Ready Player One is a book of reference. That’s not to say it’s an encyclopedia — though at times it reads like one. It’s a book riddled with references that bring people memories of childhood games, shows, and movies.
That’s its appeal — but it’s also what makes some people dislike it, and the upcoming Hollywood adaptation has an opportunity to right some wrongs.
As someone in the “dislike” camp, my main criticism of Ready Player One (the book) is its over-reliance on reference without offering up much of its own. It’s clear how we’re supposed to react when protagonist Wade Watts waxes for pages and pages on all the geeky properties he’s an expert on.
Reference, reference, reference.
Somewhere along the line, I was hoping Ready Player One would offer up something worthwhile of its own. Something other than an on-rails tour of the 1980s, content to simply point at a thing and say “Look! Look at the thing! Remember that thing? Back when it was a thing?”
It’s the definition of polarising. That very same aspect of the book is what makes some people swoon with nostalgic bliss, and others roll their eyes. Some can just enjoy the references. Others can’t look past the fact that instead of references supporting the story, they are the story.
Why the divide? These are people from the same tribe. Not just fellow nerds, but even narrowed down, the same applies. Very particular references in Ready Player One, like one particular WarGames scene, can turn friend on friend like two dogs thrown one steak.
Even if I’m to reach deep into the dark science of mistaking anecdotal evidence as anything meaningful, there doesn’t seem to be any correlation among people I know. Professional game creators and critics, anime buffs, right next to financial experts and labourers, all war with each other over whether this book is any good or not.
Confession time. From my personal vantage point of being neck-deep in games every day, barely able to see over the next FIFA, I tire of nostalgia.
When you’re known as the “games guy” in social circles, people take that knowledge and try to relate to you with what they know. It’s only natural to seek a common understanding with the person in front of you. And the first port of call for common understanding is retro games.
“They’ll never make ‘em like they made Civilization II,” they might say.
I bite my tongue.
Far be it from me to be “that guy,” but the Civilization series was usurped long ago. Not only does Endless Legend do a better job, but the genre, like all genres, has learned much more about game design in the last thirty years.
Things are better now. Nostalgia is dumb.
Here’s the thing — it’s not like these two things are mutually exclusive. You can have reference mixed with original narrative, without one detracting from the other.
In the immortal words of my favourite taco ad… Why not both?
For once, Hollywood’s penchant for sprinkling in unnecessary nonsense might pay off. All those instances of executives bastardising the source material (remember World War Z?) have finally come good. We’ve found the one true situation where you can look at an original text and say “With a few tweaks, this could appeal to more people” and not deserve to be shot.
There’s no chance you’ll fit in every reference from the book into the movie. But you can jam pack shots full of references (as we’ve seen in the trailer) while spending vital minutes emphasising actual story. Whether you’re wanting it to be faithful or unfaithful, you’re happy.
Shifting gears, there’s another way the Ready Player One film can do a little better, and this one’s an easy one. The novel is forever tainted in the view of some, due to some casually transphobic lines from its protagonist.
There’s a distinction to be made between a disrespectful character and a disrespectful work of fiction. But these critics are correct to point out that the comments went unchallenged by character or author. Doing better than the novel here could be as simple as omitting it. A small nod to rectify it would be even better.
I’ll say this about Ready Player One. At least its protagonist sings for his supper. He got there through study, and not the hyperabundant Chosen One crutch. But just as the novel bordered on providing some kind of story of its own, you’d realise it was just describing another scene from an old movie. The book is, in some cases literally, just a list of things.
Yes, Ready Player One. We remember that scene. Very clever. Now what do you have to offer?