I had the misfortune of getting sick right between Christmas and New Years, but being bed-ridden all day allowed me to read all of Ernest Cline’s compelling sci-fi novel, Ready Player One, in less than 24 hours. Since then, I’ve been recommending the book to pretty much everyone I know, and now I recommend it to you readers for its elements of mystery and puzzle-hunting.
The story takes place in a down-trodden 2044 Earth, where everyone uses a free-to-play virtual world called OASIS as a refuge from the poverty and decay of the real world. When the creator of OASIS, James Halliday (based on the personalities of Howard Hughes and Richard Garriott), passes away, a video is broadcast detailing a final quest from Halliday to his players: a hunt through the massive OASIS virtual world to find three Easter eggs, keys tucked away by the creator himself. Whoever finds all three keys and completes their accompanying quests first is given Halliday’s multi-billion dollar fortune and control over the OASIS world.
The novel is told from the perspective of Wade, a poor high school student and one of the many OASIS users who have made winning Halliday’s contest their primary purpose in life. It’s well known that finding the keys will require insight into Halliday’s history and tastes, which spurs a worldwide resurgence of interest in 1980’s pop culture (Halliday’s teenage years). Wade, like many other “gunters” (egg hunters), spends countless hours poring over old 80’s sitcoms and mastering ancient arcade games. Early in the story, and five years after the beginning of the contest, Wade discovers the first egg and is launched into a new life of fame, mystery, paranoia, and danger as the competition grows more cut-throat.
Usually when I hear people talk about this book, they focus on the pop culture aspect. Practically every page is littered with references to games, movies, music, and TV from the 1980’s. Although this is a fun and unique aspect of the novel, the mystery and adventure hunt aspects, which I’ll divide into two parts, were what really drew me in.
First is the idea of an online, international puzzle/adventure hunt. Not only that, but a hunt that is so tempting and high-stakes that it gets the whole world involved, not just puzzle-hunters. And not only that, but a hunt that is so complex that it takes years and years for anyone to even find the first piece of the puzzle. These are the kind of things that get my blood pumping!
I feel like I’ve been a small part of a similar contest in getting to witness some of the Final Six tournament at The Stone (which took about two years to solve, by players from around the world). The Stone also had a worldwide artifact hunt in the form of The Journey, where large puzzle pieces were literally buried around the world for players to find. I also had a fun experience in college where some clues were leading to a $100 bill hidden somewhere in the city. My team was savvy and quick and found the location (hitting a few dead ends along the way) before any of the other groups and individuals had, and it was the biggest adrenaline rush. I would so love more things like this in my life—puzzle hunts where you can collaborate with others and try to make sense of clues, ending in the thrill of finding a physical object hidden somewhere.
Describing all of these experiences makes me think about the element of competition in puzzle hunts. I think The Stone’s Final Six was probably the least competitive of the ones I mentioned, with a somewhat low-stakes prize and the encouragement of teamwork and collaboration. On the extremely competitive end of the spectrum, I would put something like The Amazing Race (where teams feel compelled to safeguard information like flight times) or the Post Hunt endgame (where the ticking of the clock is so loud you can barely hear yourself think). Ready Player One ends up including a lot of both sides, and deals with these conflicting themes in a realistic way. Wade’s struggle is relatable to anyone who has been in a similar competitive situation; the emotional war between trying to keep your secrets and advantages to yourself and just dying to share something really cool and exciting with your best friends. Wade also has to compete with thousands corporate-sponsored gunters who have better equipment and access to more information.
(Personally, I think I enjoy things on the more collaborative side, sharing clues over long distances, everyone contributing a small part, etc. But the thrill of competition is amazing if you can share it with a few friends as a team.)
Second is the idea of Easter eggs. This whole book kind of took me back to the feelings I got from reading Nomen Ludi. I’m not sure why the idea of Easter eggs and other mysteries hidden in old programming is so appealing to me. I think part of it is the simple concept of something being hidden for years and years, essentially right under the your nose the whole time. And to find an Easter egg in a ten or twenty or thirty-year old program seems a lot like finding a little time capsule. These concepts aren’t limited in any way to the digital realm, but I think they’re definitely more accessible that way. There are a limited number of scenarios where someone might hide something in the real world and realistically hope that someone else might find it and find value in it. It’s easy to put an Easter egg in a game, and it’s certainly realistic to think that out of the thousands of players spending extended periods of gameplay time in such a constrained world, at least one player might stumble upon it (and will certainly find value in it).
Strangely, the OASIS world in Ready Player One loses both of these advantages by being even more massive than the real world. Instead, the hidden objects must be announced in the form of a contest, and the stakes must be made so high that the eggs will be worth finding. Halliday’s eggs do still get to take advantage of one third aspect of digital Easter eggs, and that is limitless creative possibility, or the ability create experiences impossible in the real world.
Overall, Ready Player One was not only a super enjoyable read, but it gave me a lot to think about and I find myself wanting to reference ideas and concepts from the book constantly. It’s definitely not without its flaws (slow sections, a few pretty unbelievable scenarios, a bit of heavy-handedness, etc.), and the writing style and virtual world setting may turn some readers off, but I definitely recommend checking it out. The excitement of the hunt will keep you turning the pages until there aren’t any left!