Alright gamers, the time I had feared is now upon us. In late November of last year I stumbled across an Amazon listing for something titled “Ready Player Two” and felt my heart sink to my stomach. The cursed sequel filled my heart with an inescapable fear, finally rearing its ugly head when I was least prepared. In my mind, Ready Player One never needed a sequel, yet here reality was, mocking my naivety. I suffered through the tumultuous development period for the Ready Player One film for years only to be delivered a gut-blow and scoffed at for caring about something so much. I questioned if the book I once cared so much about was even good in the first place.
Ready Player One is the single most influential piece of fiction I have ever had the pleasure of finding and it’s something I cannot concisely convey merely in the lines of the opening paragraphs. It is single-handedly responsible for my passion with media consumption, got me into video games, and ultimately introduced me to anime. Almost religiously, I have returned to the book numerous times in the years since 7th grade, when it opened my eyes to a beautiful world. I adopted the username “Parzival” as my first and seemingly permanent internet handle directly as a result of this book. Everything about it was magical to me, and though that magic has since faded a bit, I still believe the story and world Ernest Cline was able to craft were something I will never be able to forget. It seemed that this was his passion project. Crafting a story with such care and love for the references he was using gave it a personal touch. I was Wade, and Cline was my Halliday. A comparison that forces a weak chuckle out of me after reading Ready Player Two, where Halliday’s character is revealed to be a less-than-admirable role model for Wade, as was Cline for me. This is Parz, and welcome to my critique of Ready Player Two.
We open with a pre-rendered cutscene. Though it would be better to say that Cline told us what happened instead of showing us. He was never the best writer on the block, but this is downright juvenile. The heavy-handed “tell not show” writing unearthed painful reminders of my old writing from middle school when I convinced myself that writing interesting things was enough to sell a story. Spoiler alert, this was quickly debunked. As such, this opening chapter nearly made me close this book and forget about it then and there. Nearly every major event in the many years since the end of the Easter Egg Hunt of the first book were anticlimactically told to the reader with unadorned language. In short, this was an exposition dump, and a terrible example of one to boot. We are given all the information about the new ONI headset, what happened to the characters and world since. Given the scope of the subsequent events, it was likely unavoidable, though it was a poor choice to cold open on such a dry chapter, more akin to a summary of events and not very concerned about presenting itself in an interesting way. I suppose Cline assumed that the readers would find the content inherently interesting and read it for that alone. Which of course, I became a victim of. Having invested years of my life into this world I could hardly put this down, even when I became tired at rolling my eyes at what I was wasting my time reading. In much the same way Disney dragged me out of my room to watch Star Wars: Episode 7, Cline had made me buy his pathetic excuse for a sequel.
The ONI headset itself is a fascinating device, very similar to the NervGear headset from Sword Art Online, which is explicitly noted in the book itself. This is more amusing to me because I found Sword Art Online as a direct result of wanting more media like Ready Player One. I guess things had come full circle. The technology itself has evolved to better meet the standards of the constantly evolving virtual reality tech of our own world. As such, the old Haptic Gloves and visor no longer cut the mustard, so Cline took inspiration from his predecessors and created a full-dive device. I was quite interested in this hardware and how it worked. There were some clear indications of where the story would head based on it’s design, however. For example, being unable to safely remove it without logging off the OASIS directly, or the 12-hour maximum usage limit before Synaptic Overload Syndrome would fry your brain etc. Where have I heard that before… Anyways, it was a logical step forward in terms of in-universe advancements of technology and followed suit in the other works of fiction within this specific flavor of virtual reality fantasies. The introduction of this full-dive simulation technology seemed to open the doors for Cline to further explore his cheesy take on escapism and “reality vs. virtual” he offered in the first novel, which I had mixed feelings on. But regardless, the ONI seemed like a neat idea.
Next, we get details on the “new contest,” that is, The Quest for the Seven Shards. An expected development to say the least, and inherently problematic from the onset. The original Egg Hunt consisted of 3 keys and 3 gates, each with their own unique puzzle. Naturally, like any developer creating a sequel for a hit game, Cline would feel pressured to add more to one-up himself. But in the process he lost sight of what made the first book so special after being blinded by the light of success. This book was a victim of feature-creep in general. It added a lot of bloat without much added benefit to the reader, unless they were more of a pop-culture addict than Wade. Though this time, the saturation of references would become increasingly more apparent in very contained areas. I had low expectations for the contest. Cline would obviously be wanting to make it more fantastical than the original but had a lot to live up to. The Seven Shards Quest artificially raised the stakes while killing the magic, so let’s look at what went wrong.
The First Shard
The story begins by painting Wade as a stupid pathetic loser. It seems not much has changed. I appreciated this, since Wade had never been nor ever was intended to be a righteous character. During this time, Wade managed to ruin his relationship with Samantha and found himself firmly planted back at square one, except now he was a billionaire. His morals fluctuated between reasonable and nonsensical at the drop of a hat and he had his own fair share of skeletons in the closet. One of the reasons I connected with Wade a lot in the previous book was how candid he was about himself and his faults. For instance, discussing how he woefully bought a sexdoll in his darkest days of the Egg Hunt, or explaining his obsessive attachment to Samantha with some degree of being grounded. He also has a weak resolve and it’s made apparent in many of his biggest regrets. When ONI first launched its video sharing service, he initially was put off from certain NSFW clips because he felt guilty for “cheating” of his now-ex-girlfriend, but he later decided otherwise. Love it or hate it, Wade was never the hero despite finding himself in the role of one. Despite the incredible monetary gain and raise in status, he felt unfulfilled because he lost touch with his friends. As a reader, this feeling would regretfully carry on throughout the book. Wade couldn’t buy back his love and he spent most of his time listlessly moping around feeling sorry for himself. This is why his head was not in the right place when the new contest began. In the days of the Egg Hunt, he had nothing to lose. He was at the bottom of the food-chain and had all the time in the world. He had not yet lined his pockets with cash or lived in a giant mansion. His passion then was genuine, now, he felt disconnected from it all. As a result, he puts out a bounty for the first clue and uses his influence in the most pitiful way possible.
In the Egg Hunt, the stakes were raised towards the tail-end of the contest, but felt more like a natural progression rather than shit hitting the fan right from the onset. That’s why the first puzzle gave me a glimmer of hope only to be quickly dulled after remembering there will be no breathing room for even the slightest bit of fun this time around. The logic was interesting but ultimately felt too rushed for obvious reasons. This problem would only be exacerbated as the story wore on. Many of the subsequent shards would be “explained” how it was found rather than experiencing the puzzle unfold first-hand, despite the story intending to present them as such. It was a speedrun without the awe of seeing exception displays of skill by the player. Or maybe it would be more accurately to say it was the feeling one feels after beating a game following a guide, ultimately being filled with a melancholic satisfaction at knowing that you did not deserve this accomplishment. Cline was trying to play with the nostalgia of the reader by returning to where it all began, but without creating a foundation for the story to support itself on, ultimately feeling hollow.
Enter L0hengrin, and from my understanding, she is a controversial new character. However, I really liked her. We can simply chalk this up to Cline’s sudden realization that he needed to shoehorn in some current year diversity and gender equality, but I didn’t particularly care. Seeing a transgender woman within the narrative playing an important role was definitely nice to see. There wasn’t a huge to-do about the fact that she was DMAB or anything of that nature. L0hengrin was a breath of fresh air when she took the stage. Though woefully that time was far too short in favor of other obligatory events. She was intended to be a reflection of Wade before winning everything, when he was still just a guy playing video games in his secret hideout in the Stacks. However, she brought along an infectious charisma that shone like the afternoon sunlight, which reinvigorated my energy and made me more interested in her story. Which is why my only gripe with her character was that she was too quickly pushed to the wayside prematurely in the story. After essentially holding Wade’s hand and giving him the first shard, she disappeared and only appeared once again to give Og the Dorkslayer sword, before immediately getting smited without any glory for her heroic actions. I would have much preferred to read about her and the rest of the L0w Five over the mess of developments that defined the main story.
Raising the stakes, but at what cost?
Let’s change gears here and discuss the artificially raised stakes of the contest this time. Presumably a pro-gamer himself, Cline ought to realize one of the biggest sins of game design: never include a time limit! More often than not, implementing a time limit in a game will cause players to panic and make poor decisions, and when poor outcomes inevitably occur, spite the game for it. Inherently this is not a bad decision per say since it can be used effectively, such as in Majora’s Mask, but generally speaking, the last thing players want to see is an obnoxious red timer counting down in the peripheral vision. Cline ignores this and puts one in anyways. He chose to raise the stakes by setting a limit on the contest which would almost guarantee it wouldn’t be as fun anymore. Additionally, he exacerbated this issue by including one of the worst antagonists possible.
In much the same way Kayaba Akihiko was a sorry excuse for an antagonist in Sword Art Online, Halliday’s ghost in the machine followed in these footsets. To understand why this “ghost” was a terribly written antagonistic force, let’s return to grade school for a minute here and refresh ourselves on the major types of conflicts; man vs. man, man vs. self, man vs. nature and man vs. society. It goes without saying that conflict and adversity are the primary triggers for events in a story. Distilled to its most basic sense, this is “reactionary” storytelling where characters will base their actions on their immediate surroundings. However, reducing all conflict to “reactionary” is a bit of an oversimplification of its place within storytelling, and perhaps misconstrues the term. As such, writers must mask these intentions behind a conflict that is intrinsically tied to the values of a certain character without making these motivations feel too “cheap.” A good antagonist or antagonistic force attacks the heroes in unconventional ways to force them to feel at odds with something outside of their control. To take a page from Lessons from Screenplay, let’s discuss the Joker from Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy. The Joker was not simply a mad anarchist looking to burn Gotham, rather, he was the perfect foil to Batman. He attacked the most obvious chink in Batman’s armor: the Joker exploited Batman’s ideology and forced a stalemate, resulting in temporary invulnerability. Batman refused to kill anyone even extending this rule to apply to the criminals he arrested. However, the only way to defeat the Joker was to kill him, since nothing else Batman could do would phase him. So in a sense, the Joker had played his move and Batman was in check. On the surface, this is an example of “man vs. man” conflict but we can clearly tell there is a bit more nuance here. Not only as an antagonistic force, but the Joker also forces Batman to experience an internal battle of ideologies to test his resolve– bundling in a “man vs. self” conflict as well.
One of the most infuriating pitfalls I see writers make, especially within anime and media aimed for adolescents, is concluding that “insanity” is an excuse for easy character writing. Cline seems to think that “incomprehensible” and “bad” go hand-in-hand and decides to make this his core tenant in writing Halliday’s ghost in the shell. The problem is that simply writing a character with obtuse morals and is seemingly off-the-rails does not mean they are chaotic evil. Nor does it mean that the readers will hate them simply because they are trying to hurt people. Just because a character kills people, doesn’t necessarily make them evil. Wielding the blade of “moral standards” doesn’t make your attacks any more effective. A character who will kill without mercy and laugh maniacally while doing so doesn’t make me hate the character, it makes the writer. It’s hard to overlook how juvenile this practice is because it feels like the writer is overexerting themselves every sentence by flaunting a poorly understood and shallow definition of “insanity” in the most heavy-handed manner imaginable.
Halliday’s ghost is an AI which is something humans have trouble understanding. There is much potential in this “man vs. machine” type conflict and has been explored extensively in other media, and much of which is directly noted within the pages of this book. Unfortunately, Cline chose to ignore his own influences and create the most generic adversary possible. Later on, the ghost gains a bit more nuance in their actions, but it’s too little too late. In 2001: A Space Odyssey HAL-9000 is a perfect antagonist because he outsmarts the characters before they even know what hit them. His intelligence is beyond our understanding and written with such subtlety which alone makes many fear it. Moreover, HAL’s dry delivery of now-iconic lines such as “I’m sorry Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that” strikes a chill in your heart. Not because he’s an unfeeling machine with overwhelming intelligence, but because we can’t do anything to stop him. A well written AI antagonist shouldn’t be consistently reminding you that you cannot understand their logic, but instead show it without remorse. Halliday’s ghost parades around trying to make you hate him every sentence he speaks. This backfires through, as the only person making my blood boil was Cline himself.
Much to my displeasure, the cliched and comical “If you die in the game, you die in real life!” became the defining conflict for this book. The main hunt surrounds these Seven Shards that Ghost Halliday wants. These are artifacts to resurrect Leucosia, who is an artificially preserved version of Kira Morrow, Og’s wife and one of the original Gregarious Games founders. This was possible due to the ONI headset which automatically creates a user brain scan (UBS) for some reason, and is essentially your clone. Though this would be explained in detail later on in the book. To force Wade and his friends to accept his demands, Ghost Halliday gleefully explains how he hijacked the biggest company’s software, ostensibly holds the world hostage, and threatens to kill everyone unless he gets these Seven Shards. Before we know it the world is at stake, wonderful. Forced to reckon with the fact that billions of people can die if they fail, Wade accepts the challenge and sets out on his quest to save humanity.
The second most glaring issue I had with this book was “what about the people who logged in before Wade hours ago?” Wade had about 11 hours and change to work with, but if someone across the world had been logged in for 11 hours already, wouldn’t their brain start to break down due to Synaptic Overload Syndrome (S.O.S.) almost immediately? This was answered towards the very end, where Ghost Halliday apparently lied about that and those people would be put in limbo when their limit reached, but at that point, I had spent 300 pages assuming millions of people were dying while Wade was running around playing games and reading Wikipedia. Moreover, the scenario of being unable to log out of a virtual reality simulation is a tired cliche at this point. It has been around since the dawn of this type of genre existed, and seeing it here again made me roll my eyes in disappointment. It raises the stakes, but at the cost of retreading worn ground, and never really tries to make itself stand out.
Ready Player Two dances to the same beat as Kawahara Reki’s Sword Art Online series, but more egregiously because it failed to show attempts to improve. Cline literally resurrects old characters, reuses scenarios, and brings back old bad guys to try and tell the same story again on a larger scale and rebrand it as something new. There was no way this would work and evidently, it hasn’t so far. Sorrento is suddenly off death row and back with a vengeance, Halliday is back from the dead as an evil AI who is driven by lust to download a copy of his best friend’s wife, and another contest has begun. Kawahara-sensei similarly subjects his series to the same pitfalls of reusing assets, scenarios and villains, but over time has evolved his writing and storytelling abilities to the point where most of the major issues have been ironed out. On the other hand, Cline simply rewrote the old book with a few new tricks because he might have been too afraid to try anything too different and not refining his writing skills in the process.
Everyone is now more or less a captive of Ghost Halliday since most of the population has since adopted the superior NervGear, I mean, ONI headset. Being unable to remove the device safely without essentially giving that person a lobotomy. Which is a very major design flaw, might I add. Regardless, 99% of the install base is held captive, except for Samantha, who has been obstinate about her adaptation of this technology, and I guess her paranoia paid off in the end. Thinking she outsmarted the sentient ghost-in-the-machine, she removes her OASIS goggles like normal and decides to ditch her auto-piloted jet. Ghost Halliday had since taken over control of the craft, but she was not going to sit there and do nothing, so he took a chute and bailed. What follows is what could only be described as a “AAA video game cutscene” with a massive set piece only used once for trailers at E3, with lots of explosions for good measure. For the sake of argument, let’s assume Samantha knew how to skydive. However, Ghost Halliday realized what was going on and turned the entire jet around to try and ram her. Two problems with this; firstly, you cannot turn 180 degrees with an aircraft in flight that easily or quickly and secondly, she was such a small fast-moving target, there’s no way she could be hit by a jet! Wait a second, he’s a sentient AI, nevermind this checks out. Naturally, the convenient excuse is to make the antagonist an all-knowing supercomputer which is the only way such calculation could be made. Too convenient of an excuse for me, but I digress. In the end, Samantha manages to land safely and duck for cover as Ghost Halliday crashes the jet nearby resulting in a giant explosion and a few crispy trees. Also a few people die but it’s never really lingered on too much. Though this entire time, I had no doubt in my mind that Samantha wouldn’t make it out alive. Cline was in no position to kill a major protagonist early on and I feel like he lacked the resolve to do so. I extended my conclusions here to the rest of the story, since we knew Wade was going to save the world and get the girl again. The sheer absurdity of holding humanity captive and threatening to essentially eradicate the entire human race for such trivial matters was so unbelievable, I knew it would never happen. Just like how I knew Sam would survive and live to see another day.
Demoted to Hero
What follows is what only can be described as chaos. Undistilled, unrefined, unorganized and a terrible sight to behold. Wade and his friends are collectively freaking out and rightfully so, but their worries cloud their judgements and everything begins to fall apart, in more ways than one. The biggest issue I had with this book was the aforementioned hollow feeling. The contest held no weight because I had no investment in it. It was the same thing we had already seen and it failed to prove itself as a worthy successor. The puzzles themselves were perfectly serviceable, but there was no room to breathe. Moreover, Wade was completely ignorant this time around and had no knowledge of what was going on. For every Shard, someone else was leading him along as baggage to give him exactly what they needed. Given the stakes this is completely understandable, though not excusable. The first contest held weight because it was reflective of a larger conflict between gamers and the comically evil corporate overlords. The second contest failed because we were never allowed a quiet moment to take everything in, it was oversaturated with content before it even began.
As it turns out, Wade is tasked with protecting the lives of billions of people by playing an arcade game he hasn’t touched in 6-7 years. Already off to an excellent start it seems. The game in question was Sega’s 1985 arcade game released as Ninja Princess in the US, later changed to simply Sega Ninja as it was localized for the Master System port, though it’s proper Japanese name is Princess Kurumi. Learning these little trivia tidbits was undoubtedly the most enjoyable part for me, as I enjoy learning about video games and their history. I took a temporary break from reading here and watched some gameplay of the game to see what exactly this game was like to play, since it’s hard to understand what exactly is happening based on Cline’s descriptions alone. Returning to the challenge, Wade manages to clear Ninja Princess with the help of Shoto’s backseat gaming advice. While this is fine and all, during the Egg Hunt, Wade had to play Black Tiger on his own without assistance due to blocked communication during that challenge. Seeing the rules loosened here felt a bit too convenient for my liking and ultimately made this accomplishment feel cheap, though more about that later.
Before we take a trip to Shermer, Illinois, we need to talk about the elephant in the room: the references. Ready Player One is famous, or infamous depending on who you ask, for including tons of references to 80’s pop culture. Consequently being accused of “nostalgia pandering” for such inclusions. Inherently, references are no more detrimental as they are beneficial. That is to say, what matters is their implementation and the implications they have on the grander narrative. For instance, if you include copious amounts of references to your favorite band in a year-end report at work, it’s not exactly a good idea for obvious reasons. Conversely, there are some creatives such as Quentin Tarantino who takes techniques of his idols, interprets them, and reimagines them in his own films as a more nuanced “reference” than simply copying for the sake of evoking a “Hey, I remember that!” feeling in the viewer. Cline clearly has a passion for this era of pop culture, but he seemed to stretch himself too thin in Ready Player Two. Many pages read similarly to the more intentionally verbose passages in Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho, though without a deeper purpose other than cheap entertainment. As a result, some pages in Player Two became absurd depictions of an idealistic reality Halliday only could have conjured up in his twisted imagination, where characters would become mouth-pieces for Wikipedia passages with their seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of everything around them. It wouldn’t be a problem is they simply possessed such encyclopedic knowledge, however, they would explain everything in front of them. I’m sorry Cline, but this doesn’t make your book interesting, it comes off as you trying too hard.
Returning to Shermer, it’s Samanta’s time to shine as she leads Wade through a fantastical reimagining of John’s Hughes’ suburban America depicted in his films. The challenge surrounded Pretty in Pink, and the objective was to fix the story to fit the original ending Hughes had intended, not the one in the final cut. This part was mostly egregious for beginning to show Cline’s oversaturation of references and trivial trivia, Characterized through Sam pointing out every detail in a crowd and explaining it to Wade and the reader without even being a conversation much less adding to the challenge at head. It also was quite boring to read, since it mostly involved Wade being led along while the other collected various items without any explanation as to what exactly was going on. Unless you knew as much as them, you were lost. This was not simply an isolated case here though, as it would extend to the rest of the story from here on out. What a treat!
After speedrunning through Shermer, the group briefly stop in Halcydonia, an educational planet for kids, and the place Wade spent the majority of his childhood. Halcydonia is significant since it was named after Halcydonia Interactive, the company Og and Kira Morrow formed after breaking away from GGS. This was a touching part and provided a nice breather from the persistent action in every other part of the book. Here, Wade returns to his childhood base where he had completed educational quests growing up. However, he returns with reservations as it was a place where old memories he had wished to remain buried were preserved. Particularly those about his mother, who would spend her limited time with him in that simulation. I appreciated a bit more backstory to Wade here as it made him feel a bit more fleshed out, though not necessarily breaking new ground in his character development or anything. After this side-quest they collected the next Shard conveniently from Queen Itsalot (In Castle Calculus, literally “It’s a lot,” I just realized that.) due to Wade completing a quest there years ago, which felt a bit cheap, but I digress. This is the clue that pointed them towards the planet devoted towards a certain purple-tinged artist.
It’s around this time when L0hengrin returns to inform Wade about the backstory to their quest. As it turns out, The Quest of the Seven Shards was originally a Dungeons & Dragons module written by Kira, left behind to the Middletown Adventurer’s Guild (comprised of Kira, Og, Halliday and other friends) to play after she had to return to England when her study abroad year ended. It served as a meta-narrative as to why Kira’s character, Leucosia, disappeared from their ongoing campaign. This was important since this module outlined the objective of the quest within D&D, but was mirroring their current quest in the OASIS. Additionally, this is when L0 reveals information regarding the Dorkslayer: a powerful sword forged to slaying Anorak if he ever became corrupted or turn evil. This clues them in onto a potentially real Dorkslayer, which was the key to defeating Ghost Halliday/Corrupted Anorak.
After this minor side-mission, Wade and Aech head towards the Afterworld, a planet dedicated to Prince. I will admit my own ignorance to everything that happened in this section, since I have never listened to anything by Prince and am not familiar with his other art either. That said, I think Cline anticipated this and made it fairly simple to understand, though I felt like I was missing a lot more here than in other chapters, since music is incredibly difficult to express through written language alone. Once again, Wade is dragged along by Aech as she collects various items only really giving snide remarks to Wade about his ignorance, which felt a bit less playful than usual. I guess it felt like their friendship had waned as the contest wore on since they hardly spent time together, as opposed to during the opening chapters of the first book.
The challenge this time around surrounded a boss-rush. I was a bit excited for this since it reminded me of things like the Organization XIII Data battles in Kingdom Heart 2, with an onslaught of powerful enemies to defeat. In that regard, it was a cool battle. Visually appealing and very stylistic but a bit too abstract for my liking. It largely focused on lore surrounding Prince at various stages in his life, for each had their own weakness and quirks, which I likely would have appreciated more if I was more intimately familiar with the artist. Additionally, Wade primarily used a guitar to do battle which confused me a bit how it would actually work. So by the end of the boss-rush, I was left feeling a bit dissatisfied with how Wade hardly worked haphazardly to earn the victory. As did he, expressing:
“I felt no sense of victory, because I had no idea what just happened.” (pg. 284)
Corrupted King’s Crown
Naturally, this quest would eventually lead the gang to Middle Earth, because as Aech describes it, it’s “Pure, uncut escapism.” (pg. 297) For us geeks, the fantasy world crafted by Tolkien is our Wonderland. For this reason, Kira was enraptured with these world’s and lore; Og literally moved mountains to create a replica of Rivendale for their residence as a present to her. However, as I came to learn, the Middle Earth we know from The Lord of the Rings is the Third Age, while previous times existed before it and were very different from what most fans might be familiar with. The quest for the last Shard had led Wade to the First Age which he was largely unfamiliar with, but for good reason. Samantha was a big Tolkien fan, but after they stopped seeing each other for an extended period of time, Wade had not been in the mood to read The Silmarillion since it only reminded him of better times. Just as much as this was a quest to find the next Shard, it was also looking to be a major event to mend their relationship.
Flailing around cluelessly, Wade and Aech traversed the lands of the First Age with Wikipedia as their guides. Thus, Wade reached out a hand to Samantha in the hopes that she would assist them. Meanwhile, our heroes somehow managed to walk up to the gates of Morgoth’s lair, though it was guarded by the imposing beast Carharoth. Blindly hoping for the best, they engaged in battle before quickly realizing they needed better direction after getting pushed to the brink of death at such a critical moment. This is when Sam swoops in and saves the day. She leads Wade through Morgoth’s keep, using knowledge of the lore to place sleeping spells on anyone they encounter. Thanks to this, Wade retrieves the final Shard from the Iron Crown.
I personally didn’t have much problem with this part due to some bias as a Tolkien fan myself. Or perhaps that’s simply due to how desensitized I had become to this “rinse-and-repeat” questing. There was no sense of accomplishment and puzzles are never terribly difficult. As a reader, you cannot solve them yourself, which increases the divide between yourself and the events happening, a stark contrast to the previous book. Additionally, the major gipes I’ve held with this story have become so commonplace that I stopped having the energy to be angry, only disappointed. So before my patience wore out, let’s just see this through to the end.
The Dork Slayer
The clock was ticking down and the ending was in sight. Wade retrieved that last Shard at Chthonia and swindled Ghost Halliday by trading replica Shards instead, and in the process stealing back the Robes of Anorak thanks to a convenient bug left in the system unchecked for years. From a game design standpoint, there’s no reason this bug should exist and be unchecked for so long. I used to be into the trading scene in Valve games like Team Fortress 2 and the possibility of a bug allowing you to access someone’s inventory, even for a half second, is such a huge problem there should have been a fix long ago, but I digress. With his powers restored, he immediately teleports to Anorak’s Castle and holes up in the study, hand hovering on the big red button, threatening Ghost Halliday in a place he cannot reach. Thanks to a clue earlier on Halcydonia left by Og, Wade managed to track down where he was being held hostage by Ghost Halliday and Sorrento. Wade engages in a VR-mission piloting a telebot to try and rescue Og, which goes horribly wrong, resulting in Og being critically injured and all hell breaking loose. Og is then rushed to the hospital with the hopes that he could be saved.
Wade disengages from the telebot control interface to confront Ghost Halliday once again, except this time with an ultimatum; Wade offers to duel, if he wins then Halliday will release all the hostages and revert his malicious update. Except here’s the catch, Wade never said he would be the one fighting Ghost Halliday. This is when Og returns for his final time in the limelight. Pretty much everyone presumed him close to dead yet here he was. I’m not exactly sure how Wade knew Og was still alive since it’d be a major problem if he had passed away. We would later find out Og was only able to login due to him using the ONI headset, since it would have been physically impossible for him to move in a normal Haptic-rig in a severely injured body otherwise. Og has thrown down the gauntlet, the stage for the final battle has been set. And a poetic finale at that; a confrontation between the two creators, likened to gods, once friends turned enemies. From a narrative standpoint this set-up would have been a perfect final battle considering the escalation, but in practice it lacked the spectacle deserving of such a battle.
The fight was an awesome display of power between two deities hurling every incomprehensibly strong attack in their arsenal at one another. However, considering their defensive abilities, it wasn’t all that effective. In fights, an escalation of power levels is rendered pointless if the attacks are comparatively similar to what they originally started as without proper explanation or context. For example, we can read about these powerful lighting attacks all day, but if they don’t really do much damage and we are not familiar with the statistics of the type of damage they should do, it’s no different from the weak punches exchanged between kids on a playground. Unless that is what Cline was going for, since this was a fight between the two biggest geeks on the planet. Stuck in a bit of a stalemate, L0hengrin teleports in and gets caught in the crossfire only surviving about half of a page. Though she did manage to return the Dorkslayer to Og which was their trump card. I really would have liked some backstory to how L0 and the L0w Five managed to get the hardest to obtain items in the game, but maybe I’m asking too much? (Please release a spin-off! Otherwise I will need to write the fanfiction myself). Now the tide of battle had shifted in Og’s favor. Fate had been all but decided now.
“Og held the sword aloft, then he teleported directly behind Anorak, who turned to face him just as Og swung the Dorkslayer around and sliced Anorak’s avatar in half, miraculously killing him in a single blow” (pg.346)
I couldn’t contain my laughter. Cline was channeling his inner Kubo Tite here and concluded the “most epic player-versus-NPC battle in the history of the OASIS” by having Og literally teleport behind Anorak and kill him in a single blow. All it was missing was a cheeky remark of “nothing personal kid” to seal the deal! The fight thus concluded almost prematurely and left me as a reader with much to be desired. The villain Cline had been trying to make us hate for over 340 pages and died in about 4, leaving me feeling nothing but disappointment. Cline likened the battle to a clash of titans similar to Gandalf versus Sarumon, but it wasn’t nearly as cool.
After the battle, Leucosia was resurrected only to learn that Og had died just after defeating Ghost Halliday. Not exactly the first thing you want to hear after being resurrected without your consent. Though Wade receives the Rod of Resurrection and is given the power to resurrect a digitized copy of anyone who has ever used the ONI. This was made possible thanks to the brain scans that the device would make, and is described as essentially a copy-pasted version of your consciousness. That could be bound to an avatar and more or less resurrect anyone you wish, though only in a bastardized digital form. I personally find AI and post-singularity technology fascinating from a philosophical and moral standpoint so I found this incredibly interesting to see presented so bluntly, and not in a bad way. The technology just exists and whether the character’s morals agree with it is not really up for debate. That is reality to them now. This reminded me a bit of the Alicization arc in Sword Art Online, since that arc primarily concerned bottom-up artificial intelligence (as opposed to top-down which is more common in current technology) and the idea of interacting with these AI as people. In Alicization, the AI were created by taking a brain scan of a human child and uploading it to a simulation not too dissimilar from the OASIS, where the digitized mind would naturally reach maturity, with the goal of creating a fully sentient bottom-up AI. It seems like Ready Player Two followed a similar thought process by creating bottom-up AI by basing them off humans rather than the impossible task of programming one yourself. Machine learning can only go so far, human learning is a different beast entirely. I wouldn’t say Cline copied from Sword Art Online here since AI was not a major plot element until the book was nearly over, though it’s very likely he drew inspiration, especially considering his own nod to Kawahara-sensi’s aforementioned series earlier in his own text.
The final chapter is probably one of the most interesting sections of the book. It’s told from the perspective of Wade’s digitized self, though it is intentionally not clear that there was a perspective shift initially. He explains how he and a few other AI have been loaded onto the ARC@DIA ship, which Wade had originally built for himself to ditch Earth, now modified for AI. The objective was to have the ship travel to the nearest star system with the intention of looking for intelligent life or a hospitable planet for humanity. Being AI, they don’t need to worry about food or death, only a hard drive failure. That said, I found it suspicious that Wade and the others so readily accepted essentially having a clone of themselves made and be out there, especially after the whole Halliday debacle, but maybe they trust themselves more. But on the other hand, I appreciate Cline not retreading worn ground in this instance, since he takes a more clinical approach to discussing these technologies. Not necessarily as “evil” or “dangerous,” rather, as something that we will eventually need to accept whether we want to or not.
Now that I have exhaustively completed a commentary of all the major events of this book, I want to take some time to further examine some of the more important take-aways, or at the very least, figure out what Cline wanted to say, if anything at all.
Ready Player One was a mild critique of escapism. Paradoxically a story celebrating and indulging within its own nostalgia while simultaneously trying to explain why the aforementioned sugar-coated reality was not all it was chalked up to be. In some sense, I think this is effective since it provides commentary on how regardless of how nice the escape is, we all must log off eventually. Escapism is a difficult topic to discuss since I personally feel as if it’s a necessary and intrinsic part of human nature. Humans have always indulged in some form of escape, be it the arts of storytelling, film, music or painting. Additionally, some forms of escapism are treated more severely than others. Video games and television were frowned upon by the generations before us, yet the music and books they enjoyed were once no different from our games to the generation before them. Artistic merit holds more weight when discussing such subjects since escapism is often tied to a prescribed value of an activity. Spending hours researching in a laboratory is seen as unusual, but respectable due to the academic nature of it. However, playing a video game for the same time is frowned upon because it’s seen as intellectually inferior, despite the fact you might be playing a game that stimulates your mind through complex puzzles, real-time strategy, or reading and analyzing attack patterns.
In my mind, there is no such thing as “escapism” because your “reality” is persistent. What I mean is that there is no such thing as running away from reality. Confronting reality is not easy to justify since oftentimes that escape is inseparable from reality. You are playing the game, reading the book or listening to the song. You have to be attuned to some frequency of reality to even acknowledge that fact. Wade was Parzival hunting for the egg, but he was always Wade. He never was Parzival. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that Parzival was Wade, always was. The only difference was the name change and an abstraction of the avatar. Parzival was only one of his masks. Wade turned to the OASIS because he was powerless to change his life and it was not as easy as a simple mindset change. He could do nothing to improve his life in the Stacks. Escapism was the only solution. Yet, escapism is usually implied to be a form of complacency but it isn’t necessarily that. It’s a band-aide. You can turn to games but you can’t be logged in forever. But even then it’s hard to forget the fact that you are still alive in reality. Humans have been engaged in escapism forever, it’s human nature; ranging from sex, drugs, religion, art and even spending time with other people. All these are things that make humans forget their worries or justify the reality around them. Scoffing at these things and calling them simply “escapism” implies that you are above such things. But nobody is. Escapism isn’t evil, don’t treat it as such. Ready Player Two hardly touched the topic of escapism in the heavy-handed manner it had in the final pages of the original novel. Wade said he would never touch the ONI again, but he never said he would give up the OASIS. That’s because it’s not inherently evil.
The ending of Ready Player One was serviceable but rubbed me the wrong way because of the shoehorned-in escapism critique. My fear was that the sequel would crank that up to 11 and get preachy, so I had prepared for the worst. But the worst never came. I was pleased to see Cline approach the usage of ONI and the OASIS as more passive, letting the conflicting morals of the characters guide our own opinions instead of everyone agreeing “full-dive bad!” This allowed for a more open-ended approach which encouraged us to think about these things in our own life because these technologies likely aren’t as far off in the future as we think. Whereas Sword Art Online treated the NervGear as an evil or cursed device that everyone agreed was bad, the ONI had benefits and they were outlined within the text as well. For example, how they had been originally planned to use these devices to help disabled folks and improve their lives. A layer of abstraction to our escapism was removed for the sake of technological advancement, and it’s up to us to decide if that’s a good thing.
Ready Player Two is not an intellectual giant in terms of ideas of themes, but that doesn’t mean it had nothing to say. Though it was nothing really too important. This book essentially reiterates themes from the first novel framed in a slightly different light by changing up perspectives. We are allowed to draw our own decisions more readily and I think this helped overall. There were no shortage of cliches, but I appreciated not including the usual “true love wins in the end” or “power of friendship” ideas that have been repeated far too often in stories. Wade does manage to mend his relationship with his friends and relationship with Samantha though. Thanks to a world ending crisis that is. But I guess disaster and hardship bring people together. Forcing them to look past their now-petty hangups and remember the good times. Personally, I think this book was serviceable in terms of theming. It’s unlikely you’re going to want to change your life after reading this, but it won’t make you think it was written without some semblance of intent and not all-parts a shameless cash grab.
Another Generic Love Story
One of the most unsatisfying portions of this book is the handling of the characters, specifically Wade and Samantha. They were reduced to their most basic form and remain stagnant plot devices for the entirety of the duration of the story. Wade only really learns that he needs to re-evaluate his priorities and also needs to strengthen the GSS server security. Samantha hardly plays a major part either, mostly reserved for being the sole voice of dissent on a few big decisions. She helps during two of the major quests but we aren’t allotted time to see her in a more relaxed pace where we could learn more about her character. The sense of urgency and break-neck pacing disallowed for the characters to really think about the events and process them as more than simply happening. Wade grows for sure, but not at all comparable to his wonderful character arc in the first novel. People can only change so much I guess? Wade was less snarky and Sam was more tame. It felt like a bog-standard hero and heroine combo that was only a pale imitation of the character they were meant to be. Just because you are a character, doesn’t mean you have character. And similarly, just because we know the character, doesn’t mean you don’t have to write in a personality. Motivations are not enough basis to build a character off.
Wade and Samantha make up and all is right in the world. The quarrel they had off-screen is now rendered as unimportant, like a dumb disagreement that was overblown. It was inevitable that they would get back together for that token happy end sealed with a kiss goodnight that the first book left us with, so I expected nothing less here. I can roll my eyes at the pathetic excuse for a romance here, but it never was the point. I think it was an afterthought for Cline and I don’t blame him. This plot thread is largely inconsequential to anything else happening that it should have been excluded. In Player One, I always found the romance a bit cheap, like Cline threw it in for fantasy’s sake, which ironically juxtaposes his anti-escapism message by having writing in his own manic pixie dream girl in the form of a fabled “gamer girl.”
For the sake of not retreating my own footprints, I want to discuss the idea of L0 existing in the book more so than the unfortunate circumstances of her short-lived character arc. When Ready Player Two released I remember reading reviews on Amazon and whatnot where there seemed to be those who felt having a transgender character and various other current year politically correct commentary was unecessary. Is it unnecessary? Yes. I personally found Aech’s remarks a bit too uncalled for and curl, but fair judgements nevertheless. Yet, I found the part about L0 to be fascinating, having explored the concept of gender very seriously in the past year myself. It was handed carefully, albeit very shallow, and not really with a deeper understanding. Though intentionally from the perspective of an outside. We can’t expect Cline to understand the experience of being a transgender woman because he isn’t, it’d be worse if he pretend to understand. That’s why he wrote from the perspective of Wade, who likely was just as confused or curious as he or I was. Identifying as transgender or any other non-binary gender doesn’t make you any less human, but it’s a unique concept to outsiders with an open mind and something that ought to be fair to discuss. Wade doesn’t treat her any different as he would his other friends. (Despite using her to handle his fetch quests) I personally would have liked for L0’s character to have been explored with more time, but like I said, at least she got some time to shine before being smited during the time she basically saved the world, but I digress.
Despite having strong feelings about his book, I would very much wish to read a spin-off focusing on L0hengrin and the L0w Five’s quest to find the Dorkslayer and their life afterwards. I think it would serve as a better follow-up rather than trying to recycle the same characters and themes in a poor manner once again. Though I think a different author ought to handle it, for the sake of my sanity.
Not intending to stir up relics of the past, let’s mention “gamer girls” for a bit. It’s a necessary evil when discussing this book since the primary focus is Kira Underwood, Og’s late wife. Ready Player Two added a lot of depth to her, likely unnecessary, but did so nevertheless. I don’t think many of us fans really concerned ourselves with her since he had already passed away before the events of Ready Player One. That said, I think her inclusion was curious not as a commentary on feminism or the like, but as a means to explore Halliday, who I will discuss in the following section. It was no secret that Halliday had an unrequited love with her but she chose Og for a number of reasons, not simply because Halliday was too much of a sperg and probably smelled weird. However, the friendship between the three was important, at least while it lasted. They all founded Gregarious Games and started developing Anorak’s Quest which revolutionized gaming in this timeline. Kira worked as a graphic designer while Og handled primarily public relations and Halliday was the code monkey. Because of this connection to Kira and art, I think inclusions about Rieko Kodama was very fitting, since Kodama was one of the first video game artists and worked on Princess Kurumi, which was discussed earlier. This different perspective allowed us to see what it must be like for Kira, a woman, within the then-male-dominated world of game development. Ironically, however, is how Wade literally experienced this first-hand and gained an understanding of Kira, while Ghost Halliday, who failed to comprehend her as much as his deceased counterpart, didn’t. I liked Kira, but she didn’t have much time to shine. She felt more like an ephemeral existence like Galadriel in The Fellowship of the Ring rather than a real character.
Becoming the Villain
Here’s the punch line: by retroactively slandering Halliday’s past to create a fitting antagonist, Cline himself became the villain. You see, to me, Cline was my Halliday. Ready Player One had almost as much of an impact on my life as the OASIS did for Wade. I annotated my copy to death and took copious notes of the various references within the book to explore the magic of this bygone era. I reread the book religiously and would sink into a trance whenever I thought about it. I know that story like the back of my hand, which is something I can’t say for nearly anything else. If I was Wade, Ready Player One was my printed copy of Anorak’s Almanac in a binder. A text written by this cool guy who is someone we want to look up to. Someone who has so much knowledge and awkward charisma that we want to be like them. So we consumed media nonstop. Using these texts as our bible to guide us on the journey back to nineteen-eighty-something. Mentally noting every reference and then using their words as recommendations. It never got old. Cline was my Halliday.
But then Cline slandered Halliday’s legacy in much the same way artists we might have once allauded are retroactively stripped of their achievements due to wrongdoings after the fact. Even if they were in the wrong, it’s still a gut punch to learn that your childhood hero was far removed from that fantasy you held. Halliday retroactively became an incel. Angry that he could never hold Kira and became infatuated with that fact. He would push himself to the limits to achieve this illusions where his dream girl was all for his taking and made a hideous device to achieve this. This was nothing short of disgusting. He crossed the line and I think it was unnecessary. Retroactively making Halliday into a bad guy ruined the image we might have had of him. Though I think that was the point, since Wade had to swallow that pill alongside us. But for me, it held more weight.
As I watched Wade’s image of Halliday crumble before him, I observed the same happening to my idol. Ernest Cline slowly tarnished his image in my eyes as I watched him trample over every character I had grown to love, write a terrible sequel to my most beloved piece of fiction ever, and hold me hostage to watch it all happen. I could have put the book down at any time but I didn’t. I couldn’t log off. I needed to see this through to the end, even if it drove me to hate my past-idol. The fact that a sequel existed was more than enough to warrant me reading it because I feel obligated to. I hold reservations in calling myself the biggest Ready Player One fan because nobody can quantifiably measure and compare “passion,” but trust me when I say I love that book more than anyone I know. The movie pulled the rug out from under my feet and the sequel came to “teabag” over my corpse.
To take a break from the critique, let’s see how we can fix Ready Player Two. I offer two solutions which would have likely eliminated, or at least avoid, many of the problems I had with this book. The first solution is one I have alluded to previously, which is a shift in perspective. I would have rather read a story with a new character and scenario rather than a sloppy regurgitation of the same thing over again. Why watch Star Wars Episode 7 when it’s just a worse version of the original trilogy? This would likely result in some concern from publishers since the prospect of introducing a new character would put off some fans, but likely is a better outcome than writing this mess. I don’t know about anyone else, but if suddenly the book was from a new character and focusing on them winning the challenge, I would have been just as intrigued, being set in the same universe and something I enjoyed in the first place. This is why series such as The Mandalorian are still successful despite being spin-offs. This is also why I wanted L0hengrin to receive a spin-off, since I think she was by far the most interesting character here. For example, have L0 be the protagonist and have her in the shoes of Wade in this version where she is the one collecting all the Shards. I’m sure other fans might share similar sentiments.
The second solution offers an option to not reinvent the wheel. By following the first option, we are not able to mitigate the main plot related elements of the story even if we change to a new character. Ghost Halliday would still be as obnoxious and the pacing would still be actively working against the characterization. So instead of trying to think of a new challenge and make it bigger and better than ever, why not make it slightly better? Nier:Automata is one of my favorite games and includes a really interesting structure with dozens of endings. You get Ending A with 2B, the main character you control, before then having the option to play the game again as 9S, your companion. There are new combat mechanics with the change of characters and some additional story content, but it’s very minor. However, after Ending B things start to get interesting. The story and world completely changes from what was before in the first two storylines and essentially is a new game from that point. Automata, as well as other choice-driven games such as visual novels and the Telltale games prove how you can derive vastly different experiences based on one’s choices. More so with visual novels, the inclusion of differing routes allows for more story and gameplay despite reusing the same assets and tools. With this logic, I would have preferred Cline to have rewritten Ready Player One and follow the events of the first challenge, except from the perspective of another character. Perhaps Daito and Shoto since they lived in a completely different side of the world, or perhaps Aech and get into her mind a bit, or even Samantha and understand how she felt on the other side of the relationship. It likely would have been less interesting due to retreading old ground, though fans would have likely been intrigued at reading a different take on something they thought they knew. Afterall, this book was titled Ready Player Two, so it would have been fitting to have another character have the chance to step up to that bright arcade cabinet in the corner of a dark, pizza-scented room.
Needless to say, writing a follow-up to Ready Player One was a daunting task, likely one Cline had not considered seriously until the enormous success it received after hitting store shelves. As such, he describes this feeling adaptly by quoting Billy Joel: “Don’t ask for help. You’re all alone. Pressure.” This was concerning. Not simply because he was under stress, but because he felt cornered and pressured in the first place. Writing Ready Player One felt like Cline was pulling inspiration from all his favorite 80’s pop culture media; video games, movies, books, comics and music. It was a passion project through and through. He was writing from the perspective of someone like Wade Watts or James Halliday, who was very much alone and only surrounding himself endlessly within the arcadia of his youth. It was written from a place of nostalgic longing but not without optimism. It was about overcoming your shortcomings and learning to live less-reliant on escapism. Regardless of whether or not I agree with it, I think Cline truly believed the conclusions he reached. This is no more apparent than in the glowing appreciation he gives his family, friends and staff in the acknowledgements. Though that could not excuse the results he threw to market.
Ready Player Two was released with held breath. It was an inevitability based on the success of the movie and the first book. Sequels are inevitable and are oftentimes met with a harsher discerning eye compared to the original. Creator’s are expected to iron out the kinks, patch the bugs and make everything bigger and better because they’ve had time to reflect on the critiques of critics and themselves alike. But not everything can be an Empire Strikes Back or Terminator 2: Judgement Day. As such, I prepared for the worst and held my breath. I tried to remain optimistic and avoid reviews. I desperately tried to find anything to enjoy here. That’s why I went into detail recounting many of the items I did find worthwhile in my lengthy commentary in a vain attempt to balance out a critique otherwise clouded this discussion in overwhelming cynicism. Thus, my cautious optimism was challenged 366 times and threatened me to ask the difficult questions: “Was Ready Player One even good?” in spite of my having read that book too many times to count. When I tuned the final page, I felt nothing, just cheated. Knowing I was being manipulated to read a follow-up to something I loved and finishing it despite being filled with nothing but contempt. I emerged deflated. I had suffered and received nothing in return, except perhaps the promise to an adaptation of a book I hated, adapted by the same studio that ruined my favorite book of all time. This was no catharsis. I gained no deeper knowledge about myself, no new understanding can be extracted from this critique. There has been no reason for me to tell you any of this. This sequel has meant nothing….