Wade is sitting in his trailer watching cartoons when an emergency news broadcast announces that James Halliday has died. Halliday was the designer of a massive multiplayer videogame called the OASIS and was one of the richest people on Earth. Even in the midst of “catastrophic climate change,” war, famine, poverty, and an ongoing energy crisis, Halliday’s death still warrants a special broadcast. Halliday died without friends or family, and he announces via a pre-recorded video message called “Anorak’s Invitation” that he will be giving his entire estate—valued at over $240 billion—to whoever meets a “single condition.” In typical Halliday style, the video is filled with references to 1980s pop culture.
The opening passage introduces readers to the world in which the novel is set. It is immediately clear that in this world, there is an uneasy coexistence between extraordinary developments in technology (the OASIS), the private wealth of certain individuals (Halliday), and the poverty and devastation that afflicts the rest of the globe.
Halliday recalls the videogames he loved as a child, and discusses the first “Easter egg” ever hidden in a videogame. Halliday morphs into his OASIS avatar, Anorak, and announces that he has hidden an Easter egg inside the OASIS. Whoever finds it first will inherit his fortune. He notes that the egg is very well hidden, but that he has left a few clues to help people find it. Three keys appear onscreen, one copper, one jade, one crystal. He recites the first clue, which begins: “Three hidden keys open three secret gates / wherein the errant will be tested for worthy traits.” Halliday wonders aloud if he’s made the hunt too difficult, and then announces that the contest has hereby begun.
In several ways Halliday’s Easter egg hunt resembles any hunt, quest, or competition that takes place inside a videogame, as shown by his references to clues, keys, and gates. On the other hand, there are important things that make this hunt unique, the most obvious of which is its massive real-life consequences: whoever wins it will become a multibillionaire. Furthermore, the hunt seems to test not only video-gaming skill, but also “worthy traits,” implying there may be a moral dimension to the competition.
At the end of the video Halliday includes a link to his website, which now features a Scoreboard and a downloadable copy of Anorak’s Almanac, a 1,000-page collection of Halliday’s journals. After the video’s release, people all over the world become obsessed with the hunt. People suspect that familiarity with Halliday’s obsessions will help them win the contest, and thus 1980s fashion and music makes a big comeback in 2041. The hunt spawns a whole subculture, with egg-hunters nicknamed “gunters.” However, after a year passes and no one finds the first key or gate, the excitement begins to fade away.
The fact that the hunt inspires so much global attention again emphasizes that the OASIS is no ordinary videogame. Halliday is just one man, but due to the vast extent of his wealth and influence, his personal obsessions come to dictate the interests of people all around the world. Of course, it seems that most people are not genuinely interested in Halliday’s interests—they just want a chance to win his fortune.
More years pass and more people give up, until suddenly, on February 11, 2045, the Copper Key is discovered by an 18-year-old boy living in a trailer park on the outskirts of Oklahoma City. The narrator, Wade, is that boy, and he will now tell his story.
Although we don’t yet know any details about Wade’s life, there are already hints that he is an underdog whose success in finding the Copper Key will shock the world.