“The simulacrum is never that which conceals the truth—it is the truth which conceals that there is none. The simulacrum is true.” – Jean Baudrillard (Accredited to Ecclesiastes)

What are the themes of Ready Player One?

We should, at this point, know the themes of The Matrix. Themes like “humanity cannot be contained”, or like “man’s hubris will be our downfall”, or perhaps the most important: “reality is always better than a dream”. The Matrix indulges itself in its themes, presenting as less of a film sometimes and more of a Socratic dialogue with automatic rifles. It’s Plato’s Cave crossed with the brain-in-a-jar theory, updated for the late 90’s, with Y2K looming and computers becoming household appliances. Artificial Intelligence– the idea that a computer might become smarter than its programmer, was awesome in the original sense, and people are still wary. But the choice, as it were, always comes down to the red pill or the blue pill. Do you stay in the dream, in the cave, in the construct, or do you go out and face reality?

Ready Player One doesn’t seem to have that problem.

The Surface Similarities

So, there are some surface similarities that both The Matrix and Ready Player One cover. They’re both set in the future in post-societal versions of the world. They both include an expansive virtual reality that serves as the main set piece. Both deal with the question of whether or not reality is worth fighting for.

But there are more similarities than that– there’s a distinct difference between the character designs within the Matrix and outside of it. It’s implied that people who are removed from the Matrix have the ability to subtly manipulate their appearance to match how they view themselves. Neo is getting used to being “unplugged”, and his first re-entry has him looking quite normal. Those who are more comfortable with moving in and out have wilder outfits with liberal amounts of leather. Likewise, in the OASIS, users can create their own character avatars, which can look like anything they want to. Aech, for example, presents a character avatar that is wildly different from reality, as does Art3mis to a lesser extent.

There’s also the trope of the hyper-competent female sidekick/rival that we keep seeing over, and over, and over again. Beyond Art3mis and Trinity, there’s Wyldstyle from The Lego Movie, Tigress from Kung Fu Panda, Hope Pym in Ant Man, I could go on. These characters by all rights should be the main characters, but are sidelined for the “every-man” male protagonists. For Ready Player One, it works a little better in the book, where Art3mis does find where the egg is a whole month before Parxival, she just can’t get past the Joust challenge. Still, while the story for both tries to justify why their main character is special, it could have been anyone– which is the point of the “every-man” trope, by-the-by. It can be used well– The Lord of the Rings has a great justification for its every-man– but it’s mostly in video games where it’s best utilized. The Legend of Zelda, while having Link perform specific roles as Hero of Hyrule, does allow for the player to implant a personality on him. A dating sim gives you options for branching paths in the story that you can base off of your own preferences. Or look at literally any first-person shooter, where the whole point of the game is to put you in the literal perspective of your character. In that way, it almost makes more sense for Ready Player One to follow this trope than any other film listed.

The Deep Differences

So, remember when I said “Both deal with the question of whether or not reality is worth fighting for.”? Well, actually… well, I could say that Ready Player One cares about whether or not reality is worth it, but it feels tacked on and kind of an after thought, even in the film. And especially given how much time and energy the story puts into making you care about what happens to the OASIS. The final “oh yeah, I guess go outside and do a sport sometimes” message is lost in the world building itself. The OASIS is more than just a Massively Multiplayer Online Role-playing Game (MMORGP or just MMO)– Parxival, Aech, and Artemis all go to school there. Entire businesses run because of the OASIS, independent of the founding company GSS and companies that sell hardware and accessories like IOI. It has replaced the internet entirely. And then the kicker at the end of the film– the High 5 decide to shut the OASIS down two days a week.

Can you imagine what it would be like if the entire internet was closed for an hour, much less a whole day?

And it’s pretty justified given the world that they live in. The scientists were right and the planet was destroyed by global climate change. All fossil fuels were depleted. The economy has collapsed. Neither the book nor the film are precisely clear on when during all of this the OASIS went online, but it certainly exacerbated the issue. See, the OASIS isn’t the Cave, or a brain in a jar. It’s soma. In Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, soma is the drug of choice that keeps the people of the future happy and compliant. The OASIS wasn’t built by a government, but it unintentionally encourages a sense of apathy about anything outside of itself. The things that are important to Parxival (our viewpoint character, and thus, how we see into that world) are the things that are important to the audience, and that almost entirely consists of his experience in the OASIS.

The Matrix was specifically about the subjugation of humankind by AI and the robot uprising. It was also about how there is a human need to seek the truth, no matter the cost. Ready Player One… well, at the very least Spielberg doesn’t want to say that reality isn’t worth fighting for. But that doesn’t change the fact that the big climactic fight at the end of the film is about keeping the OASIS the way that it is so that people can continue to use it as an escape. It’s not rebellion, it’s stagnation. It says something that the villain of the piece literally has to be a murderously evil corporation that puts debtors in literal concentration camps.

Ludonarrative Dissonance

So there’s this term in games criticism called “ludonarrative dissonance”– basically the story of the game inherently disagrees with the themes of the story. An example could be that while Link is considered the hero of Hyrule, but you also spend a lot of every Legend of Zelda game stealing, smashing, and pillaging everything that isn’t nailed down. In this video essay by Dan Olson, he also explains how this can be present in other media– giving the example of Megan Fox’s character in the Transformers films. On paper, she’s a smart savvy woman who is an auto-mechanic and knows a lot about cars, which is what connects her to the Transformers. But in terms of the cinematography… well, Michael Bay wasn’t interested in her dialogue.

In Ready Player One we have a similar problem. The ostinsible point of the film is to get Parxival and Art3mis to the point where they don’t need to be in the OASIS all the time, because reality has its good parts. The problem is that the film has to establish why people want to spend all of their time in a video game– meaning that they had to show how bad the world was and how great the video game was. This leads to several unresolved questions. Are Parxival and Art3mis going to use their newfound wealth to revitalize the economy or give aid to the people living in the stacks? Will they try and invest in scientific research into reversing the damage done to the environment? Did anyone think of what happens after the game ends?

The Matrix has this too, to some extent. The very, very cool things that Neo and his friends can do within the Matrix are, in fact, very, very cool, but we also see exactly the cost of it and it is explained to us in detail. The reality warping of the Matrix is only made possible because it is a programmed reality designed to feed of the bioenergy of humans. The OASIS… doesn’t. It’s just a VR Internet. And unlike the Matrix, they all know that it’s VR. In fact, that’s part of the appeal. The Matrix isn’t supposed to be appealing. Mostly.

“There is no spoon.”

What makes the OASIS so powerful is actually touched upon in The Matrix. After sparring with Morpheus, Neo comes out of the Matrix with a bloodied lip and is surprised. While the Matrix isn’t real, the mind is… suggestible. As Morpheus says “Your mind makes it real.” So for the users of the OASIS, the OASIS is pretty real. And I’m not going to sit here and say that the Internet isn’t a real place and that what happens on the Internet doesn’t matter– it obviously is and does. But escapism only gets you so far. In much the same way as Ready Player One is an act of preservation as opposed to transformation, the fight for the OASIS is to protect, not to reform. It is so unusual for a piece of Science Fiction to not strongly advocate for some kind of change, and that makes the story ultimately a bit soulless. I mean, say what you will about Keanu Reeves as Neo, but at least there’s an ethos.

It doesn’t make a guy jumping out of Serenity and turning into a Gundam to fight Mecha-Godzilla any less cool, but it does lack a certain something.