Game on: ‘Ready Player One’ is geektacular

I’m late to the party on this, considering that “Ready Player One” was published last summer. I’ve never been a big gamer and wondered if the story would leave me cold. But Ernest Cline’s science fiction novel is a really fun read.

Cline’s book, set in a dystopian mid-21st century United States — in a world racked by war, rolling blackouts and the constant threat of violence — tells the story of Wade, a teenager living in the slums of Oklahoma City. Wade, like most of the rest of the population, spends much of his waking life in The Oasis, a global, online virtual reality. Wade — or at least his avatar — attends school in The Oasis, plays games in the virtual world and hangs out with his only real friend, Aech (pronounced “H”), another gamer who he’s never met in the real world.

The Oasis — part babysitter to the world, part classroom, mostly escape from bleak reality — was the creation of James Halliday and Ogden Morrow, the Bill Gates and Steve Jobs of the 2040s.

Halliday, who has been living in seclusion for years, dies and posthumously announces, through a video broadcast over The Oasis, a virtual treasure hunt. Whoever finds a series of keys and opens a series of gates on some of the virtually limitless planets that make up The Oasis will win Halliday’s fortune — billions of dollars — and control of the virtual reality world.

Wade, Aech and a female gamer named Art3mis join thousands — maybe millions — of other “gunters” — short for Easter egg hunters — in their online quest for Halliday’s treasure.

A couple of Cline’s plot points set his book apart from standard sci-fi adventure:

Halliday’s hunt revolves around the game master’s favorite moment in pop culture: The 1980s, when he was a kid.

The game’s challenges entail Wade and the others beating classic 1980s video games, demonstrating their knowledge of classic tabletop games like Dungeons and Dragons and navigating their way through the plots of 1980s movies like the teen angst comedies of John Hughes and the geek classic “War Games.”

Because the gunters knew that Halliday was obsessed with the 1980s, they’ve studied up on the period before the game began. Wade has watched every episode of the Michael J. Fox sitcom “Family Ties” several times, for example, and knows 1980s action movies by heart.

Another fun wrinkle in the plot is the presence of the Sixers, professional gamers hired by a company that hopes to take over The Oasis and turn its free wonderland into a pay-per-play world.

Cline’s got a way with characters. Wade is a lonely geek who makes an instant connection with Art3mis, a mysterious young woman. Considering the relatively few characters, “Ready Player One” doesn’t feel claustrophobic.

The story makes the best of the internal rules of The Oasis: Wade can’t just jump in an imaginary spaceship and blast off for a nearby planet to search for clues. In The Oasis, even virtual reality has its price, in online points and credits.

I’ve heard rumblings that someone is going to turn “Ready Player One” into a movie. It’s a great idea and certainly possible now that “Avatar” has introduced audiences at large to the concept of virtual reality and, well, avatars.

It’ll be interesting to see if the makers manage to stuff the movie as full of geeky references as the book, though. Would it really be possible to negotiate the rights to everything from “Ghostbusters” to “Highlander” to “Risky Business?”

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