Virtual world fiction is probably among my least favorite subgenres of scifi-fantasy. Dot Hack Sign was my first real exposure to the idea (back in the early 2000s when anime was all over the damn place), and I really didn’t care for it. I just didn’t feel the same sense of urgency to anything going on. It’s been years since I’ve seen it, but there was no real sense that anything going on in Dot Hack was relevant to anything going on in the real world. I suppose when you’re in the game, and in the moment, slaying that evil ogre beast is the most god damn important thing ever, but video games tend to be more fun to play than to watch. Although Game Grumps totally holds my attention.
Other works of virtual world fiction have come along, and… Well, let’s just say it hasn’t been any better.
Sword Art On-line is probably the best modern example, and its first season was actually kind of interesting. And it got you invested in the game itself, because if you died in the game, you died in real life. There was urgency to complete the quest, there was commentary on how MMOs can, and sometimes DO consume your life, it had everything. It’s just too bad they felt compelled to make a season 2 that completely underminded all the good things about season 1. Then there was a season 3, and at that point, I was so annoyed with the show, I just flat out gave up.
There are other examples, and really, they all suck. The idea of a virtual world just didn’t appeal to me for the longest time… Until I heard about a man by the name of Ernest Cline.
I went in to Ready Player One expecting the worst.
“Virtual world, huh? I’m skeptical, but I guess I got to listen to SOMETHING while waiting for Second Hand Souls to come out.”
“Oh god, it’s young adult. I can’t wait to see what sort of heavy handed dystopian pseudo noir written in the present tense awaits me this time.”
“Oh great, 1980s pop culture. Trying a little hard to cater to Generation Nostalgia, Mr. Cline?”
Really, by all accounts, I should’ve hated this book. And yet, I enjoyed it. From start to finish, this book was probably one of the better things I’d read in 2015.
There’s a reason to spend your entire life in a virtual world here, and surprisingly, it’s only PARTLY because by 2045, the entire planet is a fucking dump. There’s urgency, dying in the virtual world has consequences, the characters… Are probably the kind of people I’d have related to back when I was eighteen for sure, though replace all the 80s movies with professional wrestling trivia and nu metal.
I’ll try not to give too much away, but I will say this much: I kind of saw the reveal of H’s off-line self coming. At At the same time, I was joking when I made that guess. It’s amazing how often my jokes end up coming true.
The bad guys are a bit heavy handed in the sense “we wear suits and ties and work for a fortune500 company; therefore, we are evil! Mwa-ha-ha-ha!”. Still, this clearly wasn’t aimed at my demographic. Maybe. At the same time, though, Cline really knew how to make an IOI victory feel personal when it happened. Dude finds the third key, and I actually remembered thinking “Oh shit! Is the bad guy actually going to win?” I’ve been reading fiction for ever now, and the only time I’ve ever thought that was when it was a horror novel, or a real depressing southern gothic sort of affair like William Faulkner.
They’re working on a film adaptation of this book at the time this was written. While I can’t say I’m shocked, I can definitely say I was surprised. It seemed like there were a lot of movies, music, and old TV shows to buy the rights to in order to use it. Whatever film studio is making this is probably going to go bankrupt no matter what happens between that, and the excessive CGI that’ll most likely be included.
In a weird way, I’m more surprised somebody hasn’t tried making an actual MMO of the virtual world yet. Call me crazy, but that just seems like good marketing gone to waste. Hell, just clone Second Life and slap a bunch of 1980s movie posters everywhere. You basically have the same thing then.
All and all, the virtual world subgenre is 1-4 for me. Ready Player One is the 1, and until further notice, it’s pretty much the only good one.