Worldbuilding and “Ready Player One”
A short while ago, I read Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One cover to cover in a little over a week, which should tell you just how much I liked its 374 pages. It started off slow, with Cline taking his time to build the world the story is set in, making the first seventy-odd pages of the book a bit boring. That’s understandable though — he’s faced with the arduous tasks of establishing a fresh dystopia, a whole new way of living, and introducing the main character Wade Watts and his motivations.
What made these uniquely challenging is that the world of Ready Player One is not one whose rules need to be described and set out. Rather, it’s one where the same rules that you and I live with need to be adapted to a completely different set of people with different driving forces and different backstories. Additionally, the premise of the story, Halliday’s Hunt, is not something that can be written off in a few sentences. It requires pages of describing how and why the OASIS all but took over everyone’s lives the world over and how the dystopia the characters live in has pushed everyone into the welcoming arms of virtual escape. Cline accomplishes this fantastically, developing the story into more than just a video game contest brimming with ’80s nostalgia — it’s a story about how Wade, like many others, grew up with the OASIS and how more than changed, it shaped their lives. At its core though, it remains a story of an unlikely underdog who comes from nothing, against whom the odds are insurmountably stacked, and how he devotes himself to rising above circumstance and creating a reality he actually likes. And who doesn’t love a good underdog story?
The book is written in a witty first person that focuses on Wade, making it relatively easy to develop his character to the extent that Cline has (and I say relatively because this level of development is by no means at all a simple task, but the other characters were likely even more difficult). During the exposition, Cline describes his life so far — how he lost his father to a botched robbery and his mother to a drug habit, how he’s created a hideout out of scraps to escape from his abusive aunt and her endless string of lovers, how the OASIS essentially raised him, and his interactions with the demise of the world as he knew it. It talks about the poverty he lives in and its consequences both in the real world and in the OASIS, his personal insecurities and how he jumped at the opportunity to attend school in the OASIS, and how, through it all, he managed to find a real connection with his best friend despite only ever having met in the OASIS. It was, without a doubt, the quickest I ever came to care for a character and by the end of those seventy pages, I wanted Wade to win the Hunt just as much as he did.
Cline employed a unique use of dialogue to develop the other characters to the extent that it seems as though they all got their own stream of consciousness narratives. We never get to see the world from their eyes, but their characters are so intricately intertwined with Wade’s that their pain, their loss, their wins — everything about them is felt profoundly.
What I found especially great about these characters is that despite everyone’s motivation being the same — to win the Hunt and claim the Egg — each one is distinct and diverse. Through them, Cline tackles issues like racism, sexism, insecurities, the role of human contact, and many more. The last one was especially intriguing to me because of how little attention it’s given in most other works. There will generally be one or two supporting characters with the MC who back them up through everything and basically just rough it out with them. Ready Player One decides to ignore this concept entirely.
The way Cline handled this was he started off by having Wade virtually isolated from any real contact, but then slowly begin to develop meaningful relationships and even take them into the real world by the end of the story. To use Cline’s words,
“…as terrifying and painful as reality can be, it’s also the only place where you can find true happiness. Because reality is real.”
Worldbuilding — 10/10
Characters — 9/10
Plot — 9/10
Writing style — 9/10
Reader investment — 9/10