Archives, Information, and Fandom in Ernest Cline’s and Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One

By Tom Ue and James Munday

Midway through Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Ernest Cline’s novel Ready Player One (novel, 2011; film, 2018), the central protagonist Wade (Tye Sheridan) returns to the virtual universe of the Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation (OASIS) to consult the Halliday Journals (see Figures 1 and 2).[1] James Halliday (Mark Rylance) is the OASIS’ co-creator and, when he died, he left behind an Easter egg hunt, the prizes of which are his stock in Gregarious Games and control over the OASIS, collectively worth tens of billions of dollars. Ever since, gamers (called egg hunters or “gunters”) have been vying to complete this quest. Central to winning, in both the novel and the film, are Halliday’s notes on his favourite literatures, as well as his thoughts and opinions about miscellaneous matters—mostly in the form of criticism. Our arguments, in what follows, are that Cline and Spielberg offer particular insights into archives and that, by attending to their treatment of information, we can deepen our understanding of the roles of repositories and bodies of knowledge in science fiction. In the novel, Halliday releases Anorak’s Almanac,

a collection of hundreds of Halliday’s undated journal entries. […] Most of the entries were his stream-of-consciousness observations on various classic videogames, science-fiction and fantasy novels, movies, comic books, and ’80s pop culture, mixed with humorous diatribes denouncing everything from organized religion to diet soda. (7)

The Almanac serves as a sort of bible for gunters. Notwithstanding the little it says specifically about the quest, it “seemed to indicate […] that a familiarity with Halliday’s various obsessions would be essential to finding the egg” (7). After all, Halliday created both the Almanac and the egg, and the book, in excess of a thousand pages, appeared just after the quest was announced. Ready Player One, the film, replaces the Almanac, the digital book, with the Journals, a large virtual archive in the OASIS with walls of transparent windows. Instructions about the quest are sparse. When introducing the Journals, Wade explains: “[Halliday] told us to look in his brain. This was the next best thing.” Instead of a book that users can download and print for free, the Journals is tethered to the OASIS: users, via their avatars, visit the building to research the game creator. And instead of written entries, the Journals comprises videos of Halliday’s actual real-life interactions, compiled “from personal photographs, home video recordings, surveillance, and nanny cams. All rendered into a three-dimensional virtual experience.”

Figures 1 and 2. Wade visits the Halliday Journals.

The Journals’ shiny windows emit the OASIS’ artificial sunlight, and the building is as inviting as the flashing neon lights suggest. That the Journals has a transparent exterior lends to the archive an air of openness—users can look in and look out—but neither the Journals nor the Almanac offers an unadulterated view into Halliday’s life and mind. Archives, as Lisa Jardine has persuasively argued, are hardly at all that reliable. In “Temptations in the Archives,” she offers, through an account of her paper-chase for a letter by Margaret Croft, “a cautionary tale about the trust we historians place in documents and records, and how badly we want each precious piece of evidence to add to the historical picture” (1). She directs our attention to “the essential uncertainty which underlies, and ultimately gives purpose to, archival research in the humanities—in spite of the reassuring materiality of the hundreds-of-years-old piece of paper we hold in our hand” (1; original emphasis). Margaret Croft’s intercepted letter ultimately disappoints Jardine, but her more substantial arguments are about how its contents square uneasily with the narrative that contemporary scholars are telling (14) and how Margaret Anne Everett Green, the Victorian archivist who is our point of entry to it and to many records, is biased. Elsewhere, Green encouraged Geraldine Jewsbury to destroy Jane Carlyle’s letters, leading Jardine to conclude: “The very same women who presided over the painstaking retrieval of the voices of women in the archives for the historical record stood equally vigilant and ready to defend their reputations from the disapproval of posterity. There was a decorum to be observed, in the interests of which even the most scrupulous of archivists might be persuaded to tamper with the evidence” (17). We do well, as Jardine suggests, to be wary of evidence and of the archivists on whose shoulders we stand. Jardine’s findings can usefully be applied to readings of science fiction. In Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002), for example, Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) recovers a poisonous dart from Padmé’s (Natalie Portman) attempted murderer (Leeanna Walsman), and yet he can find no record of the dart in the archives. Obi-Wan learns, from Dexter Jettster (Ronald Falk), that this weapon originates from Kamino, a planetary system located beyond the Outer Rim. As Obi-Wan discovers, this system has been erased from the archives’ charts because it is the site of the clone army’s production.

Cline’s novel and Spielberg’s film are especially fruitful case studies for exploring how archives function. Both the Almanac and the Journals promise to reveal, only to conceal: they provide gunters with so much, often too much, information—the former has a whole entry about Halliday’s views on masturbation—but they can just as easily be silent. In the novel, the Almanac is conspicuously quiet, say, on why Halliday parted ways with his best friend and business partner, Ogden Morrow. This information is also not to be found in any of the dozen biographies or the documentary films over which Wade pores. It is unsurprising that Halliday or anyone, for that matter, should wish to suppress details from his or her personal life: Halliday happily removes, from his copies of his childhood hometown, all mentions of his father being “an abusive alcoholic” and of his mother being bipolar (103). Nevertheless, Halliday makes his private information vital for obtaining the egg: Kira—whom Halliday loves deeply and who is the reason behind the termination of his and Ogden’s relationship—is the key to the final test that Wade must complete. Wade is only successful because he is inspired by his recent conversation with Ogden, from whom he learns that “Kira was the only woman [Halliday] ever loved” (325)—and because he recalls, from a biography of Ogden, that Halliday “would only address her as Leucosia, the name of her D&D character” (361). Similarly, in the film, the Journals has been cleansed of many personal details. Wade remarks to Art3mis (Olivia Cooke) that, notwithstanding Halliday’s romantic interest in Kira (Perdita Weeks), her co-founding of Gregarious Games, her eventual marriage to Ogden (Simon Pegg), and her untimely death, “the name ‘Kira’ is only mentioned once in all of Halliday’s Journals.” The Journals’ curator, who presumably knows the collection best and who is later revealed to be Ogden, marvels at this omission: “It makes no sense. She was an important part of both their lives.” Wade again: “Halliday purposely removed every mention of [Kira] except for this one. […] I’ve always felt that the biggest clue to the contest was hidden here.” The Journals provides gunters with information that would not be important or, perhaps, known to Halliday. By nature of its entries being assembled from different sources capturing Halliday’s life, it shows details that he does not notice or, in some cases, even see. When Wade visits the Journals to watch footage of the 2029 Gregarious Games office party, for instance, the staff in the background are perfectly visible to him (see Figure 3). Halliday’s focus, however, alternates between his conversation with Ogden, which centres on Ogden’s reservations about the OASIS and the end of his involvement in Gregarious Games, and the table he’s cleaning, while he tries to avoid eye contact with Ogden. Halliday values this memory, and it is important in the egg hunt. But more significantly for the arguments that we are making, it contains a wealth—and indeed, an excess—of detail that would make us overlook the single important line: “Why can’t we go backwards, for once?”

Figure 3. Wade sees a lot more than Halliday in the Journals.

The Journals also contains an archive of “every film, game, book, and television program [Halliday] ever saw.” Later, Wade and his gunter friends, collectively known as the High Five, are presented with the opportunity to experience any of the films that Halliday could have seen on his one-and-only date with Kira. That the archive keeps track of every film that Halliday has ever seen, organizes it by the week and the year that he did, and notes the number of times he had seen it does not mean that he can, or would want to, know all this information. Moreover, Halliday cannot possibly have found meaningful or wish to recall every single film he has ever seen. Only a handful of references are needed to complete this and other quests in the egg hunt, and it behooves the player to read Halliday’s mind and to guess at what was important for him when he created a particular part of the game. Amidst this information surplus, we do well to dwell on Ogden, who knows Halliday best. Ogden is mostly an impartial observer “watch[ing] from the sidelines” (315) in the novel: he has agreed “to protect the spirit and integrity of [the] contest […] and to intervene if it ever became necessary” (314), which he does when he offers sanctuary to the High Five. Conversely, Ogden is often very meddlesome, if passively so, in the film. In both of Wade’s visits to the Journals, the curator deters him with sarcasm—he recognizes Wade and asks, in the first visit, “And how will you eat up my valuable search time today?” despite there being no other patrons—and debates with him about the archive’s contents. He does not, in fact, help to navigate the Journals, and Wade must do so on his own. Ogden cannot, of course, be in control of the curator all the time, nor can he assist every gunter who visits the Journals. However, it is Ogden himself who verifies Wade’s assertion that Kira is only mentioned once in the Journals. Ogden is understandably surprised: he was an active participant in key episodes in Halliday’s life, and yet Wade seems to know what is in the archive, and the details of what happened, better than he does. Indeed, Wade quotes Ogden’s comments about Halliday’s and their then employee Nolan Sorrento’s relationship, oblivious of the fact that Ogden—who may not even remember ever having said this—is standing right beside him. Ogden cannot be impartial in his role as the curator. To verify Wade’s claim, he searches the Journals for references specifically to “Karen Underwood Morrow.” A more effective search would involve every combination of key terms such as “Karen,” “Kira,” “Underwood,” and “Morrow.” The research librarian would not, following Jardine, necessarily rely on evidence being catalogued and indexed correctly or consistently, and they would look for places where Kira would likely or even possibly appear, including her gaming experiences with Dark Crystal and her marriage to Ogden. Both Ogden’s search for the one term and for this one specifically reveals his prioritization of the married “Karen” over “Kira,” the name by which Halliday most often refers to her. The rub is that Halliday created this archive, and so he may well be using “Kira.” The consequences of this search may be significant: Ogden may obtain far fewer hits, and there may well be much more to the archive than he and Wade realize. Wade proves wiser than Ogden in the end. He recognizes that Halliday misses him: “Kira wasn’t the key. It was you, Mr. Morrow. You were the Rosebud. And Halliday’s biggest regret was losing his only friend.”

Gunters develop systems to manage and make sense of their reading, as Cline’s novel makes abundantly clear. Wade keeps a notebook, what he calls a grail diary—following Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)—and it is one of the few physical items that he takes with him when he moves to Columbus to pursue the egg hunt full-time. Wade writes down not only what he learns, but also his attempts to decipher various riddles. It is significant that, at least initially, he conceives of the diary as an escape from the OASIS and all the information contained therein: “Each night after school, I logged out of the OASIS and filled the blank pages of my grail diary with possible interpretations of the Quatrain” (129), that is, the riddle with which Halliday had launched his quest. By unplugging himself from cyberspace and all its distractions, Wade can better concentrate on the information that he believes to be directly relevant. He goes on, however, to discover that his system is unequal to the task in hand. His diary, which he eventually digitalizes, “had now grown into a vast mountain of data containing every scrap of information [he’d] collected since the contest began. It appeared as a jumble of cascading windows […], displaying text, maps, photos, and audio and video files, all indexed, cross-referenced, and pulsing with life” (211).[2] Cline’s language here is revealing: Wade’s own archive, like the Almanac and the Journals, is organized by a system that he best understands, but unlike them, it is a living collection that keeps on growing. His material on Pac-Man, an arcade game that Halliday loved, is a case in point. When Wade opens his grail diary for insights into how to play a perfect game, his diary contains:

The original game code. The unabridged biography of the designer, Toru Iwatani. Every Pac-Man strategy guide ever written. Every episode of the Pac-Man cartoon series. The ingredients for Pac-Man cereal. And, of course, patterns. I had Pac-Man pattern diagrams out the wazoo, along with hundreds of hours of archived video of the best Pac-Man players in history. (221-2)

While the Pac-Man patterns are crucial here—Wade has neither played nor even seriously attempted a perfect game before—he could not have anticipated when he would need them, and so he keeps them, along with much else, with him all the time. Wade’s and his peers’ extensive research makes it all the more difficult to determine what is especially important. If anything can be relevant, then it stands to reason that one ought to have notes about everything. We would go further: the whole purpose of Wade’s diary is to keep relevant information handy, and yet, at the rate in which personal archives like his are growing, there would be little difference between looking up Pac-Man patterns on Google and in Wade’s diary.

Other gunters devise different information management practices. Aech hosts a chat room called the Basement, which replicates a suburban rec room from the late 1980s: “Old movie and comic book posters covered the wood-paneled walls. A vintage RCA television stood in the center of the room, hooked up to a Betamax VCR, a LaserDisc player, and several vintage videogame consoles. Bookshelves lined the far wall, filled with role-playing game supplements and back issues of Dragon magazine” (37). It is not until later that we learn, from Art3mis, that Aech recreated Ogden’s childhood basement, where he had introduced Halliday, many years before, to fellow geeks and out of which Gregarious Games had initially operated. If, on the one hand, Aech has created an archive that approximates the real thing—making it also “a highly exclusive hangout for elite gunters” (38)—then on the other, he pays homage to, and presumably derives strength from, the productive, creative space where Halliday’s and Ogden’s work all began. Wade and Aech follow their footsteps: “Sometimes we even conducted our research together. This usually consisted of watching cheesy ‘80s movies and TV shows here in his chat room. We also played a lot of videogames, of course” (39). When Ogden visits the High Five there towards the end of the novel, the Basement represents a trip down memory lane. Wade observes, “As Morrow spoke, he walked over to one of Aech’s bookshelves and began to browse through some vintage role-playing game supplements” (313). Wade and his fellow gunters are surrounded by noise. Every day, Wade checks the Hatchery, “one of the more popular gunter message forums” (32). There, he “scan[s] the most recent message threads, taking in the latest gunter news and rumors”: “The usual gunter clan flame wars. Ongoing arguments about the ‘correct’ interpretation of some cryptic passage in Anorak’s Almanac. High-level avatars bragging about some new magic item or artifact they’d obtained” (32). As the scholar Henry Jenkins writes, “the age of media convergence enables communal, rather than individualistic, modes of reception” (26). Jenkins takes, as his case study, the consumers and the producers of the reality television series Survivor (2000-present). “[F]ew,” he remarks, “watch television in total silence and isolation” (26). With the advent of online forums, participants more readily “share their knowledge and opinions” (26). Jenkins follows Pierre Lévy in arguing for the might of collective intelligence: “Collective intelligence refers to this ability of virtual communities to leverage the combined expertise of their members. What we cannot know or do on our own, we may now be able to do collectively” (27).

Jenkins’ terms provide us with a useful vocabulary for thinking about gunter communities. Forums such as the Hatchery sustain Wade and his fellow gunters. As Jenkins would say, “The new knowledge culture has arisen as our ties to older forms of social community are breaking down, our rooting in physical geography is diminished, our bonds to the extended and even the nuclear family are disintegrating, and our allegiances to nation-states are being redefined” (27). Wade visits, amongst a number of forums, Art3mis’ blog “Arty’s Missives,” which “had become one of the most popular blogs on the Internet, now logging several million hits a day” (35). On it, she posts “great rambling essays about her search for Halliday’s egg,” “(often hysterical) interpretations of passages in the Almanac,” as well as “link[s] to the books, movies, TV shows, and music she was currently studying as part of her Halliday research” (34-35). Wade reasonably assumes that Art3mis’ blog is ripe with “misdirection and misinformation” (35). Unlike the consumers of Survivor, say, she is in direct competition with many of her readers, and so it follows that she should mention neither her discovery of the Tomb of Horrors nor the fact that she has yet to defeat Acererak in a game of Joust. Still, Wade—presumably like many of Art3mis’ readers—has her page bookmarked. Jenkins again, “these new communities are defined through voluntary, temporary, and tactical affiliations, reaffirmed through common intellectual enterprises and emotional investments” (27). The strength of collective intelligence resides in “the social process of acquiring knowledge—which is dynamic and participatory, continually testing and reaffirming the group’s social ties” (54). Wade returns to, and invests in, these forums because of his interest in winning the game and because of his romantic interest in Art3mis, and the community constantly rewards him with new material, however trivial. Socially awkward in and outside of the OASIS, Wade rarely posts to the Hatchery, and he happily admits to being “a cyber-stalking super-creep” (93) to Art3mis, whom he had not met—virtually or otherwise—prior to the Tomb of Horrors episode. The Hatchery is predictably “mired in bravado, bullshit, and pointless infighting” (32) when there’s no progress to report. Its community, like Art3mis’ blog, constantly expands the sheer quantity, if not always quality, of information. It seems impossible to sort through this content, and to decide what is and what isn’t worth reading. This issue of information overload is not confined to gunter communities.[3]

The Innovative Online Industries (IOI), a “global communications conglomerate” accused of “perverting the entire spirit of the contest” (33-4), has amassed a great deal of data on Halliday, enough to make Wade’s grail diary appear modest: “They had things I’d never seen. Things I didn’t even know existed” (290; original emphasis). Still, “Halliday’s grade-school report cards, home movies from his childhood, [and] e-mails he’d written to fans” do not actually help. Working in this state of information surplus, Wade and Aech are certain that their friend I-r0k would never be able to prove that they are all students on the same planet, even if he “post[s] […] about [them] to every gunter message board he could find” (128). I-r0k has no more credibility than any gamer who posts on an OASIS forum. If anything, I-r0k, the “obnoxious poseur” with limited knowledge who “brandish[es] an over-size plasma rifle the size of a snowmobile” (42), has slightly less. Wade and Aech are confident that his messages will go unnoticed in the sea of posts by gunters also claiming to be their “close personal friends” (128). There’s considerable freedom both to what we notice and to what to do with what we learn. As Jenkins says, collective intelligence “is disorderly, undisciplined, and unruly”: “Just as knowledge gets called upon on an ad hoc basis, there are no fixed procedures for what you do with knowledge. Each participant applies their own rules […]” (53). As Cline illustrates, it can be used for good. In the novel’s final scenes, for instance, the High Five finally clan up. Equipped with an extra life but pressured to complete the quest before the IOI does, Wade asks Aech, Art3mis, and Shoto for help. Wade assures Art3mis that he would share his winnings whether or not they contribute, yet as he also indicates, “helping me is probably in your best interest” (349). But collective intelligence can just as easily be used for evil. It has made both the OASIS and the real world less safe for gunters. Sorrento and the IOI scour the cyberspace for possible clues, and, like many gunters, they come across I-r0k’s tip—one of presumably many that, with their seemingly limitless resources, they follow up on. If Daito and Shoto use this knowledge to track down the Tomb of Horrors on Ludus, then Sorrento weaponizes it: he identifies and makes good on his threats to Wade, blowing up his home in the stacks and murdering his aunt and neighbours in the process. Cline’s and Spielberg’s commentaries are different, in the end, from those of projects like Lucas’. Where Lucas’ concerns are centred on the (mis)direction of archives and its impacts on research, Cline and Spielberg expose how vulnerable the researcher can be in the light of information surplus: it can become near impossible to manage, hamper our abilities to access just what we need, and spur ultimately unpredictable outcomes. In the end, for Cline most especially, the human costs to information overload, including the eyes peering into the sea of windows on our computer screens, come into sharper focus.

Acknowledgements

We thank Phoenix Alexander, Stewart Baker, Polina Levontin, and Joseph Walton; audience members at the Bodily Transgressions in Fantastika Media and the Inside Voices meetings, organized, respectively, by Fantastika Journal and by Fan Studies Network: North America Virtual Conference; and the staff of Dalhousie University Libraries. Tom Ue is grateful to the Office of the Vice President Research and Innovation at Dalhousie University, and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

Bibliography

Cline, Ernest. Ready Player One. New York: Ballantine Books-Penguin Random House LLC, 2011. Print.

Cline, Ernest. Ready Player Two. New York: Ballantine Books Penguin Random House LLC, 2020. Print.

Jardine, Lisa. “Temptations in the Archive.” Temptation in the Archives: Essays in Golden Age Dutch Culture. London: UCL Press, 2015. 1-17. Web.

Jenkins, Henry. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York: New York University Press, 2006. Print.

Ue, Tom, and James Munday. “Tolkien, Cline, and the Quest for a Silmaril.” Historical Research, Creative Writing, and the Past: Methods of Knowing. Ed. Kevin A. Morrison and Pälvi Rantala. New York: Routledge, 2023. 8,107 words. Print.

Filmography

Lucas, George. 2002. Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones.

Spielberg, Steven. 2018. Ready Player One.

Bios

Tom Ue is Co-Editor of Film International and Assistant Professor in Literature and Science at Dalhousie University. He is the author of Gissing, Shakespeare, and the Life of Writing (Edinburgh University Press, forthcoming) and George Gissing (Liverpool University Press, forthcoming); and the editor of George Gissing, The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft (Edinburgh University Press, forthcoming). Ue has earned the prestigious Frederick Banting Postdoctoral Fellowship and a 2022 Dalhousie University President’s Research Excellence Award for Emerging Investigators. He is an Honorary Research Associate at University College London and a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society.

James Munday reads Mathematical Physics at the University of Waterloo. While his academic studies rest in STEM, he has authored multiple articles on Ready Player One with Prof. Tom Ue; and they are presently co-writing The Worlds of Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One for Routledge.


[1] All references to Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One (2018) are to the version on Criterion-on-Demand. Quotations are taken directly from captions. Here, and in what follows, we identify the journal in the novel as the “Almanac” and the journal in the film as the “Journals.”

[2] In Ready Player Two (2020), Wade says, however, he had digitalized his diary just before his infiltration into the Innovative Online Industries’ (IOI) headquarters:

I’d been forced to burn the original the night before I infiltrated IOI headquarters, to prevent it from falling into the Sixers’ hands. But I’d made hi-res scans of the notebook’s pages beforehand and stored them in my OASIS account. Those scans were all still there, in the digital version of my grail diary, which appeared as a jumble of cascading windows floating in front of me. It contained countless documents, diagrams, photos, maps, and media files, all indexed and cross- referenced for easy browsing. (73)

[3] Cline returns to, and expands on, the notion of information overload and fandom in Ready Player Two. See our discussion in “Tolkien, Cline, and the Quest for a Silmaril.”

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