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Character Study: James Halliday, the Messianic Man-Child of ‘Ready Player One’

In Steven Spielberg’s adaptation, the disaffected video game designer embodies the wonders and perils of 21st century escapism

Warner Bros./Ringer illustration

Welcome to Character Study, a Ringer series where we pluck the most fascinating character from an exciting movie, TV show, book, or whatever, and analyze at will. In the first installment, Justin Charity discusses the video game designer James Halliday from Steven Spielberg’s film adaptation of Ready Player One.

In Ready Player One, the messiah dies first.

The movie’s most enigmatic figure isn’t the hero Parzival—played by Tye Sheridan—or any of his young, fellow rebels in the OASIS. The movie’s post-millennials are all in thrall to the last will and testament of James Halliday—played by Mark Rylance—the most important Gen Xer who ever lived. Halliday was a video game designer. He created OASIS, a global role-playing simulation where millions of networked users gather for commerce and combat. Halliday programmed OASIS to preserve his likeness, and to reveal the game’s greatest challenge, in the event of his death. Functionally, Halliday establishes himself as the god of OASIS. Culturally, he assumes all the significance that godhood confers. The most obsessive OASIS players study Halliday’s life for clues to solve the auteur’s riddle, called Anorak’s Quest. Beyond just studying Halliday’s legacy, the OASIS fanatics adopt Halliday’s taste in rock music, John Hughes movies, and primordial consoles. In Ready Player One, post-millennial culture is simply a hyperlink back to Generation X, which produced OASIS as well as the story itself.

In Spielberg’s adaptation, Halliday is modest in fashion and outlook; he’s a slob who regrets his gaming enterprise having grown into a mess of contracts and compromises. The movie does little to explore the irony of such a modest, indie, antisocial personality dedicating his life to developing a blockbuster MMORPG, and so Spielberg’s take on Halliday amounts to a confused, immature man; a misshapen idealist. He’s essentially Mark Zuckerberg. Halliday is visually styled as a sort of Steve Jobs, but he is hardly so dark, competitive, and forceful; Halliday’s arc largely resembles Zuckerberg’s hilarious, ongoing quest to become a real boy in the public imagination, and there’s additional hints of Spielberg’s friend and collaborator, George Lucas, who fatefully sold Star Wars out to Disney six years ago. In Ready Player One, Halliday is gradually betrayed by a mob of shareholders and consultants who would rather he turn OASIS into a wasteland of pop-up ads. Halliday was pure, and so was OASIS, until his formative business partnership fell apart, exposing OASIS to corporate opportunism. And so Halliday designs Anorak’s Quest as a post-mortem challenge to rediscover the real magic of video games.

OASIS and Anorak’s Quest are a global craze. Unfortunately, they’ve arrived as distraction from man-made calamities; in fact, the popularity of OASIS seems to be a necessary condition of the world’s turmoil. Halliday’s every move suggests wishful anticipation and foresight, and yet the disillusioned game designer seems to have never once considered the dystopian degree to which his spellbinding invention will contribute to ruining the world. Halliday most resembles Zuckerberg in this regard: always clawing his way back to his invention’s formative context, which offers the trappings of childhood and, thus, unaccountability. The OASIS is a forum for escape from political shocks, but it’s so broadly popular, immersive, and addictive as to induce a terminal political apathy. But Halliday—and Halliday’s followers—only really seems to care about how the game itself was ruined and effectively taken from him. Halfway through the movie, Parzival—who has already lost his parents—loses his guardians and several neighbors as they’re all killed in a bombing. This development does not lead Parzival to update his grievances and develop some modicum of self-determination. To the end, Parzival persists as a slave to Halliday’s intentions.

So immature is Halliday’s outlook that Anorak’s Quest culminates with Parzival meeting the “real” him in his childhood home, where the grown, reclusive Halliday shares a bedroom with his preteen self. For the audience, it’s a demoralizing sight: we see the great Halliday wasting away in his cocoon, having taught Parzival all about his regrets while having learned nothing himself. Upon Parzival’s arrival, Halliday reveals a self-destruct mechanism that either he or Parzival might activate to destroy the OASIS. Strangely, neither Halliday nor Parzival seems to seriously consider pushing the red button, even as it becomes clear that Halliday’s seclusion—a microcosm of the OASIS—is sad, painful, and pathetic. The scene’s melancholy is apparent to the audience but somehow lost on Parzival, who is mostly just happy to have proven his fidelity to Halliday’s genius and, thus, won control of OASIS. Upon retrieving Halliday’s final Easter egg, Parzival splits control amongst his compatriots—Art3mis, Aech, Daito, and Sho—and we are led to believe that the OASIS, withstanding a few crucial patches and updates, lives happily ever after. Halliday’s false and disastrous utopianism has won out.

Spielberg’s naive take on Halliday confounds the movie’s moral bearings while revealing—quite effectively, I’d say—the core problems with reactionary fandoms. When Halliday retires to his childhood bedroom at the end of Anorak’s Quest, he is as morose and soft-spoken as ever, embodying a terminal immaturity, even as the triumphant logic of the movie suggests that Halliday and Parzival have won. In role-playing games, players often work through divergent endings. There’s maybe an objectively undesirable conclusion or two, a decent ending, and then the one, great finale that fans will appreciate as not just great, but the true ending. And it seems to me that Parzival avoids the bad ending by signing a cursed contract, only to pass up his one chance to smash the red button in Halliday’s childhood home, thus activating the OASIS self-destruct. Parzival might have revolutionized the world by destroying a powerful source of misery and distraction. Instead, he settles for the “decent” ending where OASIS is run by rambunctious post-millennials, but the world is still run without challenge by whatever dark forces have turned Columbus, Ohio, into favelas. Halliday doesn’t seem to care either way. In Parzival, he’s found his most loyal fan, and that’s all that ever mattered.