Did Ready Player One Kick off the Second VR Boom?

Image Copyright: Warner Bros. (used under Fair Use Rationale)
Image Copyright: Warner Bros. (used under Fair Use Rationale)

Stephen Spielberg and Warner Bros will tonight be releasing the film version of Ready Player One, based on Ernest Cline’s book of the same name. The trailer alone has made waves, as did the book on its first release, becoming a rapid best seller and winning a wave of supporters for its witty writing style, interesting virtual reality premise and its huge nostalgic bent, referencing basically everything in the 1980s worth referencing.

However, is it possible to go even further, and make the argument that Ready Player One has made a huge impact on virtual reality, in terms of ambition, scope, direction and possibly the culture surrounding it. Would it be possible to go as far and say that without Ready Player One, this second wave of Virtual Reality hardware that we are currently enjoying would not have happened? If this is the case, what effect could the film version have on VR as a whole?

Getting Player One Ready

First of all, it should be safe to say that film affecting the fortunes and appearance of virtual reality is not without precedence. While VR products were released prior to The Lawnmower Man’s 1992 release, the film’s success and staggering special effects did wonders to the success of companies like Virtuality, at least at first.

The Matrix popularised the concept of VR, but almost served as a cynical deconstruction, at a time when the last major developments in true virtual reality had failed catastrophically. It was an interesting time, as while VR was out the concept of virtual worlds and entering a virtual reality was if anything even more popular, in the wake of the early popularity of the internet and MMORPGs.

Games like Ultima Online, Everquest and Asheron’s Call allowed people to take advantage of the internet to create digital avatars of themselves and adventure into virtual worlds. Linden Labs were also experimenting with VR, flipping the equation inside out with the creation of Second Life.

Ernest Cline himself is an interesting figure, as Ready Player One was his first novel, which came out when he was aged 39. Writing is a funny business, but it is interesting that it took so long for a debut novel without a body of short story work.He did keep himself busy writing poetry and spoken word pieces as part of various Austin Poetry Slam events.

From Fanboys to Players

He also had some work as a screenwriter, first involving fan fiction, which translated into his first major screenplay: Fanboys. Fanboys was a script written in 1998 and generated quite a bit of interest, although it would take 11 years for it to finally be released as a feature film, directed by music video director Kyle Newman and starring among other people Jay Baruchel, Dan Fogler and Kristin Bell.

It follows what has become a trend for Cline’s work, in that it’s an affectionate walk through nostalgia, possibly the most obvious example of such, and filled to the brim with references, cameos and reference humour. This is often to a fault, as it leaves out pretty much everyone not in on the in-jokes and meta-references. If you are not like the protagonists of the film, a group of Star Wars geeks who completely and unashamedly never grew up, the film has absolutely nothing for you.

The plot, a standard road movie plot with some geeky seasoning, the usual hodgepodge of sex jokes and a cancer subplot removed then quickly re-entered at the last minute (the fact the producer attempting to excise this particular plot was the disgraced Harvey Weinstein does not help matters), isn’t terribly strong and nearly all the characters are nigh-detestable. The fact it was set in the late 1990s and involves breaking into George Lucas’ Skywalker Ranch in order to watch the original Episode I further shows how long in the tooth the script was. In the end Fanboys, constantly chopped, changed, delayed and put together in an almost patchwork fashion got fairly scathing reviews, with a 33% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and making less than a million dollars at the box office.

Nonetheless, it was a foot in the door. Fanboys was a film with uniquely challenging circumstances and not reflective of Cline’s approach to writing. That ended up being confirmed a year later when Ready Player One hit bookshelves.

Enter the OASIS

Around the time of Fanboys’ eventual release, Cline was working on another debut, this time in the world of literature. Building upon Fanboys’ submersion into pop culture esoterica, Cline ended up with the concept of Ready Player One, a novel that caused a rather substantial bidding war, and in which the film rights were sold within a day of the novel rights, Cline being attached to the screenplay.

The book is a massive success, currently on its 17th reprinting. There is quite a lot to like and quite a lot that clearly appealed: the witty dialogue, the fantastical premise, the appeal to nostalgia and the interesting application of virtual reality, which for us at VRS is the real appeal of the book.

Ready Player One takes place in 2044, a dying world laid waste by an energy crisis caused by global warming and the final depletion of fossil fuels. Many if not most people live in squalor in trailers stacked to the sky, and nearly everyone spends large periods of time in the OASIS, a virtual reality world that’s made up of a number of worlds and acts as a kind of intergalactic sandbox.

It’s part World of Warcraft, a huge part Second Life and part The Matrix and Johnny Mnemonic. Like many things in Ready Player One, it’s a deliberate menagerie of ideas and concepts and has an interesting origin; a virtual world built on top of video game technology.

Many of the elements discussed, such as the virtual avatars, the multitudes of worlds that contain a mix of original and copyrighted content, the problems of identities and the issues of disassociation between a virtual self and a real self are things you can readily see in Second Life. The concept of a virtual currency being a more stable entity than real currencies is also interesting in the age of Bitcoin and other digital cryptocurrencies.

The technology varies, but it implies that the creator of OASIS, James Halliday subsidised the ownership of a basic virtual reality setup, though more elaborate options are available to the lucky ones. Most people’s lives and even businesses run through OASIS, and as a result Halliday ended up incredibly wealthy despite doing a lot of things to allow people to keep access and not charging subscription fees for it. This may come from Snow Crash, which had a similar approach to its Metaverse as a public service which people could use from public booths with a certain stigma attached.

Image Copyright: Warner Bros. (used under Fair Use Rationale)
Image Copyright: Warner Bros. (used under Fair Use Rationale)

The Easter Egg Hunt

Once Halliday died, he released a message riddled with nostalgia for the 1980s, which announced the launch of a literal Easter egg hunt through the near-limitless world of OASIS, the winner of which would take over the company that owns OASIS and would instantly become comically wealthy. Everyone in OASIS scrambled to find the three keys and three gates leading to the easter egg, but didn’t really find anything, until one teenager who lived in one of the stacks managed to get the Copper Key, and his life changed forever, both in and out of VR.

With the film being released in just a few days, the same kinds of criticism of Cline’s writing style that were present in Fanboys have come up again. The main allegation is that Cline uses references as a crutch for his writing style. It is one thing to reference and name drop dozens of pop culture artefacts per page, however it comes at the expense of creating one’s own world. Fanboys is a road movie with old sci-fi references. Ready Player One is a hero’s journey adventure dressed in the veneer of virtual reality and nostalgia.

A lot of the puzzles and set pieces are based around rote memorisation of nostalgia. These include re-enacting exact scenes from 80s films, playing old arcade machines and exploring locales heavily inspired by the nerd culture of the 1980s, such as old Dungeons and Dragons adventure modules, recreations of real life and fictional locations from Halliday’s life.

The World Beyond the Virtual

As gleefully fanboyish a fantasy as it is to fly to an exclusive virtual party in a Delorean with Ghostbuster decals with the KITT computer from Night Rider installed, the story is a lot more hollow once you remove the “hey do you remember that…?” beats, almost as if pretty much everything in the plot is an excuse to have a smorgasbord of references.

It is hard to tell whether this is a problem with trying to cram so much pop culture ephemera into the story that you only have room for the most basic story elements or whether Cline needs the pages of window dressing to hide a very basic story. Certain parts, particularly when there are references to cyberpunk feel like they exist so Cline can pass the buck on explaining a complex idea to another, better writer.

At the same time, this may very well be the point. Halliday is a child of the eighties that venerated the plastic optimism and prosthetic reality that entailed. The Oasis became the embodiment of that era, an era that not-coincidentally Cline grew up in an era venerated by all manner of geek culture, from music to film to novels to video games.

The question then becomes about the world outside of the artifice. Ready Player One’s clumsiest writing comes in these moments, generally where it tap dances around the major fundamental issues that would lead to a world populace seeking escape. It is so very deeply indebted to the OASIS and virtual reality that the people behind the avatars become mere facades of reality, limited to a couple of talking points, which is an absolute shame.

The weakest points of the plot of RP1 come in particular when Wade and Art3mis, a famous easter egg hunter who he ends up meeting in the game and forming something of an odd attachment with, clumsily explore the issues of a long distance relationship in which both parties only know each other through avatars. There is a very interesting idea in there but it’s lost in the wake of some diabolically written dialogue.

Whenever the idea that ultimately they are gearing their entire life to go on a wild goose chase of nostalgic references, it almost feels like the story could go to a really interesting level, but as this would unfortunately destroy the fantasy of the premise it feels like it doesn’t reach that extra level, and as a result occasionally feels like wish fulfilment fantasy. Not helping this is the protagonist voice degenerating into “well I did this, then this and this and this” and solving complex issues within a few sentences, such as the chapter in IOI which is set up over two chapters and fixed almost completely in a paragraph.

Image Copyright: Warner Bros. (used under Fair Use Rationale)
Image Copyright: Warner Bros. (used under Fair Use Rationale)

Wasted Potential

Like Fanboys, the situation feels incredibly contrived to make it so the only person who can save the world is a master of video game trivia. It’s a massive shame because the opportunity to explore not just pop culture that matters to someone but why it matters is kind of lost.

There were a few ways this could have been taken, pop culture as an opiate for the masses and almost a religion, the struggle to break past a world defined by a single person’s nostalgia and how to break beyond a mass culture that has been elevated to religious canon, or even perhaps making the story less about Wade Watts, prodigious video game player and nerd hero du jour and about James Halliday, completely through the eyes of others.

The tiny moments where this is seen, such as when Wade goes to digital versions of places from Halliday’s past, or talks to Ogden Morrow, Halliday’s oldest friend, it is quite refreshing, but much like moments where the main characters realise they are part of a geeky Easter egg hunt, they stop just before they can reveal the dark side of the treasure hunt. Perhaps a deeper look into people other than the heroes looking for the egg and the nonsense surrounding the contest, much like the infamous Quest for the Golden Hare written about in Bamber Gascoigne’s non-fiction book of the same name, would have helped flesh out what can feel at times to be a wish-fulfilment fantasy.

Regardless of the weaknesses with the novel itself, it did gangbusters, becoming a massive success, to the point that the screenplay rights were part of a bidding war a year before the book’s final release, with the film being directed by the mighty Steven Spielberg. It is scheduled to premiere tonight and the pre-release reception has been for the most part positive, with Spielberg’s guiding hand giving a little bit of self-control to a story that can on paper easily degenerate into pages of references.

From OASIS to Oculus

Technology in fiction entering the real world is always fascinating, particularly when you start seeing technologies evolve as a direct response to something seen in science fiction or philosophy. Neuromancer was released in 1984 and within a decade the Internet as we know it formed and very early VR was born. Snow Crash came out in 1992 and within a few years Massively Multiplayer Online games were released to match its vision of a virtual street right down to using the term Metaverse to describe such a virtual world.

Ready Player One is different in the sense that most of the actual technical advances already existed in some embryonic form by the time of the book’s release in 2011. Second Life was over a decade old. MMO games were some of the biggest and most successful games ever made with player bases in the tens of millions. 3D games in general were gradually increasing in detail in an increasing push towards photorealism. Motion control had risen as a fad, fallen and risen again and even things like data gloves, haptic feedback, omnidirectional treadmills and so on were available for those with bottomless wallets and a lot of tinkering time.

Virtual Reality had become a reality, fizzled out and was nearing the end of a 15 year wilderness period as by the one year anniversary of the book’s launch a  campaign by one Palmer Luckey would change the face of Virtual Reality forever and make VR a massive deal.

Image Copyright: Warner Bros. (used under Fair Use Rationale)
Image Copyright: Warner Bros. (used under Fair Use Rationale)

Ready Player Rift

How much does Ready Player One contribute to this? The answer is a lot more than you would expect. Palmer Luckey, the founder of Oculus VR absolutely loves the book, referencing it (as well as The Matrix) in a ton of the interviews he did around his VR endeavours. Whilst the Oculus Rift moved from being a prototype kit on Kickstarter to a fully realised headset and Oculus went from being one person to an entire company, Ready Player One if anything became more influential.

New employees would receive a copy of the book and it was considered recommended reading along with a number of VR-based sci-fi novels. According to Cline, he was regularly invited up to Oculus’ headquarters to sign equipment and copies of the novel.

Apparently, even Mark Zuckerberg, president of Facebook and owner of Oculus VR has read both Ready Player One and Cline’s follow up Armada, and on the announcement that Oculus had been purchased by Facebook, Zuckerberg made some references to the future of VR that more than echoed the potential shown by the Matrix.

When Will VR Get Its Real Virtual OASIS?

Arguably there is something of a race to get that VR virtual world created, but none of the current incarnations is completely anywhere close to that level yet. AltSpace VR was limited in features and ultimately disappeared, Facebook Spaces is even more limited, Linden Lab’s Second Life follow up Sansar is in very early beta and VRChat is riddled with quality issues. VRChat has become the biggest of the social VR platforms but that comes at the cost of being drowned in memes.

So Virtual Reality exists, and Second Life, a metaverse that is clearly influential to Ready Player One exists, so when will the two combine and the OASIS become reality? No one can be quite sure yet.

Ready Player One, intentionally or not could form part of a template for how such a VR world would look, and the dystopian outer world occasionally peeked out as a warning for what happens when a population values the virtual world far more than the real one.

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