I have wanted to talk about Ready Player One for a while, but I wanted the, for lack of a better word, “hype” to die down first so that there could be an attempt at a reasonable discussion. But there’s one more thing that I feel I should do before getting into the themes and problems with the film, and that’s to essentially deconstruct why it’s not actually all that special.
So there’s this movie, which is ostensibly about a corporation that is trying to take over a place in order to use it for commercial purposes. Doing so would disenfranchise a not insignificant portion of a marginalized population. But that is more or less background noise until the final fight– the main story is a mystery, where the main character searches for clues with the help of allies in order to solve it. Part of the gimmick of the film is the huge amount of references to classic media.
So there’s this movie, which is about a group of five kids that are promised a prize unlike any other. A mysterious man guides them through a place of wonder and horror and fantasy. Our main character is a boy who is rather unremarkable in most respects, but his intuition and understanding of what makes the place wonderful is why the mysterious man thinks he is worthy of receiving the ultimate prize. The film also condemns those who lie, cheat, and steal to get ahead in life.
So there’s this movie….
A Study In Intertext
For a full recap of the various forms of transtextuality, my archive awaits. The most important kind we’ll be looking at this time is the three different forms of intertextuality– motivated, unmotivated, and weaponized. Motivated intertextuality is using a reference to make a comment either on the work it is referencing, the work that is doing the referencing, or often both. The example I gave in my last post was of Khan’s references to Moby-Dick and how it draws direct parallels between Khan and Captain Ahab. Unmotivated intertextuality is simply referencing a thing, or referencing something as a joke, with the reference being the punchline. These references aren’t usually trying to say anything other than “oh, look, here’s a thing that exists.” I brought up the Shrek franchise as an example. Then there’s weaponized intertextuality, which is a term that I learned from Kyle Kallgren, who borrowed it from this video by the Nerd Writer. The Nerd Writer defines weaponized intertextuality as “objects, people, or situations explicitly meant to trigger an emotional response”. One of the examples he gives of this is almost every reveal in The Force Awakens, from the Millenium Falcon, to Han and Chewie, to Artoo, to Princess Leia.
I’m not saying that any of these are bad uses of intertextuality– when done right, they can be extremely effective. The problem comes when intertextual references become a replacement for content. Here’s a question– in the book, part of the challenge to get the first key is playing the old arcade game Joust. Is there a non-diagetic reason that the game is Joust? In other words– why did Ernest Cline select Joust as opposed to, say, Super Smash Bros., which could be used to comment on how the OASIS is a large PvP with a lot of characters from disparate franchises interacting with each other, or draw parallels with Street Fighter with the global competition that requires strength and skill, or even Pong, which would pay tribute to the first video game ever and show how the competition is about getting to the basic idea of what video games are there for? For all intents and purposes, Joust is no more relevant to the content of the story than any other two-player game.
Contrast this with Who Framed Roger Rabbit? There’s a scene where Eddie goes to a place called the Ink and Paint Club and he has a conversation with Betty Boop, who is working as a cigarette girl. Betty Boop is played as an aged starlet who couldn’t make the transition to color (a direct reference to actors who couldn’t make the transition from silent film to talkies). The point of her cameo isn’t “Hey look, it’s Betty Boop”– her interaction with Eddie Valient (who is kinda racist against toons) shows that he doesn’t, in fact, hate all toons, and that he has some pretty significant ties to the toon world, given how famous Betty Boop is. It also adds to the context and world building of the film– toons can wane in relevance and star power. Her cameo might not move the plot forward, but it does add to the story.
In short, the references in Ready Player One tend to not to support the story through their use, but rather as spectacle. When you distill the plot and divorce it from the specific references, it can stand without the specifics– and I know this because that’s almost exactly what the movie does. The challenge for the first key is not a dungeon crawl and a game with a lich, but a motor race that requires obscure knowledge of Halliday’s life. In fact, all of the challenges for the keys are changed except for the final play through of Adventure, which is one of the few references that actually relates to the story as it contains one of the first video game Easter eggs.
So what is the purpose of all of these references, then?
The Curse of Curative Fandom
There’s this great bit of analysis on the Doctor Who sub-Reddit about the differences between Reddit-style fandom and Tumblr-style fandom and how there’s a noticeable demographic divide between the two, and I’m not going to quite get into the why, but it is useful to understand the difference between what LordByronic calls ‘curative fandom’ and ‘transformative fandom’. Transformative fandom is exactly what it sounds like– it’s being transformative with the work(s) that you are a fan of. Stuff like fan-art and fan-fiction, sure, but also deep analysis and headcanons and the like. It is taking the thing you love and using it as a sandbox in order to express yourself. Curative fandom, on the other hand, is treating the work(s) like a museum that can be, well, curated through your experiences with them. It’s knowing all the trivia and behind-the-scenes info, and doing close readings so you don’t miss a single detail. There’s nothing wrong with either approach to fandom, and I myself have a large stake in both almost out of necessity for what I do here. That being said there are certain pitfalls endemic to curative fandom that are expressed quite prominently in Ready Player One.
Halliday, the creator of the OASIS and therefore the MacGuffin that the story is about, is doing some pretty literal gate-keeping by hiding the keys and the gates behind trivia games and old arcade boxes. There’s a sequence early on in the book where Parxival and Aech have a conversation with another avatar called I-R0k. I-R0k had brought the box for an Atari 2600 game and was trying to make Parxival and Aech guess what it was. Parxival describes the situation thusly: “I-r0k was always trying to impress us with some clue or piece of Halliday lore he foolishly believed he’d been the first to uncover. Gunters loved to play the game of one-upmanship and were constantly trying to prove they had acquired more obscure knowledge than everyone else. But I-r0k totally sucked at it.” The point of the game is to win by knowing more than anyone else. To prove that you’re a “true fan”. I mean, I love trivia games myself, but this is pretty extreme. And, by winning you receive a majority stock in the company that owns the OASIS and essentially become the richest and most powerful person in the world. By winning a video game.
And, we’ve sort of seen this before, right?
The point of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is that Charlie Bucket is the only boy that is kind enough and selfless enough to take over for Wonka after he’s gone. All of the other kids that come to the factory are lazy, selfish, blindly ambitious, or otherwise unsuitable for the position. The whole point of Charlie giving up the Everlasting Gobstopper was that he wanted someone who would run his factory and company fairly, and with good intentions. The main difference here is that while Ready Player One is textually a test of character, there’s really nothing stopping someone with horrid intentions to literally game the system and take the prize. Just a vague warning from Halliday to “try and use your powers for good”. Part of what makes Wonka’s factory so amazing is that he’s constantly coming up with new candies to sell. He’s creating all the time, and extrapolating from that, Charlie would be able to create as much as wanted as well– while still maintaining the methods that Wonka used. Halliday just wanted someone to play his game, and to play his game, it was mostly reliant on memorization and recitation. I mean, the last challenge of the Chrystal Gate was to recite Monty Python and the Holy Grail. You don’t have to be a nth-level geek to do that, you just need to sit in on a few sessions of D&D.
“Rose tint my world…”
When I say that Ready Player One is the epitome of curative fandom, I mean that there are large swaths of the book and the movie dedicated to listing off references to popular films, shows, games, and music, that is presented in such a way that the list itself is supposed to impress. There’s a lot to be desired when it comes to the storytelling in that respect– it’s built on the idea that knowing a lot of stuff without any clear application is impressive enough on its own that it can be your main viewpoint character’s only character trait. Okay, he has a second character trait– horny teenager– but that’s not exactly endearing. The references are also not put in situations that make them particularly interesting. I don’t care that Parxival can recite War Games from memory, does he understand what War Games is about and why a film about a teenage hacker that almost causes a global thermonuclear war because he wants to play a video game might actually be a bit relevant? Does the book acknowledge why a film about a teenage hacker that almost causes a global thermonuclear war because he wants to play a video game might actually be a bit relevant? No, it doesn’t, because that’s not the point. The point is that Parxival can do it, and does it before anyone else has the chance to.
But speaking about the apocalypse.
One part of this book and the film that I actually enjoyed was the world building. The world of Ready Player One isn’t exactly post-apocalyptic, but it is certainly dystopic. People mostly live in shanty towns outside of cities made of trailers and RVs stacked a dozen-or-so high, no one really cares about the environment or scientific advances or government or the economy anymore, and everyone, that is everyone, has access to the OASIS. To escape their miserable lives in the real world, they slip on a VR visor and gloves and they’re “free” within a technological world of pure imagination. Part of the conflict that the film really brought out was the dichotomy between the real world and the OASIS, and really digging into why the OASIS might be fun, but it’s still virtual reality, and how much do we want to give up our lives to a computer just so that we don’t have to face reality?
So there’s this movie, which is about how the human race has the choice between two worlds– one which is dangerous and full of horror that we created with our own hubris, or one where people are trapped in a fantasy created by someone else. The main character is a tech wiz that is also a microcosm for humanity, who decides that reality and the truth are far more important than the comforting lie that he had surrounded himself in for most of his life and doing so grants him unprecedented power.
You take the blue pill – the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill – you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes.
Next week– Parxival vs. Neo.
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