I just finished reading Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. I have some thoughts. A few of my thoughts may contain spoilers (but not many).
I have an overall positive feeling toward this novel. In fact, I’m even prepared to criticize some of my own criticisms. I mean, if I pick up a novel about vampires, I don’t criticize it for containing vampires or for being scary. Ready Player One is clearly a novel about playing video games, so I’m a little leery of criticizing it for giving me the feeling that I was watching a guy playing video games. That said, if you’ve ever watched a friend play a one-player video game, you might understand the frustrating feeling I’m tempted to link to a few sections of the novel.
Let’s start with the good stuff. This novel was a nostalgia-seeking missile that nearly always hit its target. Nostalgia, of course, is a dangerous and subjective tool to wield in fiction and if you weren’t a kid in the 1980s, I could see the trope of repeatedly exalting 80s pop culture references getting pretty tedious pretty quickly. I was a kid in the 80s and I’m happy to receive any Max Headroom or Zork references you care to toss my way. This novel gave me all sorts of juicy opportunities to pat myself on the back and feel like I was in on the joke. Lucky me.
Beyond the nostalgia, Ready Player One is also a pretty solid underdog-achieves-his-dream sort of narrative that deftly shifts between a myriad of fun settings and stake-raising complications for our protagonist. Yes, many of the “fun settings” to which I refer are clichés because the great, thrumming nostalgia-powered engine at the heart of this novel is fueled by clichés, but that fact doesn’t rob the alien landscapes and sword and sorcery castles of all their power.
Here’s my big problem with the novel… Let me try to explain this in the traditional method of most literary criticism—by using a Harry Potter metaphor. Okay, so imagine the Harry Potter series, minus the character of Harry, viewed through Hermione’s eyes. Yes, I like Hermione too, just stick with me a sec. Now imagine that, in classic Hermione fashion, she had read or studied each challenge off-screen before it arose and could solve 90% of any possible trouble with a smirk and a wave of the wand. Oh, and also imagine that Voldemort is an empty suit corporate bad guy cliché with almost no backstory and all the other bad guys in the series are stripped of identity and made into uniform drones with no defining characteristics.
Boom. Harry Potter based metaphor criticism achieved.
Wade, our protagonist in Ready Player One, encounters all sorts of challenges and puzzles in the novel that he deftly solves with a brief mention of all the work he did to prepare for the eventuality of the specific obstacle he is about to tackle. We’re told over and over again that Wade has obsessively studied and prepared for the sorts of challenges he is likely to face in the central game storyline of the novel. So… it’s like watching a guy with a big burlap sack full of keys walking through a series of locked doors. Oh, look! Another locked door! Does he have the key? Yes, he probably does. Oh, look at that, he does.
Beyond the problem of the off-screen ultra-prepared Hermione issue, there is a real lack of distinguishing characteristics in the novel. In Ready Player One, all bad guys kinda feel like the same bad guy. They kinda are the same bad guy. The “faceless corporate drone” thing is presented as essentially literal.
Similarly, our protagonists all have the exact same obsession with 80s pop culture (which is the key to solving the central goal of the plot). They are all similar ages. They are all reclusive, anti-social types. They all have a lot in common. A LOT.
There are also lots of factors that mute the tension in Ready Player One. I think it was a wise decision on the part of the author that all the violence isn’t relegated to the virtual world, but that fact doesn’t carry the kind of stakes-raising punch you might expect. In our first serious look at the corporate menace faced by our heroes, the baddies take out a few members of Wade’s family. The thing is, Wade only has one brief scene with these people and they are portrayed as two-dimensional scum bags that make Cinderella’s stepmother seem like a subtle and nuanced character.
Did I mention I like this book? I did. Seriously, I enjoyed it. I just… have some issues with it. I can do both. I contain multitudes.
To sum it up in video game terms, Ready Player One is more of an old school 2D side-scroller than a MMORPG. That said, if you understand that last criticism, you’d probably enjoy giving Ready Player One a try.