Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

Ready Player One

Ernest Cline

  twice, I finally defeated him, using an Elvish Sword and a Ring of Ice. I completed the game by picking up the wizard’s magic ring, claiming it for myself. As I did, an image appeared on the screen, showing a wizard with a bright star on his staff and his robes. The text below read: BEHOLD! DESTINY AWAITS THE HAND OF A NEW WIZARD!

  I waited to see what would happen. For a moment, nothing did. Then Halliday’s ancient dot-matrix printer came to life and noisily ground out a single line of text. The tractor feed spooled the page out of the top of the printer. I tore the sheet off and read what was there:


  I glanced around and saw that there was now a wrought-iron gate embedded in the bedroom wall, in the exact spot where the WarGames poster had been a second before. In the center of the gate was a copper-plated lock with a keyhole.

  I climbed up on top of Halliday’s desk so I could reach the lock, then slid the Copper Key into the keyhole and turned it. The entire gate began to glow, as if the metal had become superheated, and its double doors swung inward, revealing a field of stars. It appeared to be a portal into deep space.

  “My God, it’s full of stars,” I heard a disembodied voice say. I recognized it as a sound bite from the film 2010. Then I heard a low, ominous hum, followed by a piece of music from that film’s score: “Also Sprach Zarathustra” by Richard Strauss.

  I leaned forward and looked through the portal. Left and right, up and down. Nothing but an endless field of stars in all directions. Squinting, I could also make out a few tiny nebulae and galaxies in the distance.

  I didn’t hesitate. I jumped into the open gate. It seemed to pull me in, and I began to fall. But I fell forward instead of down, and the stars seemed to fall with me.

  I found myself standing in an old video arcade, playing Galaga.

  The game was already in progress. I had double ships and a score of 41,780 points. I glanced down and saw that my hands were on the controls. After a second or two of disorientation, I reflexively began to play, moving the joystick left just in time to avoid losing one of my ships.

  Keeping one eye on the game, I tried to make sense of my surroundings. In my peripheral vision I was able to make out a Dig Dug game on my left and a Zaxxon machine to my right. Behind me, I could hear a cacophony of digital combat coming from dozens of other vintage arcade games. Then, as I finished clearing the wave on Galaga, I noticed my reflection in the game’s screen. It wasn’t my avatar’s face I saw there. It was Matthew Broderick’s face. A young pre–Ferris Bueller and pre-Ladyhawke Matthew Broderick.

  Then I knew where I was. And who I was.

  I was David Lightman, Matthew Broderick’s character in the movie WarGames. And this was his first scene in the film.

  I was in the movie.

  I took a quick glance around and saw a detailed replica of 20 Grand Palace, the combination arcade/pizza joint featured in the film. Kids with feathered ’80s hairstyles were clustered around each of the games. Others sat in booths, eating pizza and drinking sodas. “Video Fever” by the Beepers blasted out of a jukebox in the corner. Everything looked and sounded exactly as it did in the movie. Halliday had copied every last detail from the film and re-created it as an interactive simulation.

  Holy shit.

  I’d spent years wondering what challenges awaited me inside the First Gate. Never once had I imagined this. But I probably should have. WarGames had been one of Halliday’s all-time favorite movies. Which was why I had watched it over three dozen times. Well, that, and also because it was completely awesome, with an old-school teenage computer hacker as the protagonist. And it looked like all of that research was about to pay off.

  Now I heard a repetitive electronic beeping. It seemed to be coming from the right pocket of the jeans I was wearing. Keeping my left hand on the joystick, I reached in my pocket and pulled out a digital watch. The readout said 7:45 a.m. When I pushed one of the buttons to silence the alarm, a warning flashed in the center of my display: DAVID, YOU’RE GOING TO BE LATE FOR SCHOOL!

  I used a voice command to pull up my OASIS map, hoping to learn where the gate had transported me. But it turned out that not only was I no longer on Middletown, I was no longer in the OASIS at all. My locator icon was in the middle of a blank screen, which meant I was OTM—off the map. When I’d stepped into the gate, it had transported my avatar into a stand-alone simulation, a virtual location separate from the OASIS. It seemed that the only way I could get back would be to clear the gate by completing the quest. But if this was a videogame, how was I supposed to play it? If this was a quest, what was my goal? I continued to play Galaga while pondering these questions. A second later, a young boy walked into the arcade and came over to me.

  “Hi, David!” he said, his eyes on my game.

  I recognized this kid from the movie. His name was Howie. In the film, Matthew Broderick’s character hands his Galaga game off to Howie when he rushes off to school.

  “Hi, David!” the boy repeated, in the same exact tone. As he spoke this time, his words also appeared as text, superimposed across the bottom of my display, like subtitles. Below this, flashing red, were the words FINAL DIALOGUE WARNING!

  I began to understand. The simulation was warning me that this was my final chance to deliver the next line of dialogue from the movie. If I didn’t say the line, I could guess what would probably happen next. GAME OVER.

  But I didn’t panic, because I knew the next line. I’d seen WarGames so many times that I knew the entire film by heart.

  “Hi, Howie!” I said. But the voice I heard in my earphones was not my own. It was Matthew Broderick’s voice. And as I spoke the line, the warning on my display vanished and a score of 100 points appeared, superimposed at the top of my display.

  I racked my brain, trying to mentally replay the rest of the scene. The next line came to me. “How’s it going?” I said, and my score jumped to 200 points.

  “Pretty good,” Howie replied.

  I started to feel giddy. This was incredible. I was totally inside the movie. Halliday had transformed a fifty-year-old film into a real-time interactive videogame. I wondered how long it had taken him to program this thing.

  Another warning flashed on my display: YOU’RE GOING TO BE LATE FOR SCHOOL, DAVID! HURRY!

  I stepped away from the Galaga machine. “Hey, you wanna take this over?” I asked Howie.

  “Sure,” he replied, grabbing the controls. “Thanks!”

  A green path appeared on the floor of the arcade, leading from where I stood to the exit. I started to follow it, then remembered to run back and grab my notebook off of the Dig Dug game, just like David had in the movie. As I did this, my score jumped another 100 points, and ACTION BONUS! appeared on my display.

  “Bye, David!” Howie shouted.

  “Bye!” I shouted back. Another 100 points. This was easy!

  I followed the green path out of 20 Grand Palace and up the busy street a few blocks. I was now running along a tree-lined suburban street. I rounded a corner and saw that the path led directly to a large brick building. The sign over the door said Snohomish High School—David’s school, and the setting of the next few scenes in the movie.

  My mind was racing as I ran inside. If all I had to do was rattle off lines of dialogue from WarGames on cue for the next two hours, this was going to be a breeze. Without even knowing it, I’d totally overprepared. I probably knew WarGames even better than I knew Real Genius and Better Off Dead.

  As I ran down the empty school hallway, another warning flashed in front of me: YOU’RE LATE FOR YOUR BIOLOGY CLASS!

  I continued to sprint at top speed, following the green path, which was now pulsing brightly. It eventually led me to the door of a classroom on the second floor. Through the window, I could see that class was already in session. The teacher was up at the board. I saw my seat—the only empty one in the room.

  It was right behind Ally Sheedy.

  I opened the door and tipt
oed inside, but the teacher spotted me right away.

  “Ah, David! Nice of you to join us!”

  Making it all the way to the end of the movie wound up being a lot harder than I anticipated. It only took me about fifteen minutes to figure out the “rules” of the game and to sort out how the scoring system worked. I was actually required to do a lot more than simply recite dialogue. I also had to perform all the actions that Broderick’s character performed in the film, in the correct way and at the correct moment. It was like being forced to act the leading role in a play you’d watched many times but had never actually rehearsed.

  For most of the movie’s first hour, I was on edge, constantly trying to think ahead to have my next line of dialogue ready. Whenever I flubbed a line or didn’t perform an action at the right moment, my score decreased and a warning flashed on my display. When I made two mistakes in a row, a FINAL WARNING message appeared. I wasn’t sure what would happen if I got three strikes in a row, but my guess was that I’d either be expelled from the gate or that my avatar would simply be killed. I wasn’t eager to find out which it would be.

  Whenever I correctly performed seven actions or recited seven lines of dialogue in a row, the game would award me a “Cue Card Power-Up.” The next time I blanked on what to do or say, I could select the Cue Card icon and the correct action or line of dialogue would appear on my display, sort of like a teleprompter.

  During scenes that didn’t involve my character, the simulation cut to a passive third-person perspective, and all I had to do was sit back and watch things play out, sort of like watching a cut scene in an old videogame. During these scenes, I could relax until my character came on-screen again. During one of these breaks, I tried to access a copy of the movie from my OASIS console’s hard drive, with the intention of playing it in a window on my display so I could refer to it. But the system wouldn’t let me. In fact, I found that I couldn’t open any windows at all while inside the gate. When I tried, I got a warning: NO CHEATING. TRY TO CHEAT AGAIN AND IT’S GAME OVER!

  Luckily, it turned out that I didn’t need any help. Once I’d collected the maximum of five Cue Card Power-Ups I began to relax, and the game actually started to be fun. It wasn’t hard to enjoy being inside one of my favorite flicks. After a while, I even discovered that I could earn bonus points by delivering a line in the exact tone and with the same inflection as in the film.

  I didn’t know it at the time, but I’d just become the first person to play an entirely new type of videogame. When GSS got wind of the WarGames simulation inside the First Gate (and they did a short time later), the company quickly patented the idea and began to buy up the rights to old movies and TV shows and convert them into immersive interactive games that they dubbed Flicksyncs. Flicksyncs became wildly popular. There turned out to be a huge market for games that allowed people to play a leading role in one of their favorite old movies or TV series.

  By the time I reached the final scenes of the movie, I was starting to get twitchy from exhaustion. I’d now been up for over twenty-four hours straight, jacked in the entire time. The last action I had to perform was instructing the WOPR supercomputer to “play itself” at tic-tac-toe. Since every game the WOPR played ended in a tie, this had the improbable effect of teaching the artificially intelligent computer that global thermonuclear war, too, was a game in which “the only winning move is not to play.” This prevented the WOPR from launching all of the United States’ ICBMs at the Soviet Union.

  I, David Lightman, a teenage computer geek from suburban Seattle, had single-handedly prevented the end of human civilization.

  The NORAD command center erupted in celebration, and I waited for the movie’s end credits to roll. But they didn’t. Instead, all the characters around me vanished, leaving me alone in the giant war room. When I checked my avatar’s reflection in a computer monitor, I saw that I no longer looked like Matthew Broderick. I’d changed back into Parzival.

  I glanced around the empty NORAD command center, wondering what I was supposed to do next. Then all of the giant video display screens in front of me went blank, and four lines of glowing green text appeared on them. It was another riddle:

  The captain conceals the Jade Key

  in a dwelling long neglected

  But you can only blow the whistle

  once the trophies are all collected

  I stood there for a second, staring at the words in stunned silence. Then I snapped out of my daze and quickly took several screenshots of the text. As I was doing this, the Copper Gate reappeared, embedded in a nearby wall. The gate was open, and through it I could see Halliday’s bedroom. It was the exit. The way out.

  I’d done it. I’d cleared the First Gate.

  I glanced back up at the riddle on the viewscreens. It had taken me years to decipher the Limerick and locate the Copper Key. At first glance, this new riddle about the Jade Key looked like it might take just as long to figure out. I didn’t understand a word of it. But I was also dead on my feet, and in no condition for further puzzle-solving. I could barely keep my eyes open.

  I jumped through the exit and landed with a thud on the floor of Halliday’s bedroom. When I turned around and looked at the wall, I saw that the gate was now gone and the WarGames poster had reappeared in its place.

  I checked my avatar’s stats and saw that I’d been awarded several hundred thousand experience points for clearing the gate, enough to raise my avatar from tenth level up to twentieth in one shot. Then I checked the Scoreboard:


  1. Parzival 110000

  2. Art3mis 9000

  3. JDH 0000000

  4. JDH 0000000

  5. JDH 0000000

  6. JDH 0000000

  7. JDH 0000000

  8. JDH 0000000

  9. JDH 0000000

  10. JDH 0000000

  My score had increased by 100,000 points, and a copper-colored gate icon now appeared beside it. The media (and everyone else) had probably been monitoring the Scoreboard since last night, so now the whole world would know that I’d cleared the First Gate.

  I was too exhausted to consider the implications. All I could think about was sleep.

  I ran downstairs and into the kitchen. The keys to the Halliday family car were on a pegboard next to the refrigerator. I grabbed them and rushed outside. The car (the one that wasn’t up on blocks) was a 1982 Ford Thunderbird. The engine started on the second try. I backed out of the driveway and drove to the bus station.

  From there, I teleported back to the transport terminal next to my school on Ludus. Then I went to my locker and dumped all of my avatar’s newfound treasure, armor, and weapons inside before finally logging out of the OASIS.

  When I pulled off my visor, it was 6:17 a.m. I rubbed my bloodshot eyes and gazed around the dark interior of my hideout, trying to wrap my head around everything that had just happened.

  I suddenly realized how cold it was in the van. I’d been using the tiny space heater off and on all night and had drained the batteries. I was way too tired to get on the exercise bike and recharge them. And I didn’t have the energy to make the trek back to my aunt’s trailer, either. But the sun would be up soon, so I knew I could crash there in my hideout without worrying that I would freeze to death.

  I slid off of my chair and onto the floor, then curled up in my sleeping bag. As I closed my eyes, I began to ponder the riddle of the Jade Key. But sleep swallowed me whole a few seconds later.

  I had a dream. I was standing alone in the center of a scorched battlefield, with several different armies arrayed against me. An army of Sixers stood in front of me, and several different gunter clans surrounded me on all other flanks, brandishing swords and guns and weapons of powerful magic.

  I looked down at my body. It wasn’t Parzival’s body; it was my own. And I was wearing armor made of paper. In my right hand was a toy plastic sword, and in my left was a large glass egg. It looked exactly like the glass egg that causes Tom Cruise’s character so
much grief in Risky Business, but somehow I knew that, in the context of my dream, it was supposed to be Halliday’s Easter egg.

  And I was standing there, out in the open, holding it for all the world to see.

  In unison, the armies of my enemies let out a fierce battle cry and charged toward me. They converged on my position with bared teeth and blood in their eyes. They were coming to take the egg, and there was nothing I could do to stop them.

  I knew I was dreaming, and so I expected to wake up before they reached me. But I didn’t. The dream continued as the egg was ripped from my grasp, and I felt myself being torn to shreds.

  I slept for over twelve hours and missed school entirely.

  When I finally woke up, I rubbed my eyes and lay there in silence awhile, trying to convince myself that the events of the previous day had actually occurred. It all seemed like a dream to me now. Far too good to be real. Eventually, I grabbed my visor and got online to find out for sure.

  Every single newsfeed seemed to be showing a screenshot of the Scoreboard. And my avatar’s name was there at the top, in first place. Art3mis was still in second place, but the score beside her name had now increased to 109,000, just 1,000 points less than mine. And, like me, she had a copper-colored gate icon beside her score now too.

  So she’d done it. While I’d slept, she’d deciphered the inscription on the Copper Key. Then she’d gone to Middletown, located the gate, and made it all the way through WarGames, just a few hours after I had.

  I no longer felt quite so impressed with myself.

  I flipped past a few more channels before stopping on one of the major newsfeed networks, where I saw two men sitting in front of a screenshot of the Scoreboard. The man on the left, some middle-aged intellectual type billed as “Edgar Nash, Gunter Expert” appeared to be explaining the scores to the newsfeed anchor beside him.

  “—appears that the avatar named Parzival received slightly more points for being the first to find the Copper Key,” Nash said, pointing to the Scoreboard. “Then, early this morning, Parzival’s score increased another one hundred thousand points, and a Copper Gate icon appeared beside his score. The same change occurred to Art3mis’s score a few hours later. This seems to indicate that both of them have now completed the first of the three gates.”

  “The famous Three Gates that James Halliday spoke of in the Anorak’s Invitation video?” the anchor said.

  “The very same.”

  “But Mr. Nash. After five years, how is it that two avatars accomplished this feat on the same day, within just a few hours of each other?”

  “Well, I think there’s only one plausible answer. These two people, Parzival and Art3mis, must be working together. They’re probably both members of what is known as a ‘gunter clan.’ These are groups of egg hunters who—”

  I frowned and changed the channel, surfing the feeds until I saw an overly enthusiastic reporter interviewing Ogden Morrow via satellite. The Ogden Morrow.

  “—joining us live from his home in Oregon. Thanks for being with us today, Mr. Morrow!”

  “No problem,” Morrow replied. It had been almost six years since Morrow had last spoken to the media, but he didn’t seem to have aged a day. His wild gray hair and long beard made him look like a cross between Albert Einstein and Santa Claus. That comparison was also a pretty good description of his personality.

  The reporter cleared his throat, obviously a bit nervous. “Let me start off by asking what your reaction is to the events of the last twenty-four hours. Were you surprised to see those names appear on Halliday’s Scoreboard?”

  “Surprised? Yes, a little, I suppose. But ‘excited’ is probably a better word. Like everyone else, I’ve been watching and waiting for this to happen. Of course, I wasn’t sure if I’d still be alive when it finally did! I’m glad that I am. It’s all very exciting, isn’t it?”

  “Do you think these two gunters, Parzival and Art3mis, are working together?”

  “I have no idea. I suppose it’s possible.”

  “As you know, Gregarious Simulation Systems keeps all OASIS user records confidential, so we have no way of knowing their true identities. Do you think either of them will come forward and reveal themselves to the public?”

  “Not if they’re smart, they won’t,” Morrow said, adjusting his wire-rimmed spectacles. “If I were in their shoes, I’d do everything possible to remain anonymous.”

  “Why do you say that?”

  “Because once the world discovers who they really are, they’ll never have a moment’s peace afterward. If people think you can help them find Halliday’s egg, they’ll never leave you alone. Trust me, I know from experience.”

  “Yes, I suppose you do.” The reporter flashed a fake smile. “However, this network has contacted both Parzival and Art3mis via e-mail, and we’ve extended generous monetary offers to each of them in return for an exclusive interview, either in the OASIS or here in the real world.”

  “I’m sure they’re receiving many such offers. But I doubt they’ll accept,” Morrow said. Then he looked straight into the camera, and I felt as if he was now speaking directly to me. “Anyone smart enough to accomplish what they have should know better than to risk everything by talking to the vultures in the media.”

  The reporter chuckled uncomfortably. “Ah, Mr. Morrow … I really don’t think