop culture meant different things to different people.  Simply look at Star Wars and see how the things that influence it now and the stories it tries to tell are completely different from the original trilogy.  We had different ideas of the future, different access to technology and world news, and the idea of high speed Internet was still a distant pipe dream.

The idea that everybody in the year 2044 would embrace everything from before the Millennium changed and hold it all to the same cultural ties and significance is rather hard to believe.  Rather, it would have been extremely interesting to see what people even further in the future might have thought about stuff my generation grew up with, and how they might get new messages from it like we sometimes do from things in the 60s.

This isn't to say I didn't like the story.  I'm a nostalgic fan boy myself (you might have noticed this), and hearing nods to things I recognized was fun.  It just really felt like too much pop culture was crammed in simply to fill space where it wasn't needed.  However, then we get to the "outside the game" portion of the story.

The problem with telling a story based on someone playing a video game is that unless it's The Last Starfighter, the fate of the world doesn't typically rely on your character not dying in a game.  Especially in a massive online multiplayer game, where if you die, you just start over with a new character.  It really takes the sting out of death, and any time the main character's avatar was in trouble, I figured "well, maybe he'll just have to start fresh and catch back up again."

It would be like watching a Fast & Furious movie and, any time a character died or crashed, they simply emerged from a nearby house at "level 1" and had to steal another car to get back in the story.

But, late in the story, the main character disconnects himself from the game and infiltrates the home base of the corporation hunting him and his friends.  If he's caught, he'll be killed.  This part of the story was intense and suspense-filled, as we got a real sense of what a flesh and blood character was undergoing as he tried to get information from within the system instead of just sitting in his chair and trying to hack a computer system for information.

I think another major weakness in the story was the fact that it needs to learn the adage "show, don't tell."  If some of the pop culture references were thrown out (okay, a lot of them), you could expand on things that would be really interesting to hear about.  Instead of simply "It was easy to hack the complex firewalls with my amazing skills" why not show us what happened when he tried to hack the system?  Maybe he was racing watching code fly by as he tried to break a virtual lock with a virtual lock pick, feeling the searching anti-hacking software breathing down his virtual neck, breaking into his own system and erasing data of his own.

I think there's a really good story in Ready Player One, it just needs to get out of its own way so we can all enjoy it.  Cut out a lot of the needless pop culture references so it feels more like a story than a VH-1 "I Love The" special, and give us a better idea of the stakes.  Sure, the evil corporation might have taken over a massive global computer game that major company economies relied on, but in the end, the book itself takes the time to point out that outside that virtual world, the state of Oregon is still lush and green.  Life goes on, even if you're not online.

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