Review: Ready Player One

loderunner

When I was a kid, back in the 1980s, one of my favorite computer games was Lode Runner, an action-puzzle game in which the player traversed a maze of brick platforms, ladders, and monkey bars rounding up gold bars while avoiding the evil minions of the “Bungeling Empire.” The best part of the game was that it included a level editor so the user could create their own mazes, save them, and play through them. I probably spent as much time creating new puzzles as I did playing the game. Games that include this feature can be a doorway into game design, but even as a kid it was enjoyable to create a setting from a godlike perspective and then play through it, seeing it in action from the player’s perspective. Although I would have killed for a Super Mario Bros. level editor back then, I actually haven’t gotten around to trying Nintendo’s Mario Maker, mostly because I’m afraid if I started using it I wouldn’t be able to stop.

As a child of the ’80s and longtime consumer of pop culture, I’m sure I was predisposed to like Ernest Cline’s 2011 novel Ready Player One. The futuristic setting is the best of times and the worst of times: post-Peak Oil, the world is a mess, with economically-depressed mobs placated by logging onto the OASIS, a comprehensive virtual-reality environment containing whole worlds to visit, socialize, and game in. And because the late designer of the OASIS, James Halliday, (like me, and like Cline) grew up himself in the ’80s, the entire online environment is saturated with references to Dungeons & Dragons, Back to the Future, MTV, Atari, and numerous other icons of 1980s nerd culture. Halliday’s posthumous announcement that he had hidden an “Easter egg” behind a series of puzzles in the OASIS, and that whoever solved them would get control of the entire thing, had set off a hunt for those clues and, by extension, a mania for all things ’80s, with “gunters” (egg hunters) devoting themselves to the lore of that magical decade in hopes of cracking Halliday’s code.

It is, in short, a nerd fantasy–now everyone will like the stuff I like–and it is clear that while the book’s protagonist is Wade Watts, a nobody living in the piled-up slums of Columbus, Ohio, Cline really identifies with Halliday, the gamemaker and magic man whose obsessions end up consuming everyone else. It’s Halliday’s world, and Wade Watts just lives in it, or rather gets to play through the maze that Halliday created. Cline’s book has received its share of criticism for various reasons (not least of all its choice of overwhelmingly white and male cultural touchstones), but the biggest tell that this is nerd escapism is that no one in the OASIS appears to resent having to learn about Atari’s unfinished Swordquest series or memorize the lyrics to songs that played on cable more than fifty years earlier. They love it as much as Halliday did, and never seem to view it as homework or history. Cline seems incapable of believing that anyone wouldn’t be jazzed by all this stuff. It’s either endearing or infuriating, depending on your point of view. If you already felt alienated from 1980s nostalgia or don’t fit Cline’s particular demographic, I can imagine it would be repellant indeed, and Cline isn’t the writer to get under the surface of the material and turn skeptics into believers.

RPOCover

When I read Ready Player One, I felt that it would either be made into a very good or very terrible film: it appears to be written with an eye on adaptation into a screenplay (Cline was previously best-known for his screenplay to Fanboys, a love letter to Star Wars and George Lucas), with minimal style and a straight-ahead plot, with few “literary” flourishes. The reams of description of mashed-up costumes, vehicles, and settings (Wade, as Parzival, his online avatar, drives a DeLorean with the Ghostbusters logo on the side and an onboard computer like KITT from Knight Rider, etc.), in particular, would go down much more smoothly in a visual medium like film or comics, where they could be taken in at a glance, or as background clues, rather than having to be spelled out.

And I will confess that as much as I feel criticism of the book is justified, it occupied a disproportionately large part of my imagination after I read it, just thinking about how its sample-driven, narrowly specific amalgamation of all things ’80s would look onscreen; how deep and multilayered its references could be; what songs would accompany scenes; how a filmmaker might play with the pixilated, airbrushed, and screen-printed visuals of the era and translate them into cinema; and so forth. When I learned that Steven Spielberg was set to direct the inevitable film adaptation, I was a little concerned: I was sure that Cline would be thrilled to have one of the giants of ’80s genre film adapt his work, but the strain of the story that caught my imagination was one of cultural inheritance and transformation, and to me it made more sense to have someone who grew up with Spielberg’s work and could filter it through their own sensibility make this film.

To give an idea of what I had in mind, imagine Ready Player One made by Edgar Wright (whose Scott Pilgrim vs. the World already does something like this, full of video-game and music video references) or Phil Lord and Chris Miller (who in The Lego Movie created a tapestry of references but were also able to call into question the premises of their own fantasy). As one of the fathers of modern blockbuster filmmaking and the creator of numerous iconic movies of the ’80s and beyond, Spielberg is an obvious choice; but it is notable that his style is to breathe a life of realism and naturalism into fantastical ideas. My imagined Ready Player One was one of screens and surfaces–this is how I remember the 1980s–in which the artifice was brought to the foreground.

When reviewing a film, it is of course unfair to criticize it for being what it is not, and in any case the existence of a realized film doesn’t prevent me from imagining my own version. But part of reviewing is being honest about one’s reaction, and it would only tell half of the story if I didn’t mention my reservations.

Obviously, Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One, which opened this past weekend, is different from the movie I imagined, but I ended up enjoying it quite a bit. As expected, it makes many changes from the book’s plot, mostly for the better. With a screenplay by Cline with Zak Penn, much of the action is streamlined, some characters strengthened and given more to do, and the actual challenges Wade and his friends overcome are thoroughly revamped (I don’t think anyone actually wanted to see Wade reenact WarGames line-by-line, as happens in the book) and turned into satisfying cinematic set-pieces.

In fact, my favorite parts of the movie were those that were changed so much from the book that I couldn’t possibly have predicted them or had a preconception of what they should look like. There is still a sizeable infodump at the beginning, delivered by Wade (Tye Sheridan) through voice-over, but the viewer’s introduction to the OASIS at least shows why it would be popular. There’s a lot of emphasis on how you can be whatever you want to be online (a notion that becomes relevant later), but it also makes the games look like they might actually be fun to play (a hurdle not every filmmaker can overcome when it comes to creating fictional games onscreen). Spielberg is reportedly an avid gamer in real life, and his experience and affection for the medium shows in these sequences.

In its depiction of the real world outside the OASIS, Ready Player One could almost be a sequel to Spielberg’s Minority Report: its extremes of wealth and poverty, omnipresent advertising, and debt slavery form a similar background, and it is clear that the ultimate power in this near future is corporate. As in the book, the bad guys, IOI, are both a stand-in for whichever megacorporation–Microsoft, Google, Amazon, etc.–is most worrisome at the moment, as well as the “evil empire” of so many genre films. IOI’s CEO, Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), is a soulless money man (you can tell because he only pretends to like stuff from the ’80s when he’s trying to win over Parzival), in charge of an army of gamers trying to find the Easter egg first (and a department of genuinely enthusiastic pop culture nerds, the “mission control” types) so that IOI can monetize the OASIS, dividing users’ experiences by price tiers and filling their VR viewers with pop-up ads (Boo! Hiss!). (I got a good laugh at Sorrento’s gigantic overcompensating gamer chair, although I think I was the only one in the theater.)

It’s easy to accuse Spielberg of swimming in the shallow water with this material: it’s a break from his more serious recent films and a return to his youthful blockbuster roots, in more ways than one. A sequence recreating a classic horror movie, in particular, is the kind of fun-scary thrill ride we haven’t seen from Spielberg since maybe Jurassic Park and The Lost World (War of the Worlds and parts of A.I. were scary but not fun; Tintin was fun but not scary). Although he shies away from recreating his earlier triumphs, the Indiana Jones movies he made with his fellow “movie brat” George Lucas are just as much a mosaic of ideas from an earlier generation of pop culture as Ready Player One–if you thought I’d come all this way without at least mentioning serials, the joke’s on you–the crucial difference being that Indiana Jones and Star Wars rebranded those ideas, fusing them into new mythologies; Ready Player One is concerned with that process of repackaging in an environment in which nothing ever really goes away.

There’s also no question that Spielberg is calling into question the utility of all this spectacle: like Cline’s book, Ready Player One indulges the fetish for nostalgia and escapism while ultimately concluding that it’s important to go outside once in a while, too. There’s a similar contradiction in its celebration of fan culture and open borders between intellectual properties while mostly including characters owned by producing partner Warner Bros. and a few recognizable Japanese icons (so no Marvel, Star Wars, or anything else owned by Disney, as far as I can tell). For all its flaws, Cline’s book felt like a genuinely personal project, full of weird deep cuts (I for one had never heard of the Japanese Spider-Man TV show in which the web-slinger has a giant robot!) and a citizen of the internet’s embrace of Fair Use to justify borrowing just about anything at all, rolled together into one giant ball, Katamari Damacy-style (see, I can do it too!).

katamari

A battle between the Iron Giant and Mechagodzilla sums up the dumb appeal of this premise, and if you’re not on board for that there’s probably not much I can say to change your mind. On the other hand, in a world in which Facebook memes may have been used to turn the tide of our last election and nations and ideologies contend with one another in virtual spaces to win hearts and minds, the final battle for control of the OASIS, the ultimate mash-up that brings those metal titans together, doesn’t strike me as entirely frivolous. Ready Player One never uses the phrase “Net Neutrality,” but it’s at the heart of Cline’s belief that online connectivity can bring people together just as easily as it separates them, and that it is up to us to choose. (And if that sounds impossibly high-minded, a guy also gets killed by a Madball, and it’s hilarious.)

Mark Rylance as James Halliday (shown in retrospective video and as his online avatar, the wizard Anorak) is the film’s real emotional center, and Ready Player One also touches on the deep sadness at the root of Halliday’s creation, a world in which he could be in control as a substitute for the unpredictability, messiness, and possibility of being hurt in the real. As Wade and his online companions Art3mis (Olivia Cooke) and Aech (Lena Waithe) discover, Halliday’s own aborted attempts to connect with other people turn out to be the key to unlocking his puzzles, and Wade’s arc (drawn more clearly here than in the book) is one of getting his head out of the game and connecting to the world around him.

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In conclusion, Ready Player One is funny, exciting, sometimes scary, and mostly satisfying in the same way it’s satisfying to see those stuck-up kids from the ritzy camp on the other side of the lake get beaten by the rag-tag misfits in every slobs vs. snobs comedy that came out in the 1980s. If it’s ultimately a little shallow and we’re never in doubt that the good guys will win this one, well, that’s part of the package. Will today’s kids be as inspired by this film as Cline and I were by Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark? Despite tips of the hat to post-’80s properties like Minecraft and HALO, if the audience I saw this with is any indication (mostly middle-aged white guys like me), I doubt it. It will likely be an amusing blip in Steven Spielberg’s late career. But for myself, I’ll continue to imagine what could have been, proving that books are the real portals to the imagination. (You might think that I am above deploying such a cliché, but seeing as I have just written over two thousand words about Ready Player One, clearly I am not.)

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The Lost Worlds of Power is here!

I am pleased to announce that The Lost Worlds of Power is now available for download! Made up of twelve novelizations of classic NES games, including my own take on “Legendary Wings,” The Lost Worlds of Power is the brainchild of Noiseless Chatter’s Philip J. Reed. I’ve only just started digging into it, but the book promises a range of styles and approaches to games both classic (“Battletoads,” “Marble Madness”) and obscure (“Linus Spacehead’s Cosmic Crusade”?). Download it for free here (and for a limited time, you can also download last summer’s Volume 0)!

LegendaryWings

Last week, Philip J. Reed of Noiseless Chatter invited me to write a little about my contribution to The Lost Worlds of Power during the lead-up to publication, and it’s available to read now. While avoiding spoilers for the story itself, I zeroed in on the relation of fan fiction to the descriptive manuals that often accompanied video games in the early days, and the ways in which the illustrations could suggest a more detailed setting than the graphics of the time allowed.  (That wasn’t as much of a problem by the time my selection, Legendary Wings, was released–it’s graphically quite impressive–but I guess it was on my mind, and I can never resist the opportunity to travel down memory lane.)

Those hi-def screens reveal a lot of detail, don't they?

Those hi-def screens reveal a lot of detail, don’t they?

Check it out, and consider following Noiseless Chatter while you’re there, won’t you? Updates on The Lost Worlds of Power appear there regularly, although the release date hasn’t been finalized as of this writing.

 

Play (virtual) Ball!

In honor of the World Series—go Cards!—I thought I’d take a look at a few ways the game of baseball has been translated into America’s other national pastime: video games!  There have been so many different adaptations of baseball that I’m limiting myself to a very unscientific survey of a few baseball video games I happened to already have in my collection (what, you expect research?).  If you want more, check out the link at the end of the article.

Intellivision Lives! gave me two opportunities to play that console’s baseball games, but they turned out to be very similar: World Championship Baseball was an upgrade of Intellivision’s original Baseball of 1978, reprogrammed to take advantage of the increased memory on the system’s later cartridges.  The original version only supported two-player games, so I played a few innings with both controllers in hand, pitching, hitting, fielding, and running the bases like a chess player taking both sides of the board.  The later version allowed one-player games, with the computer taking a side; it even allowed zero-player games, so I could watch the computer take on itself, endlessly running its routines, just like in WarGames. 

Intellivision Baseball

Intellivision Baseball

The superiority of Intellivision’s version to Atari’s was a cornerstone of Intellivision’s ad campaign, and it does look good: the entire field can be seen, and the players are recognizably humanoid, with little running legs (and a catcher’s squat when at rest).  If anything, the player is given too much control, down to the catcher’s responsibility to return the ball to the pitcher after a play, and with the entire field on screen, the player controlling the pitching team has to be able to switch control quickly from one fielder to another, while the runner has the advantage of a much narrower range of options.  Unsurprisingly, the batting side ran up the score quickly, but at least I could take credit for both sides’ performance.  (Playing with the Intellivision’s controllers surely would have helped: this was one of several games that came with inserts that could be placed over the number pad, so instead of remembering which number to press for a given play, you could press “Bunt” or “Second Base” or whatever was needed.)

From mightygodking.com

From mightygodking.com

Several different baseball games were available for the Atari 2600, from the very primitive (the inspiration for the parody box cover Every Sport Ever in Pong Form) to games that squeezed every last drop of power out of the console. An example of the latter is Pete Rose Baseball (1988, very late in the Atari’s lifespan; okay, a little research went into this) for the Atari by Activision, a company formed by Atari programmers who went off on their own when they became disillusioned with the inequality between Atari’s profits and their own small paychecks and low status within the company.  As soon as they established there was no legal or technical barrier to releasing their own third-party software they were off (incidentally opening the door to dozens of other companies flooding the market with games).  (I played the Gameboy Advance port, retitled simply Baseball for obvious reasons, found on the Activision Anthology.)

Pete Rose? Never heard of him

Pete who? Never heard of him.

A challenge for any version of baseball is the independence of the players on the field.  There are routines, and patterns, but not formations: each player has a role and must be able to execute it, and in addition to the challenge of computer A. I. there is the question of giving control of these independent actors to the player.  Activision’s Baseball (programmed by Alex DeMeo: crediting programmers with a byline was both part of the company’s marketing and a contrast to the anonymity of Atari’s practice) gets around this problem by not showing the entire field at once.  Six different “TV-like” views of parts of the field are shown, allowing close-up control of the pitcher and batter and limiting the fielders onscreen to only four at a time.  When fielding, the player can choose which team member to control by aiming the joystick and pressing the fire button: it takes a little getting used to but becomes automatic quickly, and strikes me as a reasonably elegant solution given the limited control scheme of the Atari.  The pitcher and batter have quite a few options, and the player has enough control that skill really matters: the first inning I pitched, the computer scored thirteen runs off me—suddenly I was the Dodgers, and the computer was the Cardinals.  (I should also note the sound effects: the game begins with the last few notes of the national anthem, and a square-wave “organ” periodically plays between at-bats; after a play, the “crowd” roars, actually modulated white noise similar to the countdown to Armageddon heard at the end of every Missile Command game.)  Over all, it’s not a bad effort for a console with well-known programming constraints.

Neither the Intellivision nor Atari games offer any variety in the lineup, just interchangeable hitters and fielders.  Jumping ahead a few console generations (I told you this wouldn’t be comprehensive!), the increased power gave players the chance to manage by assembling a dream team and maximizing the effectiveness of the batting order.  I wouldn’t call it realistic, but Mario Superstar Baseball for the Gamecube has both character and strategy in spades.  Like all the Mario sports spin-offs, it’s a somewhat simplified version of the real sport with Nintendo’s extensive cast of characters as the players, and with the addition of power-ups and hazards from the Mario platformers. For example, when Mario is pitching, he has the option to throw a fireball; Chain Chomps and Piranha Plants catch unwary outfielders, and so on.  In Exhibition Game mode you’re free to choose your roster from all the available characters, each of whom have their own strengths and weaknesses (as designated everyman, Mario is the best all-around player; “name” characters have their own personality and specialties, with goombas, shy guys and other background characters filling out the rosters.) In Challenge Mode, you start as one of five team captains (Mario, Peach, Donkey Kong, Yoshi, and Wario) and play the other captains’ teams in succession: beating them gives you the option to recruit players from their line up, something that is essential to beat Bowser in the championship game. There are six different ball parks, reflecting the personalities of the team captains; only Mario’s could be considered “standard:” Princess Peach’s park includes floating question mark boxes which, if hit by the ball, reveal bonus stars (which in turn can be used for power-ups); Bowser’s park is set inside an active volcano, so outfielders can be thrown off by periodic earthquakes or follow a ball into open lava pits.

Donkey Kong unleashes his "Banana Ball" pitch in Mario Superstar Baseball

Donkey Kong unleashes his “Banana Ball” pitch in Mario Superstar Baseball

Unlike the other baseball games covered here, the outfield has an advantage, although the computer A. I. still sometimes makes baffling misdirections.  Just as in the real game, pitching makes a big difference in MSB, so I like to use Peach and Waluigi, the two best pitchers; they’ll even get tired if you keep them in too long, so you have the option to swap positions mid-game.  As you can tell, this is one I come back to frequently; it has a great soundtrack and they get the characters right, and the game is just streamlined enough, but the bottom line, I guess, is that I like my sports simulations to have a touch of fantasy.  Mario Superstar Baseball was followed by Mario Super Sluggers for Wii, and a sequel for the Wii U has been announced.

And if that’s not enough, here’s three and a half minutes of virtual baseball over the years:

Maybe I’ll get to some of them in a follow-up column; in the mean time, share your favorite video baseball in the comments!

Intellivision (or at least its software) Lives!

When I got my first Atari VCS (as I knew it back in the day, but now universally known as the 2600), it promised the incredible: an arcade in my own home!  It didn’t take long to learn that it wasn’t quite what I imagined, but it was still the source of many hours of entertainment.  I didn’t get much of a chance to play games on competing systems at the time, though.  I recently found a copy of the retro video game anthology Intellivision Lives! for Gamecube. I already have the Activision Anthology for Gameboy Advance, collecting all the games that company produced for the Atari, and several collections of Atari games and various classic arcade games ported to current systems.  I’ll admit I’m a sucker for this kind of collection, not least for the nostalgia factor in being able to play these old games on modern equipment.  Often it doesn’t take long to scratch that itch, and I remember why I was happy to move beyond the blocky Atari graphics into PC games, and why the Nintendo Entertainment System was such a revelation when it was released a few years later.  And sometimes the classics aren’t as much fun as I remember, or I’ve been spoiled by newer games that don’t have the drawbacks I had no choice but to put up with in the old days.

Intellivision Lives!

But!  There are few greater pleasures than revisiting something you had thought long gone, only to find that it is as good as—or even better than—you remember.  For me this is especially true of those action-arcade favorites that made up for lo-res graphics and repetitive gameplay with elegant simplicity, combined with expertly ramped up challenges.  Asteroids and River Raid are just fun, and while I don’t spend hours in front of the screen trying to “roll over” the score until my thumb is sore from hitting the fire button any more, playing these old games does take me back, at least for a while.

Intellivision Lives! is a little different, though: I had played plenty of Atari games and classic arcade games as a kid, but I never owned an Intellivision or knew anyone that had one. So the nostalgic impulse was more for an era than for a specific game, and it was an opportunity to fill in some gaps in my knowledge.  Also, the game was cheap.  I had been aware of Intellivision, of course: the Intellivision ad campaign, starring George Plimpton and featuring side by side comparisons of Atari and Intellivision games, was ubiquitous in the early ‘80s.  (Was there ever a more withering putdown of Atari’s disappointing Pac-Man adaptation than Plimpton drily commenting, “Blinky, you look pale”?)  That snooty ad campaign, and Intellivision’s home computer-like number-pad controllers, made it clear that Intellivision (short for “intelligent television”) was serious: they were the thinking man’s video game company, at least to hear them tell it.

GAMEAD_intellivision_twopager

The closest I got to an Intellivision in the ‘80s was during the brief period in which my local mall’s record store decided to branch into selling game consoles and had floor models set up to play.  If you weren’t a video game-hungry kid at that time, it might be hard to imagine how packed the store would be.  In those days you either fed quarters into an arcade machine or angled to get a home console of your own; there was little in between.  So I don’t think I got any closer than watching somebody else walk a Smurf around on the Colecovision (yes, one of Coleco’s exclusive properties was a game about the Smurfs; no, I don’t know if it was any good), and do . . . something . . . on an Intellivision.  It’s not just that my memory of events 30+ years ago is foggy, it’s also that it wasn’t always clear what was happening on screen when you watched someone else play a game in those days.  Sometimes it wasn’t clear even if you were the one playing!

To tell the truth, some of that head-scratching abstraction that was a hallmark of early console games came back to me playing Intellivision Lives!  Because of programming limitations, it was common for the instruction manual to do a lot of heavy lifting, explaining the premise, goals of the game, and even inspiring the player’s imagination with artwork that might have little in common with the virtual Lego bricks that appeared on the TV screen.  Luckily, modern game machines have plenty of memory, so these retro anthology discs can be padded out with on-screen instructions, snazzy menus (Intellivision Lives! features a virtual pizza parlor the player can “walk” around in, stopping at different arcade machines to select the games), and bonus materials like box art and video clips.  Still, the experience can be anything but intuitive: for starters, the complex Intellivision controls had been mapped onto the equally complex but different Gamecube controller, so games like Vectron were impenetrable, even with the instructions, and more ambitious simulators like Utopia (which, from what I can tell, really does deliver on the promise of an experience with the depth of a PC text game) I couldn’t even get to start properly.  Maybe when I have more time to study it.

Still, I did find some fun games that were obvious enough, like Astrosmash, a pleasantly chaotic mix of Asteroids and Space Invaders with space rocks and bombs falling with increasing speed on a ship at the bottom of the screen that tries to shoot them before they land.  There was also Thunder Castle, a truly impressive sword-and-sorcery-themed maze game that is unmistakeably a product of its time, but artfully so: with its beautiful pixelated graphics and chiptune rendition of themes from Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony, and its continually changing, non-scrolling screen, Thunder Castle resembles the PC and Apple games of the time like Lode Runner or Conan more than either the late period of the Atari 2600 or the early days of the NES.  Considering it came out very late in the Intellivision’s product cycle (after parent company Mattel had decided to cut Intellivision loose, in fact: it was published independently), it’s not surprising that it didn’t have a big impact on the “console wars,” but it’s a game that’s worth rediscovering (and from what I can tell it has found new life in recent years as a downloadable PS3 and iPad title).  I will definitely be spending some more time with Thunder Castle.

thundercastle

BONUS VIDEO: I found this while searching for the “Blinky, you look pale” commercial.  I guess Intellivision wanted its own version of the famous “Mean” Joe Green Coke commercial, but it does take the 1980s “soft sell” approach to a comical extreme.  Yes, that’s Henry Thomas of E. T. fame.