The Paradox of Pretend in Ready Player One

Ready Player One is my favorite movie of 2018. I’ve seen it eight times now, over a year since its release. It’s directed by Steven Spielberg and based on the best-selling 2011 book by Ernest Cline. I love the film, but it is not without its critics, and it gets a lot of flack for several reasons: audiences blasted the premise for cashing in on nostalgia in an age of reboots and remakes, fans of the book dislike the story because it’s an unfaithful adaptation, and film buffs feel that goofy video games have no place on the silver screen. These are some of the preconceived arguments that the film is not worth your time; however, I think it is a miracle of a movie.

I’m a bit biased, as I’m a big fan of – and have seen every feature film directed by – Steven Spielberg. Modern audiences often see his name attached to movies he executive-produced, but did not actually direct, such as Transformers and Jurassic World. As a result, perhaps there is a misunderstanding that Spielberg is a Hollywood executive bent on pursuing whatever franchise will rake in the most money. And yet, in the last decade alone, Spielberg has directed surprising movies such as Lincoln, a quiet yet moving study of America at its most vulnerable and pivotal point; War Horse, a web of stories in World War I connected by a wandering animal; and Bridge of Spies, a struggle between nations to calm Cold War tensions before they erupt. Each of these movies has a great heart. Resonance is what brings people back to Spielberg’s films; his movies are not message movies, and yet they explore high-stakes issues with confidence, humor, sympathy, and virtue. They are always asking the audience, “What would you do in this situation?”

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Spielberg’s films do provide conclusions; they do provide results. This is why serious film enthusiasts often slam his movies: they’re too simple, they’re too easy. And yet, his movies are not without nuance. They bring their stories to an end, but still invoke questions that linger long after the end credits have rolled. Why does the wrath of God not kill Indiana Jones and Marion at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark? How will Elliot grow up after E.T. flies back to his home planet? Yes, Oskar Schindler saves thousands from genocide in Schindler’s List, but how many more could he have saved if he had sacrificed more? The revenge killings in Munich are successful, but will the avenger be at peace or more paranoid than ever? Critics often split Spielberg’s directorial projects into “fantasy adventures” and “serious historical dramas,” and yet this division ignores the spirited presence that haunts all of Spielberg’s films, regardless of subject matter or drama. It’s a spirit of inquisitiveness, of enthusiasm, of passion, of sorrow… you can’t quite describe a spirit, but it’s one that Spielberg puts into all of his films. The fact is, Spielberg makes films that he cares about, that he wants to see. It’s these films that sustain his interest from conception to completion and that call audiences back again and again to revisit, to re-imagine, to reconsider.

Ready Player One is no different. Its heart is, however, a little hard to get at, under its slick coat of pop-culture fanaticism and sleek motion-capture technology. But the heart is there, even if it doesn’t occur to people until the final scenes. The movie covers a lot of ground, most of it cutting-edge: virtual reality becomes the most immersive and immediate entertainment, internet users find anonymous friends and enemies online, and corporations (one greedy and overlording, the other benevolent yet distant) battle for the future of a fractured world. Movies haven’t shied away from the ever-changing internet as subject matter; another 2018 movie, Ralph Breaks the Internet, portrayed digital characters exploring a cluttered “city” of popular websites. And yet Ralph didn’t tap into the most attractive and yet most frightening thing about the internet: that people can pretend to be that which they are not. Ralph’s characters are the same offline and online. Ready Player One is a bit closer to the real internet we know: users “dress up” and pretend to be more menacing, more lovely, more assertive than they really are.

One of my concerns before I watched the film was how the story was going to weave together the real physical world and the digital virtual world. The gaming-focused web series Video Game High School had a weird disconnect between the player seated at their computer and their respective avatar in the game world, even when both roles were played by the same actor. Ready Player One eliminates this barrier by making the users and the avatars one and the same. Characters get punched in the game; thanks to haptic feedback, they feel the force in real-life and fall over backwards. Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) gets tapped on the shoulder; he turns his head and sees, through his headset, Artemis waiting to dance with his virtual avatar. Audiences forget about the player-avatar gap entirely as Wade challenges executive Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) face-to-face in a holographic meeting. Even though the two people are miles away from each other, the scene is filmed as if they are inches apart, because in the virtual reality world, they are.

The film constantly interchanges the characters with their avatars, which sounds muddling, but visually, it’s never confusing to the audience what is happening at any given moment. With so many different elements, it’s amazing that the film is as coherent as it is. Even non-techie viewers follow the action with ease as it shifts between worlds and levels. Scenes cut from a character’s face to their digital counterpart, instantly connecting the two. The camera flies, spins, and zooms around the virtual OASIS game, but this is never disorienting or nauseating. The three-dimensional movement gives greater depth to the backdrops while retaining focus on the geographic whereabouts of the characters. When Wade contacts his online friend Aech, the camera zooms into Planet Doom and soars over hoards of battling avatars before dropping into a trench to reveal Aech blasting opponents for coins. The scene travels from specific (Wade commanding his holographic map to contact Aech) to general (the whole of Planet Doom) to specific again (Aech fighting for an artifact). This sequence happens without a single cut, pleasingly condensing all of the most important elements into one shot. While it might seem like trivial exposition, this scene sets up the OASIS as a physical world inhabited with many players, not unlike the real one.

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The OASIS isn’t the real world; it’s a mere image of it. And yet, somehow, the image is brighter and more vivid than reality. Humans like Wade are shy and reserved in person, but behave with confidence and bravery while online. In the opening narration, Wade states, “People come to the OASIS for all the things they can do. But they stay because of all the things they can be. Tall, beautiful, scary, a different sex, a different species, live action, cartoon. It’s all your call.” This premise seems inviting, but also brings up the question of why OASIS users feel the game is the only place where they can be happy. Is fulfillment only possible by pretending to be something that you’re not? That is, lying to yourself? Wade, playing as his avatar Parzival, stands in front of a mirror while he tries on outfits for a date, trying to decide which famous character he wants to dress up as in order to most impress Artemis. This echoes the Mirror of Erised in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, which shows users the happiest version of themselves, or that which they most desire. Dumbledore states that the happiest person would see their own reflection in the mirror, and yet OASIS users are constantly changing their reflections, showing that they are deeply unhappy with their own selves. Artemis hides the birthmark of Samantha. Aech is a nickname from Helen’s father, whom she is no longer in touch with. Famous OASIS ninja Sho is, in real life, only 11 years old. Perhaps, with the world as messed up as it is in the book and movie, the OASIS is the only reasonable refuge.

And yet, the OASIS doesn’t stay separated from the real world for very long. Wade’s virtual friends become his real friends, and his virtual enemies become his real enemies. All of the cute pop-culture costumes and fake personas fade away over the course of the film, with more and more scenes taking place in the real world as Sorrento closes in on the kids who are about to win Halliday’s contest. Reality crashes into the OASIS, but it does not completely destroy it; they sort of merge into a new entity. The characters’ avatars, though exaggerated, aren’t too far off what their actual personalities are like. In fact, pretending to be as bold as they claimed to be online helps them face the 1984-esque oppression of IOI employees in person. Perhaps the fake world wasn’t so useless after all. It might be a bad idea to have an entire economy based on one video game, but maybe it’s not a bad idea altogether to play pretend.

This paradox of play is at the very center of Ready Player One. On the one hand, the OASIS distracts its users from real-life duties, such as the mother who neglects the burning supper on the stove while collecting coins in Planet Doom. Users place their self-worth in the game, feeling worthless when they zero-out, even though the game doesn’t hurt them physically. Virtual boyfriends and girlfriends obsess over each other even though they’ve never been together in person. On the other hand, the OASIS brings hope. In the OASIS, Wade finds his true love, who he likes even better than her avatar when he finally meets her. Users who feel valueless or trapped in the real world are able to find a space where they can compete, create, and communicate. It’s possible that instead of isolating addiction, video games like the OASIS can help humans overcome challenges both virtual and real. But to which side does the OASIS tip the scales?

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To get the answer we have to look closer at James Halliday (Mark Rylance), who is, in a sense, the first “Player” of the game as its co-designer. Halliday is the Citizen Kane of the dystopian future: a celebrity, but a total mystery. Fortunately, he makes his past available to the public through hours of video archives, providing clues for the Egg competition, but also insight into his greatest failures. We learn that Halliday was brilliant but shy and socially awkward, that the woman he loved ended up marrying his best friend Ogden Morrow, and that he eventually cut Ogden out of the OASIS company due to disagreements over users’ obsession with the game. Halliday’s story is both comedic and tragic: an Atari nerd who becomes a world-famous billionaire revered as a digital god, and yet a man who dies alone with no family or friends. A man lost in the world of play creates a platform to share his universe with everyone, but it is this same creation that isolates him from others. In one sense, Halliday is incredibly sacrificial, having no real life of his own in order to build the best fantasy for others. But in another sense, Halliday is incredibly selfish. He cuts off his best friend out of jealousy over a girl he never had the guts to pursue, and lets the OASIS service run twenty-four-seven to maximize profits without considering the cost of people’s addiction.

Halliday does admit his own faults, even if only posthumously.  In a touching farewell scene, a virtual replication of Halliday tells Wade’s avatar, “I was afraid for all my life.” Halliday digs for the competition’s prize egg, which is charmingly buried in a desk drawer in a virtual mock-up of his childhood room. But this innocent room also contains a button that, should Wade’s avatar ever press it, would shut down and erase the whole OASIS simulation. The egg represents a rebirth of the OASIS, while the red button represents its death. Wade opts for the egg. And thus Halliday passes the torch from a dying generation to a brave new band of leaders, though the option to erase everything remains.

The virtual Halliday thanks Wade for playing his game and exits the room, leaving Wade in tears as if he’s just seen the real Halliday die. Even though Wade never met the real Halliday, he perhaps understood him more than anyone else. Kindling a mysterious connection like that between a book’s author and its reader, Wade treats the OASIS as if it were Halliday’s personal diary. Even though the real Halliday is dead and gone, the OASIS lives on as a statement of what Halliday believed in: freedom of play. Wade eventually restricts this freedom somewhat as he and his friends decide to turn off the game on Tuesdays and Thursdays, but their move increases the longevity of the OASIS as users are encouraged to take care of their actual lives as much as their virtual ones. Perhaps Halliday would have been a happier man if he had done the same.

The concept of “pretend” that Halliday pursues so vigorously his whole life is summed up by his inclusion of Atari’s “Adventure” game in the third challenge. The 1979 game involved players exploring a castle to find keys and fight dragons, but was also famous for its “Easter Egg” in which the game’s designer, Warren Robinett, hid his own name in the game to get credit for his programming work. The secret is not unlocked by beating the game but rather found by dragging a pixelated dot into a hidden room. As Wade states during the challenge, “It’s not about winning. It’s about playing.” And this is Halliday’s lesson: instead of charging toward riches or fame, pursue imagination and playfulness. A player of Adventure could connect with the game’s creator by pretending; that is, by placing value and importance on that which seemingly had none. Wade’s spirited obsession with trivial details of Halliday’s life helps him to win the contest, while Nolan Sorrento fails to obtain the Egg as he is always trying to take the shortest path to success.

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Every player, reader, or audience member hopes to connect with the creator of their favorite work. And yet often the works say more about the creators than the creators could say about themselves. Even when someone is pretending, it is impossible to be completely apart from oneself, and thus there will always be something to discover about someone even in fantastic worlds or fictional characters they dream up. And this is Halliday’s redemption: that the OASIS leads Wade to encounter Halliday’s very soul. As game designer Kouichi Sugiyama put it, “I often get asked by people, ‘What’s so fun about playing with an artificial, mechanical companion like a video game?’ But this machine was made by a human, and it represents that creator’s feelings and ideas… It’s a piece of our personalities. So when I’m playing a video game, I feel like I’m playing a game with the creators.”

Works of fiction hold a strange place in our history. Books, movies, shows, and games have been both revered and feared for their transformative power. We can get lost in worlds of fantasy, but they can also help us better see the world around us. Playing pretend is not just for young minds, but for all ages, as it boosts problem-solving and creative thinking in the midst of unfamiliar scenarios. We should be careful what we pretend, because that might just become our reality. But if you play a good game the way the creator intended, you’ll learn more about them and about yourself, forming a better reality than ever.

“What is the good of pretending to be what you are not? Well, on the human level, you know, there are two kinds of pretending. There is a bad kind, where the pretense is there instead of the real thing; as when a man pretends he is going to help you instead of really helping you. But there is also a good kind, where the pretense leads up to the real thing. When you are not feeling particularly friendly but know you ought to be, the best thing you can do, very often, is to put on a friendly manner and behave as if you were a nicer person than you actually are. And in a few minutes, as we have all noticed, you will be really feeling friendlier than you were. Very often the only way to get a quality in reality is to start behaving as if you had it already. That is why children’s games are so important. They are always pretending to be grown-ups – playing soldiers, playing shop. But all the time, they are hardening their muscles and sharpening their wits so that the pretense of being grown-up helps them to grow up in earnest.” 

– C.S. Lewis

Robert Carlson is a graduate of Biola University and the Torrey Honors Institute. For his day job, he posts videos of toy contraptions and train stunts on his YouTube channel 5MadMovieMakers. Robert is an avid enthusiast of movies, roller coasters, video games, and books.

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