The Big Idea: Ernest Cline
At this point in your life, you have either lived through the 80s, or lived through enough 80s nostalgia to make you feel like you lived through the 80s. But now comes Ready Player One, a novel that takes nostalgia for the Cosby Era to perhaps its ultimate expression. For author Ernest Cline, the book is not just a novel but the culmination of a quest that for him began — yes — in the 80s itself. Insert your coin now and get ready for Cline to level you up on his story.
(Disclosure: I blurbed this book, and am also name checked in it, a fact I managed to miss when I blurbed it.)
When I was eight years old, I found the secret room in the Atari 2600 game Adventure and it ended up changing my life.I had received the Atari the previous Christmas, and I’d spent every free moment since then spot-welded to it, playing the dozen or so games we owned on an endless loop. Adventure was by far my favorite, and it also happened to contain the very first video game Easter Egg. Back then, Atari didn’t give any credit to their game designers, so the guy who created Adventure, a man named Warren Robinett, hid his name inside the game, in a secret room that you could only reach by finding a hidden key.
Fast forward a few decades to the turn of the century. I was working another in a long series of mind-numbing tech-support cubicle jobs, spending all day on the phone helping people fix their computers and use the internet. Consequently, I spent a lot of time thinking about the future of the internet and how it might evolve. I’d grown up reading science fiction novels like Neuromancer and Snow Crash, and I was still a recovering EverQuest addict. To me, it seemed inevitable that the Internet would eventually evolve into a three-dimensional space, a sprawling virtual reality that was part MMO and part social networking playground. But unlike in movies like The Matrix, I didn’t think humans would become unwitting prisoners inside this new virtual universe. Instead they would retreat into it knowingly and willingly, en masse, to escape the ever-growing troubles of the real world. Which doesn’t seem too different from the way we use the Internet now.
I was imagining what sort of person would create a virtual world on that scale, and then I remembered Warren Robinett’s first Easter egg. And that was when I got my Big Idea.
What if an eccentric video game designer, sort of a cross between Howard Hughes and Richard Garriott, created that ubiquitous virtual reality platform? And what if he decided to find a worthy successor for his company by turning his last will and testament into the greatest video game Easter Egg hunt of all time? It would be an epic treasure hunt, in a simulated universe that contained thousands of virtual planets. And those planets could be modeled after fictional worlds from other novels, films, comic books, and TV shows. It would be the ultimate storyteller’s sandbox.
The concept grabbed hold of me immediately and never really let go. I even had the perfect title, Ready Player One, taken from the message that used to appear on old coin-op video games. I began to fill notebook after notebook with ideas for scenes and characters, scribbling as fast as I could.
And when I started to ponder what sort of puzzles my eccentric video game designer would leave behind for his potential successors to try and solve, that was when I got my second Big Idea.
They tell first-time novelists to “write what you know.” Well, what I know about is being a huge geek. I grew up consuming mass quantities of science fiction novels, Dungeons and Dragons supplements, comic books, movies, and video games. And I never really outgrew any of it. Like most geeks of my generation, I still adore all of the pop culture of my youth.
What if the puzzles left behind by my eccentric billionaire nerd tested people’s knowledge of all the pop culture stuff he loved? It felt like a very geek thing to do. What could be a better power trip for a massive nerd than using your vast fortune to blackmail the entire world into studying and treasuring all of your favorite pop culture icons? It would be the character’s ultimate tribute to his obsessions, and would immortalize them for all time.
I knew I was onto something, because I suddenly had more ideas for pop culture puzzles and classic video game challenges than I could ever fit in one book. I filled several more notebooks with these ideas. Then I surveyed my huge stack of notebooks and wondered how I was going to turn all of those ideas into a coherent story. I really had no idea, but I started writing anyway. I felt infected by the idea and couldn’t stop thinking about it. I knew I had to try and get it down on paper.
I’d already written a few screenplays, but this was my first attempt at a novel, and I found it vastly more difficult. Part of it was the simple difference in mediums, but I think the real stumbling block was the massive scope of the story in my head. I’d bitten off a lot more than I could chew. My attempt at a first draft resulted in a rambling, unfocused mess that I was never able to finish.
Over the next several years, I worked on the book sporadically, between other writing projects, while also continuing to work those mind-numbing tech support jobs. I never stopped believing there was a great story there, if I could just chisel it out of the mountain of ideas I had. But for a long time, I wasn’t sure I would ever get there. I set the book aside again and again, and I wasted a lot of time wondering if I was really cut out to be a novelist. I also spent a lot of time reading writing websites and blogs like this one, and reading about the frustrations of other writers and how they worked through them ultimately inspired me to keep trying.
My big break came when I sold the option to one of the screenplays I’d written. The money allowed me to take a year off and make finishing the book my full-time job. By then I’d spent nearly a decade rewriting and reworking the story, while also improving my craft and self-discipline as a writer…and this time, everything suddenly clicked. This time I didn’t get frustrated and set the book aside. This time I finished it.
And then a series of amazing things happened. I found an agent, and a short time later we sold it to Crown/Random House. The following day, Warner Bros. snapped up the film rights. Those events changed everything for me and my family, and my lifelong dream of becoming a published novelist is about to come true.
Thirty years after that Saturday morning in my living room when I first found Robinett’s Easter Egg, my big idea has finally paid off.