Ernest Cline


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.

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