Ready Player One Finds The Bleak Limits Of Nostalgia

We may earn a commission from links on this page.
Illustration by Angelica Alzona/GMG
Illustration by Angelica Alzona/GMG

It’s not hard to fracture the internet with a movie adaptation of a popular bad book. They’re made into movies all the time. They read like screenplays because they skip complex language that defies being replaced with pictures, and producers can’t resist a baked-in audience, which creates a baked-in counter-audience of critics. These people then meet online and ruin each others’ days.

You could be forgiven, then, for expecting last month’s trailer for Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One to break apart the internet entirely. Instead, it felt like a quake in reverse, the aftershocks coming early, everyone waiting for the real carnage. Because the inevitable dislocation won’t just be about a schlocky book but an entire concept of schlocky book: the aggregating of shared consumer ephemera repackaged into another artless commodity and sold-crazy to a generation reared on abusively quoting at itself online.


That might seem like much for an adventure romp like Ready Player One, an entertaining bit of spun sugar that is so amiably unchallenging that it never even makes demands of itself. But direct any back at it, and you come up with nothing, an empty politics, characters as flat as Pong, an epic of nostalgia for things people bought that never wonders why it loves what it loves. As a body of work, it’s a hollowed-out and varnished cadaver, held together by tissue only skin-deep; a Humpty-Dumpty man ready to shatter when pierced by a single question.


Cline’s premise is engaging enough, doubly so if you wanted more Matrix with zero of the Wachowskis’ extremely ponderous imponderables. Thirty years into the future, the earth has been crippled by an energy and climate crisis. Dangerous cities are separated by lawless “badlands,” and everyone spends their time escaping it in the OASIS, a hyperrealistic virtual-reality MMORPG that has grown to include over a dozen sectors of custom-made planets and has its own currency more reliable than the real world’s.

When OASIS’ creator James Halliday dies, he leaves a message to the real and virtual world—the first clue on the hunt for his “easter egg” within the OASIS, whose possession will grant the winner both his hundreds of billions of dollars as well as ownership of his company. The hunt picks up five years later with Wade “Parzival” Watts, a high-school senior and “gunter” (from “egg hunter”), his best friend and fellow gunter Aech, his distant crush and popular blogger Art3mis, and two other unaffiliated gunters who must race against the evil Sixers from the Innovative Online Industries (IOI) corporation.


So far, so good-guys/bad-guys. But putting a giant dollar amount on the prize doesn’t make the stakes especially high. Or coherent. IOI wants control of the OASIS because it plans to charge people monthly fees and increase ad space. Parzival rails against the IOI as “corporate” and “fascist,” and if the latter term bordered on insipidity when the book appeared in 2011, recent events have removed all doubt.

But even within the book, IOI’s evil is a muddle. The OASIS costs only a quarter to join, but people still have to pay for broadband. And irrespective of a limitless universe without server lag, everything still costs money. Despite Parzival’s tremendous gifts, he remains below a Level 10 (out of a total 99) because he lives in poverty, unable to access the resources to level up.


For all the boundlessness of the OASIS, the only thing that fully gets Parzival off-planet is luck and the generosity of a rich guy. Once independent and famous, he signs dozens of endorsement deals, while Aech cashes in on his notoriety by playing in tournaments. All the gunter heroes maintain their own content streams, broadcasting to fans all day and all night.

The roots of insurrection grow and feed on the same old crippling capitalism. In order to defeat the faceless evil corporation bent on charging people money and profaning the OASIS with ads, Parzival essentially becomes a series of ads, while he and his pals all become brands. The war of liberation against top-down commodity is self-commodity.


This kind of thinking is of a piece with the product nostalgia that so wholly drives Ready Player One as to be the only functioning matter in it. By now you might have seen this particularly egregious passage online:

I also watched every single film he referenced in the Almanac. If it was one of Halliday’s favorites, like WarGames, Ghostbusters, Real Genius, Better Off Dead, or Revenge of the Nerds, I rewatched it until I knew every scene by heart.

I devoured each of what Halliday referred to as “The Holy Trilogies”: Star Wars (original and prequel trilogies, in that order), Lord of the Rings, The Matrix, Mad Max, Back to the Future, and Indiana Jones...

I also absorbed the complete filmographies of each of his favorite directors. Cameron, Gilliam, Jackson, Fincher, Kubrick, Lucas, Spielberg, Del Toro, Tarantino. And, of course, Kevin Smith.

I spent three months studying every John Hughes teen movie and memorizing all the key lines of dialogue.

Only the meek get pinched. The bold survive.

You could say I covered all the bases.

“I studied Monty Python. And not just Holy Grail, either. Every single one of their films, albums, and books, and every episode of the original BBC series. (Including those two “lost” episodes they did for German television.)

I wasn’t going to cut any corners.”

And it keeps going.

I watched every episode of The Greatest American Hero, Airwolf, The A-Team, Knight Rider, Misfits of Science, and The Muppet Show.

What about The Simpsons, you ask?

I knew more about Springfield than I knew about my own city.

Star Trek? Oh, I did my homework. TOS, TNG, DS9. Even Voyager and Enterprise. I watched them all in chronological order. The movies, too. Phasers locked on target.

I gave myself a crash course in ‘80s Saturday-morning cartoons.

I learned the name of every last goddamn Gobot and Transformer.

Land of the Lost, Thundarr the Barbarian, He-Man, Schoolhouse Rock!, G.I. Joe—I knew them all. Because knowing is half the battle.

Who was my friend, when things got rough? H.R. Pufnstuf.

Japan? Did I cover Japan?

Yes. Yes indeed. Anime and live-action. Godzilla, Gamera, Star Blazers, The Space Giants, and G-Force. Go, Speed Racer, Go.


That’s not even the end. It continues with music, classic video games, RPGs and—in what reads like a companion to an earlier passage where Parzival recounts how his auto-didacticism led him to discover the real truth that religion is bullshit—Bill Hicks routines. Parzival doesn’t just watch and play all these things; he studies them, to a literally impossible extent. At the book’s climax, he mentions that he “watched Holy Grail exactly 157 times.” At least it wasn’t Chasing Amy.

At first glance, this is an incredibly depressing encyclopedia of knowledge. (At one point, Parzival enthuses about the TV show Family Ties and its familial warmth. As someone who watched it from an unhappy home when it aired the first time, let’s be real here: It wasn’t that great even when you were six and there were only two other networks to choose from.) But it quickly becomes clear that, apart from being all the stuff that shaped Ernest Cline in his formative years, this is basically The Bibliography of the Internet. Later, when Parzival gets a Firefly Class ship from the show Firefly, he names it The Vonnegut, presumably because there weren’t any starships in Fight Club.


Unfortunately for Cline, he can’t simply tell the reader, “This knowledge is important because it’s stuff I reference as a shortcut for insight,” because most people won’t care, so he puts the genesis of his pop-culture pedagogy on Halliday. Gunters and IOI have no choice but to learn this stuff, because in order to decipher Halliday’s clues, they must learn to think like him, to delve into his childhood and teen years and rewire their brains to process the world through these endless referents. The only way to decipher the world is to uncritically embrace what one man mistook for it. It takes a tremendous set of balls to make your self-insertion character basically God.

Parzival and others theorize that Halliday probably had Asperger syndrome, which explains the fact that he “seemed to expect everyone around him to share his obsessions, and he often lashed out at those who didn’t. He was known to fire longtime employees for not recognizing an obscure line of movie dialogue he quoted, or if he discovered they weren’t familiar with one of his favorite cartoons, comic books, or videogames.”


The Halliday backstory provides little cover, though, because it doesn’t lead to anything. It contributes nothing to the plot other than the barest iterative task/learning/solution process. Understanding Halliday means understanding his puzzle. It doesn’t teach the gunters anything other than how to solve it.

Most of Cline/Halliday’s texts have real and enduring merit, many with acid and incisive socio-political commentary, but they’re not cited to help the gunters grow as people or assume the mantle of running the OASIS. A rich background of creative endeavor doesn’t re-mold the players as better or wiser humans; they’re just more effective players. Ultimately, it’s like saying the kid in high school who most accurately and exhaustively quotes The Simpsons or Monty Python should run the writers’ room or replace Graham Chapman—which is fundamentally, to borrow a term Cline enjoys, insane.


The plot’s A, B...Z iterative repetition probably doesn’t inspire as much frustration for those reading for pure pleasure, especially the target audience. Because if the text of the book rests on The Bibliography of the Internet, the protagonists are drawn from it with enough demographic targeting that those reading with for self-recognition are apt to feel either vindication or maybe even a slight—either at stereotyping or pandering.

Parzival and Aech are described as overweight; Art3mis as “Rubenesque.” The only other two good guys are, respectively, tall and short; both are Japanese, style themselves as samurai, talk about honor and were probably one conscientious editor away from talking about baka gaijins tasting Hanzo steel. Parzival’s awkwardness around the opposite sex blossoms into comfort before being dispatched to the friend zone. Halliday himself is emotionally devastated by never winning his own cute “quintessential geek girl.” High-end haptic suits for players come with mechanisms for voiding the bowels and bladder without removing them—the Tron-suit version of poopsocking. At one point, a romance is expediently advanced via chatlogs.


Meanwhile, the characters are drawn so thinly that they amount to little more than skins for readers to insert themselves into. Art3mis gets the most descriptive time, with a handful of invocations of her Rubenesque figure, raven hair, freckles and hazel eyes. Aside from early descriptions of Parzival and Aech, any sense of their bodies as bodies moving through space and interacting with others melts away. The Japanese are Japanese.

This character thinness is only a problem if you’re trying to write a book about people, and, fortunately for Cline, he’s really writing an RPG for people. The structural virtue offered by a book filled with paper-thin avatars is that there aren’t enough human features to get in the way of readers who want to identify as them. A Mary Sue or a Marty Stu only gets on your nerves when you reject the creator’s vision. When you yearn to immerse yourself in it, however, your conception of how you would move, appear or express yourself does all the heavy lifting the writer does not. Parzival and Art3mis become vivid because they’re the people in the mirror.


If anything, the Mary Sue factor stands to be one of the few things that could derail Spielberg’s movie from being a hit. It’s a lot harder to erase all distinction between yourself and a main character when a Hollywood star gazes back at you in a 20-foot-tall closeup. But in a way, that same motivation probably explains why Spielberg was drawn to it.

Spielberg is 70 now, nearly 20 years removed from his best films and on a mostly downward trajectory from challenging work. He’s burrowed into American nostalgia, reflexive emotional cues and variations on modern myth. He couldn’t even let you walk out of Saving Private Ryan with your own conclusions about a nonfictional war, instead bookending the film with scenes that forced you to measure the worth of the story in terms that were either cloying or extortionate.


By those lights, Ready Player One might have seemed a luxury. There’s no need to fretfully anticipate how audiences will respond to the story because it’s made exclusively from preexisting stories that have already been successfully audience tested. His only job is to put his stamp on iconic elements of other movies—images, gadgets, effects and stakes already provided by the history of film and television. Spielberg finally gets to do Blade Runner without worrying about lacking the temperament to explore its alienating meditation on consciousness. (And, in any event, Cline gives him no means to either.) There are other films for him to copy and paste from anyway.

If you removed every nod, homage, riff, and instance of outright poaching from this book, it would cease to exist. Wiping the movie WarGames from the face of the earth would destroy the first act, just as doing the same to Holy Grail would annihilate the finale—both of which entail earning points for literally parroting the scripts in time. There is little of the plot—or its entirety—that can’t be condensed to a Hollywood elevator pitch. “What if The Matrix was also The Last Starfighter?”


Why does Parzival like Art3mis? Because “her geeky demeanor and hyperkinetic speech pattern reminded me of Jordan, my favorite character in Real Genius.” How does he try to win her back? By holding a boombox over his head like Lloyd Dobler from Say Anything. What’s this town remind him of? “The place reminded me a lot of the town in the movie Footloose [where] the NPC citizens all looked like extras from a John Cougar Mellencamp video.”

The problem with a Marty Stu book for its writer filled with Marty Stu characters for readers all calling back to the The Bibliography of the Internet is that there is zero subtext. There’s barely even text. It’s intertextuality, face-value references all the way down. This book is an orgy of the cardinal writer’s sin of telling, not showing, filtered through IMDB and delivered so relentlessly literally that it’s amazing Cline doesn’t just include a cartoon of himself dressed like Peter Griffin from Family Guy saying, “Holy crap, Lois, this is just like the time the author addressed his creations at the end of Breakfast of Champions.”


It’s easy to clown on this book. Anyone with a jaundiced eye could fill out a thousand words just from schadenfreude. Its heavy dependence on well-known and superior work badly exposes Cline’s skills when he attempts to express something himself. (Even then he can’t avoid reference-as-description: “Overall, she seemed to be going for a sort of mid-’80s postapocalyptic cyberpunk girl-next-door look. And it was working for me, in a big way. In a word: hot.”) If nothing else, the narcissism of making your personal library the key to the universe cries out for a pantsing. Sometimes the references exist only to add references, illustrating nothing. (“We bumped fists again, like the Wonder Twins activating their powers.”) The book was published in 2011, yet seems teleported from the internet of 2002. (“My new status...helped me get access to a highly exclusive illegal data-auction site known as the L33t Hax0rz Warezhaus.”)

Even references that can be self-evidently cool because they are based on things that were or are cool get flattened by piling one atop another until it’s like one of those infamous internet foods—corndogs and McDonald’s hamburgers mashed onto a frozen pizza and under a pound of shredded cheese. At one point, Parzival gets a DeLorean:

The DeLorean came outfitted with a (nonfunctioning) flux capacitor, but I’d made several additions to its equipment and appearance. First, I’d installed an artificially intelligent onboard computer named KITT (purchased in an online auction) into the dashboard, along with a matching red Knight Rider scanner just above the DeLorean’s grill. Then I’d outfitted the car with an oscillation overthruster, a device that allowed it to travel through solid matter. Finally, to complete my ‘80s super-vehicle theme, I’d slapped a Ghostbusters logo on each of the DeLorean’s gull-wing doors, then added personalized plates that read ECTO-88.


Oh my God, fuck off.

Except—he can’t, neither Cline nor his reader, nor should they. When the day comes that the internet commentariat cleaves into opposing sides for war of attrition over this book and film, it will in part be a war premised on misunderstanding. On one side will stand people rightfully flabbergasted at the adulation for a book that, by any reading of the mechanics of literary fiction, basically heaves.


On the other side will stand people who need to see their experience of media—their texts and enthusiasms—validated as a greater myth, and to see themselves as a part of it. That’s a powerful impulse with a long tradition. The men who wrote the Gospels keep making cameos, in spite of the main character being God. Mailer and Updike treat their petty little agonies as an metaphor for, and clash with, the 20th century white man in America. The Divine Comedy presents a religious allegory in which Dante has his heroes esteem him while he goes through the Florentine phone book torturing his enemies. It’s also about a girl.

Even then, Cline himself admits that this is not enough. If there is an ultimate message to this book—if there is something that might doom the movie to little more than an automated nostalgia ride—it is this: Go the fuck outside. But Cline cannot square how the endless layers of preceding intertextual mimicry prepare one for that. He doesn’t even attempt an explanation so much as surrender to the inevitability of someday exiting the inner world. All this was prologue, and all of it was important, somehow, but eventually we all must emerge into the daylight.


There is a lonely need at the heart of this book, the need for all this ephemeral shit to mean something, for the generations nurtured by the internet to have collected something more than transient commodities and opinions about them, more than posts and tweets and days of recycling things we’ve consumed and perhaps leveraged into monetized brands. But Cline has rejected the bigger ideas that usually absorb all our mortal flailing into an arc of greater redemptive significance. Religion is out. Unsurprisingly, he doesn’t so much as flirt with Marxism, even in a rootless Hegelian form of thesis, antithesis and synthesis inexorably churning human society forward. Capitalism is portrayed as a disease unless it’s in the hands of the right people, which is indistinguishable from the view of capitalism espoused by the wrong people.

At times, you can almost sense a muffled scream trying to escape the page, the unthinkable recognition that memorizing movies and videogame speed-runs and every beat of a standup routine contains only the memory space required to store it—that it builds to nothing, achieves nothing, signifies nothing more than the story of somebody else. That you can watch Raiders of the Lost Ark 100 times, and on the 101st, it won’t reveal a greater truth or build a better you. That the passivity of life via filmstrip exacts no price because it confers no prize. That, maybe, the cold message of becoming a pop-culture savant is realizing that you’ve dedicated your life to the craft of memorizing how it happened to someone else—or as someone else happened to imagine it. That the Comic Book Guy was right to lament, “Oh, I’ve wasted my life.”


Maybe that’s the seductive—and to those who embrace it—profound appeal of a story like Ready Player One, built on the bones of hundreds of others: that somehow we can construct a scavenger hunt of narrative human significance from everything we’ve already consumed, something every bit as spiritual and whole as a more rigorous study and embrace of the world as it is. Maybe there is a mechanism by which we can collect enough skill and armament and enchantment to ineffably cohere as flesh and spirit, something more sublime than meat networked and spasming with electricity.

Cline just hasn’t watched the movie that explains that part yet, and it’s not his fault. Nobody has.


Jeb Lund was a political columnist for Rolling Stone, The Guardian and Gawker. He previously reviewed Jeffrey Loria’s guide to Peanuts and a book on how to watch football on television. He is underemployed and has a podcast.