Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One is a fast-paced, user-friendly video game of a novel. How does Cline craft it so masterfully that I am engrossed from page one and don’t want to stop? He uses specific formatting, pacing, and world immersion techniques to keep momentum mounting.
The book is organized like a video game—in fact as I read, several times he lifts me off the page and I picture the things he was writing about as if it were a movie in my mind. This feeling keeps me going throughout the book. Tension is consistent throughout the book—it has a natural ebb and flow that mimics the tension in video games. From the first line there is tension: “Everyone my age remembers where they were and what they were doing when they first heard about the contest” (1). The suspense builds on the next page: “My entire generation would come to know every second of Halliday’s message by heart” (2). Who is this man that everyone in a generation wants to know so well? Why do they want to know him? Then, the payoff for one of the questions where we learn that Halliday, as seen as his avatar, Anorak, announces, “I created my own Easter egg, and hid it somewhere inside my most popular video game—the OASIS. The first person to find my Easter egg will inherit my entire fortune” (5). The bombshell is dropped the challenge is accepted. Cline uses the challenge and acceptance of video games, and the reader feels like a Percevallian character on a quest for the Grail.
My mind was blown several times during this novel, but the most memorable occurs when Cline sums the entire history of humanity in three paragraphs (17-18). I’ve reread this section at least six times and each time it sparks me as fascinating and interesting. I want to take this technique and apply it to my own work. But how does he do it? First there is the history—and the tone—it’s snarky, and in your face and not caring about what anyone else thinks because no one cares for the narrator. Then it’s told in quotations as if he is answering someone’s questions:
“You’re probably wondering what happened before you got here. An awful lot of stuff, actually. Once we evolved into humans, things got pretty interesting. We figured out how to grow food and domesticate animals so we didn’t have to spend all of our time hunting. Our tribes got much bigger, and we spread across the entire planet like an unstoppable virus. Then, after fighting a bunch of wars with each other over land, resources, and our made-up gods, we eventually got all of our tribes organized into a ‘global civilization.’” (17)
This is a key section because of the techniques. The narrator has a fictitious secondary character explaining the essential information the reader needs to navigate the world. Cline condenses the information in a way that’s both accurate and world-oriented—I do not expect a boy who grew up playing video games to go into specifics in great details—he wants want to have the facts and then move on to the important things that got you points. Cline uses specific examples of inventions and achievements. I can use that same technique in my novel to give the world a realistic setting.
The book is broken down into three levels: level one which is the “easy” level wherein each section gets deeper and deeper into the game. I was empathetic toward Wade from the start—he was given a hard life where “The OASIS kept me sane” (18). His Mother had issues culminating in the sentence “Of course, they [drugs] were what eventually killed her” (19). Cline just drops bombs into the story and keeps moving—the main character doesn’t dwell on it, so we don’t. At the same time, the character is endearing because he lives in his aunt’s laundry room (19). We want what Wade wants because “Suddenly I’d found something worth doing” (19). This gives him hope. And hope is essential.
One interesting technique is the difference between what occurs in the real world of the novel versus what occurs in the video game. Two examples of this are Wade’s necessity to recharge the space heater in his cave made of broken cars (106), and when “I’d been using the tiny space heater off and on all night and had drained the batteries” (114). The biggest show of difference ensues when he is threatened by enemies: “Your trailer is currently wired with a large quantity of high explosives” (142). Now, in reality this most likely wouldn’t happen, but we are in a world where there is a race to a pot of gold which contains “in excess of two hundred and forty billion dollars” (4). In this world, it is possible to believe a corporation of enemies blow up a home in a stack of trailers in a poor part of town to gain wealth and power. Wade thinks Sorrento bluffs, but then we realize: “I was pulling my gloves back on when I heard the explosion” (145). That moment is crucial. Cline describes how the character feels the energy blast and what Wade sees outside: “I could see a giant pillar of smoke and flames rising from the opposite end of the stacks” (145). Cline weaves smaller plots, goals, and characters in competition. For every task Wade/Perzival completes, there is a reaction—when he scores first, he is famous. When he refuses to share the information with the enemies, they blow up his aunt’s apartment. What is interesting is that I don’t feel anything when the apartment blew—the aunt was horrible: she does not feed him and steals his refurbished computers (19-20). I am okay with her dying because she is a bad person, but because Wade cares for Mrs. Gilmore, the lady downstairs who offered him breakfast, I care about her (146). On page 147, I wrote, “I’m hooked. Have been the whole time. How does he do that?” It’s in the specificity of the details.
I’m still stumbling on how to endear a character. I react that way because Wade is a kid who grows up on games and had a hard childhood. When I learn someone cares for him – Mrs. Gilmore – I care about him, and then I care for her through him. So the way to make a reader care about the main character is to give him a background that makes you want to know them better and everything comes from the character—we see the world through the character’s eyes.
The book is awesome, the characters are interesting and unique, and I’ll ready anything by Cline. 5 Stars.
Cline, Ernest. Ready Player One. New York: Dark All Day, Inc., 2011.