Ready Player One, Page 6Ernest Cline
In desperation, I’d tried to find a part-time after-school job, just to earn some walking-around money. I applied for dozens of tech support and programming jobs (mostly grunt construction work, coding parts of OASIS malls and office buildings), but it was completely hopeless. Millions of college-educated adults couldn’t get one of those jobs. The Great Recession was now entering its third decade, and unemployment was still at a record high. Even the fast-food joints in my neighborhood had a two-year waiting list for job applicants.
So I remained stuck at school. I felt like a kid standing in the world’s greatest video arcade without any quarters, unable to do anything but walk around and watch the other kids play.
After lunch, I headed to my favorite class, Advanced OASIS Studies. This was a senior-year elective where you learned about the history of the OASIS and its creators. Talk about an easy A.
For the past five years, I’d devoted all of my free time to learning as much as I possibly could about James Halliday. I’d exhaustively studied his life, accomplishments, and interests. Over a dozen different Halliday biographies had been published in the years since his death, and I’d read them all. Several documentary films had also been made about him, and I’d studied those, too. I’d studied every word Halliday had ever written, and I’d played every videogame he’d ever made. I took notes, writing down every detail I thought might be related to the Hunt. I kept everything in a notebook (which I’d started to call my “grail diary” after watching the third Indiana Jones film).
The more I’d learned about Halliday’s life, the more I’d grown to idolize him. He was a god among geeks, a nerd über-deity on the level of Gygax, Garriott, and Gates. He’d left home after high school with nothing but his wits and his imagination, and he’d used them to attain worldwide fame and amass a vast fortune. He’d created an entirely new reality that now provided an escape for most of humanity. And to top it all off, he’d turned his last will and testament into the greatest videogame contest of all time.
I spent most of my time in Advanced OASIS Studies class annoying our teacher, Mr. Ciders, by pointing out errors in our textbook and raising my hand to interject some relevant bit of Halliday trivia that I (and I alone) thought was interesting. After the first few weeks of class, Mr. Ciders had stopped calling on me unless no one else knew the answer to his question.
Today, he was reading excerpts from The Egg Man, a bestselling Halliday biography that I’d already read four times. During his lecture, I kept having to resist the urge to interrupt him and point out all of the really important details the book left out. Instead, I just made a mental note of each omission, and as Mr. Ciders began to recount the circumstances of Halliday’s childhood, I once again tried to glean whatever secrets I could from the strange way Halliday had lived his life, and from the odd clues about himself he’d chosen to leave behind.
James Donovan Halliday was born on June 12, 1972, in Middletown, Ohio. He was an only child. His father was an alcoholic machine operator and his mother was a bipolar waitress.
By all accounts, James was a bright boy, but socially inept. He had an extremely difficult time communicating with the people around him. Despite his obvious intelligence, he did poorly in school, because most of his attention was focused on computers, comic books, sci-fi and fantasy novels, movies, and above all else, videogames.
One day in junior high, Halliday was sitting alone in the cafeteria reading a Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Handbook. The game fascinated him, but he’d never actually played it, because he’d never had any friends to play it with. A boy in his class named Ogden Morrow noticed what Halliday was reading and invited him to attend one of the weekly D&D gaming sessions held at his house. There, in Morrow’s basement, Halliday was introduced to an entire group of “mega geeks” just like himself. They immediately accepted him as one of their own, and for the first time in his life, James Halliday had a circle of friends.
Ogden Morrow eventually became Halliday’s business partner, collaborator, and best friend. Many would later liken the pairing of Morrow and Halliday to that of Jobs and Wozniak or Lennon and McCartney. It was a partnership destined to alter the course of human history.
At age fifteen, Halliday created his first videogame, Anorak’s Quest. He programmed it in BASIC on a TRS-80 Color Computer he’d received the previous Christmas (though he’d asked his parents for the slightly more expensive Commodore 64). Anorak’s Quest was an adventure game set in Chthonia, the fantasy world Halliday had created for his high-school Dungeons & Dragons campaign. “Anorak” was a nickname Halliday had been given by a female British exchange student at his high school. He liked the name Anorak so much that he’d used it for his favorite D&D character, the powerful wizard who later appeared in many of his videogames.
Halliday created Anorak’s Quest for fun, to share with the guys in his D&D gaming group. They all found the game addictive, and lost countless hours attempting to solve its intricate riddles and puzzles. Ogden Morrow convinced Halliday that Anorak’s Quest was better than most of the computer games currently on the market, and encouraged him to try selling it. He helped Halliday create some simple cover artwork for the game, and together, the two of them hand-copied Anorak’s Quest onto dozens of 5¼-inch floppy disks and stuck them into Ziploc bags along with a single photocopied sheet of instructions. They began selling the game on the software rack at their local computer store. Before long, they couldn’t make copies fast enough to meet the demand.
Morrow and Halliday decided to start their own videogame company, Gregarious Games, which initially operated out of Morrow’s basement. Halliday programmed new versions of Anorak’s Quest for the Atari 800XL, Apple II, and Commodore 64 computers, and Morrow began placing ads for the game in the back of several computer magazines. Within six months, Anorak’s Quest became a national bestseller.
Halliday and Morrow almost didn’t graduate from high school because they spent most of their senior year working on Anorak’s Quest II. And instead of going off to college, they both focused all of their energy on their new company, which had now grown too large for Morrow’s basement. In 1990, Gregarious Games moved into its first real office, located in a run-down strip mall in Columbus, Ohio.
Over the next decade, the small company took the videogame industry by storm, releasing a series of bestselling action and adventure games, all using a groundbreaking first-person graphics engine created by Halliday. Gregarious Games set a new standard for immersive gaming, and every time they released a new title, it pushed the envelope of what seemed possible on the computer hardware available at the time.
The rotund Ogden Morrow was naturally charismatic, and he handled all of the company’s business affairs and public relations. At every Gregarious Games press conference, Morrow grinned infectiously from behind his unruly beard and wire-rimmed spectacles, using his natural gift for hype and hyperbole. Halliday seemed to be Morrow’s polar opposite in every way. He was tall, gaunt, and painfully shy, and he preferred to stay out of the limelight.
People employed by Gregarious Games during this period say that Halliday frequently locked himself in his office, where he programmed incessantly, often going without food, sleep, or human contact for days or even weeks.
On the few occasions that Halliday agreed to do interviews, his behavior came off as bizarre, even by game-designer standards. He was hyperkinetic, aloof, and so socially inept that the interviewers often came away with the impression he was mentally ill. Halliday tended to speak so rapidly that his words were often unintelligible, and he had a disturbing high-pitched laugh, made even more so because he was usually the only one who knew what he was laughing about. When Halliday got bored during an interview (or conversation), he would usually get up and walk out without saying a word.
Halliday had many well-known obsessions. Chief among them were classic videogames, sci-fi and fantasy novels, and movies of all genres. He also had an extreme fixation on the 1980s, the decade during which he’d been a teena
ger. Halliday seemed to expect everyone around him to share his obsessions, and he often lashed out at those who didn’t. He was known to fire longtime employees for not recognizing an obscure line of movie dialogue he quoted, or if he discovered they weren’t familiar with one of his favorite cartoons, comic books, or videogames. (Ogden Morrow would always hire the employee back, usually without Halliday ever noticing.)
As the years went on, Halliday’s already-stunted social skills seemed to deteriorate even further. (Several exhaustive psychological studies were done on Halliday following his death, and his obsessive adherence to routine and preoccupation with a few obscure areas of interest led many psychologists to conclude that Halliday had suffered from Asperger’s syndrome, or from some other form of high-functioning autism.)
Despite his eccentricities, no one ever questioned Halliday’s genius. The games he created were addictive and wildly popular. By the end of the twentieth century, Halliday was widely recognized as the greatest videogame designer of his generation—and, some would argue, of all time.
Ogden Morrow was a brilliant programmer in his own right, but his true talent was his knack for business. In addition to collaborating on the company’s games, he masterminded all of their early marketing campaigns and shareware distribution schemes, with astounding results. When Gregarious Games finally went public, their stock immediately shot into the stratosphere.
By their thirtieth birthdays, Halliday and Morrow were both multimillionaires. They purchased mansions on the same street. Morrow bought a Lamborghini, took several long vacations, and traveled the world. Halliday bought and restored one of the original DeLoreans used in the Back to the Future films, continued to spend nearly all of his time welded to a computer keyboard, and used his newfound wealth to amass what would eventually become the world’s largest private collection of classic videogames, Star Wars action figures, vintage lunch boxes, and comic books.
At the height of its success, Gregarious Games appeared to fall dormant. Several years elapsed during which they released no new games. Morrow made cryptic announcements, saying the company was working on an ambitious project that would move them in an entirely new direction. Rumors began to circulate that Gregarious Games was developing some sort of new computer gaming hardware and that this secret project was rapidly exhausting the company’s considerable financial resources. There were also indications that both Halliday and Morrow had invested most of their own personal fortunes in the company’s new endeavor. Word began to spread that Gregarious Games was in danger of going bankrupt.
Then, in December 2012, Gregarious Games rebranded itself as Gregarious Simulation Systems, and under this new banner they launched their flagship product, the only product GSS would ever release: the OASIS—the Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation.
The OASIS would ultimately change the way people around the world lived, worked, and communicated. It would transform entertainment, social networking, and even global politics. Even though it was initially marketed as a new kind of massively multiplayer online game, the OASIS quickly evolved into a new way of life.
In the days before the OASIS, massively multiplayer online games (MMOs) were among the first shared synthetic environments. They allowed thousands of players to simultaneously coexist inside a simulated world, which they connected to via the Internet. The overall size of these environments was relatively small, usually just a single world, or a dozen or so small planets. MMO players could only see these online environments through a small two-dimensional window—their desktop computer monitor—and they could only interact with it by using keyboards, mice, and other crude input devices.
Gregarious Simulation Systems elevated the MMO concept to an entirely new level. The OASIS didn’t limit its users to just one planet, or even a dozen. The OASIS contained hundreds (and eventually thousands) of high-resolution 3-D worlds for people to explore, and each one was beautifully rendered in meticulous graphical detail, right down to bugs and blades of grass, wind and weather patterns. Users could circumnavigate each of these planets and never see the same terrain twice. Even in its first primitive incarnation, the scope of the simulation was staggering.
Halliday and Morrow referred to the OASIS as an “open-source reality,” a malleable online universe that anyone could access via the Internet, using their existing home computer or videogame console. You could log in and instantly escape the drudgery of your day-to-day life. You could create an entirely new persona for yourself, with complete control over how you looked and sounded to others. In the OASIS, the fat could become thin, the ugly could become beautiful, and the shy, extroverted. Or vice versa. You could change your name, age, sex, race, height, weight, voice, hair color, and bone structure. Or you could cease being human altogether, and become an elf, ogre, alien, or any other creature from literature, movies, or mythology.
In the OASIS, you could become whomever and whatever you wanted to be, without ever revealing your true identity, because your anonymity was guaranteed.
Users could also alter the content of the virtual worlds inside the OASIS, or create entirely new ones. A person’s online presence was no longer limited to a website or a social-networking profile. In the OASIS, you could create your own private planet, build a virtual mansion on it, furnish and decorate it however you liked, and invite a few thousand friends over for a party. And those friends could be in a dozen different time zones, spread all over the globe.
The keys to the success of the OASIS were the two new pieces of interface hardware that GSS had created, both of which were required to access the simulation: the OASIS visor and haptic gloves.
The wireless one-size-fits-all OASIS visor was slightly larger than a pair of sunglasses. It used harmless low-powered lasers to draw the stunningly real environment of the OASIS right onto its wearer’s retinas, completely immersing their entire field of vision in the online world. The visor was light-years ahead of the clunky virtual-reality goggles available prior to that time, and it represented a paradigm shift in virtual-reality technology—as did the lightweight OASIS haptic gloves, which allowed users to directly control the hands of their avatar and to interact with their simulated environment as if they were actually inside it. When you picked up objects, opened doors, or operated vehicles, the haptic gloves made you feel these nonexistent objects and surfaces as if they were really right there in front of you. The gloves let you, as the television ads put it, “reach in and touch the OASIS.” Working together, the visor and the gloves made entering the OASIS an experience unlike anything else available, and once people got a taste of it, there was no going back.
The software that powered the simulation, Halliday’s new OASIS Reality Engine, also represented a huge technological breakthrough. It managed to overcome limitations that had plagued previous simulated realities. In addition to restricting the overall size of their virtual environments, earlier MMOs had been forced to limit their virtual populations, usually to a few thousand users per server. If too many people were logged in at the same time, the simulation would slow to a crawl and avatars would freeze in midstride as the system struggled to keep up. But the OASIS utilized a new kind of fault-tolerant server array that could draw additional processing power from every computer connected to it. At the time of its initial launch, the OASIS could handle up to five million simultaneous users, with no discernible latency and no chance of a system crash.
A massive marketing campaign promoted the launch of the OASIS. The pervasive television, billboard, and Internet ads featured a lush green oasis, complete with palm trees and a pool of crystal blue water, surrounded on all sides by a vast barren desert.
GSS’s new endeavor was a massive success from day one. The OASIS was what people had been dreaming of for decades. The “virtual reality” they had been promised for so long was finally here, and it was even better than they’d imagined. The OASIS was an online utopia, a holodeck for the home. And its biggest selling point? It was free.
Most online games of the day generated revenue by charging users a monthly subscription fee for access. GSS only charged a onetime sign-up fee of twenty-five cents, for which you received a lifetime OASIS account. The ads all used the same tagline: The OASIS—it’s the greatest videogame ever created, and it only costs a quarter.
At a time of drastic social and cultural upheaval, when most of the world’s population longed for an escape from reality, the OASIS provided it, in a form that was cheap, legal, safe, and not (medically proven to be) addictive. The ongoing energy crisis contributed greatly to the OASIS’s runaway popularity. The skyrocketing cost of oil made airline and automobile travel too expensive for the average citizen, and the OASIS became the only getaway most people could afford. As the era of cheap, abundant energy drew to a close, poverty and unrest began to spread like a virus. Every day, more and more people had reason to seek solace inside Halliday and Morrow’s virtual utopia.
Any business that wanted to set up shop inside the OASIS had to rent or purchase virtual real estate (which Morrow dubbed “surreal estate”) from GSS. Anticipating this, the company had set aside Sector One as the simulation’s designated business zone and began to sell and rent millions of blocks of surreal estate there. City-sized shopping malls were erected in the blink of an eye, and storefronts spread across planets like time-lapse footage of mold devouring an orange. Urban development had never been so easy.
In addition to the billions of dollars that GSS raked in selling land that didn’t actually exist, they made a killing selling virtual objects and vehicles. The OASIS became such an integral part of people’s day-to-day social lives that users were more than willing to shell out real money to buy accessories for their avatars: clothing, furniture, houses, flying cars, magic swords and machine guns. These items were nothing but ones and zeros stored on the OASIS servers, but they were also status symbols. Most items only cost a few credits, but since they cost nothing for GSS to manufacture, it was all profit. Even in the throes of an ongoing economic recession, the OASIS allowed Americans to continue engaging in their favorite pastime: shopping.
The OASIS quickly became the single most popular use for the Internet, so much so that the terms “OASIS” and “Internet” gradually became synonymous. And the incredibly easy-to-use three-dimensional OASIS OS, which GSS gave away for free, became the single most popular computer operating system in the world.
Before long, billions of people around the world were working and playing in the OASIS every day. Some of them met, fell in love, and got married without ever setting foot on the same continent. The lines of distinction between a person’s real identity and that of their avatar began to blur.
It was the dawn of new era, one where most of the human race now spent all of their free time inside a videogame.
The rest of my school day passed quickly until my final class, Latin.
Most students took a foreign language they might actually be able to use someday, like Mandarin, or Hindi, or Spanish. I’d decided to take Latin because James Halliday had taken Latin. He’d also occasionally used Latin words and phrases in his early adventure games. Unfortunately, even with the limitless possibilities of the OASIS at her disposal, my Latin teacher, Ms. Rank, still had a hard time making her lessons interesting. And today she was reviewing a bunch of verbs I’d already memorized, so I found my attention drifting almost immediately.
While a class was in session, the simulation prevented students from accessing any data or programs that weren’t authorized by their teacher, to prevent kids from watching movies, playing games, or chatting with each other instead of paying attention to the lesson. Luckily, during my junior year, I’d discovered a bug in the school’s online library software, and by exploiting it, I could access any book in the school’s online library, including Anorak’s Almanac. So whenever I got bored (like right now) I would pull it up in a window on my display and read over my favorite passages to pass the time.
Over the past five years, the Almanac had become my bible. Like most books nowadays, it was only available in electronic format. But I’d wanted to be able to read the Almanac night or day, even during one of the stacks’ frequent power outages, so I’d fixed up an old discarded laser printer and used it to print out a hard copy. I put it in an old three-ring binder that I kept in my backpack and studied until I knew every word by heart.
The Almanac contained thousands of references to Halliday’s favorite books, TV shows, movies, songs, graphic novels, and videogames. Most of these items were over forty years old, and so free digital copies of them could be downloaded from the OASIS. If there was something I needed that wasn’t legally available for free, I could almost always get it by using Guntorrent, a file-sharing program used by gunters around the world.
When it came to my research, I never took any shortcuts. Over the past five years, I’d worked my way down the entire recommended gunter reading list. Douglas Adams. Kurt Vonnegut. Neal Stephenson. Richard K. Morgan. Stephen King. Orson Scott Card. Terry Pratchett. Terry Brooks. Bester, Bradbury, Haldeman, Heinlein, Tolkien, Vance, Gibson, Gaiman, Sterling, Moorcock, Scalzi, Zelazny. I read every novel by every single one of Halliday’s favorite authors.
And I didn’t stop there.
I also watched every single film he referenced in the Almanac. If it was one of Halliday’s favorites, like WarGames, Ghostbusters, Real Genius, Better Off Dead, or Revenge of the Nerds, I rewatched it until I knew every scene by heart.
I devoured each of what Halliday referred to as “The Holy Trilogies”: Star Wars (original and prequel trilogies, in that order), Lord of the Rings, The Matrix, Mad Max, Back to the Future, and Indiana Jones. (Halliday once said that he preferred to pretend the other Indiana Jones films, from Kingdom of the Crystal Skull onward, didn’t exist. I tended to agree.)
I also absorbed the complete filmographies of each of his favorite directors. Cameron, Gilliam, Jackson, Fincher, Kubrick, Lucas, Spielberg, Del Toro, Tarantino. And, of course, Kevin Smith.
I spent three months studying every John Hughes teen movie and memorizing all the key lines of dialogue.
Only the meek get pinched. The bold survive.
You could say I covered all the bases.
I studied Monty Python. And not just Holy Grail, either. Every single one of their films, albums, and books, and every episode of the original BBC series. (Including those two “lost” episodes they did for German television.)
I wasn’t going to cut any corners.
I wasn’t going to miss something obvious.
Somewhere along the way, I started to go overboard.
I may, in fact, have started to go a little insane.
I watched every episode of The Greatest American Hero, Airwolf, The A-Team, Knight Rider, Misfits of Science, and The Muppet Show.
What about The Simpsons, you ask?
I knew more about Springfield than I knew about my own city.
Star Trek? Oh, I did my homework. TOS, TNG, DS9. Even Voyager and Enterprise. I watched them all in chronological order. The movies, too. Phasers locked on target.
I gave myself a crash course in ’80s Saturday-morning cartoons.
I learned the name of every last goddamn Gobot and Transformer.
Land of the Lost, Thundarr the Barbarian, He-Man, Schoolhouse Rock!, G.I. Joe—I knew them all. Because knowing is half the battle.
Who was my friend, when things got rough? H.R. Pufnstuf.
Japan? Did I cover Japan?
Yes. Yes indeed. Anime and live-action. Godzilla, Gamera, Star Blazers, The Space Giants, and G-Force. Go, Speed Racer, Go.
I wasn’t some dilettante.
I wasn’t screwing around.
I memorized every last Bill Hicks stand-up routine.
Music? Well, covering all the music wasn’t easy.
It took some time.
The ’80s was a long decade (ten whole years), and Halliday didn’t seem to have had very discerning taste. He listened to everything. So I did too. Pop,