Ready Player One is a fascinating film to me. There’s a lot going on in terms of finding just the right balance between economical storytelling and giving the audience enough to engage dramatically with the narrative. It’s not always successful, and there’s quite a few things going on in the story that some people have understandably taken issue with. But those debates and issues aren’t what I’m interested in engaging with today. There were two things that grabbed me about the film: the first was Spielberg’s unparalleled ability to create utterly thrilling visual sequences with great storytelling clarity. The second was a theme that ran through the narrative, which is the struggle between productivity and play.
Now I’d need to watch it a couple more times to fully unpack this, so I can only go so far this time, but there’s enough to get started on a meaningful discussion. Our main villain, Sorrento, is set up as the enemy because his aspirations for the Oasis are based largely around how he can make money off it. He’s going to incredible effort and expense to win the competition that Halliday, the creator of the Oasis, set in motion upon his death. Whoever finds the hidden easter egg, will win control of the Oasis, and Halliday’s entire fortune. We find that this is Sorrento’s motivation through a scene that reveals him in a board meeting explaining that they’ve calculated the exact amount of advertising they can squeeze into a person’s field of view without inducing a seizure. And there is also a scene that reveals Sorrento as a young man, when he worked for Halliday while he was still creating the Oasis, and we see him trying to sell Halliday on the idea of a tiered level of subscription access. The more you pay, the more access you get to the Oasis. And Halliday bluntly ignores him. This reveals what we need to know about Sorrento. He was a part of it at the ground level, but simply creating something amazing and beautiful wasn’t enough for him. It had to earn something too. All he could see was the potential this world held for incredible wealth. And that’s what continues to drive him later in life. Until it is being utilised for it’s fullest money-making potential, then what’s the point?
Now like I said, there’s a lot more going on in this story than just this. Plus some entirely justifiable moral questions. One of the major drives of the film is to “save the Oasis.” Well when the real world is crumbling, and humanity is escaping into a virtual world instead of working to rebuild and renew the real world….then maybe the Oasis shouldn’t be saved? A great point. But one that exists outside of the world presented in the film. When assessing the effectiveness of a story you need to approach it by looking at the world as presented in the story. Yes, maybe humanity would actually be far better off without the Oasis. But it’s here and almost everyone’s on it. The ship has sailed in terms of whether or not humanity is better with or without it. That’s not what this story is about. (There’s some interesting parallels here between the Oasis of the fictional world, and the internet in ours. Would we be better off without the internet? Hmmm.) The central dramatic question is now, what do we do with it now it’s here? Will it be taken over and controlled for corporate interests, or will it remain as a space for imagination, creativity and connection? And when you can engage with this central struggle, you can see it taps into a struggle that lies in the heart of almost every creative person.
The great majority of people who are involved in any form of artistic expression, whether that’s filmmaking, writing, painting, music, dance, design etc etc. find themselves having to pursue that passion outside of their career. It is notoriously difficult to earn a stable living in the arts, and there is a lucky few who get there. And as I’ve personally discovered, even if you do get there, most of the work you do for your job will not satisfy you in any way creatively. Mostly you’re just doing whatever the person with the money tells you to do. It’s rare to find a client who’ll give complete trust and creative freedom. So you’ll find yourself pursuing what you love in your own time, for the chance to create things that satisfy your soul and feel like an authentic expression of who you are. That’s partly why I’m writing this blog. Believe it or not, after working all day, then spending hours getting my kids to bed, it makes me feel really happy and energised to then sit down and spend hours writing both these essays and screenwriting on other nights. At risk of sounding tacky, it’s my Oasis. And at risk of being too painfully honest, Sorrento is in my head whispering this question: what’s the point if it’s not getting lots of views? If it’s not furthering your career why are you wasting your time? It’s never going to go anywhere, and if it never leads to getting paid to write, then what is the point?
It’s so easy to get disheartened by these questions. Despite whatever things we tell ourselves to make ourselves feel better, if you’re making things you’re making them for an audience. Every artist wants what they make to be seen and loved. And would love what they create to be celebrated to the point where people will pay them for it. But if that’s all we’re aiming for, then we’ve already lost our way. In our creativity, we need to let play win over productivity. And by that I mean we need to do it for the love of the process, not for the hunger of success/money/adulation. Because when you genuinely love the process, it feels like play. I have the most fun in the world writing, whether it’s on my own or with a partner. So there’s a big part of me that doesn’t really care where it goes or if it ever becomes productive, the play is enough. It taps into that child-like place of imagination where it’s just about the joy of the process and the act of creation. Now this approach absolutely has it’s limits. Life cannot be all play. As a parent of a toddler, one of the great frustrations is getting a child to understand when it’s time for play to stop, because some tasks need to get done. This is about a heart attitude to your creative work. This is not an all-of-life ethos. And it’s in this space that the Oasis really resonated for me. As a metaphor for that place in me. The absolutely essential child inside me who values play and imagination for it’s own reward. The part of me that has found the thing it loves, and just to engage in it is fuel for my whole life. And I need to fight to protect that world inside.
The fight to save the Oasis is the daily struggle of so many creative people. Or any person engaged in a craft that you love. Because the voice of Sorrento will crush that child-like joy. It will tell you if it’s not earning you money, or success, or even the smallest slither of praise, then it’s useless. But it’s a fight that needs to be won. For so many people with a creative drive, if they lose the joy of the process, it can suck the life out of them. And not just in their work, in everything. There is inside you a space that is for play. It’s for imagination. It’s for engaging in that thing you love simply for the joy of doing it. Because ultimately life is not about achieving a task list. It’s not about winning. It’s about finding the joy and the play in the process, and understanding that if you’ll let it, the process is enough. Deep down all you’ve ever wanted was to play. And life is so much more than just play. But play is an essential part of it. If we lose that, we lose what makes life worth living.
The Oasis is worth saving. Yes there is work to do. Our world is hurting and crumbling. But apart from all the practical needs, our world needs artists and storytellers who haven’t lost the child who plays. Who haven’t lost the joy in the process. Because that is where the most authentic and human work comes from. Work that is not driven by commercial interests or trying to sell something. But work that connects with our hearts and inspires us to get up each day, and work together to make the real world better. I don’t know if there’s going to be a sequel to Ready Player One, but I hope that’s what it looks like. Stories and imaginative worlds were never intended as vehicles for you to disappear further and further into, so that you lose contact with the real world (and that is a dangerous trend we’re starting to see with obsessive fandom). They were intended to turn your gaze outward to the real world. To see the parallels with your own story so you could learn how to be brave, how to be a hero. How to save and help others. So you could discover empathy and understanding for another person and their journey. So you could find your place and where you fit in society.
The world and all it’s problems is so much more complex than this, but in some small way, saving the Oasis is saving the real world. If we lose play, if we lose the imagination, the hope, joy and possibilities that space brings, then it kind of feels like we lose everything. For me, our storytelling in films, games and novels is a beautiful expression of the potential within humanity. It’s all fiction, but it is a very real picture of the reality of the massive potential that dwells within us. And when I see in Ready Player One a war where thousands upon thousands of characters from the ocean of stories we’ve invented, are engaged in battle against the uniform, bland army of Sorrento’s organisation, I see a battle that strikes at the heart of everything.
Creativity. Potential. Imagination. Play. Or instead, accumulating as much money as I can.
When it’s put like that, the choice is easy. Which is why stories matter. And is why the Oasis is worth saving.
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