The Ready Player One and Armada author on how videogames have influenced his writing, and hanging out in rubbish dumps
The last time we saw Ernest Cline, he was driving his custom DeLorean DMC-12 across America to attend the excavation of Atari’s New Mexico landfill in Zak Penn documentary Atari: Game Over. Today, the author of Ready Player One is at home and shielded from dust storms, but classic videogames are still very much in his thoughts. Where did the idea for Ready Player One come from? They tell you to write what you know, and to write the story you’ve always wanted to read. I grew up loving adventure stories, especially space adventure stories like Heinlein’s Have Space Suit – Will Travel. Being five years old just when Star Wars and Atari 2600 came out, I had a really low-res 8bit spaceship simulator in my living room. I could pretend I was blowing up space invaders or asteroids, or I could be going on an adventure to slay dragons – that was all part of my youth. Videogames, books and movies: those three things built my whole world and imagination. So once I started to write stories, I wanted to weave pop culture in, and the idea of, ‘What if Willy Wonka had been a videogame designer, and had his golden ticket contest inside his greatest game creation?’ came from growing up playing those old Atari games and finding Easter eggs that creators had hidden inside the games. Which Easter eggs have stuck with you? The first two that really blew my mind were, I think, the first two in existence: Warren Robinett hiding his name in the secret room in Adventure, and the flower in ET: The Extra-Terrestrial. Adventure was like the first graphical videogame, I think, where you had an avatar. It was just a square, but you could pick up a sword and move from room to room. He was trying to recreate Colossal Cave with graphics, and he did it. It was this huge accomplishment. Then he realised he wasn’t going to get credit, because Atari didn’t give credit to any designers. It’s so cool – he created this virtual world and then created a room inside it, and hid himself in that room. ET is much maligned as the worst game of all time, but it’s one of my favourites, because it was one of the first games that referenced other games. If you find the geranium and have ET regenerated, then the flower will turn into Yar from Yar’s Revenge. If you repeat the process, it turns into Indiana Jones. You attended the Alamogordo dig. How did you feel when the copies of ET were unearthed? It was so great. That’s one of the few things in the world that I think I deserve – I am an expert in old Atari games, and if I was going to be a talking head in a documentary and know what I was talking about, then that would be the subject matter! I collected them for years, immersed myself in the culture. I knew those games were there. I’d seen enough of the clues… I knew if they were digging in the right spot, then we would find them, and it was just a perfect storm of events. Microsoft had just started its competing Netflix-style service, which went under but existed long enough for them to spend millions of dollars to dig a hole in the desert for this documentary. Do you feel like Spielberg making a movie of your book is a return to the days of films like The Last Starfighter? I couldn’t have written Ready Player One if I didn’t grow up watching Spielberg movies; I still can’t believe that he’s directing Ready Player One. But he’s never done a videogame or virtual reality movie. I think that’s what got him the most excited – he’s getting to make a virtual reality movie right at the dawn of VR. Cinema and videogames are about to change because of virtual reality – we’ll no longer be experiencing them through the letterbox of a computer screen any more. That Steven Spielberg is making a virtual reality movie is going to change the course of human history as far as virtual reality goes. It makes me feel like Arthur C Clarke must have when Stanley Kubrick made 2001.
“It makes me feel like Arthur C Clarke must have when Stanley Kubrick made 2001”
Which game do you cherish the most? Black Tiger: the cabinet right here beside me. That game was in my home town – there was one at the university and one at the bowling alley. You had to wait in line to play it, and it was usually my friends I had to wait behind. We all got so good we could beat it on one quarter. You could escape your life, go raid this dungeon, be like Conan The Barbarian for two hours, and it was a quarter.