“Being human totally sucks most of the time. Video games are the only thing that make life bearable.” — Anorak’s Almanac, Ready Player One
It’s hard to believe it’s been nearly 10 years since Ernest Cline’s visionary pop culture confection, Ready Player One, introduced us to the immersive digital realm of The Oasis. With its virtual world treasure hunt pitting Gunters against Sixers to lay claim to eccentric genius James Halliday’s Gregarious Simulation Systems and its gazillion-dollar fortune, the geeky sci-fi novel became a global sensation, spending 100 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list.
As expected, Cline’s hit novel attracted Hollywood’s attention, and Steven Spielberg signed on to direct the film project for Warner Bros. Cline even worked with Spielberg on the screenplay through several drafts before Zak Penn (X2, Elektra) was recruited for rewrites, and he still looks back at those days as an incredible experience.
“I’ve seen these notes documents at Warner Bros. that are Steven Spielberg taking a cellphone photo of a paragraph from my book and then it would end up transposed directly into the script,” Cline tells Inverse. “It’s like a dream come true, right?”
Released on Mar. 29, 2018, Ready Player One cashed in on the book’s insane popularity by collecting $582 million worldwide and transporting audiences into the mind-warping domain of the Metaverse — even if the reviews were… mixed.
“Criticism, and really vitriolic criticism, is a side effect of massive success that I never imagined I would ever have,” says Cline.
Now the Austin-based author and self-proclaimed video game nerd is back with the sequel to his 2011 debut novel with Ready Player Two. It’s a continuation of Wade Watts’ nostalgia-fueled journey that picks up shortly after his grand victory in the first book, with a dangerous new quest involving more ‘80s nostalgia puzzles and Easter Eggs hidden in The Oasis.
According to Cline, Ready Player Two the movie is already in the works.
“It’s in the early stages right now,” he says, “especially since Hollywood is in limbo right now. But I can tell from the experience of making the first movie that everybody had a lot of fun.”
Inverse connected with Cline to hear more about how he decided to plunge back into the Oasis, why technology’s march since the first book made this new project challenging, dealing with negative reviews, making movies with Spielberg, and an update on the film adaptation of Armada.
The following interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Can you take us on a speed run of Ready Player Two’s plot and what readers can anticipate?
For fans of the first book, the story picks up nine days after the end of Ready Player One. It introduces an upgrade to the Oasis interface technology right at the beginning. Wade inherits this brain-computer interface that James Halliday has developed but not released. He had reservations about whether or not it was a good thing for the world, so he left it up to his heir to decide if they should roll out this new super-addictive upgrade to the Oasis.
“I thought it was always decades in the future, but it ended up just being a few years in the future.”
So it starts with Wade and his friends, who are all teenagers and not really equipped to take control of the world’s largest company and all the responsibility that entails since everybody uses this platform everyday. Even adults are struggling to run these huge information platforms and they’re all dealing with whether or not there should be oversight of their technology.
Taking where we are now and extrapolating it 25 years in the future is always tricky, like drawing parallels between the way we’re using technology now and how it’s affecting our society, and then projecting it into the future a few decades.
In the last decade since Ready Player One arrived, things in the digital realm have accelerated. How did you address these issues to keep the sequel fresh and relevant?
One problem that I had was a lot of the technology I imagined in the first book had already come true. When Ready Player One was published in 2011 you couldn’t buy a virtual reality headset, they weren’t commercially available. Then just a few years later, the technology came out and now there are multiple competing platforms. I use virtual reality all the time, and have multiple headsets made by different manufacturers and play virtual reality games with friends.
“I use virtual reality all the time.”
Projecting 25 years into the future from 2020, I knew the tech would have to advance and get even better. I knew that would entail brain-computer interfaces because that’s what all these venture capitalists and large corporations are dabbling in now. They’re already doing human trials on these devices. A lot of them have been developed for medical applications so people with missing limbs can control prosthetic replacements with their mind. Same with blind people, who via brain implants and forehead-mounted cameras, can now see in limited ways.
So there are lots of people working on this technology and so far it requires you to have your skull cut open with a bone saw and have electrodes inserted into your grey matter. Until it becomes as simple as putting on a VR headset, I don’t think people will use it, but I do think that technology is coming someday. I’m not the first science fiction writer to explore the brain-computer interface. I grew up loving William Gibson and The Sprawl Trilogy, especially Neuromancer.
Two of my favorite science fiction films are Brainstorm, by Douglas Trumball, and Strange Days that James Cameron wrote for director Kathryn Bigelow. They both explore that technology but from a pre-internet perspective. I wanted to explore an easy-to-use, commercially available brain-computer interface in the internet era or the Oasis universe, and what that would look like.
Was this book easier or tougher to write considering the pressure to live up to Ready Player One?
It was perhaps equally difficult but in different ways. Ready Player One was my first novel so I was just writing a book to see if I could do it. And I was still working a full-time job and writing in the evenings and the weekend. So it took me a long time, nine years I think, from having the initial idea, to having the book ready to try and sell. I wrote many screenplays during that time, most of which never got made, but I sold or optioned a few of them. So I’d set the novel aside sometimes to work on a film project, but I’d always come back to it because I believed in it.
Did you feel that the feature film did justice to your book?
I do think it did it justice. I don’t know where this idea came from, that a film adaptation is supposed to be a by-the-numbers recreation of the story of the novel. Because it never has been. Not in The Wizard of Oz. Not in The Lord of The Rings. Never once has an adaptation not had to change things because it’s two different mediums, and things that work on the page do not work on film always. Some people walk into the theater and fold their arms and think it better be exactly like the book. But why would you want to have that exact same experience?
In film adaptations of novels that I enjoy, the best you can hope for is that it captures the spirit of the book and makes people want to go read it. I don’t think any other filmmaker besides Spielberg could have gotten so many of the licenses we ended up using. That’s one of the reasons I thought it was unfilmable. No one is ever going to be able to get the rights to all this different stuff. But everyone said yes to him because everyone wants to have their IP featured in a Spielberg movie so it opened these doors. It was the best creative experience I’ve ever had.
What was collaborating with Spielberg like and what did you learn about the filmmaking process?
He’s shaped my storytelling sensibilities ever since I was a kid. Watching his films over and over again and reading the screenplays. It’s hard to narrow it down. But it’s mostly seeing how he works with people and how kind he is to everyone and how open he is to other people’s ideas.
It doesn’t matter if it comes from somebody on the crew or his assistant or a cameraman. And he creates an environment where it feels very collaborative. His enthusiasm is infectious and kind of boundless. He has a great skill at setting people at ease because he knows when people meet him it’s the biggest day of their life and they’re nervous and freaking out. [Laughs.] He’s good at letting you know he’s a real person and that he’s there to make the best movie possible.
I happen to be friends with Zak Penn, the other screenwriter, who I’d met prior because I was in a documentary he’d made about Atari games. So I got a real window into his process too, working with Steven on the script. Steven would take pictures of pages of the book and say, “Just do this.” I’ve seen these notes documents at Warner Bros. that are Steven Spielberg taking a cellphone photo of a paragraph from my book and then it would end up transposed directly into the script. It’s like a dream come true, right?
What are your thoughts on how the real world has caught up with your version of the Metaverse?
Well, I credit that concept to William Gibson a lot, and especially Neal Stephenson who wrote Snowcrash. What I did was to extrapolate it out even further. I had the benefit of World of Warcraft and Everquest and playing those games and seeing the first virtual world evolve and how they could take over some people’s lives. Many people were already living in a version of the Oasis through these video games. People falling in love inside World of Warcraft through their avatars, that was already happening and was part of what inspired the first book.
I was shocked that the virtual reality consumer came about so quickly after Ready Player One was published. There was a front-page story in The New York Times in 2016. It was “Tech Industries Take Inspiration From Science Fiction,” and it mentioned Ready Player One inspiring VR companies.
I’d already known that because in the early days of Oculus, before they got bought out by Facebook, they invited me to come do book signings at their headquarters. That’s when they told me they gave out a copy of Ready Player One to every new employee in the first three years of Oculus to help inspire them. They even had their conference rooms named The Oasis, The Matrix, and The Metaverse. That was one of the ways I got lucky. The ability for this technology to be cheap and available. Computers had gotten fast enough to make it all happen. I thought it was always decades in the future, but it ended up just being a few years in the future.
Atari Hotels recently announced plans to build video game-themed resort hotels. What are your thoughts on the concept of an immersive gamer hospitality destination?
Well, these are scary times to be starting a new hotel venture, but once the world returns to normal I think it’ll be fantastic. I’ve been to Leavesden Studios where we shot Ready Player One in London where they shot all the Harry Potter movies. They have a live village with all the sets made into a theme park where you can feel like you’re inside the movie. It’s a huge attraction and people crave that. Star Wars has done the same thing with the Millennium Falcon real size where you can walk around inside it with fellow fans. Atari is trickier to do because it’s not a film property but from the concept art I’ve seen, I say sign me up. I would go!
How did you react to Ready Player Two’s negative criticism and how do you rise above unkind comments?
Well, I got some good advice from a teacher I had in high school, who told me that you shouldn’t take criticism from anybody that you wouldn’t take advice from. This past year has shown me that my sensibilities and the way I see the world are drastically different than a big portion of this country, and that’s fine. Criticism, and really vitriolic criticism, is a side effect of massive success that I never imagined I would ever have. I’m in the position that any writer would kill to be in, and have this big of an audience and to have a huge book come out. That's a blessing.
I remember Stephen King saying that all criticism is valid. If a book is hugely popular and people are reading it and putting it into their brain, it deserves to be criticized and analyzed for its message. Works of art hit everybody’s brain a different way and create different reactions and that’s part of the culture. Putting your art out there in the arena and seeing how they react.
I feel blessed that this many people are paying attention. If they’re hating on my stuff, at least they’re consuming it and it’s taking them away from their lives, even if it’s to be embittered about how much others love it or hate it. Anything that provides escapism from the harsh existential realities that we all face I think is a good thing. It’s the cost of doing business.
As a video game fan, what’s your take on the console wars between Xbox Series X and PS5?
Xbox needs to get a better ad agency to come up with a better name. [Laughs.] You can’t even differentiate between the models now! At least Playstation has got it together enough to know their naming convention works a little better. I’m a PC gamer and I’m constantly upgrading my PC to be able to do virtual reality gaming.
So Cyberpunk 2077 I’m going to play on a PC. You have to upgrade consoles every few years but you can swap out video cards and components in your PC and not have to buy a new one. However, people play video games makes me happy. I did buy a Playstation 4 just so I could try the Playstation VR because it was one of the first headsets and I wanted to sample all the different brands. Hey, Atari’s got a new console coming out. Maybe I’ll go with Atari!
Do you envision Ready Player Two getting a Hollywood adaptation and will you be involved?
It’s in the early stages right now, especially since Hollywood is in limbo right now. But I can tell from the experience of making the first movie that everybody had a lot of fun. We talked about the possibility of there being a Ready Player Two when we were making Ready Player One. In Hollywood you never know. I really tried my best to focus on just writing a sequel to my book. There are characters in the movie that are alive that aren’t alive in the book. I focused on trying to give fans the book without letting the film influence me. The movie will sort itself out later.
What can you tell us about the Armada adaptation set up at Universal Pictures?
I am so excited! I keep telling them. There are new writers that I really like that are working on the script. I wrote the first few drafts of it. I’m very close to the source material. It’s hard for a novelist to adapt their own work sometimes and make huge changes.
I love the premise so much. It’s kind of like my tribute to The Last Starfighter and Star Wars and Iron Eagle. And juveniles like Heinlein’s Have Spacesuit Will Travel. But I think they need to make the movie soon before it’s not science fiction anymore. [Laughs.] Now that our government is acknowledging that UFOs are real! They just released another story today. It’s crazy, these news stories coming from our own Pentagon and the U.S. Navy about off-world vehicles not made of this Earth. That was in The New York Times!
What are you working on next and what’s on your creative plate?
Well, I can really talk about it yet, but it’s somewhat related to Unidentified Aerial Phenomenon. But even more based in the real world. I’m fascinated with this subject and have been since childhood and that manifested itself in Armada in some ways. I was kind of like Steven Spielberg was in the ‘70s when he made Close Encounters. It’s a classic, man. It’s so prescient and so relevant today. May we live in interesting times, right? We live in interesting times.
Ready Player Two is available now wherever books are sold.