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In Ready Player One, Ernest Cline introduces Wade Watts, the eighteen-year-old main character and narrator of the novel. The major conflict in the story is Wade’s struggle to find the Easter egg hidden in the OASIS before Sorrento and the Sixers find it. The inciting event that sets the plot in motion is introduced in the Preface before much is learned about Wade. The death of multi-millionaire James Halliday, who co-created the OASIS, begins a years-long hunt for an Easter egg that he has hidden within the vast virtual reality of the OASIS. Whoever finds the Easter egg will inherit Halliday’s fortune and gain control over the OASIS. Halliday’s death begins a life-or-death competition between Wade, a poor but incredibly intelligent teenager, and the Sixers, a group that works for IOI and whose sole purpose is to find the egg. Wade begins the story with primarily selfish reasons for wanting to find the egg. He believes that finding it will give him a better life and a chance to escape the poverty in which he lives. His quest to find the egg is also driven by the fact that he wants to stop IOI from finding it and taking control of the OASIS. IOI makes it clear that they would completely change the OASIS. Instead of keeping the OASIS free and anonymous, IOI would begin charging a monthly fee, filling it with advertisements, and remove anonymity completely. Wade compares this to someone taking away the sun because his generation has grown up with the OASIS.
Wade tells the story in past tense since he is attempting to “set the record straight, once and for all” about what happened during Halliday’s hunt. The first key event in the rising action is Wade finding the Copper Key and clearing the First Gate. This is important because it took Wade five years to decipher the first clue to find the key. He spent these five years obsessing over Halliday’s journal entries and 1980s pop culture, which puts him at an advantage for the rest of the competition. When Wade finds the key, it puts him at the top of the Scoreboard and reinvigorates enthusiasm for the contest across the world. Now that everyone sees a name on the Scoreboard, they believe again that the Easter egg must really exist. However, becoming the first name on the Scoreboard means that Wade is a target for the Sixers. When Wade turns down an offer from the Sixers to help their cause or join their team, they blow up his trailer in the stacks. This is a turning point in the story because Wade realizes that the search for the virtual egg has real-world consequences.
Throughout the novel, Wade’s swings between hopefulness and despair. Throughout the first half of the novel, Wade feels hopeful as he clears the First Gate and begins to get close to his online crush, Art3mis. However, Wade begins to sink into despair when Art3mis breaks up with him. Even though he has never met Art3mis, Wade allows himself to become consumed by their relationship. He begins to spend less and less time focusing on the competition, and he gets complacent because he remains at the top of the Scoreboard. His personal drive to find the egg falls out of focus. When Art3mis is the first one to find the Jade Key, Wade puts aside his despair and forces himself to begin his search for the Jade Key anew.
In the second half of the novel, Nolan Sorrento, a cruel and greedy Sixer, becomes the first person to find the Crystal Key. Despair again enters Wade’s heart. This, along with the knowledge that IOI murdered Daito, makes it hard for Wade to believe that he has a real chance at winning the hunt. However, amidst the despair, the reader begins to see that Wade is growing and maturing as his motivation for finding the egg begins to shift. His concern shifts from gaining the money and power for himself to wanting to protect the OASIS from being ruined by IOI. He also wants to help Shoto avenge Daito’s death. Wade begins working for the greater good.
The climax of the novel occurs during the battle between the Sixers and Wade, Art3mis, Aech, Shoto, and a huge group of other gunters. Wade, Art3mis, and Aech manage to open the Third Gate, but before they can go through it, the Sixers use the Cataclyst to destroy Castle Anorak and everything in its vicinity. Wade comes back to life, though, as the result of the 1981 quarter he earned playing Pac-Man at Happytime Pizza. Now, there is no turning back. Wade is stripped of all his weapons and everything that his avatar had been carrying. With only his friends’ supportive voices in his headset, Wade decides that he has no choice but to win the hunt.
After Wade wins the final puzzle within the Third Gate, he finds himself with Anorak. As he takes Anorak’s hand, he finds that he is, in a way, becoming Anorak. Anorak’s robes appear on Wade, his avatar’s stats are maxed out, and he has a list of powers and spells that indicate he is all powerful. Wade has always been like Halliday’s protégé. Wade knew all there was to know about Halliday, and he was obsessed with Halliday’s obsessions. This transformation at the end of the novel is no surprise because only the one who was worthy of Halliday’s vast fortune and power could ever find the egg. After Wade exits the OASIS, he meets Art3mis and confirms that he intends to use his wealth and power for good. The hunt has fundamentally changed Wade, and he is ready to embrace reality.