When Ready Player One reached its climactic moment, you might have noticed a familiar choice.
(Spoilers ahead, obviously.)
The game is over. Wade Wilson has won. Wilson (aka the avatar Parzival) has thwarted the forces of evil and solved the elaborate VR scavenger hunt full of Atari games and bad 80s references that drives the plot of Ready Player One.
In this moment of triumph, he meets a representation of , the tech titan of this world who built the OASIS virtual reality platform where humanity now spends his time. Halliday's avatar hands over not only the prize for winning the contest—billions of dollars and total control of the platform—but also a Big Red Button that would delete the pretend world and destroy its source code. "It will shut down the OASIS forever," cyber-Halliday tells Parzival. "So don't press it unless you're absolutely positive it's the right thing to do, OK?"
To read it another way: Do you want the red pill, or the blue pill? Reality, or the simulation?
While reading through Ernest Cline's 2011 novel, the source material for Steven Spielberg's new blockbuster movie, I thought a lot about The Matrix. In both stories, humanity dwells in a fake reality, but for entirely different reasons.
Humanity is not literally enslaved in Ready Player One, but its humans might be better off to be blissfully trapped in the Matrix. At least then they wouldn't have to grapple with the ugly truth. The Earth of 2045 is crippled by climate change; energy crises and unemployment have wrecked the economy. Crime is rampant and people live in towering assemblages of old trailer homes called "the stacks." And so, people spend every possible moment within OASIS, the massively multiplayer online game that has become humanity's escapist reality.
Like the VR environment of the Matrix, where Keanu can learn kung-fu at the speed of an upload, OASIS is a fun world to play around in. It's a nice place for a sci-fi romp. Our heroes get to fly around in X-wings, drive the DeLorean, or turn into giant robots. The fun and the thrill of the chase keep the pages moving and gets you past Cline's tiresome name-dropping of every pop culture item of the 1980s.
When it all culminates in Wade's "red pill, blue pill" moment, we find The Matrix's famous dichotomy, but twisted in its context. The "Matrix" of Ready Player One is fun! It's a video game, and an ostensibly optional one. And yet, the choice posed to Wade is fundamentally unchanged: whether to take on the challenges of reality or bury your head in the virtual sand. In the triumphant moment, Parzival chooses the blue pill and lets his Matrix live on.
In the book's Big Red Button scene, Halliday—the genius recluse who made the world obsess over the arcade games and TV shows he loved growing up in 80s Indiana—even warns Wade not to repeat his own mistakes, not to hide within the machine. "As terrifying and painful as reality can be, it's the only place where you can find true happiness. Because reality is real." Wade says he understand. But then he sees this not as a moment to change the world, but to log off for a hot second and spend some IRL time with Art3mis, the crudely drawn manic pixie dream girl created to be his crush. (The movie version tweaks this ending, as the heroes decide to use their power to turn off OASIS twice a week to force people to go outside. That's not enough to save this world. They should still push the button.)
Of course, the OASIS, like the internet, can be a platform for great good, even if the underbelly attracts all the attention. Here in the real world, we are just starting a slide into our own always-online nightmare. There's time to pump the breaks before we literally upgrade our brains into Facebook and try to ignore the real world as the sea levels rise. The people of the book's fictional year 2045, on the other hand, are long past the point of no return. Moderation is no longer an option. They need to put the goggles down and get to work on reality while there's anything left to improve. It's a tall order for sure, one might argue an impossible one. But you might as well flip the kill switch and give it a shot.
Instead of destroying the distraction once and for all, Wilson lets the simulation linger on, with he and his new pals set to rule it as benevolent billionaire oligarchs. The story asks you to accept the salvation of OASIS from becoming a place run by suits and littered in ads as the triumph of all time. But for the platform's myriad users, nothing has changed. The real world still sucks, and Ready Player One, with its weak ending, ignores its own would-be lesson that reality is what counts.