Hello, I've been gone for a long time, and in my absence I've been collecting garbage. A lot of garbage anime, video games, movies, and books. Not many of them have been worth talking about, though. There's only so much that can be said about the state of the media we live with, an there's only so much energy I can actually devote to being mad about something. Don't get me wrong, there's been plenty of shit to come out of the woodworks, and I've toyed with doing a couple Should I Watch This?es based on some movies I've gotten to see, but truth be told? None of them deserved it.
Part of why I haven't been on is because I am frankly busy as shit. I shifted degrees to computer science and have a bachelors to finish, I'm trying to find internships, and I'm roughly sketching out a book that I will never tell anyone about until I write it because the minute I tell people about it, it will never be finished. On top of all of that, I managed to shed about 40 pounds. My time went from being worthless to precious, and as such I like to waste it significantly less than before. For most everything coming out, that's all I would end up doing. You don't need me to tell you that Pixels was going to be shit, or that you are not the audience for Minions. There's is nothing interesting I could say.
I actually thought, for a little while, that I could hang up my critic hat and just go on to do other things. I had resigned myself to this world we live in, resigned to the fact that 90% of the time all we get is sycophantic trash, a brief spurt of rancid yellow cum on our collective faces as the same tired concepts we have seen for decades get trotted out year after year. Complaining about yet another Spiderman reboot stopped being fun, it stopped being interesting. The sad realization that as a culture we had become more interested in simply observing mildly updated and often condensed versions of our childhood put a damper on everything. I couldn't even really be mad. Until I picked up a book by Ernest Cline.
This book was called Ready Player One. It is the worst thing I have ever read. It is the worst book I have ever paid money for. It is the worst story I have had the misfortune to experience, in any medium, ever. Normally I would try to avoid this, but the book itself is this weird representation of everything I have ever found wrong in any story ever, in any medium ever, and I feel this very primal need to destroy it as much as I can.
Before I get in to the synopsis, some of you may remember that a very long time back I got very angry about people who bought meme t-shirts. I did not express my thoughts well there, because I couldn't pinpoint the problem I had with the act, just that it felt cheap. In a weird way, Ready Player One is just the conclusion to all of that. It's the culmination of shit. Now, on to the review.
The basic synopsis of RPO is simple. A writer who has no concept of game design, programming, character development, or writing decided to make a book about the most surface references to nerds in the 1980s. Luckily he did know how to use the internet competently enough to google "things nerds liked in 1980-1989" but unfortunately not well enough to google "average power consumption of a gaming PC." Then he went on to write a book where a programmer invents an MMO that is so popular everyone uses it, and also invents a perfect VR headset, and then gives it all away for free, because thinking about the business of video games and how they are actually developed might have made the story interesting. Also this man was super wealthy and loved the 1980s so much he might as well have been fucking a hug pillow of the breakfast club while listening to Duran Duran.
The main character of the book is a kid whose name I forget but who is basically a stereotypical redditor. There was a brief moment where I thought the twist was going to be that the character was a girl, but no they're just a fucking mary-sue neckbeard. John Reddit as I came to know him is an overweight poor kid whose mom doesn't understand how much he loves video games, and he's wayyyyy too smart for school and he's totally a secret genius at all video games but nobody recognizes his talents. He has a friend who turns out to be a girl, and he has a crush on a let's player who is TOTALLY NOT LIKE THOSE OTHER GIRLS BECAUSE THEY'RE ALL JUST DUMB SLUTS AND FAKE NERDS AND SHE'S A REAL NERD LIKE ME. If you want to die, don't worry, we're almost over.
One day our hero discovers the first clue in order to find the money and succeeds in defeating the clue in a single afternoon despite the fact that a person who plays games professionally struggled with it for two or more weeks, invalidating a character's skills and abilities and undermining the story to the point where the only explanation I have for anything is that Ernest Cline was on peyote and losing his fucking mind while writing this. Over the course of the first couple of chapters the words Atari 2600 are used so many times that you actually cease recognizing them as a meaningful phrase.
Now I want everyone to know that I pride myself on my ability to finish things, I really do. I've done it a lot. I watched all of Pain and Gain. One summer I read all of Inuyasha. Yes, all of it. I've finished every Twilight movie, even though I wanted to die the entire time. I can take a lot of shit, I absolutely can. Except this. I can't. I got a third of the way in and I had to put it down. Maybe it gets better but by then I couldn't care. Nobody should.
I guess I'll start where I can, and I mean that's the only way to approach this. It's such a massive pile of shit that it's almost daunting to start criticizing because my problem with it is literally everything. But first the most concrete, the holes in the plot and sometimes the straight up inaccuracy of the references.
Here's the first glaring inaccuracy. It comes from an elongated reference to the Tomb of Horrors, something that anyone who played D&D is at least somewhat familiar with, or if they aren't they can find fairly easily. It's famous for being a difficult dungeon, or more accurately, an impossible dungeon, not because it's difficult, but because it's aggressively unfair. You are not meant to beat it, you are meant to come in and die. That isn't the issue, though.
The issue is Acerak. He's the demilich who runs the Tomb of Horrors. Funny thing about demiliches, actually. They're just floating skulls. They have no body, because they had no reason to move around since no adventurers were there to foil them. So their bodies disintegrate, and they just become skulls. Now you see, it's funny, because Acerak in RPO? He has a body. Which wouldn't be a big deal if this was just a bullshit fantasy story, but if the premise of your fucking book and the selling point of your festering boil of literature is the references that you make you should at least do everyone the decency of ensuring their accuracy.
The rest of the weird inaccuracies are mostly scientific, and blend together with the plot holes, which are numerous. I'll do a list. Everyone loves those.
1. There are 7 billion people on the planet. If we assume an average of 3 children per household worldwide, then there are approximately 1.4 billion households. Currently, a the cheapest form of VR that would be able to run a video game would be the PS4 + Morpheus (which isn't ideal, but we're being nice.). Together, those cost an estimated $500 (400 for PS4, a generous 100 for Morpheus). Generally, consoles operate either at very slim margins or at a net loss, but let's be generous and say that the manufacturing cost per console is $400. Since one is given per household for free (though technically each person could get one for free), the cost of the consoles alone is 560 billion dollars.
That means that ignoring the fucking development costs, the company handed out assets that are worth more than all of Google. Not Google's profits. All of Google. For a video game. Which plays in to:
2. The #1 selling game of all time is Tetris at 100 million copies, with Wii Sports following at 82 million copies and change. World of Warcraft, the largest MMO is the history of the world sold 14 million total. Tetris is maybe the most universally appealing game of all time, but it's actual sales, i.e. the people willing to spend money for it (admittingly a mobile version)? 100 million. World of Warcraft, the most popular MMO and the one that was designed to draw in the most casual players? 14 million. Meaning it would need to make an average profit of $40,000 per player in order to make up the cost of the console alone. Oh, which brings us to:
3. Servers for this game that is somehow played by almost everyone on the planet would be on fire constantly. Azure servers are among the most stable you can get for games and even then they will go down under stress measuring in the millions. If even half of the playerbase signed in on launch day? The servers would shut down so hard that you could hear the cries of sysadmins from space. You would either need to offload work on to the consoles (raising the price dramatically) or you would need server farms that used up multiple nuclear power plants worth of energy by themselves, and all the cost that goes with that. Since that is impossible in a world with an energy crisis, you have to offload it to the console, which brings us to:
4. Having information clientside means you basically give up all mystery about your video game. No matter how good you are at programming, you aren't better than literally everyone else on the planet trying to blow apart your security all at once. Since you can't have server farms for a game as widely used as what they have, the workload has to be clientside, and that means information stored in a box that reads user input, and that means that hey, people are going to hack it. Considering the fact that people have used sprite placement in super mario bros. to reprogram the game, finding a bit of information about a bunch of money would be simple as shit.
5. A game as extensive as the one described in the game would have had to been programmed by a team of over a thousand people most of whom would be researching how to get VR to not make you throw up all the time. One person banging out a video game results in something on the scale of Five Nights at Freddy's or Dust, and while those games are impressive for one person, they aren't MMOs that are both motion controlled, VR enabled, and hyper-realistic looking.
6. If you are living in a world where people value your skills, you will never be an actual secret genius and the only people who write that plot are either doing it ironically or fucking hack writers who managed to get off a vbpower forum from a decade ago thinking that their dick was the biggest in the world because they could go toe to toe with teenagers. We live in the age of the internet, and we have for a long time. It's why there are MMOs. There are no more secret geniuses. If you have talent, you will be discovered. As a culture we made a celebrity out of a cat with a funny face. The fuck do people think would happen if video games were suddenly a valuable skill?
7. The power consumption of a video game console able to run a realistic looking VR MMO exceeds the output of a solar panel significantly, especially ones that are old and dirty. There isn't a fun joke to say here, it's just fucking stupid. If there is an actual power crisis, video games are dropped first in order to maintain servers for running the economy and military. That actually could have made for a really cool plot, but hey guess what, Ernest Cline is a bad writer so instead enjoy this fuckoff story about some asshole kid.
There are more but they're almost not the issue. The issue is something that plagues every goddamn medium in the world today. It's why we have the next five years or more of superhero movies planned out, why there is an official Minion's color, why our experience Facebook or Twitter feels so hollow. It's a book that is entirely about references, done so knowingly. And guess what? It sold. It sold a lot. People like it. I don't know if I can be mad at them. I don't know if I can even be disappointed.
Reference humor, pointing out a shared experience or quoting something that seems obscure on the surface is a kind of bonding we've had as a species since we've had stories. They establish you as part of the in-group, show that you are a credible member. You take something and establish it as a shared experience, and for people who were nerds, who liked those things, having that is something really special.
Growing up, I did not like sports. I liked lacrosse but hated my team. I didn't like talking about girls or who I thought was hot, and after I was 15 I stopped attending churches. I joined clubs but didn't like the people I met. I did not have a lot of things in common with people, and I still don't. My idea of a good time isn't going to another country, it's writing, figuring out a weird math thing, talking about hypothetical and totally impossible physics things. So finding people who I can share experiences with is something rare for me and something that I treasure.
There's an important component to that sentence, though. People, and that's what Ready Player One and superhero movies and minions and meme shirts all lack. They might be about characters, but they aren't people. I am not sharing anything with them. When the main character of RPO says Atari 2600 or Tomb of Horrors, they're just words. There is no bond between me and the character, or between the character and any other reader. Nothing is actually established. No experience is shared. You aren't even forming a bond with Ernest Cline, because the story is static. It can never actually respond to what you are saying.
The experience that it tries to share is hollow. It is a name with nothing behind it, carries with it neither warmth nor laughter nor joy nor frustration nor sadness. It cannot. Only humans can carry that. When I used to joke with friends about the Tomb of Horrors, the feelings we evoked were frustration at the difficulty and fear that our hard work on our characters would go to waste. The tomb itself was unimportant. It was a medium with which to show our vulnerabilities without making that obvious to anyone else. That is what made it special, that's what makes every reference special.
It is something grossly misunderstood by the culture that we are producing today, the endless sequels and spin-offs and retellings and nostalgia trips that we like to invoke. The least important part of your childhood is cartoon. The least important part of video games was the game itself. It was sitting down with your little brother to play Paper Mario while he held the strategy guide. It was the act of getting up early to watch cartoons. It was getting a Surge with a friend and just kind of talking.
When we reference those events among ourselves, with the people that we know and care about, we are building something, building a support structure for those relationships. At some time in the past that support structure could have been built with bible passages or plant names or riding a horse. It doesn't matter; the materials are all the same strength. The importance is how they are used.
For these kinds of stories, the ones where they are nothing but references, where they offer value primarily as reminding you of something that you once had a good experience with, they aren't building anything. They are tricking you with the best intentions. They say "hey, remember Spiderman? You used to get up as a kid and watch Spiderman with your dad, Spiderman must be important to you." They try to evoke that emotion by reminding you of the label, rather than reminding you of the events that made the label special. It's shallow. It's pathetic. It's disappointing. It is everything that we have come to expect from our modern world.
We have a culture now where you must always put on your social face, where your shared experiences are scrutinized and picked apart by your peers. You are marketed nostalgia, and are supposed to be surprised if you don't find the material engaging. After all, isn't it cool to see another Star Wars movie? After all, it's Star Wars. You liked that before, logically you must like it again. You must feel the same way again, otherwise something is wrong with you, or something is wrong with the movie. The connections between events are already built for you, and you are told to fill in the blanks.
Ready Player One is that writ large. It is in every page, every reference, every character, every scene. Here is something you would recognize from your childhood; feel something about it. If I say the phrase Atari 2600, do you feel warm and fuzzy? Good. That's the story. No other criticism matters. It is the end result of our culture of references, a reddit joke taken to absurd levels. You can read it from to back and you will come out of it with nothing but what you already brought with you. Nothing new. Nothing interesting. No twists. Just things you have seen before, things you will see again.
It is a story that is afraid, afraid like everyone else that if we aren't reminded of the labels, we'll lose the events attached to them. And to me that is the most biting criticism I can possibly give.
There isn't really anywhere else to go from here, so I suppose the review is over.
I read RP1 when I was like 12 and enjoyed the shit out of it. I know nothing about the 80s; the references meant nothing to me. But once I suspended my disbelief (as is traditional when reading soft sci-fi), iit was a really fucking enjoyable adventure story with what were, believe it or not, real people-like characters. So no, the value of the book isn't entirely tied up in the references, and fine there are a lot of plot holes but who gives a shit? I liked it.
I mean, obviously it's not great literature. No one said it was. So if you stop expecting Dickens, you might just have some fun.
Plus I met Ernie Cline and he's a super nice guy.