The Nostalgia Bomb
The year is 1984 and I am 14 years old. On a typical Friday night I put on my Member’s Only jacket and if I am lucky someone gives me a ride to the Putt Putt Golf and Games in Altus, OK. They have a cool new Star Wars game that you can play sitting down and shoot your way through to destroy the Deathstar. The graphics were totally rad. I never got very good at the Star Wars game (I was more of a Joust or Centipede player), but I put a lot of quarters into that machine trying to get better.When Saturday roles around I will try and hook up with some friends to play some D&D or maybe I’ll watch Beastmaster on HBO for the 36th time.
If you related in any way to that first paragraph then you can stop reading here and go get a copy of Ready Player One by Ernst Cline. I hope you have some free time or that you don’t like sleep because if you grew up a geek in the 80’s you’re going to have a hard time putting the book down. I don’t think you are supposed to just come out and say how much you liked a book in an objective review, but I can’t talk about this book without saying how much I enjoyed it. From the very first chapter dripping with 1980’s geek and pop culture references to the climatic Game Over, I loved Ready Player One.
The book is set in the near future where poverty is rampant, but even the poorest kid has an OASIS game console. OASIS is the realization of the virtual online world that the cyberpunk genre has been long predicting. The inventor of this game/world is James Halliday. When he dies he sends out a message to the world that he has hidden an easter egg in his virtual world and whoever finds it wins all of his riches and a controlling interest in the OASIS. The only hint he leaves is that if you want to succeed at the egg hunt you will need to learn about all of the things James Halliday loved growing up in the 1980’s.
Enter Wade Watts, the plucky teenage protagonist. He has been an avowed gunter (egg hunter) from day one and has studied the 1980’s with a Rainman like obsession. He is determined to be the one who finds the egg. The story unfolds as he and his fellow gunters work there way through the three keys and gates that Halliday has hidden in the virtual universe. Each step is another challenge requiring knowledge of a specific video game or movie from the 1980’s. To add to the action Wade and his friends have to fight the evil Sixers along the way. The Sixers are a group of game avatars designated by their employee number (all beginning with a six). They are egg hunters hired by IOI to find Halliday’s egg. IOI is the big evil corporation that just wants to win control of the OASIS so they can exploit it for profit. The novel is part coming of age, part space opera, part thriller and all eighties. When I worked as a bookseller my go to recommendation for young adults (OK, young boy adults) was to put a copy of Ender’s Game in there hand and explain that it was like reading a video game. Ready Player One has taken this to the next level and leaves out the xenocide at the end.
To tell you much more would introduce spoilers. Besides what I really want to talk about is the fun I had while reading this book. The prologue chapter (Level Zero) includes Halliday outlining his Egg Hunt and he explains that he took the idea from the first known Easter Egg put into the Atari game Adventure by Warren Robinett. Robinett hid a message in Adventure that said “CREATED BY WARREN ROBINETT.” When I read this I practically jumped up and shouted, “I remember that!”. I played a lot of Adventure as a kid and I remember thinking how cool it was to find a hidden part of the game.
Reading Ready Player One has put me in a bit of a nostalgia spiral. When Wade talked about watching a mini-marathon of Family Ties I went to Netflix and found it was available on instant streaming. I’ve watched most of season one in the last couple weeks. I forced my family to watch Back to the Future I, II, and III for our weekly Sunday movie night over the last three Sundays. There are a million game emulators online now and most of these 19080’s Atari games can be played for free or for very little money. I have Pac-Man and Donkey Kong on my Wii for about $5. My favorite simulator that I found online was the one for Zork. When my wife went to her book club last month I spent a good chunk of my evening not being eaten by a grue.
I haven’t had a book take me back to my 1980’s geek roots like this since reading Wil Wheaton’s The Happiest Days of Our Lives. Coincidentally Mr. Wheaton reads the audio version of Ready Player One. A fact I did not learn until a few days ago or I probably would have reviewed the audio version as well. In retrospect it is probably best that I didn’t buy the audio version for myself. After all it would make a great birthday present.
For as long as I can remember, I have never seen the 1980s as an “era” or a “historical moment” or, God forbid, a “period”. To me, the decade has always been a language. I don’t remember the 1980s as much as I speak it and think in it.
– David Sirota, Back To Our Future