You'd expect Ready Player One's ending to be a rather simple "honest, youthful good guy beats corrupt, adult evil" resolution. It is a throwback to 1980s Amblin blockbusters like E.T., The Goonies, and Back to the Future, after all. However, in actuality it's the tying together of countless plot threads - VR OASIS creator Halliday's Easter Egg hunt primarily, but also its dystopian, pop culture-obsessed future - and a layered deconstruction of the movie's meta-textually.
Ready Player One may be full to the brim with Easter eggs encompassing nearly every corner of pop culture, but beyond offering real-world gunters their biggest challenge yet, this film has something deeper. Steven Spielberg has imbued the story of Ernest Cline's novel with real heart, following clearly defined characters and an adventure at once intimate and global.
By the time we get to the end, with Wade Watts/Parzival leading an all-out assault against villainous corporation IOI and head Nolan Sorrento, the film has already gone beyond its reference-heavy beginnings. And it only gets weirder from there; we get a nod to the original Easter Egg, a tense "put the key in the door" sequence only Spielberg could direct, and a final, ethereal task. There's a lot to get through, so let's waste no time and dive deep into Ready Player One's ending.
Page 1: Halliday's Quest & Final Easter Egg Explained
What Halliday's Three Keys Really Mean
The plot of Ready Player One is motivated by the Easter Egg hunt left behind by OASIS creator James Halliday: there are three keys hidden throughout the OASIS that, when found, will grant the victor control of the entire VR realm. This naturally brings in the corporations, creating production line-style gamers who fight alongside more fun-seeking gunters (Easter Egg hunters). But this isn't just a simple quest.
Halliday was a closed-off man, in his early years awkward and disinterested in the full ramifications of his creation, while later in life lonely and regretful. As such, the quest was made after he learned of his imminent death - possibly due to a terminal illness, suggesting lost time - as a way to find a suitable successor. He's not looking for the best player per se, but someone with the "traits" worthy of ruling the OASIS. As he says in his own eulogy, the keys can only be found by going into his mind - which he handily created as a physical library - so, while the challenges have some genuine, well, challenge to them, each represents something more.
First, for the Copper Key, is the race, which is a pop culture onslaught one can only win by reversing backward through the course. The clue to find the challenge was found before the movie starts, but Wade still needs to use knowledge of Halliday - he hated rules - to find the memory where the creator and Ogden Morrow begin to schism and he made a point of wanting to "go backwards". It's about thinking outside the box, applying greater truths, and also not being afraid to admit mistakes.
The second task, for the Jade Key, comes from a clue at the end of the race, alluding to a "creator that hates his creation" and "leap not taken". Parzival and Art3mis try various permutations of this building from what they perceive to be Halliday's biggest regret - his failed date with Karen Underwood, later Ogden's wife, and - after their real-world flirtations hit a pause - realize it's in the movie Halliday and Karen watched when she wanted to go dancing: The Shining, a film author Stephen King famously despised. The following sequence is, by the film's own admission, a distraction, with the real solution being asking a program of Karen to dance. Aside from the level of knowledge required to solve the clue - any gunter must have an intimate understanding of Halliday's life (Kira was only mentioned once in the archives) and Stanley Kubrick's filmography - this shows to the players how to learn from prior mistakes.
The movie skips over the hunt for the final task (for the Crystal Key), with IOI figuring out quickly the "fortress tragic" in the previous clue is Halliday avatar Anorak's castle on gaming Planet Doom (for the record, it requires dividing the ultimate answer, 42, by the magic number, three, to figure out the fortress was in Sector 14), where an Atari 2600 is set up. To win doesn't require beating any of the games, however, rather finding the Easter Egg in Adventure (game developer Warren Robinett was the first to hide his name). Doing so gives the player the final key. Of course, things are much more complicated in the film itself, with a battle raging and the destruction of everyone on the battlefield before all is said and done, but the core of the message here is that it's the playing, not the winning, that's important (this is why Wade lets the IOI Sixer finish the game - it's important to him).
Evidently, Halliday's tasks aren't really about the pop culture references that permeate them, but teaching a lesson: admit to mistakes, learn from them, and understand that it's the journey that's important. And that's all essential knowledge to pass the final task...
The Final Test & Halliday's Easter Egg
After gaining the three keys to open, Wade doesn't win straight away. Instead, he's taken to an ornate room with the Easter Egg at its center where Anorak offers him a contract for the OASIS. This, of course, looks like victory, but in light of the lessons from the previous challenges is clearly another test: Wade is being offered the exact same deal Halliday took, meaning for him to sign would be undermining how he's got there - he's making the same mistakes willingly to get to end. Rejecting the offer is the only way to past (an insurance also means that, even if Sorrento had got the three keys, he'd never have actually controlled the OASIS).
It's only after this decision where we get to discover Halliday's true purpose and Wade gets the Easter Egg, a symbol of his journey so beautiful it bleeds into the real world (via a high tech VR suit), stunning hero and villain alike. Some version of Halliday (a mystery we'll get back to) then reveals why he made the program in the first place; he lived an in-gregarious existence built from his pop culture obsession and wanted to connect with other people. However, for all the bringing together it did, the OASIS was never real and so the relationships it made lacked truth. We already felt this earlier in Ready Player One, with best friends knowing nothing of each other and characters stunned by the tranquility of being outside, but this final speech makes clear this world of infinite possibilities is no place to live. It's only then that Wade gains rule of the OASIS (complete with the ability to turn it off).
This is solidified by Ogden Morrow. Throughout the movie, the High Five is led to believe that Kira and the missed opportunity at romance was Halliday's defining regret, and while it certainly weighed heavily on him - the hurt led to him cutting her out of his memories entirely - that's not the Rosebud at the center of the story. The broken friendship with "Og", caused by their conflicting goals for the OASIS, left him alone and with no human connection. Halliday's entire game was to preach against that and ensure that his eventual successor would not lose sight of those around them.
The quest, then, is not for control of the OASIS per se. Rather, Halliday's final Easter Egg is the friends we made along the way; the understanding of really experiencing and being yourself. Corny perhaps, but very, very important.
- Ready Player One (2018) release date: Mar 29, 2018