The big secrets of Ready Player One are the secrets of OASIS creator, James Halliday. But is the inspiration for the film’s reimagined take on the character the biggest secret of all? Is Halliday really George Lucas?
Love it or hate it, Ernest Cline’s novel Ready Player One is novel not simply comprised mainly of nostalgic nerd-culture references set mostly in a virtual world comprised of the same; it’s a story about nostalgia and our relationship to the people who make the things we’re nostalgic for – and that means it’s ultimately a story about Halliday himself.
Interpreted by many as a (more) eccentric imagining of Steve Jobs (with hefty helpings of Howard Hughes and Richard “Lord British” Garriott), one who never left the world of game design for hardware development and eventually pioneered the world of virtual-reality social media, he’s at once the foundation, inciting-incident and driving force of the story despite having died many years before it begins: literally, the deus ex machina (ghost in the machine).
This Page: Halliday In The Book Is Steve Jobs
Halliday In The Book Is Steve Jobs
In the novel, the Jobs parallels are especially clear in the backstory: Halliday is a big-idea guy who makes his initial major strides in partnership with a less quixotic, more down-to-earth partner named Ogden “Og” Morrow (aka Steve “Woz” Wozniak in Apple lore) only to part ways on poor terms over differences in vision (but really, we ultimately learn, over a woman – sort of). Like Jobs, he subsequently becomes a larger-than-life public symbol of his creation whose death leaves many feeling more work was yet to be done. But whereas Jobs’ legacy is both celebrated and criticized for the way he used his absolute control of Apple’s insular, controlled product line to “enforce” his personal stylistic, aesthetic and technical preferences upon the breadth of the user experience, Halliday’s bizarre legacy is to effectively freeze the world in the amber of his own nostalgia.
In Ready Player One’s dystopian 2045, Halliday’s death unlocks a game within the OASIS promising to bequeath his fortune and control of the virtual world itself to the winner. Since the game and the challenges within it involve finding and completing challenges based on the 1980s movies, music, video games, comics, cartoons and nerd-ephemera the socially-awkward (it’s suggested that he was on the Autism Spectrum, though not confirmed) Halliday had escaped into as a child and continued to immerse himself in as an adult, those same narrow obsessions take over the entirety of Oasis (if not global) popular-culture as everyone tries to become an expert in order to win the game. The challenges themselves involve not just knowledge but memorization: Playing reflex-heavy retro video games to perfection, reciting cult-classic movies word for word, etc. In the novel (less so in the film) it’s implied that the whole of popular-culture otherwise has somewhat ground to a halt.
This is supposedly meant to teach the eventual winner, Wade Watts, a lesson about how much of one’s life has to be sacrificed in order to “become” James Halliday and how ill-advised it is, although one of the most consistent criticisms of Cline’s Ready Player One book has been how little some critics feel he seems to “believe” in his own ending. The book itself taking so much uncritical joy not only in its indulgence of 80s geek nostalgia but in the chance to demonstrate the author’s own authentic familiarity therewith that, to some, the cautionary moral arrived so abruptly that it rang hollow
More difficult to argue is that the novel’s version of Halliday (if not the inherent premise itself) doesn’t come off as an embodiment (if not outright endorsement) of so-called “gatekeeping” in geek-culture. Once viewed through a relatively harmless lens (trivia as passwords to convention spaces, “every real fan knows ______,” etc;) the idea has taken on sinister connotations in the years since Ready Player One’s original publication with the rise in reports of harassment movements in online spaces in fandom – these days, arguments over what constitutes a “real fan” (and who gets to decide what that even means) aren’t just something to laugh off for many. Yet it’s the entire pretext of Halliday’s “Easter Egg Hunt” and the novel built around it: Wade is the archetypal King in Waiting who wins the game (and the girl, and the money, and control of The World in more than one sense) because he knows all the “right” stuff the “right” way, and the digital ghost of Halliday more or less confirms that this indeed was basically the point (but that he could probably also stand to get some sun, too).
All of which, plus the other details we’re eventually given about his life (visionary, risk-taking but only when it comes to technology, mercurial temper, paradoxically extreme-intelligence crossed with childish outlook, off-putting self-centered personality) paints a picture of the novel’s Halliday as a quintessential example of the “Big Tech” Geek Billionaire Hero archetype that Silicon Valley loves to project about itself and the rest of the culture alternately co-signs or cautions against. But while such a figure (and the quest to become more like him) may still “fly” uncritical in certain spaces of online geek and gaming culture, it was long clear that a feature version of Ready Player One was going to have to do something very different with Halliday… and with everything else. But it’s possible that Steven Spielberg’s film adaptation goes a step beyond merely “different” into more divergent (and personal) territory.