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Read Player Two – A Novel or An Excuse to Make a Movie

February 17, 2021
Ready Player Two cover
Ready Player Two (cover)

Let me start with a confession: I really enjoyed the novel Ready Player One. To call it “good” would be like calling a donut or a bucket of popcorn good. It was fun, which at times is better than being good. But this isn’t about RP1, this is about the sequel, Ready Player Two, and that donut was all hole and no filling. Did I push that metaphor too far? Sorry, that may be a product of what I’ve been reading of late.

Or is it?

We may need to take a step back and look at the thing no RP1 fan wants to talk about: the Ready Player One movie.

If you read the RP1 book and watched the film, you no doubt noticed some distinct differences between the two. [Let’s go ahead and mention that there will be some RP1 spoilers coming, for both the film and the novel. Eventually I’ll hit a couple minor spoilers for RP2, but I’ll try to keep those strokes broad.] The most glaring change from the book to the film was the fact that Warner Bros. (for what I’m sure were perfectly reasonable matters of IP rights) stripped a ton of the pop culture references out of the story and replaced them with references from WB properties: UltraMan was replaced with the Iron Giant; War Games was (curiously) replaced with The Shining. Some of these were significant plot points, but the story of RP1 is ultimately a collection of plot tokens to be collected while a romance builds and the head of an evil corporation attempts to murder the protagonist and anyone he’s ever met, so changing around the specifics of the plot tokens isn’t that big a deal. Who cares if you get the second key from memorizing all of Matthew Broderick’s lines or from rescuing a dance partner from a ballroom full of zombies?

Except, as uninspiring as it might sound to watch a movie character mimic another movie character from another movie, I really felt like the book’s version fit the story better. It was an interesting tidbit that fleshed out the world of the OASIS (the virtual reality simulation in which most of RP1 is set). It fit, and it demonstrated the fact that Wade’s/Parzival’s obsession with the scavenger hunt really did qualify him for this quest more than any old random person.

Plot tokens

And these two items — studio interference and character qualification — are the two things that made it impossible for for me to enjoy Ready Player Two the way I enjoyed its predecessor.

The concept of plot tokens is dialed up to eleven in RP2 as Wade/Parzival sets off on another quest to find not three keys but seven shards. Where are the shards hidden? Apparently the first clue takes years for Wade to decipher, but the rest are unraveled in a few hours. And these clues take Wade to zones of the OASIS that are dedicated to very specific topics, none of which is he sufficiently expert in. Sure, these give his friends reasons to be there with him: Aech is the expert in the Artist Formerly Known as Prince (Purple Rain is a WB film); Shoto is the expert in Sega Ninja; Samantha is the John Hughes expert (curiously, these are Universal films, not WB) as well as being the expert in The Silmarillion (the Lord of the Rings films were from New Line, owned by WB). But somehow Wade was the one that had to survive a (ridiculous) music battle with seven iterations of Prince and beat the notoriously challenging Sega Ninja on a single quarter and pry a gem from Morgoth’s crown. His repeated successes (oops, is the protagonist succeeding too much of a spoiler?) defy credibility.

I get what Cline was doing when he wrote it this way. Wade was the reader’s stand-in, the person familiar with the pop culture topics without being an expert. If Wade already knew how to recruit a backup band to defeat the seven iterations of Prince, how would the reader get to hear about it? Then again, how difficult can these “impossible” quests be if a guy who’s not an expert just needs input from an expert to succeed on the very first try?

Warner Bros. Pictures

Honestly, it felt like I was reading someone’s rough draft. Little things, like the same phrases being referenced multiple times by multiple characters (is there no other phrase for death other than “shuffle off this mortal coil”?), or new characters being unsubtly thrust in and out of the story without any arc whatsoever, or the character Faisal being a direct clone of the Austin Powers character Basil Exposition, all of these are things that should have been fixed in revision somewhere along the line. This is the case with a lot of sequels to books whose popularity demands a follow-up. The Hunger Games sequels come to mind (particularly the third book). Arguably even some of the later/longer Harry Potter books could have used a bit more time with a blue pencil. Ready Player Two was about getting a product out there that is packed with WB properties so that a movie can be made as quickly as possible.

If you’re looking for escapism, for nostalgia, for people defying the odds…this isn’t it. I never felt immersed in any of the worlds presented in the book. There were very few references that made me smile and mutter “oh yes, I remember that”. Each new world felt like drinking a smoothie made up of blended Wikipedia articles. “Look how much stuff I can mention about John Hughes’ original drafts” or “only the truest Prince historian would know this obscure reference.” I got the same feeling reading Dan Brown’s DaVinci Code.

Is it really that bad? Maybe. Or maybe I just liked the first one so much because it felt new and different and its 80s references made me feel validated, and this book didn’t. It will make some people feel validated, probably people that didn’t get that feeling from the first. This book spends a fair amount of time validating non-cis genders, which is great. It addresses shortcomings of your idols, something I’m unfortunately experiencing these days (I’m very disappointed, Joss). This is not a book without merit. For me, it felt like a book without heart, or without the heart of its predecessor. And ultimately, it was the heart I was after.

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