Let’s discuss the Good, the Bad and the Ugly of Ready Player One. (See what I did there? I referenced something from popular culture.)
I’m going to be getting into some minor spoiler territory in this article regarding Ready Player One, both the book and the film. That said, I’m not here to discuss the details of the plot of either. Want I want to talk about here is how Ready Player One is a golden opportunity for gamers, game developers and publishers. Not just video games, but board games as well. In fact, for the sake of this article, consider board games and video games interchangeable.
Ready Player One is filled with successes and problems. Both the film and the book are a meta-onion, enabling the consumer to look back and in on themselves, peeling away their relationship to media, nerd culture, and fandom. There’s beauty and ugliness in stripping back those layers and it’s important that we take a moment and pick those things out, isolate them, identify them, and then, either replicate them or shove them into the waste bin of history.
RPO (From here out, I’m referring to the film unless otherwise mentioned) is nostalgia through the point of view of an older hetero white male – three actually. First, we’re getting a film from Steven Spielberg, who in turn is filtering and channeling author Ernest Cline, who in turn is telling his story through the world that James Halliday created, all men steeped in their own view of the 80s and it’s culture.
By default, all three of these men have built worlds around them that are defined by what it means to be an average white guy over the age of 40. And there’s nothing actually wrong with that. Art, in all of its forms, should be a reflection of who we are on the inside, and of how we see the world.
If you watch, RPO and recognize it – and I don’t just mean, get the references or enjoy the movie, but you actually identify with it – that’s okay. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with that. Spielberg has spent a lifetime honing his skill at tapping into deep parts of our emotional psyches. He’s a button pusher. No one can be blamed for oohing and ahhing, for pointing and shouting, “Oh, look, it’s the glaive from Krull!” That’s fine. That’s great. In many ways, RPO is a remake of the idea of remakes. Its goal is to tell a new story wrapped in the trappings of older ones. Even when we don’t get a sublte 80s reference, Spielberg is a master at taking classic tropes and finding new emotional depths in them.
The premise only works though if your own perspective is similar to theirs. There’s a reason the Tomb of Horrors (which was prominent in the book) wasn’t mentioned in the film. It’s the same reason that we saw characters from HALO and Overwatch on the screen. The reason is reach. Spielberg and the studio knew they had to reach a wider audience than just nerds who grew up in the 80s. They changed the source material to more closely match the modern viewer.
Let me repeat that: They consciously changed the source material to match a wider, modern audience.
Hold that thought.
I was just reading today that Black Panther broke Titanic’s record as the third highest grossing US film, ever. A couple of months ago, I watched an incredible and well received sci-fi film, Annihilation, led by four women. At Christmas, the latest Star Wars films highlighted more women and more people of color than I can easily count and made over 1.3 billion dollars. Each episode of the second season of Jessica Jones (Think about that for second. We’ve had two seasons of a Jessica Jones TV show.) was directed by a different woman. This is the world we are living in now.
Let’s go back to RPO. They changed certain elements of the book to reach a wider audience. But they also left in a slew of remarkably dated ones. The most glaring of which is that Wade Watts is the laughably boring white savior trope. Wade isn’t and shouldn’t be the hero of this story. Not because he’s a white guy. This isn’t about bashing white men. It’s because Wade Watts is just wish fulfillment for all three men who control this story.
I know many folks who complained that the film’s version of 80s nostalgia is white-washed. And while I agree that it is, it should be. The Hunt and the forced nostalgia it inspired all comes from the lens of Halliday, a white man-child of the 80s. Trying to force Run DMC into the film would have been just as awkward as putting HALO characters in it. The fate of this fictional world rests in a thorough understanding of the nostalgia of Halliday. Not the actual 80s, but this man’s version of it.
Where the film had an opportunity to adjust that perspective and to shine was in changing its main characters and their journey through this myopic world. How much more interesting would the film have been if Wade had been Indian or African? The Oasis is everywhere in the world and everyone wants to win Halliday’s prize, not just people in middle America. Think of the opportunities to examine 80s nostalgia through a lens of someone who comes from a different generation and a different culture. A chance to examine how non-white male nerds interact with the rest of the world.
And Wade should have been a nerd himself. Halliday was a nerd and to the book’s credit, so was the novel version of Wade. In the film, we just see…a guy. Wade is just a dude. There’s literally nothing interesting about him, certainly no reason he’d be the best Gunter in the world. And since his is the lens we see the events of the film through, since he’s a Saltine Cracker of a character, many of us, including myself, are forced to find different characters to identify with (Apologies to you Saltine Cracker people out there).
Which brings me to Aech and Art3mis. This should have been a movie about the two of them. Both their obsession with the Hunt and what it means to them, and their relationship to each other. Quite frankly, a love story between the two of them would have been far more interesting and more believable than Art3mis and Saltine. Why? Because with these characters, not only do we get ‘real world’ diversity, but within the Oasis we get an examination of gender expression, a chance to make commentary on same sex relationships, heteronormativity, and how technology can affect romance.
In fact, I’d wager that the movie would be vastly better without Wade in it at all. All of the motivation we need, we get from Art3mis. We know Art3mis and Aech would still defeat IOI because the good guys always win (I did say mild spoilers). Aech is smart and resourceful. Art3mis is skilled and entrenched in Halliday’s lore. Wade just doesn’t need to be involved.
Which brings us back to games. RPO is a road map for them. It’s a book about games and movies that became a movie about games and movies. It’s time to take these two pieces of pop culture and use them to make games better and complete this cycle.
How do we do that? By taking the time to think about what we want our future nostalgia to be. When we look back on this era in pop culture, do we want it to be about nothing more than rehashing aspects of our past – often times the worst parts? Maybe you weren’t a fan of Rose Tico in the Last Jedi. That’s okay. But would you rather see a remake of Sixteen Candles that includes Long Duk Dong, gong sound effect and all? Do we want games that don’t exclude groups of people, or do we want to keep catering to the same people and recycling the same tired cliches.
Game designers and players need to start creating and supporting the world that we want to live in and stop hiding behind nostalgia and status quo as an excuse. RPO is our warning flag. Twenty years from now, I may still not like certain scenes from the Last Jedi, but I doubt I’ll ever have to dumpster it the way I have so many things from the 80s that I grew up with. I don’t want to ever look at a game in my collection and worry that it will offend a whole group of people or that it would make someone feel left out. Let’s start creating and playing games that the next generation won’t be ashamed of us for.Article || Tags: 80s, book, diversity, film, games, gaming, nostalgia, ready player one, representation, retro