The story takes place in 2044 where an online mutliplayer game called OASIS is the obsession of an increasingly stratified, near dystopian society. Our hero, 18-year-old Wade (or Parzival, as he calls his OASIS avatar) spends all his free time in the virtual world looking for an Easter Egg (basically, a buried treasure, if you're not hip to the geek lingo) hidden in OASIS by the game's founder James Halliday. The hunt for this easter egg is the obsession of millions (they're called gunters...egg+hunters) because whoever finds it will inherit billions of dollars and rule the virtual world. The hunt is based on clues Halliday left behind in a video, and because Halliday was obsessed with 80s pop culture, the gunters believe the only way to find the easter egg is to be as knowledgeable about the 80s as Halliday was.
So we follow Parzival/Wade and his friends mostly in both the real and virtual worlds as they try to solve the puzzles and find the egg. Along the way, Parzival has to complete challenges, like beating a wizard in Joust and playing Matthew Broderick's character in a virtual recreation of the movie WarGames.
This novel is mostly good, harmless, fast-paced, and geeky fun. I enjoyed it well enough. But I probably didn't go all-in on this novel as much as many readers. The biggest reason: Many, many scenes with just devastatingly brutal dialogue between Parzival and his buddies. I mean, awful — so bad, they're funny. Here's one of many, many examples, so you can giggle with me.
"That's right, I called you a poseur, poseur." I stood and got up in his grille. "You are an ignorant know-nothing twink. Just because you're fourteenth-level, it doesn't make you a gunter. You actually have to possess some knowledge."
"Word," Aech said, nodding his agreement. We bump fists.
It's almost like a geek is trying to be cool by acting out and saying things he's seen on TV. Wait, maybe that's the effect Cline was going for? If so, bravo, Cline. You nailed it!
Anyway, I played my fair share of Atari and Nintendo in the 80s, too — but this novel takes the video gaming to the nth degree, so I couldn't always stay engaged. Yes, the 80s pop culture references are great, but there are long descriptions of Parzival's maneuverings in OASIS which you may only enjoy if you're a fan of online multiplayer games. (And I am not.) Also, plotwise, there are near-constant "ghosts in the machine" — like extra lives and power-up items that suddenly appear. So the rules to the contest (and therefore the novel) seemingly keep changing, but that's okay, because it's in a video game, right? I'm not sure it is.
So if you're an unapologetic geek, and you haven't read this yet, what are you waiting for? If you're not, but just like a good non-cerebral, sometimes funny, often unintentionally funny novel, give this a go.