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Our gaming expert unpacks ‘Ready Player One’

The female characters are tougher than the white guy in the lead, but it’s still candy for gamers

Ready Player One, the new Steven Spielberg movie based on Ernest Cline’s novel, is a love letter to gamers, geeks and game designers.

The movie, which is filled with pop culture references that will make any Gen Xer feel seen, tells the story of Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), who plays under the handle Parzival. It’s 2045 and Wade lives in a dystopian vision of America beset by extreme income inequality, where poor people live in communities called “The Stacks,” which are trailers piled on top of each other.

Wade’s hero is the creator of the virtual reality OASIS, James Halliday (Mark Rylance). OASIS isn’t just a game. It’s an entire virtual world. When Halliday dies, he leaves behind a stake in the company he built that is worth half a trillion dollars and a virtual scavenger hunt to determine who will get it.

Practically every gamer is after the loot, and they’re competing with a company called Innovative Online Industries (IOI), whose CEO, Nolan Sorrento, wants to take over Halliday’s company and make over OASIS as his own branded paradise. Sorrento and IOI hire an army of gaming mercenaries, called sixers, to try to crack the hunt. He also hires experts who’ve dedicated their lives to understanding Halliday to chase clues that could lead to the ultimate Easter egg, Halliday’s fortune.

Sorrento’s pretty awful. He conscripts individuals into playing on his behalf and holds them as indentured servants to make them play off debt they’ve amassed in the game. That’s how another gamer, Samantha (Olivia Cooke), who plays under the gamer tag Art3mis, decides that anyone but IOI should get the egg. Her father died in IOI custody playing off his debt. When Parzival wins Halliday’s first challenge, the prospect of winning the egg becomes real, and he’s helped by his friends, including Art3mis, Aech (Lena Waithe), Daito (Win Morisaki) and Sho (Philip Zhao).

I discussed the movie with Latoya Peterson, The Undefeated’s deputy editor for digital innovation. She’s been gaming since she was 6, wrote about games for years, and has given talks on games and game theory at South by Southwest and the Game Developers Conference. She’s also a judge for the World Video Game Hall of Fame. Oh, and she paneled at MAGFest.

(Meanwhile, the only game I’ve ever successfully completed is Monument Valley.)

The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity, and contains spoilers.

Latoya: I loved the movie! Waaaayyyyy better than the world of the book, and I attribute all of that to Spielberg. There are some issues, mind, but the movie is candy for gamers. And playing the OASIS before I watched made it so much more fun.

Soraya: Does it feel like the game that’s presented in the movie?

Oh, yes. When they enter the OASIS, I got so hype because they built that exact feeling into the VR [virtual reality] experience. The experience doesn’t put you in The Stacks like Wade, though. You start in a penthouse accessing the OASIS, which I guess places it toward the end of the movie? Or perhaps they felt like putting it in The Stacks was a little too real?

The geekier side of the world — gaming, fantasy, sci-fi — assumes that you will be the white boy who is going to save the world. And if you are a geek, this is what you are weaned on.

I was really stunned by the visuals. It really is this amazing feat of world creation. Especially Halliday’s journals, jeez.

Yes. I read some review that was negatively comparing the experience to “watching a video game over someone’s shoulder” and I wanted to ask if that reviewer had seen Twitch. Because this is the world now.

The journals should be the model for all future reference libraries.

We should explain! So, basically, rather than making people go and read Halliday’s journals, you go in and it’s almost like going to the Natural History Museum. Except you’re watching scenes from Halliday’s life.

That level of categorization and recall is amazing and so Silicon Valley. Halliday’s character is really interesting as well. It really valorizes that wistful boy genius trope.

One thing I kept wondering while I was watching is if it was odd that he’s making people spend all this time inside his head and analyzing his life to win his fortune? Part of me was like, isn’t this a bit narcissistic?

Yes, but also realistic. There are real-life Silicon Valley moguls who have that mentality, would set up a competition just like this.

I honestly prefer this narcissism to John Galt, so I’m good with it. There are some Silicon Valley types that worship Ayn Rand. They want to create a techno-utopia with no regulation for the rich, by the rich. I’d take Halliday any day.

I wonder if they would have been as introspective and sensitive about it as Halliday, though.

Game developers code their lives and experiences into games, so that part felt real. And people make games for all kinds of reasons: grief, regret, memorials. Last year’s Game Developers Conference was cloaked in grief because a major member of the community died, and it was interesting to watch people grapple with that through games.

Like That Dragon, Cancer.

Exactly. So an extensive cataloging of one’s life in a game isn’t odd. I mean, after all, isn’t Sinatra’s entire playlist doing the same thing?

Ha, ha! I suppose so.

And that tale of money and friendships broken and loves lost is also a very easy one. And the desire to go back before the thing you made was a business. In some ways, the movie is a love letter to artists. However, there were some things that were just ridiculous that I am still trying to wrap my head around. Like Wade’s characterization. I’ve been thinking hard about this since you asked to do this chat. This question of race and geekness and white boy narratives.

Drop that knowledge, Latoya!

You first, because it’s a lot.

So I didn’t find anything about this movie offensive. I think it’s … generous. It kind of papers over the more unsavory elements that we know exist within gaming communities.

Yes. It focuses on the community, not the exclusion. That dynamic is always at play in gaming. There is “we” and there is “you,” and those sides tend to shift.

But I think Wade/Parzival is the kind of person everyone wants to see themselves as. He’s an underdog, he wants to play the game alone. (There’s a whole thing about how he doesn’t “clan.”) He’s sort of sweet and morally/ethically pure, but also scared of girls.

I did not read him as pure so much as naive. And I feel like the way Art3mis is constructed in the film gives him a great foil, until she falls into the love interest trap. But, yes, you are supposed to identify with Wade.

You have to be naive to think you’re going to battle a tech company with an army of gaming mercenaries and think you’re going to beat them.

I believe that faster than I believe some psycho corporate thug would have his little Grinch heart moved because of Wade’s love for the game.

It was kind of refreshing to see a boy who’s so comfortable with being in his feelings. And I wonder how he got that way, because it damn sure wasn’t from his aunt or her cavalcade of roughneck gentlemen callers.

Of all the eye-roll moments in that movie, that was a big one. He’s sensitive. Maybe it’s from the dead parents.

That’s what I wonder about Wade. How did he manage to avoid being full of anger?

I don’t think he did, necessarily. It’s just channeled. He also swings hard into NiceGuy territory a few times. But since he generally gets everything he wants in the narrative, there’s no need to let that side out.

Wade is supposed to be the character you identify with the most onscreen. That is generally the construction around these kinds of offerings. The geekier side of the world — gaming, fantasy, sci-fi — assumes that you will be the white boy who is going to save the world. And if you are a geek, this is what you are weaned on. I realized in prepping for our discussion that this is what I was raised on. It’s how we know how to define the world. I still love Marty McFly and Tom Swift and Paul Muad’Dib Atreides.

The white boy who is “the one” is canon, so I was expecting that in many ways. Now, Wade Watts is no Marty McFly, even with a tricked-out DeLorean. But I see what they wanted to do.

The thing is, though, the world has expanded a lot since the ’80s. Our construction of hero is broader, so it was fascinating to me to see some of the devices employed to keep Wade the hero. I thought I was going to have the most to say about Aech/Helen, but it’s really Art3mis/Samantha that captures my attention.

She’s clearly very smart.

Throughout the game, she proves herself to be a more strategic player. Wade outthinks her on the first challenge, she outthinks him on the second. She’s also markedly a better shooter. In all of her scenes with Wade, she’s lead and nice with the guns. So how does she end up sacrificing herself so Wade could play? And why does he make the [NICEGUY] move of taking her out the game for her own good?

She and Helen get sacrificed. That was infuriating.

Also, if she’s the leader of the rebellion, how did she kneel to a lesser shooter? I will accept zombies in The Shining before I accept a player of that level of skill would roll over for her less experienced love interest.

Also, can we sidebar on their romance?

You are telling me the same kid that almost creamed his pants being touched in through a virtual suit suddenly has game with a real girl in real life on a roof? And this grizzled young leader of the rebellion who watched her father die in debtors prison, who is giving off hella riot girl vibes in her ripped stockings and shorts, is going to roll over for a dude who she has awkward conversation with because he solved a really hard puzzle?

That’s how you can tell who wrote this. But I guess this is what happens when you are the anointed — it’s your narrative, whether you earned it or not. The sacrifice of the friends is a thing — I mean they did it in Sailor Moon! But it’s interesting that the women, who were both independent and rebellious, gave up their own journeys to boost Wade’s.

I will accept zombies in The Shining before I accept a player of that level of skill would roll over for her less experienced love interest.

Wade is very much like Charlie (of the Chocolate Factory), or the Narnia kids, or Harry Potter, even the book version of A Wrinkle in Time. But it still has to make sense!

Well, to be fair, you don’t want a perfect hero.

Right. He has to be relatable.

But there’s a big gap between “perfect” and “you’ve got to be kidding me.” I mean a lot of the fun in the hero’s journey is that process of discovery, of them becoming less of a brat. (You know I’m criticizing Wade hard, but people said the same stuff about Tidus in FFX.)

Wade is more like wish fulfillment.

Yeah, you’re right. Like Wade winning the first challenge got him money and gear, but did he really level up any skills in this narrative?

Which, again, makes him candy for gamers who look like him and will identify with him and who, in their heads, think it makes perfect sense that after getting felt up through a virtual suit he’s going to get his head together and have game.

The OASIS was way better developed as a space and character than many of the villains and side characters.

Exactly. Which brings us to this: The real world in this movie is a horrible dystopian crapfest. I can totally understand how someone could just live in OASIS and abandon their real life. Which is why it seems odd that [spoiler] Wade takes the game offline on Tuesdays and Thursdays in this noble quest to make people appreciate the real world around them.

You know what would make me not want to spend all my time in OASIS? Not living in a dystopian crapfest!

Hmm. Made sense to me. The whole point of the journey was to discover that Halliday’s life was full of games because he couldn’t grok the real world. Wade keeps pledging he won’t make the same mistakes.

Thoughts on Helen?

I wish we knew why she was playing as a dude. She’s kind of a classic black best friend in a lot of ways. I mean, she’s a very clever, amusing one.

Yes. She is leaps and bounds more than I expected but is still doing an amazing job with the traditional spot. Well cast, well executed, but Aech is a shadow character. Just like Daito and Sho.

It’s funny to me that Wade/Parzival has these supersmart friends who clearly have strengths that he does not, but he doesn’t want to clan up?

The OASIS is open world. You normally clan for battle games, but not necessarily others. RPGs [role-playing games], sure. But this is more of a quest game. And even though the OASIS was never meant to be single-player, most of the designed challenges were.

Link was generally solo in Zelda — it’s like that.

Ahh, OK. But let’s close on Helen.

Do I wish Helen had more to do, more characterization? Yes. Am I happy she was there at all? Yes! Do I wish I knew more about her? Yes. It’s the eternal black friend conundrum. Hopefully the box office is high enough that there’s a Ready Player Two (Shout-out to Shira Chess!) that can build out Samantha and Helen as more than plot devices. That said, I’m impressed. It is damn hard to get a good gamer movie, and we got one! I just always want more.

I did not expect to love it as much as I did. It’s a gamer’s movie, 5 out of 5, with all the flaws. Now I just want them to drop the full VR experience.

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the senior culture critic for Andscape. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts and literature. She is the 2020 winner of the George Jean Nathan prize for dramatic criticism, a 2020 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism and the runner-up for the 2019 Vernon Jarrett Medal for outstanding reporting on Black life.