Making a tie-in video game for Ready Player One fans seems like a maddening task.
After all, what does it mean to be a fan of Ready Player One, a piece of pop culture designed as a wrapper for other, often better pop culture? Does it mean being invested in the journey of digital treasure-hunter Wade Watts and his effort to protect the virtual reality world known as OASIS? Or is it more about enjoying its mashup of reference points, like DeLoreans, WarGames, and Rush?
If it’s the latter, fans might be disappointed by the collection of Ready Player One-themed VR games that’s being released soon for the HTC Vive. The collection is a lot more substantive than your usual VR film tie-in, but with a few exceptions, the designers apparently didn’t get the rights to all the movie and game franchises Spielberg did. So they’re limited to the lore and aesthetic that’s specific to Ready Player One’s OASIS, and that’s not a deep well to draw from. You can fight goons from the sinister Innovative Online Industries, which are explicitly designed to be boring and interchangeable representatives of a soulless corporation. Or you can play VR arcade games that are sort of like non-VR arcade games that may have been enjoyed by the reclusive, 1980s-obsessed creator of OASIS. Or you can make an avatar for a virtual reality world that doesn’t exist, and… well, stare at it or send a picture to your friends.
VRChat is probably more like ‘Ready Player One’ than any of these games
There are eight Ready Player One experiences, which will be distributed for free through Steam and Viveport, as well as installed in some VR arcades. Two seem closely adapted from the existing Vive game Arcade Saga. Two are built on existing platforms: a VR dance club in TheWaveVR, and a replica of side character Aech’s garage in Linden Lab’s Sansar. One is the aforementioned avatar creator. One is a stationary, single-player wave shooting game featuring IOI henchmen. Another is a non-stationary, cooperative wave shooting game featuring IOI henchmen. And one is a VR dungeon-crawler that shares a name with real ‘80s hack-and-slash game Gauntlet but doesn’t indicate much other connection.
A couple of these are supposed to be fairly long, although I only got to try a few minutes of each. Some are frustrating; Gauntlet, for one, falls into VR’s particularly miserable “shoot slow-firing projectiles at a large number of extremely close enemies while constantly teleporting backwards” genre. Others are simplistic but solid fun, like the cooperative Rise of the Gunters, which delivers the core feedback loop of a decent VR shooter. But only TheWaveVR’s dance floor really reminded me that I was supposed to be playing something related to Ready Player One. (Not coincidentally, it was the only one that featured recognizable characters and songs — including A-Ha’s “Take On Me,” which now pops into my head whenever I edit this paragraph.) In fact, the existing social app VRChat might feel more like the movie than any of them.
Ready Player One is a movie about virtual reality escapism, so it feels like the main unifying theme is “nostalgic virtual reality sci-fi and fantasy.” Granted, even though VR isn’t remotely mainstream, it’s still big enough for that to be a little like making generic video games to promote a movie about gaming. But it’s still interesting to see a media tie-in that’s more about interpreting a general concept than following plot or characters. And this particular collection also highlights the contradiction between intellectual property law, which grants companies complete and effectively perpetual control over beloved pieces of culture, and modern fandom, which uses that same culture as building blocks for new art. I don’t know that I’d play any of these games for very long, but in spirit, that pretty much makes it tailor-made for me.