Ready Player One or The 80’s Were Amazing and I am Old

I know I am a little late to the party, but I just finished the book and I wanted to give The Doom Retrospective a tiny break. It’s been a long time since I’ve done a book review and I think Ready Player One is a worthy work to break my critic’s drought.

Published in 2011 by Ernest Cline, the book has developed into sort of a geek cult sensation. Honestly, as a huge nerd that grew up in the 80’s, I felt this book was written specifically for me. It’s not hard to understand that feeling when you consider that Mr. Cline is only five years older than me. It was also his first novel, which he published at the age of 39. The bastard. My window to match his feat is rapidly closing.


Climbing up towers of double-wides would make me avoid reality as well.

As you can probably guess, I really enjoyed this book. It is set in a not-too-far off dystopian future (2044), where global warming, wars, an energy crisis, and a stumbling economy have contributed to a world that is hardly habitable. Our main character, Wade Watts, lives in a mega trailer park and spends all his time in the OASIS, a virtual reality video game that is so revolutionary that it has supplanted the real world. People shop there, fall in love there, get married there, and even go to school there. It’s creator, James Halliday, is Willy Wonka, holding a contest inside the OASIS to determine his successor after his death.

The book really strikes the proper chord of nostalgia and forward thinking. Wade is obsessed with technology and the past. Throughout the book, he goes to great lengths to avoid the real world and the present time. As the book progresses, however, he starts to realize that the outside world still does hold some value (friends! love interest!). There is a political agenda here too, aside from the aforementioned worldly ills, race and sexual orientation are mentioned in the book, but they seem sort of just tacked one, like Cline wanted to call attention without really exploring the issues. Did I mention that a completely amoral corporation is the villain? Or other hunters of the prize team up to take down said evil corporation? All the boxes are checked here.

As for the writing, most of the time I didn’t notice it, which is a pretty high compliment. For a novel that is steeped in fanboyish obsession, the story could have been laughable, but Cline’s prose gets out of the damn way and lets the story flow. It’s not Steinbeck, but the book is well written.

The real draw of the book is just how much fun Cline obviously had writing it. Any major cultural touchstone from the 70’s and 80’s is fair game. Movies, comics, Dungeons and Dragons, music, and video games. It’s all in here. And they aren’t just mentioned. There is a page of nothing but Monty Python and the Holy Grail dialogue. There are pages describing games like Zork, Black Dragon, and Tempest in detail. I owned Zork and I loved that game. So bonus points there.

Overall, nothing in Ready Player One is revolutionary. Willy Wonka. Evil corporations. Virtual reality vs. the real world. Contemporary ills that lead to dystopian future when ignored. Nerdy loner growing as a person. Every bit of this book is recognizably drawn from somewhere else, and can even be a bit tropey and clichéd, but the prose is steady and Cline’s enthusiasm jumps off the page. I don’t feel changed by the book, but I still loved it.

8/10 1UPs!

As usual, feel free to leave your thoughts and comments below. You can also send your comments to or follow me on Twitter at John_S20. If you like what you read, subscribe!

The Full Circle of Fantasy Roleplaying Games

It’s funny how certain gaming concepts can translate pretty seamlessly from one medium to another. What starts out as a pen and paper game can later become a three dimensional world on the most powerful gaming computers ever created and yet the basic premise and imagination of the game doesn’t change. It is because of this flexibility that I hold the pretty uncontroversial opinion (I believe) that Dungeons and Dragons is the most influential game of all-time. It is so influential that its progeny in newer media have now started influencing and changing the grand old game. Just like how writers can carry on dialogue over the centuries through their writing, fantasy roleplaying games can push and pull each other through decades and technological revolution.

I was born at the perfect time for video games. As a child of the 80’s, mine was the first generation to be raised with them. Because of this timing, I never needed to get into anything like Dungeons and Dragons. Why play a game with a pen and paper when I could play Final Fantasy? Simply put, there was no reason. So sadly, my exposure to Dungeons and Dragons would have to wait a couple decades until I first started messing around with the game as an adult.

The first time I ever played Dungeons and Dragons, it was the current and soon to be eclipsed Fourth Edition. Some hardcore fans felt this edition sort of sold out the franchise as it was obviously inspired by *gasp* videogames! (More on this below). I liked it of course, being a video game guy first and foremost. It just felt right. I found myself naively thinking “Wow, Dungeons and Dragons feels an awful lot like World of Warcraft.” It should not have come as a surprise, of course, but I admit that it did. I knew what D&D was and I liked World of Warcraft, but the games still seemed so unalike in my mind. One was something my dorky forefathers played, while World of Warcraft was a marvel of the technological age that was a global cultural phenomenon!

Even though we use keyboards and controllers now, this stuff is still cool.

Even though we use keyboards and controllers now, this stuff is still cool.

It is obvious that World of Warcraft, Diablo, Final Fantasy, and basically the entire gamut of roleplaying games owe their very existence to D&D (which owes its existence to Lord of the Rings, but here is not the place to talk about that). For years, these games basically borrowed everything that D&D started, added their own creativity, and built whole new worlds. D&D kept chugging along, churning out great games and content, but in a niche pen and paper role. The two worlds, so related and so important to each other, remained aloof and apart on a practical level. But in 2008, this began to change. The Fourth Edition was released and for the first time we saw aspects of these great new franchises leak into the pen and paper game. The roles had officially reversed and the 4th Edition purposely tried to make itself more attractive to gamers raised playing video games. They added powers that felt video gamey. They made the game more combat and action oriented. I thought it was great, even though it was a pretty radical departure.

Now in 2014, with the release of D&D Next just a couple months away, Wizards of the Coast (owners of the D&D franchise), have gone one step further and copied the economic model of its video game descendants. For the two people who read this article and are not familiar with games like World of Warcraft, these video games have more and more gone to a free-to-play model. When these games first started, players paid a monthly subscription. Now, the game costs nothing to play but players can pick and choose perks they want to buy – new classes, new powers, new options, etc. The goal is to let new players get in on the cheap to try it out, expanding the potential player base. D&D is aiming to do the same thing, bringing in more first time and younger players. Ironically, World of Warcraft, the most famous of these games that I have been using as a stand-in for the genre, has not needed to adopt this model yet.

I think this trend is great. Fantasy roleplaying games are one big happy family and the more they influence each other, the better it will be for us, the players. I have no doubt that there will be things that come out in D&D next that will make the guys at Blizzard or some other company say “Wow. That’s pretty cool and something we should consider for our game.” Likewise, D&D will look to see what is popular among gamers today and put it into the newest editions of the game. I think this interaction will only make the genre stronger. Video games are never going to kill Dungeons and Dragons; in fact, I think D&D is just going to get better and better.


If you have any thoughts or comments, please share them below! You can also email me at or follow me on Twitter at JohnS_20.

Also, please visit my Indiegogo campaign where I am currently trying to raise funds for my upcoming enrollment in the International Chinese Language Program at National Taiwan University.

Swordmage – A Review

We now get to the genre of book that is my jam. I know some of you may have been thrown for a loop when my first solo review on the site was Lolita. Well, fear not, I will never abandon the horse that brought me to book review land. So without further ado, let’s get into my first fantasy review.

I just finished reading Swordmage by Richard Baker, published in 2008. Now, I am a fan of lots of different types of fantasy, but I have to admit I have never read a book that was based on Dungeons and Dragons. This is shocking, I know. The idea of a D&D book always seemed cool to me with their various classes and races, but I always shied away from reading one because it is based on a game. Any time another piece of entertainment – a movie, a book, or TV show – is based on a video game or a board game, it is usually really shitty. I never saw Battleship but I am assuming it was real bad. I enjoyed Street Fighter but my soul is forever stained for it.

Unfortunately, nothing as cool as this cover actually happens in the book.

Unfortunately, nothing as cool as this cover actually happens in the book.

So I went into my fist D&D novel experience with low expectations and mixed feelings. I was sure I would like the swords and the fighting and the magic, but I feared that the writing would feel a bit stilted because the author would be hamstrung by a Wizards of the Coast (owner of the D&D franchise) edict. They would obviously want to make sure that the book at least alluded to actual gaming mechanics, classes, and skills. Did this happen? Yes. Did it ruin my enjoyment of the book? Read on.

The story is very straightforward, almost cookie cutter. The hero, Geran Hulmaster, returns to his hometown after a long absence and finds that his family, who has ruled the place for generations, has lost control due to the rising influence of foreign trading companies. The conflicts and threats in this book are generated by an undead necromancer, a barbarous orc warchief spurred to violence by a warlock, and a corrupt family member. However, like any good D&D game, the hero finds himself conveniently in a party with himself, a rogue, a ranger, and a sorcerer (who takes on the mysterious wildcard and then frenemy roles.)

The book goes as you would expect. Hero comes back. Hero finds things messed up. Hero has a few setbacks but pretty much kicks ass for 350 pages. Since this book is the first in a trilogy, there is also the “defeated bad guy licks his wounds and teams up with another villain to get that hero good!” Stay tuned for book 2!

Any time dice are appropriate tools for plot development, you might be in trouble.

Any time dice are appropriate tools for plot development, you might be in trouble.

The author writes the book competently enough, but for anyone familiar with D&D at all, the references sometimes feel a bit forced. The first time we are introduced to a character, we are usually told what class they are in the narration. Even though spells and abilities are not directly taken from the game by name, fans will immediately recognize them. This can jolt the reader out of the experience, but I think Baker handled it gracefully enough, although there is a scene in the book where the heroes have to basically sleep for 8 hours because the hero needs to recharge his spells. This is ripped directly from game mechanics.

The characters are pretty one dimensional. The hero is honorable with a checkered past. The male sidekick is wisecracking and loyal. The female sidekick is competent to the point that people are shocked by how competent she is. The frenemy is surly but helpful. The villains are bad to core with no real motivation other than greed or lust for violence.

It may sound like I am going to score this book poorly, but that’s not really true. Anyone who avidly reads any type of genre fiction, be it romance, mystery, science fiction, or fantasy understands and accepts that there will be stereotypes and tropes in the story. But to tell the truth, these tropes sell books. People who read fantasy want to read about magic and kicking ass. If they get strong pacing, plotting, and character development to boot then it’s gravy. Authors know this, readers know this, and editors know this. A fantasy book devoid of fantasy tropes is not a fantasy novel at all, no matter how well written. It would then be *gulp* mainstream literature.

Swordmage might not be a great book, but it’s an ok fantasy novel.

5/10 Twenty-Sided Die