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The preface is narrated by Wade and describes the events that followed the death of James Halliday. Halliday created the most successful video game and social platform in history, the OASIS. Wade describes an unpleasant world in 2041, including energy crises, widespread famine, catastrophic climate change and war. Halliday’s death creates a monumental opportunity, as with no heirs, he has left a contest to decide who will receive his fortune, including controlling shares of the OASIS, valued at 240 billion dollars.
Halliday’s will is distributed to all OASIS users in the form of a short video titled Anorak’s Invitation. In the video, Halliday tells the story of Warren Robinett, an actual programmer for Atari in the 1970s, who included his name in the game Adventure as the first video game Easter egg. Halliday appears as his OASIS avatar, Anorak, and states that finding the Easter egg as a child was very influential, and so he has designed a contest where the members of the OASIS can look for three keys and three gates, which ultimately will deliver his fortune to the first person to locate the egg.
Halliday’s personal website changed on the morning of his death. It now includes the Scoreboard, where the world can see who has found the most keys/gates and is closest to winning the contest. The Scoreboard also includes Anorak’s Almanac, “a collection of Halliday’s undated journal entries.” Initially, the entire OASIS becomes obsessed with the contest, but after four years, many have lost interest, as not one key or gate has been found. The few hunters who remain are called “gunters” (short for “egg hunters”). Wade states that on February 11, 2045, his OASIS avatar’s name appeared at the top of the Scoreboard, as the first person to find a key. He is attempting to “set the record straight” about what followed.
The narrator, Wade Watts, tells the story in first person, past tense. He awakens to gunfire outside of his crowded trailer in the stacks: a mobile home park in Oklahoma City where trailers are dangerously stacked on one another. Wade lives with his drug-addicted aunt and her boyfriend, as well as twelve other people in the double wide trailer. Wade’s father was killed when Wade was young, and he was raised by his mother, who eventually died of a drug overdose. Wade decides to do background research for hunting Halliday’s easter egg, by practicing vintage video games and watching an 80s sitcom. He uses an outdated laptop that he found in the trash. Unfortunately, his aunt catches him with the laptop, and her boyfriend takes it from Wade so that they can pawn it.
Wade talks about how he had a revelation as a child, once he discovered that the world was in terrible shape and he was poor, making him cynical and an atheist. His only peace is found in the OASIS, where he can avoid reality, interact, and learn. Wade climbs down the dangerous column of trailers and visits an elderly woman that he has befriended, Mrs. Gilmore. Wade walks to a junkyard outside the stacks and climbs beneath a pile of cars to a half-submerged van. Inside the rear of the van is Wade’s hideout, where he keeps his most valuable possessions: his haptic gloves, visor, and OASIS console. Wade has outfitted the van with food, discarded car batteries, and an exercise bike to recharge them. He logs into the OASIS and is greeted by the message Ready Player One.
In the preface, the despair of the unpleasant world of 2041 contrasts with the hope of finding the Easter egg and securing a better life. It is significant that the Easter egg hunt occurs in the OASIS because the OASIS is where most people go to escape their unfortunate circumstances. Because many people like Wade have only ever known a dangerous life on a dying Earth, the hope for something better is intoxicating, despite how unlikely the chances of success are. When Parzival, Wade’s avatar’s name, appears at the top of the Scoreboard, it embodies his specific hope for a better life. Wade is characterized as an “eighteen-year-old kid living in a trailer park,” meaning he lacks the resources of more privileged players which renders him an unlikely candidate to find the Easter egg. Wade’s advancement in the game hints at his role as an underdog who will ultimately prove his merit.
The disparity between the rich and poor casts a bleak shadow over Wade’s life. There is tension between the private wealth of a few individuals, such as Halliday, and the poverty experienced by the rest of humanity. Halliday, one of the wealthiest men in the world, uses his wealth to wield power over the lives of most people through the OASIS. Those who live in poverty use the OASIS to distract themselves from their situation, and this means that Halliday controls which experiences are available to the masses. Conversely, Wade’s poverty places him in a position of weakness and vulnerability. Wade struggles in an environment of poverty that forces him to constantly be emotionally defensive even with his aunt, who is his last remaining family member. Poverty led to the unfortunate circumstances of his childhood in which Wade was left to his own devices in the OASIS while his mother worked. Poverty puts Wade at a disadvantage during the Easter egg hunt, and his dire circumstances affect everything from his material resources to his confidence.
The theme of conflict between reality and illusion becomes apparent early in the novel. In childhood, Wade accepts his reality as normal. To him, poverty and the world’s problems are normal because he has never experienced a time when Earth was prosperous and reasonably habitable. As he grows older, Wade realizes that he is poor and that the world is in decline, and this realization calls his concept of reality into question. His perception of life shifts drastically when he realizes that life on Earth hasn’t always been so dismal and that previous generations led lives that were much more comfortable even if they were low-income. Although the OASIS is not the real world, it is a more important reality to Wade than his actual life. When Wade sees the phrase “Ready Player One” as he logs into the OASIS, it signals a transition into his preferred reality. Not only is it the title of the book, but it evokes a sense of nostalgia for vintage video games, which are one of the first things in humanity’s history that blurred the line between reality and illusion.