Ernest Cline’s video game odyssey earns the high score By M. Scott Krause

Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One (Crown Publishers, $24) is a cheeky, geeky gamer’s delight, a simultaneous celebration of escapist video games and 1980s popular culture. It’s an epic quest for a billion-dollar treasure, played out in virtual reality, led by a chunky high-schooler named Wade Watts, complete with evil villains, a requisite love interest, and a soundtrack by Rush, Oingo Boingo and the Smiths.

But it really works. Ready Player One will appeal equally to couch-bound teenagers hunched over video-game controllers and their middle-age parents, schooled on Pac-Man, John Hughes movies, Family Ties reruns and Monty Python quotes.

It’s 2044, and thanks to three decades of energy crises, war, economic depression and famine, nearly everyone on the planet seeks solace by plugging into OASIS, a massively multiplayer online game programmed by ace game creator James Halliday. It’s a vast, 27-sector virtual galaxy arranged like a Rubik’s Cube, with whole planets devoted to re-creating the stuff of popular fantasy: sword and sorcery, cyberpunk, Middle Earth, anime, Star Wars, Star Trek—you name it.

When Halliday dies, he wills his billions to the player who can locate all three virtual “keys” and unlock a special Easter Egg. It’s Willy Wonka, by way of The Matrix. These egg hunters (“gunters,” in Clinespeak) have searched for Halliday’s keys for years before the first code is cracked. Making life difficult for gunters is an evil corporation (IOI, the world’s largest Internet provider), who want to commercialize OASIS and charge for access. IOI has an army of paid players (“Sixers”) searching for Halliday’s keys and willing to do anything to win.

Our hero, Wade, is an orphan living in poverty with his aunt and a dozen strangers in a double-wide trailer in Oklahoma City. (Hard times have forced developers to stack trailers on top of each other like hillbilly skyscrapers.) In OASIS, Wade is Parzival, a low-level avatar with few experience points. Like much of the population, Watts has spent years analyzing Halliday’s personal life (specifically his journal, Anorak’s Almanac) and immersing himself in the pop culture of Halliday’s childhood. Watts finds the first key, but it will take the combined efforts of his best friend Aech, two Japanese brothers (Daito and Shoto), and the lovely and talented Art3mis—each of whom is trying to give Wade a run for his money—to defeat IOI and the Sixers for control of OASIS.

A buzz hit at this year’s Comic-Con, Ready Player One is headed to the big screen with a screenplay by Cline, who scored geek cred with his screenplay for Fanboys, about Star Wars fanatics who make a pilgrimage to Skywalker Ranch. Cline has written a fast-paced thriller with enough pop culture references to keep your interest piqued. Ready Player One may lack sophistication, but it scores thousands of extra points for enthusiasm.