Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Ready Player One

Though there's a seemingly thriving market in novels based on their intellectual property (cf. Halo, Mass Effect), videogames seem to have otherwise had relatively little impact in other media. Sure, there are rare films like Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (massively underrated IMHO), and the occasional tangential appearance in (non-science fiction) novels - Complicity by Iain Banks, for one - but otherwise they're pretty thin on the ground. So Ernest Cline's debut novel, Ready Player One, isn't exactly bursting into an overcrowded scene.

Set in a near-future US crushed by social, economic and environmental problems, the novel is narrated by teenager Wade Watts, who scratches an itinerant existence in what remains of a trailer park in Oklahoma City. Wade spends as much time as he can hooked into OASIS - the virtual reality simulator that provides much of the world's entertainment, as well as Wade's education. But alongside his studies, Wade - or Parzival as he's known by a handful of friends in the virtual world of OASIS - is engaged in a quest to solve a puzzle left by the creator of OASIS, James Halliday, on his death. Whoever solves the puzzle will gain a controlling stake in OASIS, but several years in no-one seems to have made the slightest of headway. That's all about to change. When Wade follows a few pop-cultural clues left by Halliday and solves the first part of the puzzle, he then finds himself in a race with millions of fellow competitors, as well as corporate participants IOI who have an eye on winning to milk the OASIS cash cow. And in this weak-government, strong-corporate future, IOI are prepared to do more than just cheat in the virtual world of OASIS - a state of affairs that soon has Wade running for his life.

First of all, it's important to make clear that this is a top-to-bottom geek-a-thon. This novel can - and should - be completely avoided if you have no interest in videogames, virtual worlds, Japanese robots, or the pop-culture of the 1980s. It is simply stuffed to the gills with an extraordinary amount of, well, the stuff that falls into that broad category. And even if you do have an interest in some or all of these things, it may still be worth quickly skimming the first few pages to see if you'll get along with the book. I reckon that, conservatively, at least 95% of the (reading) population will simply be appalled.

Though I am in the remaining 5%, I definitely wouldn't say that I'm a total cheerleader for this book. True, I have an unhealthy interest in videogames, but even I baulked at the sheer depth of trash-culture referencing going on here. However, in spite of this, and in spite of my better judgement at times, I still enjoyed this book - albeit as a totally throwaway read. I'm really not sure who I'd be recommending it to - even fellow videogame players!

Anyway, on the plus side, as well as taking videogames and virtual worlds (semi-)seriously for once, the novel is so full of love for the geeky trash-culture of a particular time (the 1980s) that it can easily carry one along. It's structured not dissimilarly to a videogame, with a succession of progressively harder puzzles to be solved, and passes enjoyably enough with a number of stereotypical gamer characters and a couple of nice setpiece twists and turns. On the down side, it's a little predictable to say the least - there's never seriously any doubt about how it's ultimately going to work out. To be fair, it's not structured as continuous progress to a goal - Wade does wallow quite a while in the various set-backs that he suffers.

One aspect that really did tire me after a point was its total reverence for 1980s videogames, and even then for a particular subset of them. Having revisited the games that I played back then from time to time, I've come to realise how hopelessly simplified most of them are relative to modern titles. With a few exceptions - Damocles being a personal favourite - it's just not possible for games that sat comfortably within a RAM space of 64KB to provide anything near the broad experience of something that occupies 1GB. Sure, some eminently satisfying titles are sufficiently simple that they simply don't need such resources - Dropzone springs to mind - but they're rare beasts. So, eventually, Wade's unending enthusiasm for 1980s title after 1980s title seriously began to grate on me.

Anyway ... it is absolutely safe to say that with such a premise this book will only ever appeal to a small minority of readers. And then, once this small population starts to read it, it will likely appeal to an even smaller minority of them! But I did enjoy it's overbearing enthusiasms, its sappy love story and its predictable ebbing and flowing. But I'm deleting it from my memory right now.

Finally, I just have to say that, while totally geeky myself, I simply cannot see the slightest interest in Japanese robots. WTF?

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