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Wade gives a condensed history of James Halliday’s life. Halliday started off rather poor with parents that were not very attentive. He was “a bright boy, but socially inept.” He was almost entirely friendless until he was approached at school by Ogden Morrow, who invited him to play Dungeons & Dragons at his house. For the first time, Halliday had a circle of friends and Morrow eventually became his business partner. Halliday and Morrow formed their own video game company, Gregarious Games. The company was successful and both men became millionaires. In interviews and even at work, Halliday was difficult to deal with. After years of quiet development, the company released the OASIS under Gregarious Simulation Systems (GSS).
Wade describes the limitations of other online games and how the OASIS revolutionized the experience, not only with the visor and haptic gloves, but also with efficient programming that let billions of users log in simultaneously. An OASIS account only cost a quarter, allowing everyone to partake. The company made billions of dollars from leasing digital space to other companies and selling virtual goods inside the game. As Wade puts it, “The lines of distinction between a person’s real identity and that of their avatar began to blur. It was the dawn of a new era, one where most of the human race now spent all of their free time inside a video game.”
Wade describes his obsession with Anorak’s Almanac and his efforts to read every book from Halliday’s favorite authors, watch every one of his favorite movies, listen to every song from his favorite bands, and play every video game mentioned. Wade has accomplished these things, and in doing so, has found a secret code within the Almanac. The code is a limerick that references The Tomb of Horrors, a 1978 adventure supplement to Dungeons & Dragons. Over the years, others have discovered “the Limerick” and it is eventually publicized, much to the dismay of serious gunters. Wade believes that the actual tomb has been recreated somewhere in the OASIS and that the Copper Key is somewhere inside. It is not on the planet Gygax, which is dedicated to Dungeons & Dragons, nor has it been mentioned by any other gunters on the message boards that Wade frequents. For years, no one has been able to locate it. While sitting in his digital Latin class, Wade is struck with inspiration.
Wade realizes that the site of the Tomb of Horrors might be on Ludus, where all the schools are located. Ludus translates not only to “school,” but also to “sport” or “game.” He also realizes that Halliday may have wanted a student to stumble upon it. He uses image recognition software to scan the planet for the specific shape of the tomb: a flat-topped hill with large stones in the shape of a skull. After finding a likely match, he figures out a way to travel to the site for free, by asking his school for a teleportation voucher to a sporting event at a school near to the hill. Aech tries to call Wade while he is traveling, but Wade ignores him and sends him a message that he has too much homework. After reaching the site, Wade is certain that it is the Tomb of Horrors and that he will find the Copper Key inside. He descends the slope and locates the entrance, wary that it will be filled with danger. Using a digital copy of the original game module as his guide, he enters the tomb.
Wade’s avatar, Parzival, weaves his way through the dungeon, using the old Dungeons & Dragons adventure supplement to guide him past all the enemies and traps. Along the way to the throne room, he finds coins and magical items, increasing his wealth greatly. In the throne room, Wade is faced with Acererak, a magical zombie king (known as a demi-lich). He tells Acererak that he seeks the Copper Key. Acererak challenges him to a game of Joust. The throne transforms into a 1982 arcade cabinet and the two play a best-of-three match. Wade loses the first game badly but notices some patterns in Acererak’s programming. He manages to win the next two games by exploiting the demi-lich’s programming weaknesses. Acererak transforms into the wizard, Anorak, James Halliday’s former avatar, and gives him the Copper Key. Wade’s avatar is promoted to tenth level. Printed on the key is a clue that Wade believes points him to the zone programmed to look like 1980s Middletown, OH (Halliday’s hometown), to play an obscure game on a TRS-80 computer in Halliday’s home. Wade is too excited to sleep, and decides to press on, but is met by a mysterious avatar on the way out of the tomb.
As Wade describes Halliday’s life, many parallels between Halliday and Wade emerge. Like Wade, Halliday was intelligent but lacked social skills, which means that they both fit the typical “nerd” stereotype. Halliday also grew up poor and without the benefit of loving parents, which is likely why Wade idolizes Halliday’s rags-to-riches story and aspires to a similar type of life. Because Wade sees elements of Halliday in himself, it seems more possible that he can achieve this higher status. It is as if Wade inherited Halliday’s interests since he too obsesses over Halliday’s obsessions. Halliday’s unique mind makes it hard for him to relate to others while also making it possible for him to envision and create a platform as groundbreaking as the OASIS. Halliday’s story gives Wade, and many others, hope for a better future.
The OASIS highlights the question of what makes a utopian society. The OASIS embodies profound technological advancements and radical accessibility, which gives the impression that it is a utopia. However, the fact that most of humanity spends all their free time inside a video game paints a decidedly dystopian picture of a human race that lacks any real human connection. This raises the question of what a true utopia should be. Ignoring reality and becoming consumed with a video game seems more like a distraction than an actual utopia. The dystopic qualities of the OASIS imply that humanity has simply traded one dystopia, the real world, for another dystopia, a virtual world in which humans are perpetually disconnected from one another. Humanity seems unaware of the OASIS’s dystopic qualities, which makes the OASIS seem worse than the real world.
Wade’s knowledge and intelligence are two qualities that he relies on throughout the novel to advance his position in the hunt for the Easter egg. Although Wade is not the first to discover “the Limerick,” his knowledge and intelligence are the qualities that lead him to be the first on the Scoreboard. Wade’s position on the Scoreboard implies that there are advantages to being an archetypal nerd. To others, Wade’s life may seem boring and pathetic since he spends all his time obsessing over Halliday’s interests. To Wade, however, a life of indulging in his interests is what brings him joy. It is this encyclopedic knowledge of Halliday’s interests that may give Wade the extra edge and render him “worthy” of finding the egg.
The way Halliday structured the Easter egg hunt implies that he values intelligence over brute strength. Halliday’s decision to hide the first key on Ludus, the planet that houses the virtual school, shows that, despite Halliday’s wealth, he wanted to make the competition fair and provide equal opportunities to people with natural disadvantages. Perhaps Halliday even hoped that someone with a background like his would win the hunt. When Wade encounters Acererak he expects a physical battle, but Halliday’s choice to program this battle to be a video game competition further emphasizes that he values intelligence over brawn. Halliday wants the winner of the egg hunt to be “worthy,” which means the winner should appreciate the things Halliday loved and be intelligent as well.