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Renaissance Geek – Ernest Cline On Ready Player One, Oculus Rift, And Buckaroo Banzai

by Ben Reeves on Jul 23, 2015 at 08:45 AM

In August 2011, Ernest Cline released his debut novel, Ready Player One, a dystopian sci-fi epic about a Willy Wonka-esque treasure hunt through a massive virtual-reality MMO. The novel burst at the seams with references to ‘80s pop culture and gaming, rocketing Cline into the public eye. More impressively, it heralded the coming era of virtual reality before the advent of devices like the Oculus Rift and Project Morpheus. We talked with Cline about his impressions of the Oculus Rift headset, his unofficial sequel to Buckaroo Banzai, and how he new book Armada is just as game fueled as his last.

You originally tried writing screenplays, such as Fanboys. What made you want to switch over to writing books about video games?
I wrote Fanboys in 1998, which is when the movie is actually set. But it took 10 years for the movie to actually get made. It didn’t come out until 2009, 10 years after I wrote it. During that 10 years it got heavily warped and altered. It’s a miracle that it ever got made, and that it got made with the permission of Lucasfilm. We shot it at Skywalker Ranch and Princess Leia was in it, but when I watch it, I just see all the stuff that they changed and all the choices that would not have been my choices – even though it’s my story and my characters and all the characters are sort of based on me and people I grew up with. Unfortunately, when you turn over a screenplay to somebody in Hollywood you give up control of the story because you need millions of dollars, and the people who give you those millions of dollars want to have input in the movie. Whereas in fiction there’s nothing between you and the reader. So my experience with Fanboys taught me that I wanted to have more control of my characters, and the only way to do that without having millions of dollars was to write novels, so I wrote Ready Player One. I actually chose that story because I thought it was something that could never be a movie. It was so big and sprawling and the licensing would be a huge pain, so I thought you could never do it as a movie and get away with it. That made it fun to write, because I didn’t have any budget constraints. Of course, after the book came out, I sold the screenplay rights to Warner Bros. with myself attached to write this screenplay, so then I had to figure out how to make it a movie.

Is The Last Starfighter one of your favorite films? Your new book, Armada, sounds like it was inspired by the film.
The Last Starfighter is also one of my favorite movies, and everybody mentions The Last Starfighter when they hear about the book, and it’s the one movie that everybody thinks about when they think of video games and aliens, but the thing that actually inspired my book is something that really happened in 1980. The Atari game Battlezone came out four years before The Last Starfighter. In 1980, Battlezone was this really popular tank game that Atari put out, and it was so realistic and immersive and had 3D graphics that were unheard of at the time. The U.S. Army actually bought it and paid a programmer at Atari to rework Battlezone into a game called Bradley Trainer in order to train U.S. soldiers to operate the Bradley Fighting Vehicle. This was 1980, so a good three years after Space Invaders and the Army already saw the potential of video games as a training tool. I think it’s fascinating that as soon as there were computers, they were being used to simulate space combat. So Armada looks at 1977 as this watershed year. It was the year that Star Wars came out. It was the year that Space Invaders came out. And it was the year that Ender’s Game debuted as a short story. As soon as video games existed it seems like the idea of using them as a training tool worked their way into popular fiction but is also happening in reality. Battlezone was a first step in that in 1980, but in the late ‘90s the U.S. Army did it for real. Their first-person shooter America’s Army is the most successful recruiting tool in the history of the U.S. military. In the ‘90s, the Marines bought Doom and reworked a version of it to train Marines to work in units to infiltrate structures.

We heard you once wrote a screenplay for a Buckaroo Banzai sequel. What do you love about that film?
I have an obsession with that movie. When I was younger, I would kind of get obsessed with different films and want to learn everything about them. My first obsession was Star Wars, and I would find every copy of every draft of the screenplay and all the making of documentaries and books that I could find. I got the same way about Highlander, and later on with Buckaroo Banzai. It is just the weirdest, funniest, smartest movie I had ever seen, and every time I would watch it and get sad, because at the end of this movie that flopped at the box office they had promised a sequel. “Stay tuned for Buckaroo Banzai in  Buckaroo Banzai Against the World Crime League.” I knew they were never going to make that movie, because I knew first one was a weird cult movie that almost nobody watched. Even my film friends who I would force Buckaroo Banzai on did not share my love for that film. As a writing exercise I decided I would write that sequel. I did it for fun and put it out on the Internet and people loved it. Several people emailed me to tell me that they were excited that the movie was finally going to be made, and I would go to comic-book conventions and see this script that I had written for sale like it was the real thing, even though it was basically fan fiction. That’s still one of the few ‘80s properties that still hasn’t been rebooted in some way. But if they ever did reboot that franchise, I’d be all over it like hair on a gorilla.

Next up: Cline talks about his impressions of Oculus Rift, why our society has embraced geek culture, and if that nerd fervor will ever die.

A look at the cover for Ernest Cline's newest book Armada, which released July 14

We heard that Oculus Rift gave you a headset. How do you like it?
They actually invited me up there. What’s crazy is Palmer Luckey told me that as soon as he did his Kickstarter campaign, people online recommended my book to him because it had just come out. He read it and loved it, so Palmer made everybody who came to work at Oculus read the book. And when Michael Abrash (ex-programmer at Valve) came aboard he credited Ready Player One as inspiring him to want to work on VR. They invited me to come and do a signing at Oculus Rift’s office and they invited me to demo a new model of the headset. They actually gave me a pair of goggles to bring home. It’s so strange that the whole time I was writing Ready Player One I didn’t even have a virtual-reality headset, but now I do, and it’s all because I wrote Ready Player One.

It used to be that the people who liked sci-fi and comics and games were considered geeks, and geek was a derogatory word. What happened to our culture to change that?
I think two things. One is all the kids who grew up watching that stuff, playing those games, and watching those movies have now pursued careers in the entertainment industry and are pushing that stuff forward. Whoever thought that Avengers would be one of the biggest movies of all time, and that they would even make a second one. I remember when Thor guest starred on the ‘80s Incredible Hulk TV show and it was just terrible. Now it’s like a nerd golden age. Everything you could have wished for when you were a kid is happening now. Now kids have iPads and that’s more futuristic than anything Captain Kirk had. They really are growing up in the future. I have a daughter and she’s seven. I let her use and iPad, and I monitor how she uses screen time, but I don’t monitor the amount of screen time. I feel like people who forbid their kids from using screens are handicapping them from the world they’re going to have to live in. Not more than one screen at once? You’re going to be surrounded by screens on all sides for the rest of your life. They need to learn how to use several screens at once.

Do modern games continue to inspire you, or is it mostly classic titles?
Oh yeah, I love all the Marvel movies. I loved Guardians of the Galaxy. I watched the hell out of that. I’m an avid filmgoer and watch anything that comes out. I’m still really into retro gaming and now I’m getting back into modern gaming, because I’m trying to make games to support my novels. I’m really inspired by the new Star Wars. Later this year, we’re going to see Han Solo in a movie trailer for new Star Wars movie for the first time since I was 11.

Do you think there will come a point in our culture where this nerd fervor tapers off?
I don’t know. I don’t know if I can judge that. I feel like I’m in the eye of storm. I wrote a book celebrating all this geek culture and being a nerd playing Dungeons & Dragons and Atari games, and now that book that I wasn’t even sure I could get published has became a New York Times bestseller and Steven Spielberg is making it into a movie. So I feel like I’ve lost all perspective on life. I was a nerdy outcast kid who didn’t fit in. I liked the weird stuff and listened to Rush albums, and now it’s become my job to nerd out to the extreme. I just assume this is like “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” or Vanilla Sky and that I died three or four years ago and I’m just making all this up in my head.

Read more excerpts from our interview with Ernest Cline in issue 267 of Game Informer Magazine. Also, read our online list of ten authors who should be making games.