When Themes are Muddled by Mechanics
Gameplay Story Segregation is a video game trope describing instances in a game where the mechanics and storytelling contradict each other. For example, many first person shooters allow the player to heal from bullet wounds by simply not getting shot for a few moments. Cutscenes from the same games may then show characters bleeding out after getting shot. A more specific and well-known example is the death of Aerith in Final Fantasy 7. During gameplay, characters can heal, die, and be revived, but during a cutscene, character death is inevitable and permanent because the story calls for it. The trope is a necessary part of gaming and usually won’t interfere with the player’s enjoyment of the game. However, particularly jarring Gameplay Story Segregation can cause the player to feel like something is off, and distract them for the remainder of the narrative. This was the nagging feeling I got while watching Ready Player One, a film where the methods of storytelling, and the actual story told seem to be at odds.
Ready Player One is a 2018 science fiction/fantasy/futuristic dystopia film directed by Steven Spielberg, adapted from the YA novel of the same name by Ernest Cline. It follows Wade Watts (username Parzival) a gamer in a world where gaming is an essential part of life. Everyone in Wade’s world is invested in the OASIS, a virtual reality game where you can go to escape the real world, make friends, and look at references to 80s pop culture. Wade is on a quest, left behind by the OASIS’ creator, James Halliday. Whoever can find the “Easter Egg” that Halliday has hidden in the game, receives full legal ownership of the OASIS. With such an emphasis on gaming and its culture, it’s not surprising that one of the few missteps in the film’s storytelling seems to mirror one of the often critiqued aspects of modern video games.
Video games are an artform (contested) that combine interactivity with narrative structure. They have the unique task of telling a story and allowing the player to make choices and utilize their own skills in order to keep the narrative moving. Rules and mechanics are set in place that allow and limit what the player can do. Movies, similarly, have to create their own worlds with their own rules that govern them. In the Looney Tunes, characters can have anvils dropped on them and survive. In Reservoir Dogs, a stomach wound takes a certain amount of time to bleed out. In Ready Player One, the more you know about obscure nerdy references the more badass and capable you become.
This is one of a number of mechanics in place to structure the status quo of Ready Player One. In the film, those who search for Halliday’s egg are called Gunters, and they must unravel clues to collect keys in order to progress in their quest. The ability to solve Halliday’s clues rely on an extensive knowledge of both his life and the pop culture that he loved while he was alive. The entire quest is an exercise in narcissism, disguised as a lesson to be learned, disguised as a cool scavenger hunt. The more you know about Halliday and the stuff he liked to play and watch and read, the better you’ll be at deciphering his clues and winning his kingdom. It’s wish fulfillment for any nerd that has spent too much time reading the trivia section of wiki pages.
We see this in the banter between Wade and his love interest, Art3mis, when they first try to get a read on each other. They rattle off Halliday’s favorite games and movies, proving to each other that they’re “the real deal”. The movie repeatedly pushes the idea that knowing obscure pop culture trivia makes you a better person. Not only does it make you a more competent Gunter, it apparently also makes you more trustworthy.
Wade’s encounter with Art3mis connects some dots in his brain, allowing him to figure out what moment in Halliday’s life is relevant to the first puzzle. He visits the library of Halliday’s memories and sees a clip of Halliday muttering about how he wished he could go backwards and realizes that he needs to go backwards in a race to get the first key. After this, several of his acquaintances in the game, including Art3mis are able to retrieve the key as well. As Wade and Art3mis continue their quest, they find themselves opposed by the evil IOI a game hardware company led by the Nolan Sorrento, a villain marked by his cruelty and lack of knowledge about John Hughes movies.
Ready Player One whips through action sequences and set pieces at a fast and entertaining pace, leaving sparse moments of exposition and emotion to carry most of the storytelling weight. If the wild car race is gameplay, then Wade’s later verbal confrontation with the villain is a cut scene. It is in this aforementioned scene that we get the film’s sure to be recognizable/infamous line “a fanboy knows a hater.” It’s another indicator that the ability to push up your glasses and correct someone about something trivial is a key aspect of moral righteousness.
In order to buy the seriousness of this scavenger hunt and sell how evil IOI is, the film emphasizes the importance of the OASIS in the real world. The glimpses we get of in-game gadgets, vehicles and shops show that the OASIS has its own economy. One that brings in-game purchases to a whole other level. People in the slums look at the game as their ticket out, not just as a form of escapism, but because success in the game can translate into success in the real world. In-game currency and items clearly translate to real world value. So if any player were to win the massive Easter Egg hunt and gain control of the OASIS, they’d instantly become one of the most powerful people in the world.
The film builds to the final test, which conveys the story’s ultimate message: friends are good, losing yourself in a made up world is bad. It culminates in a speech from an AI Halliday about what’s important in life. He tells Wade that “reality is the only thing” and also hints at the idea that maybe the real treasure was the friends we made along the way. When Wade wins the contest, and by extension, the OASIS, one of his first orders of business is to close the game twice a week so that its players can go outside and experience the real world.
The delivery of this heavy-handed moral is where the film ceases to follow its own mechanics. The final act of the film switches gears from “knowing useless trivia makes you great,” to “go outside and play”. It also undermines the importance of the OASIS as a society and economy. How does shutting it down twice a week affect people who make their living in the game? How about people who are clearly physically dependent on it? That’s not brought up, because by this point, remembering all that world-building would just get in the way of capping off the story with a nice message. Suddenly, the rules that the world of Ready Player One is built on; OASIS is an economy, know your nerd trivia, being good at video games makes you cool; are pushed aside for a lesson about how we shouldn’t let technology become a substitute for real life connections.
This is not a bad lesson by any means. In the age of smartphones, social media, and online gaming, connecting to others via technology is easier and more accessible than ever, and the fear of face-to-face communication falling to the wayside is legitimate. Questioning whether technology can “go too far” is a theme persistent in the science fiction genre, from The Terminator to Jurassic Park. It just feels strange to use a film built off of video game references and culture to convey the message “hey, maybe don’t play so many video games”.
Spielberg seems to be saying that emerging forms of entertainment through technology are neat but that we should perhaps be wary of them. In a recent interview with Fandango, he was critical (but to his credit, not dismissive) of the idea that VR could be the next great form of storytelling. He found plenty of other uses for it, and even calls it a tool for progress, but seems resolute that he wouldn’t look to use it for narrative storytelling. It’s nothing new for a master of one artform to be critical of another. Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, for example, is a critique of mass media and television and how emerging medias of the time marginalized literature. The difference between that book and this movie, is that Fahrenheit 451 doesn’t spend the first three-fourths of its story talking about how fun and cool television is.
The film ends with Wade and Art3mis (real name: Samantha) making out in fancy clothes and a big house (talk about wish fulfillment) while Wade talks about how reality is the only real thing. It’s a nice enough thought, if not for the fact that Wade and Samantha only met and bonded because of this game. If not for the fact that their romance is built almost entirely on their interactions in the game (Wade confesses his love for Samantha well before meeting her in real life, like he says “I love you” the third time they hang out in the OASIS, it’s absolutely nuts).
Halliday’s final lesson is to put your real life and loved ones before the game, but it runs so counter to his quests, which relied on spending time hunting for obscure, and ultimately silly clues. If Wade hadn’t spent most of his life pouring over old video games and movies, and researching the life of his hero, he never would have succeeded. At the top of the film, the villains had more meaningful relationships than he did. They worked better together too, even if the head villain was a dick. Teamwork in the film serves as an afterthought to how good you are at being a fanboy.
The original book doesn’t suffer from this issue, as it doesn’t really push this lesson, or any lessons by the end. There are minor themes regarding teamwork and being an underdog, but at the end of the day it’s just a fun romp where the fact that the characters are rewarded for being big ol’ nerds is never questioned. It makes sense that Spielberg would want to add a moral to the story, it’s part of what great storytellers do. It just happens to be a moral that doesn’t feel earned by what leads up to it.
There are many ways that gameplay and story diverge in video games. You might finish a battle in one area, with one particular weapon, and then enter a cut scene where you’re in a different location and not holding anything. You might beat a boss and see his entire health bar deleted, only to cut to a scene where he gets back up and escapes. You might have leveled up until you’re strong enough to lift a truck, but you can’t move somewhere if there’s a rock in your way. When a game’s mechanics are overridden by the story, it can leave you scratching your head, but most of the time you’ll move on and enjoy it anyway. And the film is entertaining enough that you may be able to do just that.
Ready Player One is a groundbreaking film in how immersive it is, sweeping you into world after world, each one a touch familiar. It’s so fun to lose yourself in it, that it almost doesn’t matter that the story it’s telling you contradicts itself. The heroes save the day by being giant nerds who play video games all day, but in the end, they pat you on the back and tell you that maybe that’s not a great way to live. They’re not wrong, it just feels weird coming from them.