Ernest Cline: We’re Not Far from Ready Player One for Real

The author of the cult classic book reveals his thoughts on the movie version and where virtual reality is headed.

In 2011, a screenwriter named Ernest Cline published his first novel, Ready Player One. Set in a dystopian future where people lead virtual second lives inside a giant simulated reality known as the Oasis, the book touched on the coming advances in virtual reality, our growing reliance on and addiction to the Internet, our endless fascination with video games and a generational obsession with the touchstones and icons of ‘80s pop culture, from the movies to the games to the music.

Seven years later, Cline’s novel has been brought to life on the screen by Steven Spielberg, a director whose own films were such a powerful part of the cultural iconography that permeates Cline’s novel (and now the movie, for which Cline co-wrote the screenplay with Zak Penn). The movie sets out to both celebrate that decade’s entertainment while also cautioning against the dangers of disconnecting oneself from the real world entirely. At the recent press day for the film in Los Angeles, we spoke with Cline about Spielberg’s film, where he thinks the technology of virtual reality is taking us, and his plans for a second novel set in the Ready Player One universe.

Den of Geek: How much of what you saw in your head when you wrote the book has made it onto the screen almost the way you envisioned it?

Ernest Cline: Both the real world and the virtual world at the Oasis, I feel, are perfectly realized, in even more detail than I did in my book. I visualized a lot of things, but when I went and visited the set and actually walked through the Stacks, there were businesses built, and it was filled with extras, and it was like a living breathing place, so it was amazing. It was like walking into the paperback cover of my novel.

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What was amazing is that Steven gave all the different departments copies of my book, and he was always referencing my book on the set. When I first showed up there was a copy of it, a dog-eared copy of my paperback right next to his copy of the script. And so there were so many little details in the movie that are right from the book that never made it into any draft of the script, because people from the different departments were reading it on the set, and using details from the book to build out the experience. So I just feel that even though the events occur differently in the movie than they do in the book, the spirit of what happens in the book is, I think, captured perfectly.

If there’s any sort of lesson in the story, it’s about the potential problems of living completely immersed in your own escapism, yet it also celebrates that escapism and, if you will, the beauty of pop culture. 

If there’s any message in Ready Player One, both the novel and the film, it’s about striking a balance between reality and escapism, and it doesn’t make negative judgements about escapism. I think it presents escapism as a good thing, and I do think it’s an essential part of the human experience. You know, escaping into movies, or with music, or into art, or into any subculture is a positive thing, because it drives people together, any kind of culture does that, but including pop culture.

I think the Oasis is an allegory for the way we use the internet now. There are already people who spend all their time on the internet; communicate with their friends solely through the internet, because they prefer the filter of the internet, because it filters out a lot of the uncomfortable nuance of human interaction, but also creates lot of miscommunication, I think, because communicating over the internet is not like communicating in person.

Where do you think that right balance is, in terms of embracing and living with pop culture, while not being consumed by it?

I feel like it’s hard for everybody to strike a balance, especially if you’re someone who really loves escapism, and loves fantasy, and I’m that kind of person and so is Zak, and Steven most definitely is — he has such a vivid imagination and dreams for a living. I think it’s hard for everyone to strike a balance between the need to escape from reality, and also the need to roll up your sleeves and make your reality better, and tend to the needs of the real world, which is why I love the tagline that they came up with on our early posters: “Accept your reality, or fight for a better one.”

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Something that was exciting to me about the concept of virtual reality as technology, it’s really human civilization taking its first step into conquering reality by creating our own reality, which is powerful, but also unprecedented, and we don’t know where that’s going to take us. Just like we don’t know where the internet’s going to take us. The internet in the space of 20 years has completely changed every facet of our lives and our political landscape, and the whole culture of the world, and the entertainment industry, and the music industry, and it’s just profound. And it has the potential to keep changing.

In terms of the growth of virtual reality, do you think its growth will be determined by how much we can actually sort of create a second life in there?

Yeah, exactly. I think what’s amazing about this movie is that it shows that both the potential and the pitfalls of virtual reality. But once you scan someone’s face, and you can map their facial emotions onto their avatar, and do that on the fly in real time, then it’s not like these wooden avatars communicating anymore. So much of the delicate interplay of people in the same room, talking to each other, is about nuance of facial expression and our body language, and all that gets lost really when you communicate over the internet, or over the phone, or over Skype.

Once we conquer those details, and virtual reality becomes almost indistinguishable from the real world, that’s when it becomes an incredibly powerful tool, but also like a super drug, as Steven calls it, and one that would be hard not to overdose on.

There used to be computer rooms when I was a kid in the ’80s, and now schools have virtual reality rooms, where kids will put on Oculus headsets, and go on a virtual field trip, and can tour the Louvre and things like that, so it’s a really powerful tool for education and entertainment. But like any of our tools, it can get out of hand. Since it’s a new tool, we don’t know what the side effects are going to be.

I understand you’ve been working on a sequel to the book. Would you continue with the same frame of references or have those move forward with the times?

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The fun of the sequel for me would be exploring other facets of pop culture that I love, and not just using the same ones over again. That’s one of the reasons that I’m drawn to write more stories in this world. It was a lot of work creating the Oasis and the rules of the Oasis, but the Oasis was kind of the ultimate video game, and the ultimate entertainment platform, and that’s a very fun landscape in which to tell stories. It’s a plausible future reality, where anything is possible. Anything can happen in virtual reality and still you can suspend your disbelief, because it’s all a computer simulation, and it’s already clear, I think, to most people, that that’s where we’re headed.

If you look at the evolution of video games, just in my lifetime, from Pong until Call of Duty right now, it’s profound. It’s gone from pixelated blocky graphics to completely photo-realistic characters that are almost indistinguishable from real life, and that’s in the space of 30, 40 years. So, where’s that going to be in 30 or 40 more years? That’s part of the fun of imagining the Oasis. So I have lots of other stories that I’m anxious to tell, in that world.

How far along are you in that book? Do you expect to have it out in the next couple of years?

Yes, definitely. I’ve been working on it this past year, while I was in between visiting the set and helping with post production. I was already kind of back in the world of Ready Player One anyhow, by helping on the movie, so it was a very natural process for me to go back to writing the sequel. It was really energizing, seeing Steven and ILM and Visual Domain visualize the world I created, and it made it even more fun to return to it.

What did make that particular era that’s in the book so special? Obviously for you, you grew up in it, but to what do you attribute its longevity now?

Well, I mean part of it is it was the dawn of the era that we live in now, I think. The late ’70s and the ’80s is the dawn of the information age. That’s also when we got video games. My generation was the first generation to have video games, to have home computers, to have VCRs and be able to re-watch movies and pause movies, and examine them. First generation to have modems, and be able to dial out of our phone lines and be able to connect to another computer, which is the dawn of the internet. So I feel like the ’80s was when we got on the path to the information age that we live in now.

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But it was also a golden age for cinema. Steven and George Lucas kind of created the blockbuster with Jaws and Star Wars in the late ’70s, and that led to a golden age of cinema in the ’80s. Especially growing up as a kid, it was the best time to be a kid, because of the amazing movies that we had. They were all movies about kids who could do anything. Movies like The Goonies or WarGames or ET or Iron Eagle, movies where after the adults have given up on a problem the kids band together to take down the bad guy. I love stories like that, they meant so much to me when I was a kid, and that was the kind of story that I was trying to capture when I wrote Ready Player One, which is why it was so amazing to have the guy who made so many of those movies help me tell that story.

Ready Player One is in theaters today (March 29).