halliday ready player one villain

The Real Villain of Ready Player One Is James Halliday and You Cannot Convince Me Otherwise

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Ready Player One takes place in the year 2045, at a time when, thanks to overpopulation, environmental destruction and the like, most of the world’s activities have moved into virtual reality–specifically into something called The Oasis, created by the brilliant yet obsessive and controlling supervillain James Halliday.

Except Halliday isn’t actually supposed to be a villain. And I find that super weird.

In both the book and the movie (and don’t worry, there are no spoilers for either beyond basic plot and what you might see in the trailer), Halliday is a reclusive, narcissistic supergenius. He’s created a virtual universe on which the entire world is dependent. And in doing so, he’s able to have an incredible amount of control not just over people’s behavior, but their interests. Halliday loved 80s pop culture, so the world must love 80s pop culture.

After Halliday’s death, he reveals that he’s hidden keys to a puzzle throughout the Oasis, and the only way to find them, and to win the immense fortune and control over the virtual world itself, is to know the most about Halliday’s life and the things he enjoyed. An interest in pop culture turns from an aesthetic to a necessity and ostensibly the only way to obtain a better life for oneself. In the year 2045, one man has forced the world to live like it’s 1992, for the sole reason that that was what he liked. Sure, you could choose not to share Halliday’s interests, but The Oasis–the place where all your friends and family spend all of their time because the real world has turned into a cesspit–is built around an 80s aesthetic. And if you want those trillions of dollars, you have no choice but to spend your life immersed in that culture.

Halliday’s insistence that the whole world play his games and share his specific interests isn’t quite at the level of, say Robert Daly of Black Mirror’s USS Callister, or that kid from The Twilight Zone that sends his dad to a cornfield, but it’s not that far off. Halliday had no patience for or understanding of anyone who doesn’t share his love of Tron and Akira. In the book at least (I can’t remember if this is mentioned in the film), he would fire employees who didn’t share his extensive knowledge of the pop culture of decades past.

Oh, and in true supervillain fashion, much of his obsession and arrested emotional development is tied to his unreciprocated feelings for a woman.

Yet it’s Nolan Sorrento, the head of IOI, who’s the book and movie’s villain. And let’s be clear: he is. He literally kills people in his quest to own the Oasis. I’m not rooting for the evil corporation here. But to our hero Wade Watts, Sorrento’s real crimes seem to be less about the murdering and more about how little he cares about Halliday’s references. Rather than spending his life memorizing Fast Times at Ridgemont High and WarGames, he’s employed armies of gunters to play for him, and we are just supposed to accept that this is a form of cheating, and is unforgivable. In this world, your ability to spot references is a moral signifier and the worst thing a person can do is to not truly care about the fandom, but instead want access to the world’s most valuable commodity.

How dare he.

(image: Warner Bros.)

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Vivian Kane
Vivian Kane (she/her) is the Senior News Editor at The Mary Sue, where she's been writing about politics and entertainment (and all the ways in which the two overlap) since the dark days of late 2016. Born in San Francisco and radicalized in Los Angeles, she now lives in Kansas City, Missouri, where she gets to put her MFA to use covering the local theatre scene. She is the co-owner of The Pitch, Kansas City’s alt news and culture magazine, alongside her husband, Brock Wilbur, with whom she also shares many cats.