Do you remember the Windfish Tune? This post is for people who do. If you don’t know the tune… it’s nothing special. The tune gets its worth from the memories that we attach to it. The movie Ready Player One is about such memories.
As I write this, I’m flying high above the Atlantic Ocean and I’ve just watched the movie. It has truly moved me. Ready Player One is great; go watch it. I will tell you a bit about why I think the movie is great, and a bit about its themes. I decided to do so in two versions. The first is a version for people who might have heard the Windfish tune. The second version comes with explanations of all the slang and hidden understandings, so that if you’re not into gaming you might still enjoy reading it. Here we go:
Well Played, Parzival
Ready Player One tells the story of a James Halliday, a man who designed games. Not only designed games, actually. Halliday loved computer games. They were his life. IRL, the man dies and before he dies, he places into his game an epic treasure hunt: three keys for players to find to open the way to an easter egg that will grant root privileges.
Ready Player One also tells the story of Parzival, Aech, Art3mis, Sho, and Daito. They are players in OASIS, the game. Think epic open-world VR Action-RPG, where you can take your char from Azeroth to EVE and back to the Old Republic, while trying out some 80’s arcade machines on the way. Everyone is playing it. Most people are casual players, but the committed, the Easter Egg hunters, the Gunters… they put all their might into winning the race to the three keys. And then there’s Innovative Online Industries (IOI), the corp that represents the commercial side of the game. They’re in the race too, cause being root means you get to control the ads. Fortunately they’re quite bad at both the game and Adtech.1
The race unfolds with beautiful visuals, smart pop-culture references, and IMO witty philosophical bits about the value of the real world. Granted, the story is not too surprising and the bad guys are clearly labeled. The heroes are good-looking and not painted very deeply… but for me this was not what mattered in the movie. Instead…
At the core of Ready Player One is the mission of fighting for what you love. The vision that playing is about joy and memories and not about commercial success. I feel that, in a world where art consists mostly of sequels,2 both this movie and its message are refreshing. Goethe once wrote, “du bist am Ende, was du bist”, meaning that what counts in the end is the memories we make and the character we develop while we spend our lives. Personally, I would not want to miss the memories of discovering all Wario’s castles, sitting on the beach with Malon, ceremonially burying my WoW character before the start of university, seeing the princess’ rescue in reverse time and in a different light, receiving the farewell-Ocarina from Saria, scoring my first airhit goal, or passing I can walk on water at 85% speed. I have yet to get to 100% speed, and after watching this movie I’m motivated to try.
The Non-Player’s Guide to Ready Player One
If you’re not a gamer, should you watch this movie? Maybe. If you liked Avatar or Matrix or Inception or the Truman Show I’m quite sure you would like Ready Player One. The movie combines aspects of all of four: an exploration of virtual reality; bombastic battles; hunts that take place in both the real and fictional worlds, simultaneously; and finally the decision to choose the real life in the face of a god-like power offering all the virtual wealth of the world.
Childhood memories are another theme of the movie. Is there something that you loved as a child and have given up since? For me, computer games fall into that category. To be honest, I have not given them up 100%… and when I became a computer scientist, I made a remake of Pukul Lalat, the classic game of my childhood. For me, Ready Player One brought back a lot of joyful memories from the past, and I think you might get this feeling from the movie even if your source of joyful memories is board games or a boyscout treasure hunt or music or dancing or sports or something completely different.
Finally, as promised, some explanations that might help you understand the first part of the article, if you so desire. Otherwise, you might want to just go watch the movie instead ;-)
OASIS, the game in the movie, is a big virtual world where people appear as avatars, taking the shape, form, race or sex that they desire. In real life (IRL) each avatar corresponds to a person in 2045’s earth, wearing a full-body virtual reality suit and a headset that simulates the audio, video and tactile signals from the game. However, many people do no longer spend a lot of time in real life, instead preferring the sensations and freedom of OASIS.
The conflict in the movie is a fight between gamers who love OASIS for the experiences they can get there and the friendships that they make, and a corporation called IOI who wants to take control of the game for profit. In the game, both parties are bound by the rules of the virtual world, and all try to win the three keys, special items that would grant their owners unlimited virtual power.
A large number of classic games references appear throughout the movie. There are current blockbusters like EVE online (a spaceship battle game taking place in a complex virtual world), Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (a role-playing game (RPG) where players are in the shoes of a Jedi knight) or World of Warcraft (WoW, probably the world’s most popular massively multiplayer online role playing game).3 Classic games also appear, for example when a virtual fistfight turns into a game of Street Fighter, complete with combos and special effects from the original game. And then there are prominent appearances of Space Invaders and Adventure, some of the first ever computer games. Succeeding in OASIS means finding a so-called Easter Egg in Adventure: a hidden feature where the game developer placed his signature in the game because he was particularly fond of it.
If you are not into computer games, then this movie can show you that they were not always big commercial projects. There are brilliant games out there that create wonderful worlds and tell captivating stories. If you want to experience some of my favorite memories, here are the links that correspond to the memories I’ve mentioned above. Many of these games that used to run on consoles can nowadays be played on a smartphone or laptop, because of how much faster computers have become in the meantime. And if you get stuck, don’t hesitate to ask me. Have a lot of fun, and make good memories :)
- Discovering all Wario’s castles: You get a different one depending on how many bags of money you have at the end of Warioland.
- Sitting on the beach with Malon: A cutscene in the Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening. This is also where you’ll hear the Windfish’s tune at the end.
- Ceremonially burying my WoW character: I did this before I started studying for my bachelor at EPFL, out of fear that gaming would make me a bad student.
- Seeing the princess’ rescue in reverse time: This is the brilliant (really, brilliant) end of Braid. If you try out just one of the games in this list, go for Braid. It will change the way you think about computer games and will make you understand Zeneki’s Cube in Ready Player One :)
- Receiving the farewell-Ocarina from Saria: this is a scene from the Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. Voted best videogame ever by many.
- Scoring my first airhit goal was elating. You need to play Rocket League to get that feeling.
- Passing I can walk on water at 85% speed: Come visit me IRL and I’ll introduce you to Dance Dance Revolution.
Oh… and one last thing: Don’t be the colossal douchebag named Nolan Sorrento. Enable two-factor authentication :)
Placing ads on 80% of the field of view is not smart; Adtech is more subtle: Companies like Google or Facebook determine purchase intents, design amazing landing pages, manage people’s attention carefully, target ads precisely. Ads in the real world might be less intrusive than what is portrayed in the movie, but not less effective or dystopian.. ↩
The 80000hours podcast has a great analysis of why this is (starting at 2:25:40). ↩
OK, WoW is not a current blockbuster :) But a blockbuster nonetheless. ↩