Ready Player One opens in cinemas soon and it’s going to be a major event, not least because it marks Stephen Speilberg’s return to directing SciFi. The film is based on a (debut) novel by Ernest Cline, which is set in 2044. In a grim world suffering from an energy crisis, millions escape into a virtual reality environment, OASIS. Tantalizingly, the creator of OASIS claims he has hidden an Easter egg in the virtual world and whoever finds it will inherit the corporation behind OASIS and all of the creator’s wealth.
The story is driven by the search for the egg and the character of Wade Watts, who has found one of the three keys that will unlock the prize.
This kind of writing now has a name, thanks to EKSMO, the largest publisher in Russia, who in 2012 drew in a number of authors to write novels set in virtual reality games and called the genre LitRPG (combining ‘literature’ and ‘role-playing game’). There are multiple forums and Facebook sites for fans of this new genre.
Is it literature? Well, like with any genre, there is enormous unevenness in the quality of the writing. Many LitRPG books are little more than accounts of a character playing an online game: we get to see the character’s avatar advance in levels, skills, loot, etc. but there is nothing to stir you at a deeper level. These books still have a certain appeal. For those who like playing online games, they generate a vicarious pleasure in identifying with someone who succeeds.
Yet there are also novels within this genre that engage with the concepts of gaming in virtual reality to say something important about humanity, to move the reader and leave us thinking anew about the world.
Science Fiction and Fantasy in general have these strengths as a literary form: if the reader is willing to suspend disbelief to enter the novel, then the opportunity arises to take the reader on a journey that investigates one particular aspect of humanity and explore it in a completely new environment. A classic example of this would be 1984 by George Orwell. Once you accept that the social system lead by Big Brother is believable, then the conditions are in place for an almost laboratory-like investigation of the strength of love and whether it can survive in the face of totalitarianism.
And these explorations can be of character as well as of social values. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings has one of the most effective tests of character in literature: the One Ring. Be subject to any weakness in character and the ring will come to dominate you. The wisest refuse to draw on its power. And the real heroes, who can carry the ring without succumbing to it, prove to be down-to-earth, everyday Hobbits, rather than kings, powerful wizards or warriors.
So, what can LitRPG bring in the way of an exploration of our humanity? I believe a great deal. For instance, when you have a virtual game-world filled with avatars, the concepts of gender, body and (dis)ability are suddenly fluid. In one of the very first engagements with the genre, Tad Williams’s Otherland tetralogy, Thargor the barbarian stomps around the game as a mighty and charismatic figure. It comes as a surprise that this seemingly dominant alpha-male is the avatar of a young bed-ridden boy, suffering from progeria.
Similarly, when, in 2004, I wrote Epic, I consciously explored the way gender can be a construct, by having the unassuming, young male protagonist create a female swashbuckler avatar. Insofar as the scenes were set in the real world, the hero used ‘he’ for his actions, but when he was in the game, ‘he’ unconsciously switched to ‘she’ and she experienced the virtual world through the eyes and actions of a woman.
Another opportunity that the genre offers is to engage with existentialism. Death has a new meaning in virtual environments. Often it is merely inconvenient: a return to a character’s last save point. To create a sense that the stakes are genuinely high, many LitRPG novels, including Ready Player One, take the drama outside of the game to depict murderous encounters between human players. For the Australian edition of Epic, I was asked by the publisher (who was a former film-maker) to write additional scenes at the end, where the villain stands over the boy with a large rock raised, ready to smash his brains out. The boy does not know this, because his headset it on.
This is all very well, but the unfolding of drama in-game can be just as vital. I believe that having the future of humanity depend on whether a boy takes off his immersive head-set in time is less interesting and leaves the reader with less to ponder than if it depends on how those who desire change are able to mobilise the support of millions of others.
There is a long tradition of using Science Fiction to extrapolate and critique aspects of contemporary society. As far back as 1895, H.G. Wells did this with The Time Machine, in which we learn that in the far future the division between the wealthy and the proletariat has split humans into two distinct species, the aimless Eloi and the sinister and subterranean Morlocks.
LitRPG is well placed to do the same and that is, in fact, the strongest reason to see Ready Player One as at least a very good book, if not literary fiction.
(c) Conor Kostick
About Ready Player One:
It’s the year 2044, and the real world has become an ugly place. We’re out of oil. We’ve wrecked the climate. Famine, poverty, and disease are widespread.
Like most of humanity, Wade Watts escapes this depressing reality by spending his waking hours jacked into the OASIS, a sprawling virtual utopia where you can be anything you want to be, where you can live and play and fall in love on any of ten thousand planets. And like most of humanity, Wade is obsessed by the ultimate lottery ticket that lies concealed within this alternate reality: OASIS founder James Halliday, who dies with no heir, has promised that control of the OASIS – and his massive fortune – will go to the person who can solve the riddles he has left scattered throughout his creation.
For years, millions have struggled fruitlessly to attain this prize, knowing only that the riddles are based in the culture of the late twentieth century. And then Wade stumbles onto the key to the first puzzle.
Suddenly, he finds himself pitted against thousands of competitors in a desperate race to claim the ultimate prize, a chase that soon takes on terrifying real-world dimensions – and that will leave both Wade and his world profoundly changed.
Order your copy online here.